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 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.
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).
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
In the dark it’s all very effective. Most of the floats are powered by oar but a couple have small outboards.
Most of the designs incorporate some sort of movement, with turning wheels, flapping wings, or in the case of santa moving reindeer legs.
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.
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.