Seven Magnificent Views
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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. For more about this, we recommend you walk up to View B and listen to the accompanying talk.
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.
Sadly all evidence of the Druid’s presence on Riber Hill was lost during in the late 19th century. As a deeply religious man, Smedley has been accused of deliberately destroying the Druid’s alter and possibly an ancient stone circle, because it conflicted with his own spiritual beliefs. But the evidence for this is contradictory and there is no definite proof against him. Whatever the truth, the loss of this ancient place of worship is great. All we have left of the Druid’s presence is a stone chair which now sits on private property, locally.
Now 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 sled 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!
Each year, at their summer fair, Starkholmes Village commemorate Matlock’s role in the war with a flyover of a World War 2 plane. For many, this is an emotional moment.
B: Matlock (From Masson Hill)
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 of the planet, 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. If you want to see their fossilized remains, look for them in the anti-chamber of our Masson Cave tour.
Let your gaze travel to the left, to the town of Matlock. Even from this distance you can probably tell that it is a later development to its Georgian sister. While Matlock Bath flourished as a bathing resort and grew into an industrial powerhouse, Matlock remained a relatively small collection of settlements. Until John Smedley came along. His private home, Riber Castle, is certainly one of the most striking landmarks in Matlock Dale, but look carefully at the centre of the town 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 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.
Look up from here to the skyline and you should be able to spot the war Memorial Tower, Crich Stand, erected in 1923. From this height on a clear day, it is said that you can see the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire. This part of Crich was certainly a favourite viewing spot of the author DH Lawrence, who said, “I know that view better than any in the world.”
C: Cromford (From Treetops Visitor Centre)
You are now standing on Masson Hill and if you look south you will see Cromford Moor with a receiver tower at the top. Better known as Barrel Edge, this hill is a magnet for outdoor activity enthusiasts. Mountain bikers, hikers, horse riders, orienteers and walkers make use of the various footpaths and bridleways, enjoying the sensational views.
Barrel Edge is particularly famous for an outcrop of natural gritstone known as Black Rocks. Rising dramatically out of the hilltop, 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 by Beeching 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.
On the far side of Barrel edge is 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. To learn more about Derbyshire’s lead mining, we recommend visiting our exhibition here, The Long View.
Let your eyes travel down from the receiver tower and 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, no less, 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 'up management' skills; able to keep his financial backers happy. He also succeeded in marshalling a large workforce, putting in place a successful system of management. For a few decades at least, Cromford was the Silicon Valley of its time and Arkwright, comparable to the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
D: The Savage Garden (From The Summer House)
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. It is easily found here, washed up along the banks of the River Derwent.
This estate was first formed after the Matlock Enclosure Act of 1784. It was given the name, The Heights of Abraham, after a famous British victory in Quebec during the Seven Years War. For more details about this history and its name, we recommend you read our guide book which is on sale in both our gift shops.
The Heights of Abraham was developed into a pleasure ground for the new 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, as you will discover on the talk in View E, the lead deposits declined and the miners realised that there was a whole new way in which they could make money.
You are following in the footsteps of royalty. Before she was queen, Princess Victoria visited Matlock Bath in 1844 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’. Why not follow the Grand Duke’s footsteps and take the Rutland Cavern Tour yourself? Make sure to look out for the sparkling crystals of fluorspar, calcite and quartz that are embedded in the walls all round the cave: it is a magical place.
E: Matlock Bath (From The 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 inspired countless poems and paintings by some of the nation’s greatest artists, over the last 200 years. 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 Queen Victoria, Jane Austen, JMW Turner, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Daniel Defoe and John Betjeman - to name but a few.
At the end of the 17th Century, Matlock Bath did not exist. At this time this area was known as Matlockwood 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 travelers 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.
It was important for spa resorts to provide publicly accessible spaces for patients and visitors to take exercise. And so Lover’s Walk was created: carved out of the natural landscape, it follows the line of the Derwent River with winding paths, rocks and natural vistas. This delighted a public who were embracing the ‘new English’ style of landscaping championed by the likes of Capability Brown.
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 ex-lead miners formally opened the mines as, ‘show caves’ 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. We hope you have time to enjoy the guided tours both at the Rutland and the Masson Caverns. Both caves are very different in character and each has its own unique geological features and mining history.
F: The Cable Cars (From Wolfe Platform)
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 of Matlock Bath. 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.
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.
Was this solution… a cable car?
Today’s cable car is key to our present-day success, and the continual investment in every aspect of the estate ensures that the Heights continues to welcome and enthrall visitors from all over the world.
You may also be interested to know that since the railway was re-opened as a branch line, it has become a thriving service from Matlock to Derby and on to Nottingham, and to support it our visitors who arrive by train are given a 20% discount.
G: High Tor (From Tinker’s Shaft)
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, releasing molten liquids from Crich, 7 miles away. The liquids poured through the cracks until they reached here and gushed into the ancient cave system underneath your feet. As the molten liquids cooled down, it solidified into long, thick veins of lead. Millions of years later, these veins were discovered by miners. For diagrams and more detailed information on the geology of this area, please read our display at the top of Tinker’s shaft.
The greatest change to this landscape, however, was yet to come. Between 100,000 - 80,000 years ago this planet experienced a major ice age which entirely altered the scenery around you. Look at the sheer cliff face on the other side of the river, called High Tor. Before this great ice age, this didn’t exist. This hill once joined High Tor in one landmass and the River Derwent flowed much higher. But when the ice arrived it bulldozed its way through this landscape, carving out Matlock Dale, dividing Masson Hill from High Tor and changing the course of the river. The result, as you can see, is spectacular. These dramatic cliffs are the jewels in Matlock’s crown. Their majestic beauty are a major draw card, causing visitors to see, exclaim and wonder.
The lead was eventually discovered and exploited by humans. How did people know that it was here? It was easy – lead could be found in the soil and picked up by hand. How long this area has been mined for lead, we simply don’t know - but it is undoubtedly the Peak District’s oldest industry. 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. There is a theory that rampant lead poisoning led to the downfall of the Roman Empire.
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.
Tinker’s shaft was sunk in the 1670’s but we don’t know the names of the miners responsible. By this time the top of this hill would have looked like an industrial wasteland. Mineshafts, cart tracks and mounds of waste material up to 20 foot high would have scarred the hill. All the trees would have been cut down to make stemples: crossbars of wood wedged into the shaft to provide steps down to the miners. Lead mining may have been ugly, but without it, many of the pretty villages you will find in Derbyshire simply wouldn’t have existed without it. It was the lifeblood that ran in the veins of this county for centuries.