Why do we fail to notice extraordinary things when they are right in front of us? Is it just human nature to take for granted that which we see every day? In the nineties I worked in Matlock for the best part of three years and each day I drove past a building that I knew by name and reputation without a turn of the head or a nudge of the brakes. I must have subsequently walked past countless times without pausing to investigate further. Today all of that changed.
Today I’m in Matlock Bath to take a look around an historic building that has assumed legendary status in these parts and beyond. No – not Sir Richard Arkwright’s Masson Mills, a key player in the industrial revolution. I’m at the Grand Pavilion, a leisure facility that owes its existence to the employment revolution that was spawned by the industrial revolution.
I know precious little about “The Pav” as it is commonly known, beyond its 90’s incarnation as a night club. Overheard Monday morning conversations at work were often sprinkled with non-too-pretty tales from the Pav. Notorious rather than legendary. The night club has closed and the Pav has been nursing a hangover as it prays for some fresh new start under more sympathetic custodianship. Those prayers have been answered…
The Grand Pavilion is open to visitors today with the Save The Pavilion Group sharing their plans for the building and laying on guided tours. There are perhaps 20 equally curious attendees to the initial presentation which presents a history of the building and the following information is largely brought to you courtesy of authoritative and engaging local historian Charles Beresford and augmented by a little of my own research…
A brief history of the Grand Pavilion
The warm spa waters of Matlock Bath had already been drawing in visitors for a long time when the railway arrived in 1849 creating a massive surge in tourism. Despite this popularity the council decided that the town needed to broaden its offer and provide more reasons for day trippers to visit and perhaps stay. They commissioned the building of the Grand Pavilion with the intention of hosting a diverse range of entertainment that would appeal to the masses.
Architect John Nuttall led the £11,000 construction of the Grand Pavilion in 1910 on the site of a former stables and blacksmiths yard next to the river Derwent.
Early events held at the Pavilion included theatre and (with surprising popularity) roller skating! The inaugral theatre production in 1911 was The Cingalee followed by Charlie’s Aunt. Later that year the Matlock and District Operatic Society performed The Belle Of Brittany and the group are still performing today under the name of Matlock Musical Theatre.
Other early entertainment included military bands, dances, silent films and community events. The ample ballroom with its polished dance floor, arched roof and gas lighting must have provided all the ingredients for a striking venue. The venue was certainly attracting many new visitors to the town with records showing a peak of 17 excursion trains arriving in one day from conurbations like Derby and Manchester. Matlock Bath still has one of the longest railway platforms in the Derbyshire Dales.
Within a few years of opening First World War soldiers were billeted on site. Canadian soldier Willian J Cowan spent time here recuperating from injury and he led a remarkable life. Military career aside (he was awarded the Military Cross and later left Russia after being sentenced to death for alleged spying) Cowan went on to forge a career in Hollywood as a writer and director, with credits including Oliver Twist. His wife made a fortune writing the caption cards used in silent movies and Spencer Tracey was a close friend.
Other early visitors of renown include Jesse Boot (he of Boots The Chemist) and scouting movement founder Lord Baden Powell who held the first ever scouting conference at the nearby Royal Hotel in 1917.
Another notable early performer at the Pavilion was Marie Hall, considered one of the finest violinists in the world at her time. She had been a pupil of Edward Elgar and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams dedicated his composition “The Lark Ascending” to her. Thirty years after her death her 1709 Stradivarius violin sold at auction for almost half a million pounds!
After the disruption of WWII the Grand Pavilion saw a variety of events including the Miss Derbyshire competition, boxing matches and darts tournaments. The building continued to host music performances and was a primary venue for the town’s popular music festivals that attracted up to 3000 performers and many more attendees.
|Some of the more famous acts to perform at the Pavilion include Phil Cool, Ken Dodd, Warren Mitchell, Kenny Ball, John Tams, Mike Reid, Freddie And The Dreamers, The Searchers, Cream, Elvis Costello and Deep Purple, not to mention local lass Isy Suttie. Apparently Long John Baldry played here with his pianist Reg Dwight (now better known as Elton John).The venue struggled to get by in later years and while the insensitive refit of the ballroom into a night club kept it on life support the prognosis was terminal and closure was to follow, until…|
…the Save The Pavilion Group was set up by local people towards the end of 2009 with the stated aim of safeguarding the future of the Grand Pavilion for the community and surrounding areas. Stemming from this group an organisation called The Grand Pavilion Ltd was formed to oversee renovations and run the building as a Charitable Trust.
As Charles led us on a guided tour of the building it became clear that while plenty of work needed doing there didn’t seem to be any major structural issues. During the Pav Night Club era a number of charmless features had been added – balconies, a mixing desk and a bar.
Through hard work by the volunteers the balconies have now been removed although the bar still remains.
The thing that immediately strikes you about the hall is what a great space it is and how the large arched windows on each side accentuate the interior.
And what a view! To the south are the riverside gardens with the Derwent in heavy flow today following recent rainfall. To the north an elevated view of Matlock Bath reminds me why it earned the moniker of Little Switzerland. I can clearly see the cable cars at the Heights of Abraham.
The light streams through these large windows to reveal many old or original features in varying conditions, like the magnificent iron radiators.
There are plenty of rough edges. This scene concerned me but when I asked about the state of the roof Charles assured me that it was watertight.
Under the renovation plans the building would be restored to a very high level and I believe the ballroom especially has the potential once again provide a breathtaking venue.
Standing on the stage it’s not hard to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements and get a sense of the drama this place has experienced before and could experience again.
For now there are only echos but what echos they are. I wonder if Lord Baden Powell addressed an audience here. I wonder if Elton John tinkled these ivories…
We exit stage left and alight a stone staircase with ornate iron railings and a solid wooden banister. An oval window reveals another select view not normally seen by the public. I love the detailed design and quality workmanship that went into old buildings – even the areas largely unseen. Modern buildings are built down to an ever-diminishing price and the wealthly few for whom craftsmanship is an affordable luxury seem to have a nagging tendency to commission soulless concrete/glass/chrome warehouses instead. Rant over.
A series of rooms upstairs have been employed as dressing rooms and storage areas. They may be chaotic but I like the fact that they appear to have been left relatively untouched since their last employment.
The dressing rooms can hardly have been plush even at their best. Much of the remaining detritus appears to have been left over from the days of The Pav nightclub.
Looking around it would seem that I’m the only one transfixed by this odd car boot sale of a mess. A left turn and we are on the balcony at the opposite end of the hall to the stage. This place is a rabbit warren.
Just when we seem to have exhausted the rooms we are presented with the unmissable opportunity to climb up a wooden ladder into the cupola – the iconic dome atop the Grand Pavilion. Everyone wants to experience this and who can blame them.
The first thing that I notice is the intricate wooden design of the roof. It looks to be in superb condition. What a special place this is! I feel like I’m in a tree-house for grown-ups. A finial rests here and I presume it was originally fitted on top of the cupola. Again this looks to be in great condition.
Of more dubious provenance is the curiously enscribed WC that reads: Payment in loo: Bank of England – I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of 100 pounds. Payable at Nat West bank, Matlock Bath.
A rabbit warren of a building. Discarded drinks glasses everywhere. A wooden ladder leading up into a hidden room containing a WC. Those of a certain age and computer gaming disposition may understand while I feel like I’m inside a game of Jet Set Willy.
There’s a hobbit sized wooden door onto the roof. Well, you can’t come this far and not venture outside.
There’s a view in every direction. The river Derwent flows below, still adorned with the riverside illuminations – a previous blogging muse of mine.
Beyond the hall roof I can see the Heights Of Abraham.
There’s a heron’s view of The Fishpond pub in the street below – a popular pre/post performance watering hole with performers and audience alike.
If I’m making the most of my temporary elevation it’s because I know I’ll probably never be back here. Legally. They seriously need to install a 360 degree web cam up here.
So we have learned something of the past and witnessed the current state of play. What of the future? Since partially re-opening in 2012 a limited number of events have already been held here. The most successful of these was a wildly popular Half Man Half Biscuit gig which attracted hordes of loyal fans who proceeded to drink the bar dry forcing the staff to leg it over to Sainsburies for more stock. As a HMHB fan I was unaware of this gig and really wish I had attended.
Grand Pavilion Ltd bought the freehold for £1 from a relieved council and have submitted a bid for £3.2m of Heritage Lottery Funding which, if granted, could be topped up by conditional income from other sources. Proposed designs for a refurbishment are listed on the GPL website and there’s an animated YouTube fly-through to help with the visualisation. Somebody has had some fun with this!
A central feature planned for the ballroom is retractable seating that would enable seating for 250 people to be collapsed away when the entire floor space is needed. Needless to say there’s much work to be done before then, assuming that funding can be secured.
I’m hopeful that everything is in order to make this important project a success. There is a team of professionals and volunteers in place to drive things forward supported by joint patrons – acclaimed Derbyshire wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering and former Blue Peter presenter Simon Groom. I would love to get involved myself in some way.
Once the work is completed the Grand Pavilion will boast the largest theatre space in the Derbyshire Dales but it isn’t destined to become some elitist arts venue. According to the mission statement the intention is to host a diverse range of activities that will appeal to a wide range of people and also extend the Matlock Bath tourist season. Which sounds to me like the original mission statement of the Pavilion in 1910, and we know how successful that was.
Acknowledgements to Save The Pavilion Ltd for much of the above information and thank you to all concerned for the presentation, guided tour and ongoing efforts to make the Grand Pavilion great again.
There’s a drive to collect oral histories relating to the GP. If you have any stories or memorabilia then the team would love to hear from you
BBC reporting of the property purchase
The Theatre Trust database entry for the Grand Pavlion