History & Heritage Trail
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A: Riber Castle (From The Amphitheatre)
You are now standing on Masson Hill, home to The Heights of Abraham. Before you, are the limestone cliffs of High Tor and rising up the hill to the left, is the town of Matlock. The most striking landmark, however, is the castle on your right. This is Riber Castle, a Victorian country house built in 1862 by the industrialist, John Smedley. Smedley was a key figure in developing Matlock into the town it is today.
John Smedley began his career by taking over the helm of his father’s business in 1825, running a cotton and wool mill in Lea Bridge, 3 miles away. A man of great ambition and vigour, Smedley threw himself into the work, expanding the company, bringing all the manufacturing processes under one roof: from raw materials to the finished product. Garments of the finest quality have been produced there ever since and today the mill supplies Harrods, John Lewis and the Royal household.
Like so many successful industrialists of 19th century, John Smedley wanted to build a grand mansion announcing his arrival into the elite and so he built Riber Castle in 1862. Originally, he had planned to place an observatory here - as a gift to the nation. Unfortunately his architectural design couldn’t support the gigantic telescope and the project was abandoned. The industrialist decided to transform the building site into a grand – if somewhat eccentric – family home. Sadly Smedley died just 6 years after completion, leaving his widow to live there for another 18 years until her death.
The castle briefly became a boy’s school and then in World War 2, was used for storage by the Ministry of Defence. Several years later a nature reserve was set up there, known locally as Riber Zoo. But when this closed in 2000, some of the animals escaped, including a lynx which has been spotted from time to time in the area ever since.
B: High Tor (from High Falls)
If you were standing here on Masson Hill in the Jurassic period, 180 million years ago, you wouldn’t be alive very long. These serene and beautiful hills were once the scene of volcanic activity. A violent upheaval of the earth's surface was pushing the rock upwards into a dome. Eventually, the colossal pressure split the rock in all directions, creating fissures where, over millions of years, subterranean liquids crystallised, later to become veins of lead, fluorspar and other ores and minerals.
Over this vast period, the landscape was continually altered through wind and water erosion. Major changes also occurring during the various ice ages between 2 million and 12 thousand years ago which, in turn, transformed the scenery around you even further. This hill once joined High Tor in one landmass and the River Derwent flowed much higher. But earth movements, earthquakes and glaciers carved out Matlock Dale, dividing Masson Hill from High Tor and changing the course of the river. Glacial deposits filled the caves with silt which remained in this state until miners excavated them in their search for lead.
Small changes over long periods of time make big difference, and the result, as you can see, is spectacular. These dramatic cliffs are the jewels in Matlock’s crown. Their majestic beauty is a major draw, causing visitors to see, exclaim and wonder.
For diagrams and more detailed information on the geology of this area, please read our display at the top of Tinker’s shaft.
C: Matlock Views (through the gate)
Look to the town centre. This was once the site of the world’s steepest tramway. Running until 1927, the cars were hauled uphill by cable. It was known as the ‘Tuppence up, Penny down’ tramway. During the winter snow local children would secretly hang onto the back of the tramcars to get a free ride uphill. They would then sledge down Steep Turnpike at high speed - before trudging back round to the tram station and doing it all over again!
Matlock’s stone bridge that crosses over the Derwent was built in the 13th century and was painted by JMW Turner when he visited in 1794. Since then it has been widened, but it is still the pretty heart of the town where, on a summer’s day, you will see swallows swooping in an endless arc under the stone arches.
You may be surprised to learn that in World War 2, Matlock became a key defence position. Sheffield was just over 20 miles north and being a major munitions manufacturer, was a target for the Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, Riber Castle provided the perfect landmark to navigate to Sheffield. Consequently, anti aircraft guns and searchlights were stationed all around Matlock as the town became a crucial part of Britain’s defence in the war. The story goes that one German fighter pilot became so frustrated at being blinded by these searchlights, that he swooped down into the town and unleashed a torrent of bullets, hitting shops, St Giles Church and The Wheatsheaf Inn at Starkholmes - where the landlord was having a bath at the time!
D: By the Cavern exit (views of High Tor)
You are surrounded by rolling green hills and woods on all sides. From this altitude, the view is dazzling. Much of the Peak District offers views like this, but straight ahead of you is the reason why Matlock is so often referred to as the ‘gem of the Peak’. The towering presence of High Tor dominates Matlock Bath and has inspired poets and painters over the centuries to capture its majestic beauty.
These limestone cliffs were once great reefs under the sea – very like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. If you were standing here 325 million years ago, in the Carboniferous period you would be underwater in tropical seas. Imagine pushing up from the reef and breaking the surface of the water: the air is warm. At this time in history, the reef was at the equator and you would be surrounded by an abundance of ancient sea creatures such as crinoids and brachiopods.
E: Tinkers Shaft (On Masson Hill)
Look carefully at the town of Matlock and you will see a long horizontal stone building covered in ivy. Now the head office for Derbyshire County Council, this grand structure was once a hydropathic bathhouse and hotel which John Smedley began to build in 1853.
While on honeymoon in Switzerland, John Smedley experienced a nervous collapse and underwent a course of hydropathic treatment, which apparently cured him. He became an instant convert. With typical energy and zeal, he built his own hydropathic hotel named, ‘Smedley’s Hydro’ which offered the treatment to the wider public. Unlike the thermal bathing in Matlock Bath, hydropathy was by no means a pleasant experience. You had to sit in a metal bath and endure jets of water being sprayed at you - like a hardcore shower. Combining this with a strict regime of diet and exercise, Smedley claimed his system would cure you of cancer, consumption, deafness, diabetes, paralysis, smallpox - and the rest.
Hydropathy has long been exposed as well-meaning quackery, but Smedley’s ardent belief was sincere and his investment in hydropathy attracted thousands of visitors to Matlock and was largely responsible for the town’s rapid growth. The ‘Matlocks’ - as they had long been known - grew together to become the one, simple, Matlock.
A far more famous Victorian who positively revolutionised healthcare, was Florence Nightingale. If you look to your far right, just below the skyline you will see the tips of the village of Holloway, where the Nightingale family had their Derbyshire estate. Used as their summer home, Florence spent much of her childhood here. Training as a nurse against her family’s wishes, she gained fame in the Crimean War, where she transformed the medical practices, saving thousands of lives. Legend has it, that when she returned home to Derbyshire in 1856, she shunned all publicity and walked home from Whatstandwell train station alone, unnoticed, carrying her own suitcase.
F: Outside the Visitor Centre
Looking south down the Derwent Valley you can see the gradual change from the limestone dales to the broader, softer lowland landscape.
On the skyline is Bole Hill and Black Rocks, a local landmark and a magnate for outdoor activity enthusiasts. Mountain bikers, hikers, horse riders, orienteers and walkers make use of the various footpaths and bridleways, enjoying the sensational views.
The famous Black Rocks gritstone outcrop rises dramatically out of the hill, they are certainly impressive: one Victorian visitor described them as, “one monster mass of iron-like stone”. (A quote from Edward Bradbury in 1884, who used the pen name of Strephon).
The old Cromford and High Peak Railway once passed right by Black Rocks and was an astonishing feat of engineering. Starting at Cromford Canal, it climbed over a thousand feet in five miles and the trains needed cables to haul them up the steep gradients. Closed in 1967, the old train route was bought by the Peak District National Park in 1971, who transformed it into the High Peak Trail. This now attracts tens of thousands visitors every year who walk, run and cycle along the traffic-free trail, set amongst some of the prettiest views of the Peaks.
To the side of Black Rocks is Steeple Grange and the village of Bolehill. This name comes from the lead smelting works that once existed on Cromford Moor in the middle ages. The bole furnaces were probably just below the receiver tower and would have consisted of a series of little open-air troughs in the ground.
G: Towards Cromford
Straight out in front of you, you will see a modest collection of houses, forming the outskirts of Cromford Village. Cromford is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is the birthplace of the modern factory system. Richard Arkwright built the world’s first successful water powered mill here in 1771 and was also the first person to place a series of mechanically driven machines in one, large building. This was totally new and helped to kick start the industrial revolution.
So who was Richard Arkwright and why did this extraordinary pioneer choose Cromford? Born in Lancashire into a large and poor family, Arkwright had modest beginnings, working as a travelling wig maker. He met up with a clockmaker called John Kay who was collaborating with Thomas Highs on a mechanical spinning machine. Arkwright saw its potential and worked with Kay to improve it. When Arkwright patented the spinning frame, a dispute broke out between the two men, who both claimed it was their idea. With hindsight it would be fair to say that though much of the spinning frame was the work of others, Arkwright undoubtedly brought improvements to the machine. The crucial factor here, however, is that Arkwright had the entrepreneurial drive to get the financial backing to build a mill.
Arkwright’s decision to build his cotton mill in Cromford was an astute move. First of all there was an abundance of water in the area that could power the machines. Secondly, there was a local population that he could employ. Thirdly, Cromford was remote: making it difficult for rivals to steal his ideas. It is important to be clear that Arkwright’s success wasn’t simply a matter of having the patent for the spinning frame: others had already tried to run cotton mills in England and had failed. Constructing and powering large, factory-style buildings was no mean feat in Georgian times and required a great deal of technical problem solving. In addition to this, Arkwright had tremendous management skills; able to keep his financial backers happy and marshalling a large workforce. For a few decades at least, Cromford and the Derwent Valley was the Silicon Valley of its time and Arkwright, comparable to the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
H. The Woodland Corner
This estate was first formed after the Matlock Enclosure Act of 1784. The Heights of Abraham was developed into a pleasure ground for the tourists who were flocking into Matlock Bath. The landscaping of this new hillside estate was inspired. The rocky, barren slopes were transformed into a ‘savage garden’, which you are surrounded by now. Smell the air and listen to birds. A savage garden is designed to bring the wilderness right up close to you. In this tranquil spot, it is hard to believe that you are close to a busy, bustling tourist town. Through the savage garden, the zig-zag walk was laid, cleverly designed to reduce the steepness of the ascent, while providing vantage points from which to view the splendid hills and dales.
There can be no doubt that the transformation from an industrial wasteland (caused by mining) into a picturesque parkland, has become critically important to the fortunes of Matlock Bath. This carefully landscaped hill has been a significant factor in the continued popularity of this town right up to the modern day.
However this change in the use of the land was not without controversy. When The Heights of Abraham first came into being, it was operating alongside the old lead mining industry on Masson hill. Some of the miners saw this new pleasure ground as a threat to their interests and there were a number of confrontations between the miners and various owners - some of which ended in violence and court action. But later the lead deposits declined and the miners realised that there was a whole new way to make money.
I. The Summerhouse
You are now standing in the thatched summer house which was the first building to be constructed on The Heights of Abraham in 1801. It was built as a resting place and look out point for the early tourists, most of whom toiled up the hillside on foot. By the time you reached here you would certainly be in need of a sit down!
If you look at the walls on the outside of the summer house you will see that they are made out of tufa rock, which was once a popular building material because of its wonderfully intricate and varied structures. Tufa rock is made up of calcified organic material such twigs, leaves, mosses and snail shells which became petrified and turned to stone as the calcium rich water from thermal springs accumulated on them. Over time, large deposits formed which could then be easily quarried and used as a building material.
You are following in the footsteps of royalty. Before she was queen, Princess Victoria visited Matlock Bath in 1836 and ascended The Heights of Abraham on the back of a donkey. She almost certainly would have paused here, in this summer house, for rest and refreshment. Another Royal visitor back in 1818, was the Grand Duke Michael of Russia who hired every pony in Matlock Bath in order to transport himself and his entourage up the zig-zag walk. While he was here, he toured the Rutland Cavern which, according to the newspaper reports, he found ‘highly gratifying’.
J. The Old Tavern
Below you is Matlock Bath, a quirky tourist town with an incredibly rich and interesting history. A pretty spa town, set amongst geological splendour, Matlock Bath has, over the last 200 years, inspired countless poems and paintings by some of the nation’s greatest artists. Both Lord Byron and Mary Shelley likened the area to ‘alpine Switzerland’ and the nickname, ‘little Switzerland’ has stuck ever since. Once an exclusive bathing resort, Matlock Bath attracted the likes of Princess Victoria, Jane Austen, JMW Turner, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Daniel Defoe and John Betjeman - to name but a few.
Prior to the end of the 17th Century, Matlock Bath did not exist. At this time this area was known as Matlock wood and was sparsely populated by families working in lead mining and farming. However at the end of the 17th century, visitors began to arrive here, attracted by the claims that a primitive bath, supplied by a natural spring, possessed healing properties. Intrepid travellers were also drawn to the ‘uncultivated wilderness’ of the dale. Such landscapes were becoming increasingly popular during this era. Jane Austen captures this sentiment perfectly in her famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, when she writes, “surely the southern counties have nothing to compare to the wild and untamed beauty of the peaks.” Tired of the restrained, formal gardens of the past, people yearned to get closer to nature. Matlock Bath’s rugged landscape answered this desire.
Throughout the 18th century it was believed that mineral-rich waters possessed healing properties and there was a rising demand for such water, both to drink and to bathe in. Not only did Matlock Bath have such water in abundance, but it was fortunate enough to possess natural thermal springs. Although the thermal temperatures couldn’t compete with those of Bath or Buxton, they were enough to elevate Matlock Bath into a substantial spa town, with accompanying hotels and leisure grounds that are still in use today.
K. Upper Towers
The white, castellated, gothic style building you see, is now a private residence and therefore public access is not permitted. It was built in l830 and originally had one tower where beer was served to local miners. The other two towers were added at a later date and it now has the novelty of five round rooms.
In Regency and Victorian illustrations of Matlock Bath, the single tower is seen as a dramatic and romanticised structure within the ‘sublime’ setting of the Matlock gorge. Local author, William Adam, who wrote the famous guidebook 'Gem of the Peak' considered the Upper Tower 'to be very conspicuous'.
Upper Towers was said to have been built on a mine hillock presumably referencing the Great Rutland Cavern-Nestus Mine. The owner of the Heights at that time was Mr. Jonathan Gilbert. He had previously built Lower Towers in 1808, further down the hillside, when it too was part of the estate. Lower Towers along with other land was sold off as the hillside above the village was developed with villas and other residential property.
By 1838 the Upper Towers was described as a house, being built in the 'Castellated Style' and "with every convenience suitable for a small family". Over the years many families who owned, developed and enhanced the estate have lived here. In the early days it must have been a very arduous lifestyle with everything for daily life having to be brought up the hill from the Village. Water was supplied from the percolating water in the cavern… natural mineral water! The structure has seen improvements, and renovations on a number of occasions, the last time being in 1980 following conservation work which improved the access leading up to the building from West Lodge.
L. Old Mine Shaft (behind the summerhouse)
Lead found in these very mines was discovered and exploited by humans. How long this area has been mined for lead, we simply don’t know - but it is undoubtedly the Peak District’s oldest industry. How did people know that it was here? It was easy – lead could be found in the soil and picked up by hand. The earliest evidence we have of lead mining dates back to the Roman occupation. The Romans loved their lead: they used it for pipes, makeup, jewellery, sarcophagi, ballistics and even cooking pots and wine goblets.
The Romans were definitely mining here in Matlock, because two lead bars - known as ‘pigs’ – have been found bearing the names of two famous Roman emperors: one Claudius, the other Hadrian.
Sadly, any other evidence of Roman mining has all but been destroyed as new mines took their place. Lead mining was so important to the local economy, that Derbyshire had it’s own unique set of industry laws. For example, if you wanted to open up your own lead mine on this hill after the twelfth century, you would need permission from the Barmote Court in Wirksworth. The Barmaster would come to survey the spot that you wanted to mine. If he was satisfied that no other mining work was taking place here, then he would grant you permission to sink a shaft and begin.
As Matlock Bath began to flourish as a bathing resort, lead mining in the area was on the decline. But instead of being closed and forgotten, these mines became assets to the tourism business. Entrepreneurial owners of the estate formally opened the mines as, ‘show caves’ with ex-lead miners taking upon themselves the role of cavern guides. The Rutland Cavern behind you was one of the earliest show caves to be opened in 1810. Hugely popular, by 1847 there were 13 show caves in Matlock Bath alone. Two of the 13 original show caves are located here, at The Heights of Abraham.
M. Wolfe's View
You are looking upon Wolfe View, named after General James Wolfe, who led the British army to victory over the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, 1759. Due to the similarity between Masson Hill and the Quebec Plains, this estate was given the name the Heights of Abraham in honour of that victory. Wolfe View is named in tribute to the General who lost his life in this pivotal battle for Canada.
From this dizzyingly steep height, you can see straight down the line of the cable cars to the village and Matlock Bath railway station. Completed in 1984, passing over the main A6 road, the River Derwent and the railway line, the cable cars enabled the Heights of Abraham to regain its position as a major tourist destination.
Going back to 1847 when the railway arrived, the London to Manchester line introduced monster excursions with huge groups of factory workers flocking from the surrounding industrial cities. They disembarked at Matlock Bath and walked up the zig-zag paths to the Victoria Prospect Tower which gave visitors spectacular 360-degree views of the Derwent Valley.
The closure of the railway line in the 1960’s had a significant impact on the visitor numbers, and the loss of income lead to the lack of maintenance to the estate.
N. Victoria Prospect Tower
Before you is the Victoria Prospect Tower, a 'viewing station' created for Victorian visitors which was completed in 1844 to take advantage of the panoramic views.
The construction of the tower helped provide work for unemployed miners when lead mining was in decline. It now stands as an icon to tourism as the hillside changed from a site of industrial activity to one developed as a popular 'pleasure garden' for visitors to enjoy.
Local stone is used in its construction, which stands 244 metres (800ft) above sea level. It is 12.2 metres (40ft) high and has 54 steps.
At the beginning of the 1970’s, The Heights of Abraham was in decline. The original paths that led visitors from the village to the summit were beginning to erode, the steps of the Victoria Prospect Tower were badly worn; in fact, the whole estate, once a world-famous pleasure ground, was in desperate need of restoration. But there was no money to do this and it was put up for sale.
In 1974 the present owners took over the management of the estate. With a vision for the future and a belief in tourism and conservation, work started on developing a plan of restoration. For the venue to recapture its former glory a large investment would be required to maintain the woodland and repair the buildings and paths.
Investment in infrastructure went ahead, but as the years went by, the thought of hiking up the steep hill to reach the Heights was too daunting for many potential visitors. A solution was needed to overcome this barrier.
Our solution was the cable cars that brought you here today, and their installation in 1984 has been key to our present-day success. Millions of guests have flown across the Derwent Valley, assisted by a team of highly qualified engineers who ensure that the cars run smoothly over the cable towers, the highest of which is equivalent to the height of ten double decker buses.
Continual investment in every aspect of the estate ensures that the Heights continues to welcome and enthral visitors from all over the world.