"A SORT of Paradise" was how that ardent hydropathist
Dr. Richard Russell described Matlock half-way through the 18th
century. Other writers have been equally enthusiastic. John Wesley
"pleasant beyond expression"; Ruskin expressed his delight
in both words and pictures; and Nathaniel Hawthorne had "never
seen anywhere else such exquisite scenery as surrounds this village
of Matlock." By "this village," Hawthorne probably
meant Matlock Bath, then in its heyday as a spa. He may have
been unaware of the seven other Matlocks, which, with eight
more hamlets, now form a town of about 18,000 people. The local
guidebook still speaks of "The Matlocks", but the average
visitor is usually content with the generic name of Matlock.
1. Matlock from Cromford Black Rocks
Matlock (or the Matlocks) is a conglomeration of
eight villages and eight hamlets, now forming a town of about 18,000
people, much of which lies in a deep gorge of the Derwent
Scenically, it must be the most beautiful town in Derbyshire. It may
lack the intimate charm of Bakewell or Ashbourne, or the architectural
merit of Buxton, but no-one could dispute the grandeur of its setting.
Much of it lies in a deep gorge of the Derwent that reminds you a
little of the Wye gorge between Monmouth and Chepstow. The A6 trunk
road shares the narrow valley floor with the river, forcing the St.
Pancras - Manchester railway line to tunnel through the almost sheer
limestone cliffs on the east bank. The buildings crowd along the roadside
or climb steeply
up the slopes of Masson on the west, where one man's front door may
overlook his neighbour's rooftop, At the northern end of the gorge,
where the road swings right to cross the river by the medieval Matlock
Bridge, the sides of the valley are less precipitous; and on the east
bank, town streets with revealing names like Bank Road and Steep Turnpike
climb stiffly upwards on gradients of 1 in 6 or 7.
If you drive up one of these streets and then work back to the
south along the ridge towards Old Matlock, Starkholmes and Riber
- or better still, park your car and go carefully on foot to the
edge of High Tor (Fig. 5) - you may agree with Prebendary Gilpin
that "it is impossible to view such scenes without feeling
the imagination take fire." Peering down into the gorge,
400 feet below, or above it beyond Masson and the Heights of Abraham
to the seemingly unending Peakland hills, you could feel with
him that "every object is sublime and wonderful."
Descent into the gorge may bring reservations, but much depends on
the season. A weekend in high summer is likely to bring a sharp reminder
that 5 million people live within 50 miles of Matlock and an impression
that all but the bedridden have chosen it for their day's outing.
It is wiser to go in spring or autumn, when the crowds and the commercialism
are less obtrusive.
That commercialism crept in gradually after the discovery in 1698
of a thermal water spring at what is now Matlock Bath. The earlier
history of the Matlocks is obscure, Domesday Book records that "Meslack"
was a berewick of the royal manor of Metesford (almost certainly Matlock
Bridge), which had a lead mine, eight acres of meadow and some woodland
but was otherwise "waste," and it had little else of
note - except for the lead mines whose disused workings are the
caverns now shown to tourists - until that momentous discovery
Even then prosperity came slowly, Defoe, some 25 years later, found
that the spring had been "made into a very convenient bath, with
a house built over it" ; but Matlock was far from being a rival
to the established spas, He correctly attributed this to two causes:
"namely a base, stony, mountainous road to it, and no good accommodation
when you are there," though he heard of an intention to "build
a good house to entertain persons of quality, or such who would
spend their money at it."
This intention was carried out in the 1730s with the erection of "two
commodious buildings connected with the bath," which became,
after the finding of other springs, the Old Bath Hotel. About the
same time a coach road was built from the bath along the southern
part of the gorge, to join a hilly east-west road at
Cromford, and improvements made to the rocky bridlepath to Matlock
These challenges encouraged enough visitors to justify the employment
of a "neat Orchestra furnished with a harpsichord and diverse
other Instruments" in the Assembly Rooms at the Old Bath Hotel,
where half a century later a youthful, love-sick Byron endured hours
of jealousy watching the unresponsive Mary Chaworth dancing with other
partners. Dr. Russell, drawing attention to the orchestra in the later
editions of his Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water (first published
in 1753), also remarked on the "Politeness of the Company and
the easiness of the Charges," which amounted to 3s. a day
for meals with free lodgings and bathing.
At the end of the century, prices in the three good hotels were
still reasonable - 5s. a week for a bedroom, 1 gn. for a private
parlour, 4s. 3d. a day for meals and 6d. For bathing. But politeness
was declining, according to the Hon. John Byng, who reported peevishly
in 1789 that "by new buildings, and an increase of lodging-houses,
the quiet and society of the place is lost, and it begins to become
noisy, and divided into parties."
There were good reasons for this growth. Not only was Matlock Bath
sharing the increasing popularity of the English spas but its scenery
struck exactly the right romantic note that the spirit of the age
demanded. The Rev. Richard Warner was probably right in saying,
in 1802, that "the larger number of visitors ... consisted of admirers
of its beauties rather than drinkers of its waters." And for
those who tired of both beauty and the waters there were, in addition
to all the usual attractions of a spa, the spa shops, where ornaments
were made from the local fluorspar and Blue John, and petrifying wells,
where small objects could be left in the "petrifying" springs
to become encrusted in carbonate of lime.
Despite such attractions, Matlock Bath remained a select resort,
offering "gaiety without disputation, activity without noise" even
after the cutting of the present road through the gorge in 1815
opened a way for daily coach services from Manchester, Nottingham
2. Riber Castle.
It was completed in 1868, but later became derelict,
and is now used as a nature reserve and a zoo for British fauna
But its character changed when the shortlived Manchester,
Buxton, Matlock and Midlands junction Railway drove 12 miles of line
along the Derwent Valley from Ambergate to Rowsley, through the Matlocks.
Opened in 1849 with great rejoicing (and free ale at the Old Bath
Hotel), it brought Matlock Bath within reach of the day tripper from
Derby and Nottingham. No longer intimidated by high coach fares,
or by a change from train to canal boat at Ambergate and a tiring
walk from the canal head at Cromford, they poured in their thousands
out of the gay, Swiss chalet-style station at Matlock Bath, driving
away those "persons of quality" who preferred to take their
pleasures more quietly.
Some of these refugees did not go far to find what they sought.
At the northern end of the gorge, high above the railway, a new
resort was springing up at Matlock Bank, which had much to offer
them. Matlock Bank owed its growth virtually to one man, John Smedley,
a rich, eccentric industrialist. Having by the middle of the century
re-established a failing family hosiery business at Lea Mills,
close to Florence Nightingale's home at Lea Hurst, he found a fresh
outlet for his unflagging energy in the newly fashionable science
of hydropathy. Convinced that his own health had been restored
by hydropathic treatment, he saw water as a panacea. He contrived
to get himself appointed as unpaid - and unqualified - medical adviser
to the first small hydro at Matlock Bank, and within two years had
bought the place.
3. Spa Pavilion, Matlock Bath.
Thermal springs discovered in 1698, but Matlock
Bath did not become a fashionable spa until the 1730s
Smedley's Hydro was immediately successful. Victorian England,
it seemed, was full of hypochondriacs willing to pay 2 gn. weekly
to live austerely in gracious surroundings for their health's
sake. Some 2,000 of them yearly were soon finding their way to
Smedley's, and expansion became necessary.
Gradually there grew up the enormous, indigestible block of dark
gritstone that still dominates the other buildings of Matlock Bank
like a battleship surrounded by motor launches. It was designed
by Smedley himself, never inhibited by self-doubts about his own
He certainly managed the Hydro successfully, by giving his patrons
just what he wanted. His rules were numerous and strict. Visitors
began their day at 6 a.m. with a compulsory plunge into cold water
and ended it precisely at ten at night. In between, they ate simple
but ample meals, drank nothing alcoholic, and were forbidden to
play cards or to hear any but sacred music - for Smedley numbered
religious fanaticism among his numerous eccentricities. For breaking
the rules they paid fines on a sliding scale ranging from one penny
for lateness at meals to half a guinea for entering a lady's bed-sitting-room.
But they not only survived this rigidly organised regime but returned
repeatedly for more.
4. Houses of Old Matlock, with Riber Castle
on the skyline
Rival establishments sprang up, and Matlock Bank flowed downhill
to merge with the growing shopping centre at Matlock Bridge, forming
the core of the modern town,
which looks today like a piece of deliberate - and rather unimaginative
- town planning. You feel that the hillside setting demanded something
more exciting than the too-regular grid pattern, which is so much
less interesting than the enforced haphazardness of Matlock Bath.
And the local gritstone - mostly from nearby Bentley Brook quarry
- strikes a chilling note, especially when translated into municipal
Gothic public buildings.
The most interesting buildings hereabouts are the sheds and engine
house of the defunct cliff tramway, which from 1893 to 1927 plied
up and down Bank Road on an endless cable, worked originally by
a stationary steam engine and later by a gas engine. The tramway
was given to the town by Sir George Newnes who was born at Matlock
Bath in the Old Manse (recently demolished), close to Sir Richard
Arkwright's impressive Masson Mills (built in 1783). The tramway
died because changing holiday habits were taking people away from
the hydros, none of which now survives. Smedley's Hydro kept open
until it was bought in 1955 by the Derbyshire County Council, which
has injected new life into the town by making it the administrative
centre of the county, so that today - with Matlock Bath still a
holiday resort - there is no atmosphere of a decayed spa about
But to appreciate the Matlocks fully you must see it from above: from
Black Rocks (Fig. I), perhaps, for a superb long view; or better still
from Riber, where another of John Smedley's memorials - a fantastic
sham-Gothic castle - broods over the town from a wildly unsuitable
hilltop site, 800 feet up. Originally, as the last of many philanthropic
gestures that included the building of schools and chapels, he intended
to build an observatory. But the site was wrong, and what emerged
- six years before his death in 1874 - was this absurd castle (Fig.
2) whose inconveniences his widow loyally endured until her own death
18 years later. Since then, after serving as a school and a Food Ministry's
store, it stood derelict until the British Fauna Reserve bought it
from the Matlock Urban Council for £500 and opened it in April,
1963, as a nature reserve and zoo of British fauna.
5. High Tor and the River Derwent.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that he had "never
seen anywhere else such exquisite scenery."
Illustrations: Frank Rodgers.