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Matlock Bath : Living at the Heights of Abraham, 1954-64
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Outside the cafe
The Heights ca. 1960, outside the refreshment room.
A cavern guide is seated on the right
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1830 lithograph, showing the Upper Towers

Great Rutland Cavern

Heights of Abraham, Great Rutland Cavern, 1912

Great Masson Cavern

Upper Tower, Heights of Abraham

Victoria Prospect Tower,

Victoria Tower, Heights of Abraham, 1907-25

Vista Views of the Heights

The following biographical account was first published on the web site of the late Peter Aspey. It is reproduced here in its original format, as far as possible, with the kind permission of Mrs. Aspey and family.

Personal Details

Here, in case the reader should wonder where I come from or what my background is, are some further details concerning my upbringing and origins. It amounts to a sort of mini-autobiography which complements the career overview [not included here] and gives more substance to who I am.

I was born and brought up in Matlock Bath in Derbyshire. Ann Andrews, also of Matlock Bath origin, maintains an excellent site with extensive and detailed historical information about Matlock and Matlock Bath as well as other places and subjects. Matlock Bath occupies a steep, picturesque valley on the River Derwent. My family lived initially towards an upper border of the village on the hillside. Then, when I was about 5 years old, my parents took over the Heights of Abraham pleasure grounds from my father's parents, which meant we then lived even higher up the hill, with a wonderful view of the valley to the South.

The 30 acres [12 hectare] of mostly thickly wooded grounds included two show caverns called the Great Rutland Cavern and, higher up the hill, the Great Masson Cavern. We lived in the castle-like house with three round towers, easily visible from the valley below (see photo). It was in 1954 that we first moved there. We had gas lighting and no main water supply. We obtained rain water from the flat roof and drinking water from the cavern, via a pipe leading to the cafeteria, although when this was frozen in the winter, we had to go into the depths of the cavern to fetch the water in buckets. My father had electricity installed in 1955 and later mains water and sewage (a large operation!).

My grandparents had taken over the Heights in 1929 from the Sprinthall sisters Emily and Annie who were two of the nine children of Samuel Sprinthall. The grounds had been developed as pleasure grounds for the public in the late 18th century. A family connection was initiated around 1860 when a brother-in-law of Samuel Sprinthall, Robert Chadwick (married to Elizabeth Sprinthall), bought the grounds and houses. Subsequently (from 1882) Samuel Sprinthall occupied the upper house ('Upper Towers') and ran the business, after which, on Samuel's death in 1920, this passed on to Emily and Annie. The Rutland Cavern had been first opened in 1815. Before that, it was a lead mine called the Nestus Mine. The name, The Heights of Abraham, was first used in the late 18th century after an officer in General Wolfe's army that marched on Quebec in 1765 (fancifully?) likened the grounds to a location of the same name in Canada. My grandfather actually married the sixth child of Samuel - the next daughter following Emily and Annie - so the Heights stayed in the family. The grounds and buildings remained the property of the Chadwick family until the second world war, when they were taken over by Matlock Urban Council, presumably meant as an act of conservation. After that, the business was owned by the family but the grounds and buildings were leased from the council.

Matlock Bath in 1870
Matlock Bath 1870

This view, looking north over South Parade, dates from 7 years before my grandfather was born, not far from the point at which the photo was taken. The Heights had been opened 8 years earlier.

The white house dead-centre surrounded by trees is where I grew up.  Just to the right of it and slightly lower, but not so clearly visible, is the tea room. To the right of this is the entrance to the Rutland cavern. On the skyline higher to  the right, the Victoria Prospect Tower can be seen, supplanted by a flag.

The lead mined in the caverns prior to 1815 was that left over by the Romans who had mined there between 81 and 138 A.D. The caves had been 'visited' even earlier though, by the Phoenicians. As one might guess from this mining activity, the caverns at the Heights are geologically interesting. A large (non-active) fault runs through them called the Great Rake. This forms in fact the entrance and initial section of the Masson Cavern; in the Rutland Cavern, it runs through the rear part, just beyond the part which is visible for the public. In the vicinity of this fault many minerals can be found, with incidental occurrences of quite exotic ones. I recall whilst we lived there that geologists from Manchester University found in the Rutland Cavern the first recorded occurrence in the U.K. of the mineral Cinnabar (mercuric sulphide). In addition to the ubiquitous Calcite, Fluorite and of course Galena (lead sulphide), various copper bearing minerals were in evidence.

The initial 50 metres or so passage way into the Rutland Cavern is not natural but man-made for the purposes of easy access for the public - when a functioning mine, access was via shafts sunk in the hillside. The cave has a large chamber which splits further into two parts. From the main chamber, a passage with steps (not now accessible for the public, but used to be in days gone by) runs steeply upwards. We called it the 'Roman Staircase' and as children we were told by my Uncle Archie that the ghost of a Roman dignitary lurked there (his name was Constantine). The passage was blocked further up and I don't know whether it ever led anywhere particular. One of the two parts leading off the main chamber rose gently upwards, and round a corner was a further chamber with, in its roof, a large rock projecting down which looked like a man's face with eye, nose and beard (the old guide who worked there in the 1950's used to say to the visitors, "a lot of people have asked me whether we cut the eye -- we never have!"). The other part led to "Jacob's Wishing Well", into which many people threw coins - I don't suppose it brought any of them any luck, but it brought us a little as we occasionally had to relieve the well of excess coinage. Just past the well, in a separate smaller chamber, was "the Old Oak Tree" (resembling, as our old guide said, the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest). [ As I recollect from later visits, visitors to the Rutland Cavern are treated nowadays to an audio-visual presentation about the lead mining history but actually get to see very little of the cave as such - the parts mentioned above are, for instance, omitted. The visitors are simply led to the main chamber, are given the 'show' and then are led out again. This seems an unfortunate omission of the natural phenomena even if the fanciful old names are now considered trivial and old-fashioned. ]

The Masson Cavern was (is) for a large part more of a long winding underground passage - all natural (as said above, the first part being formed by a section of the Great Rake). Nevertheless, it ends up in a large chamber. The quaint metaphor here was the white cameo in a cavity likened to a profile of Queen Victoria. From this chamber, a steep stepped passage way led upwards; this one did lead somewhere - out! It was the back entrance or, in practice, the exit: visitors, still clutching their candles, or, later, their hurricane lamps, were led up this stairway to emerge onto the hillside, from where they walked back down to the entrance. Because of the candles or lamps (the Rutland Cavern had gas lighting and later electricity) and because of the long, smaller passage, a visit to the Masson Cavern had a more adventurous feel to it [nowadays, it too has electric lighting]. There was also more to be seen off the beaten track. About half way along the cavern there were small passages connecting with a still active mine where fluorite was mined (for use as a flux in the steel industry). In this complex of passages a couple of lakes could also be found, contained in clefts in the rock and possessing a beautiful blue colour when one shone a torch into the water.

The family connection with the Heights was by chance strengthened when around 1955 Archie Sprinthall returned from the U.S.A. to Matlock Bath. Samuel Sprinthall was Archie's grandfather - Archie was a son of the first (oldest) son and child of Samuel, namely, Arthur Sprinthall. Arthur emigrated to the US at the beginning of the twentieth century (1905) and Archie went with him, aged 16 - he became fully Americanized! He stayed with us at the Heights and became an integral part of the family as well as a well-known figure in Matlock Bath. So myself and my twin brother Geoffrey were, during that important part of our lives, partly raised by our American Uncle Archie and we had an early appreciation of American culture.

Looking back, it was an idyllic childhood, yet one regrets that, as children, the environment wasn't appreciated as much as it might be. Indeed, for us, the daily journey to school was tedious - especially the evening climb up the hill. Holidays seemed long, and much time was spent exploring the woods and the caves as well as searching for fossils or minerals in the limestone rocks. And of course in the summers there were the thousands of visitors thronging in our 'back garden'. Our life there, and a family association of a hundred years, came to an end in 1964. It might have been otherwise had my elder brother Richard (7 years older) not died in May 1962 at the age of 21 - he was in line to take over the business and was already formally a director. As it was, my parents decided to make the break and we moved to Duffield, about five miles North of Derby. The following year, in April 1965, my twin brother died suddenly. If I believed in divine fate, I suppose I could see this as some kind of retribution for leaving or at any rate to serve as emphasis of the break with the past - my other half was no more.

What we called 'pleasure grounds' have become in late twentieth century parlance, a 'Country Park'. A further reference to the Heights:

  • Peak District Information Website, formerly Cressbrook Multimedia.
    (scroll down to the Heights). Apologies. Link now removed as the information is no longer available at this URL.

Photograph and two postcards in the collection of, provided by and © the Aspey family.
Text also © the Aspey family.
Intended for personal use only.

Peter mentions the Rutland Cavern. There is a great deal of information about the cavern in the various on-site nineteenth century guides:

Moore, "Picturesque Excursions From Derby to Matlock Bath", 1818: Engraving of "Romantic Bridge Rutland Cavern" (bottom of page)
Moore, "Picturesque Excursions From Derby to Matlock Bath", 1818: Description of the cavern
Moore, "Picturesque Excursions From Derby to Matlock Bath", 1818: Minerals found there
Barker's "The Panorama of Matlock", 1827: section on caverns
William Adam's "Gem of the Peak", 1840: Caverns & Mines
Bemroses' Guide to Matlock ... , about 1869: see page 12
Holmes "Hand Book to Matlock Bath & Neighbourhood": scroll down to section on The Caverns
Advertisement from "On Foot Through the Peak", 1868
Description in "On Foot Through the Peak", 1868: Chapter 15

The view from the Heights in the 1950s