Hitting The Peaks

A few weeks ago I wrote about my trip to the Matlock Bath illuminations. This weekend I have returned to the area to look at other facets of local life.

My visit to Matlock a couple of miles up the road from Matlock Bath is a return to an old haunt. You see I worked there for a couple of years in the 90s after leaving university but while I have since driven through on many occasions I haven’t really stopped by to refamiliarise myself with the town. Not that I have much time this Saturday afternoon but already the changes are apparent. A bypass has improved traffic flow through the centre and a new Sainsburies now sits dwarfed in the shadow of an imposing limestone cliff face that is typical of this area of the Derbyshire peak district. I know that the building of the supermarket has been controversial but visually at least it sits in contrast to the surrounding landscape and in fact serves to emphasise it.

Bank Road ascends Matlock
Bank Road ascends Matlock

I’m a little disappointed by the number of charity shops in the streets (perhaps a consequence of the supermarket stealing local business?) and they seem ill suited for such a stately town with its rich history of affluent 19th century spa tourists and grand Victorian era buildings hewn from local stone. The steep arterial Bank Road climbs skyward past the grandiose county offices in Smedley Street towards the restored hunting lodge at the summit. In my previous existence as a council employee I worked in an historically interesting converted hydro spa nearby and at the time this hunting lodge was a derelict building, home to squatters and substance abusers, so some things have changed for the good since then.

This after all is Matlock, continuously evolving and moving with the times sometimes leading the way and sometimes following the trends. I would love to know more of its history, about the industrial times, about the long departed cable tramway inspired by San Francisco’s cable drawn cars that first ran up Bank Street almost 120 years ago. Not today though as I have an appointment at the other end of the cultural spectrum.

Matlock Town FC – aka “The Gladiators” – have been in existence for over 130 years and their Causeway Lane ground occupies a prime location in the heart of the town. I wanted to reconnect with the matchday experience at a community club at a time when football clubs at all levels are labouring under dark financial clouds. Earlier this month Ilkeston Town FC down the road was wound up, while the fiscal woes of the big boys at Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Manchester United, etc have been well documented.

Non-league charm
Non-league charm

This feels like “proper football” and it’s clear that good things lie in store as I approach the turnstiles. The ground consists of an old covered stand that runs the length of the pitch plus a newer squat but loftier stand on the opposing side. There’s a healthy crowd of perhaps 300 here for today’s cup clash with Bedworth and a new club house in the throes of construction suggests that the finances here at least are in order. Best of all there is a very reasonably priced club café doing a brisk trade in pie and peas plus hot drinks. All part of the match day routine for the faithful. Oh – and did I mention the view? Riber Castle watches from on high in the distance beyond the eastern end goal mouth.

Riber castle overlooking Causeway Lane
Riber castle overlooking Causeway Lane

And then there’s the game itself – almost the icing on the cake it seems. It is played with zip and commitment with the home side perhaps a little fortunate to go in 2 goals up at half time. It is the intimacy that I love about football at this level. At times there is almost no line between the players and the fans. Friends and relatives shout encouragement and everyone is on first name terms. The players are all local lads – there are no egos, flash cars or celebrity WAGs, just endeavour and pride.

MTFC in the blue vs Bedworth in green
MTFC in the blue vs Bedworth in green

Without any warning the second half evolves into an “I was there” moment as the home side, pumped full of confidence, destroy Bedworth in an amazing 10-0 rout. It’s a fine all round performance with battles won all over the park but today can only be about one man – striker Ross Hannah who scores an incredible 7 (SEVEN) of the goals in a display of clinical tenacity. It’s the performance of a lifetime and at the final whistle Ross modestly smiles and applauds the crowd as they stand to cheer him off the pitch.

Ross Hannah strikes again
Ross Hannah strikes again

Needless to say I’ve had a great time and can thoroughly recommend a visit to see the Gladiators in action with an obligatory visit to the pie & pea counter. The only concern for me now as I anticipate the evening is whether the day has peaked too soon.

Bonsall. A deceptively large village in the hills overlooking Matlock and tonights destination of choice. In defiance of the “Road Closed” sign I approach the village from Via Gellia and head straight to the Barley Mow. I have been here a couple of times before but tonight I fulfil the promise I made to myself to come for the evening and stay over.

Barley Mow
Barley Mow

It is rather smaller inside than it looks from the front but at 6pm there are few about. There’s a tempting array of real ales on tap including award winning 5.9% Jaipur and Blue Monkey Evolution but landlord Dave persuades me to try the Binge Oil – an extremely rare ale from Abbeydale Brewery in Sheffield which is down to the last few pints. This turns out to be good advice as it’s a delightful refreshing beer and a bit different to the norm.

Bar heaven
Bar heaven

There’s a brief interlude as my B&B landlord Steve pops by to introduce himself and I follow him up the road to Hollybank to leave my bag and get a key. I can really recommend this place as it offers high spec lodgings in a great location, not to mention a friendly welome. Soon I’m back at the pub for a marvellous home cooked pie and another brew. Aside from the quality real ales, food, hospitality and charm, the pub is renown for its World Championship Hen Racing, UFO sightings and a regular stream of cultural happenings, including live music. There’s life in these hills.

Dave and Colette, who is serving behind the bar tonight, are very excited about tonight’s performer – Kris Dollimore, slide blues guitarist. The expectation is truly exceeded as Kris plays 3 sublime half hour sets to a comfortably full gathering of reverential listeners. Live music of any genre is all about performance and the passion, soul and virtuosity we have seen tonight from Kris will be remembered and cherished for a long time by those fortunate to be present.

Kris Dollimore
Kris Dollimore

With gritty, raw yet skilful and subtle reflections of Robert Johnson and Johnny Lee Hooker it’s hard to believe that he hails from the home counties and not the southern states. After the gig I caught up with Kris and was amazed to learn that he had driven all the way from his new home in Polperro Cornwall for tonight’s intimate performance, a fact made all the more impressive given his notable stature in blues circles at home and especially abroad. He says he really enjoyed playing tonight for such an appreciative audience at this unique venue.

Kris with a fawning fan
Kris with a fawning fan

My second “I was there” experience in one day makes for a happy 200 yard stroll up hill to Hollybank in the cold pitch black night.

It’s a treat waking up to find a stranger has cooked you a full English breakfast. I sit at the table leafing through a fascinating history of Bonsall as documented in a local history publication. Somebody has gone to great lengths to chart the lengthy history of the village. How did they find out for instance that the Rector of Bonsall in 1304 was John de Brentingham?

Time to walk off breakfast and it’s nice to look out and discover a blue cloudless sky. There was meant to be a frost but perhaps that came and went while I was scoffing sausages. There’s a definite chill in the air but nothing the brisk walk uphill through the churchyard won’t ward against.

Bonsall churchyard
Bonsall churchyard

The Sunday morning bells chime out and I wonder how different the scene was 700 years ago under the auspices of John de Brentingham.

Church window
Church window

A road continues uphill and there is nothing to hear except birdsong and the receding church bells. I chose this walk on the basis that it looked straightforward and because the elevation should make for fine views over the Derwent valley. It is becoming apparent that I’m going to be spending a lot of time on woodland paths with little view at all but at this time of year that is little sacrifice.

If you go into the woods today...
If you go into the woods today…

The seasonal golden browns and greens are accentuated by the morning shafts of sunlight to uplifting effect.

Canopy of colour
Canopy of colour

Eventually the path clears as I traverse the Heights of Abraham and there is finally a view over hewn chasm to Riber castle. The cable cars are in operation today and it occurs to me that I still haven’t been on them after all these years.

Riber, cliffs and cable car above Matlock Bath
Riber, cliffs and cable car above Matlock Bath

The path returns to rural serenity and the leaves carpet my way again crunching crisply underfoot. When it rains this will turn into slippery mush of foliage so I have been lucky today.

Follow the golden brown road
Follow the golden brown road

On a walk like this there are so many things to stop and look at. Ancient stone walls are rendered with thick moss, delicate wild flowers clinging to tiny crevices. Boundary stiles mark passage from field to field. The occasional stone cottage sits isolated along some sleepy single track road trapped in a bubble a dream away from the rest of the world. There are spring wells, gnarled stone gate posts, hedgerow nests and a million things to break your stride.

Not for drinking
Not for drinking

Such is my pre-occupation with the minutiae of this walk that I have become distracted and my descent back into Bonsall is greeted by a sign saying “Welcome to Snitterton”. Oops. I have walked a mile too far north down into a valley. It’s not an unwelcome detour as I get to catch a glimpse of Snitterton Hall which would make an ideal film set with it’s high walled gardens and colossal boundary hedges. There must be something exciting within these boundaries – a secret garden of some sort.

The climb back up hill takes me past a cave at Jug Holes that also has an air of mystery about it. The opening suggests an extensive cave system but I’m not inclined to find out today.

Cave at Jug Holes
Cave at Jug Holes

Finally after 8 miles rather than 6 I’m greeted back into Bonsall by the tall medieval market cross inscribed by the date 1687. The walk has been easy going with a mix of terrain and viewing interest.

Bonsall cross
Bonsall cross

I downloaded it from t’net and also traced the route with an O/S map which was only useful when I found myself in the wrong place. Sunday lunch is available from the Barley Mow & the Kings Head but it’s not for me – I’m about quits now after the dietary treats of last night & this morning. Home for autumnal soup methinks. And the laundry. And ironing. In fact my house really needs a tidy. Perhaps there’s a vacancy again at Hollybank tonight…

Everything is Illuminated

Derbyshire. Landlocked. In fact the best part of 100 miles from the nearest coastline. Despite this fact, or maybe because of it, my home county boasts it’s own unique waterfront attraction Matlock Bath.

Known locally as Matlock By The Sea this popular destination has much in common with the archetypal British seaside resort. Weekend crowds swell the population as young families mingle with leather clad legions of bikers, drawn into the town along the adrenaline soaked tarmac of the A6 that snakes it’s way along the beautiful Derwent Valley. For the sea there is the river Derwent. In place of a coastal vista there are towering limestone cliffs that dominate the skyline. The promenade is replaced by the under-cliff footpath, while the infamous “Pav”ilion plays stand in to a pier. Throw in the 10 or so chip shops crammed together along the 200 yard North Parade, sprinkle in a few tourist tat shops and garnish with amusement arcades and you have an inland seaside resort, of sorts.

The small town has a long and notable history. Sir Richard Arkwright built Masson Mill here at the inception of the industrial revolution. Wealthy Victorians travelled from far and wide to visit the “healing” spa waters. The echoes of Victoriana remain visible to this day in the local architecture but the last 40 years have seen a major shift towards popularist tourism with the addition of Gullivers Kingdom theme park and the installation of a cable car.

My visit has nothing to do with any of this. I’m here to see the famous Matlock Bath Illuminations, conceived in 1897 as a candlelit procession to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and held every year since. My mission is to do the whole shooting match short of getting a tattoo.

The train from Derby to Matlock consists of one old carriage that has never been cleaned before. This local service takes 30 minutes and the stops ring off the tongue – Duffield, Belper, Ambergate, Whatstandwell, Cromford and then Matlock Bath. On arrival I want to get a view of the town before dusk and this means yomping up the hill. Any road here other than the arterial A6 is guaranteed to be steep (as in cut-off-in-winter steep) and this road is no exception.

The roads here are steep
The roads here are steep

The views make it all worth while. It looks relatively quiet down below and I’m guessing many people have decided not to risk the weather tonight. The Victorian rooftops overlook the town and with chimneys gently puffing out white smoke I can imagine an almost unchanged scene 100 years ago.

A view over Matlock Bath before the sun sets
A view over Matlock Bath before the sun sets

The aroma of Fish and Chips is strong even at this distance, drifting on a light summer breeze that already carries the chill of autumn, just days away. Anyway, that’s enough dreamy flannel. I’ve got tourist things to do and what better start than a desperately required pint of Everards Tiger at The Fishpond, best known for it’s music line up and well kept ale (just don’t even dream of eating there).

Yours truly with a pint of Tiger outside The Fishpond
Yours truly with a pint of Tiger outside The Fishpond

There is almost literally only one choice of food in this town as it must have one chippy for every three residents. The only choice is which place to go to. I’m not that hungry so opt for £3 mini fish, chips & peas. They’ve run out of peas so the nice girl behind the fryer serves up beans plus double amounts of fish & chips to compensate. Lordy…

A "small" portion of fish and chips apparently
A \”small\” portion of fish and chips apparently

OMG – I can barely move after that. A podged waddle down the street is scant response to this cholesterol overload but at least I get to dabble with the slots.

Oh I do like to be beside the Derwent
Oh I do like to be beside the Derwent

It’s turning dark now and the smells, sights and sounds are just beginning to awaken the senses in an anticipatory way. If you have kids this is the time when they will start get excited, to realise that they are staying out late and doing something a little special.

They serve chips too
They serve chips too

Anyway, the show is about to get on the road, or river at least. You see the static illuminations are on show every night but tonight’s parade of illuminated river floats kicks off at 8pm so I need to find a decent spot to watch from.

Static illuminations
Static illuminations

I pass a very small fair of sorts plus a band playing in the bandstand on the way to the river. You can watch from the far bank or if you are early enough from the footbridge, despite the tannoy announcer wearily asking people not to stand still here. The scene is set for the parade to begin.

The scene is set
The scene is set

The floats are all designed by members of the Matlock Bath Venetian Boat Builders Association who have gone to great lengths to design and construct their craft. They slowly circle a length of river giving everyone a chance to see.

Anamatronic butterfly
Anamatronic butterfly

Each float is effectively a rowing boat with a superstructure decked out with lights and powered by car batteries. Some of the floats also play appropriate music.

Ghostbusters!
Ghostbusters!

In the dark it’s all very effective. Most of the floats are powered by oar but a couple have small outboards.

Pagoda
Pagoda

Most of the designs incorporate some sort of movement, with turning wheels, flapping wings, or in the case of santa moving reindeer legs.

Santa is early
Santa is early

There is a prize – the Arkwright Cup, donated by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1903 – for the best float. Another tradition is the inclusion of one candle lit float as a nod to the origins of this parade.

Toot Toot!
Toot Toot!

It’s getting cold and I have given up trying to get any really decent shots of the floats as you need a long exposure and the damn things keep floating off down the river making for blurred images. Just time for a warming pint of Jennings Snecklifter at The County Station before my night train home. All in all it’s been a bit of fun.

Thinking of going?
The static riverside illuminations run this year from September 4th to October 30th and, if I’m honest, are modest to say the least. The illuminated boat parade only takes place on Saturdays and Sundays during this period and I would strongly recommend you come at the weekend. In addition there are firework displays on Saturdays 2nd, 16th and 30th October this year. Click here for all of the details.

I took the train which not only enables you to avoid the heavy traffic but entitles you to 20% discount on admission (£4 adults, children free). As a final tip, pick up your tickets from the booth behind the pavilion as soon as you arrive so you can walk straight past the queue that builds up in the lead-up to the boat procession at 8pm.