Revisiting cherished childhood memories can be dispiriting; everything appears diminished and one leaves questioning the nature of perception. Were we more open as children or less discerning? Happily, the village of Matlock Bath in Derbyshire, where I wasted so much of my youth and pocket money, is as delightfully dotty as when I last visited 30 years ago.
Situated on the edge of the Peak District at the bottom of a limestone gorge, this enchanting mix of faded Victorian grandeur, tatty 1970s tourism and dreamy, Tolkien-esque landscape was once a fashionable spa resort where ladies in crinolines came to ‘take the waters’. Warm springs were discovered here in 1698 but it wasn’t until a young Princess Victoria visited in 1832 that the village became a high-society hot spot. Byron, a frequent visitor, described the village as the ‘Switzerland of Derbyshire’.
Tourists no longer come for the healing waters but they do still flock to the Petrifying Well a watery attraction made popular by 19th-century day-trippers who came in their droves after the railway opened in 1849. Toss some loose change into the calcium-rich thermal spring and watch as your hard-earned cash turns to hard-edged stone.
Over the decades, visitors have offered up objects including wigs, crucifixes, bowler hats, umbrellas and even the odd bird’s nest. They are still here in all their limestone-encrusted glory. The petrifaction process can take several years, however, so you may want to check out some of Matlock Bath’s more instant gratifications.
Harry Hall’s Amusements arcade is a marvellous throwback to the glory days of early 1980s arcading. Astonishingly, many of the original Atari classics that fleeced me of so much sticky coinage are still here, along with a sign warning over-zealous gamers not to ‘bang on the machines’.
After feasting on lard-infused chips and fluorescent mushy peas (there are nine chippies along the half-mile parade), catch a cable car across the mighty gorge from High Tor to the Heights of Abraham pleasure ground, opened in the 1780s after the old lead mines closed. The Romans were the first to discover lead here, with the industry reaching its peak in the 17th century. The miners are long gone but you can still explore the spooky caverns in which they once toiled. From the top of Prospect Tower, built by redundant lead miners in 1844, there are stunning views across the Derwent Valley. That peculiar mix of faded English seaside resort (Derbyshire couldn’t be further from the sea) and alpine scenery are what give the place its unique appeal.
At weekends, the calm is shattered as hundreds of denim-clad bikers descend on the village, parking their shiny Honda Gold Wings and vintage Ducatis along the parade. It’s quite a spectacle and if you listen carefully you may catch some handy tips on how best to remove poncy exhaust mufflers.
There have been several attempts over the years to spruce up the old parade and update the shabby amusement arcades but the no-nonsense villagers have always been resistant to change. They are proud of their unspoilt vistas and potty land-locked seaside attractions and have no intention of moving with the fickle times. For nostalgia freaks like me, that’s real progress.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free