Driving through the limestone gorge along the A6 through Matlock Bath always has a feeling of being on holiday.
The place has in fact been a resort since the end of the seventeenth century, when a mineral spring on the hillside was developed for the growing fashion for cold-bathing that had already fostered the growth of new spas such as Harrogate, Scarborough and Tunbridge Wells.
This spring still feeds into a grotto at the back of a public car-park that occupies the site of the Old Bath Hotel, latterly the Royal Hotel, which burnt down in 1929.
The New Bath Hotel of 1762-7 remained a hotel where the basement bathing pool is supplied with tepid thermal water from the original spring, until it suddenly closed in July 2012: http://www.matlockmercury.co.uk/news/local-news/employees-and-guests-face-uncertainty-as-hotel-goes-into-liquidation-1-4731341.
Further along the valley, the Temple Hotel [http://www.templehotel.co.uk] was built in 1786 alongside the Fountain Baths, which had opened eight years previously.
A fourth hotel, known simply as the Hotel or Great Hotel, proved overambitious, and was subdivided in the 1790s into a terrace which became Museum Parade, so named after Mawe’s Old Museum which took over the enormous dining-room.
In days gone by, the appeal of Matlock Bath was that it wasn’t Buxton. Though Buxton was anything but grand until the 5th Duke of Devonshire tried to turn it into Bath in the late eighteenth century [see Mary, Queen of Scots slept here, Buxton’s Crescent and Duke’s Dome], Matlock Bath, in a dark gorge with hardly any road access, was much more secluded.
Phyllis Hembry, the historian of British spas, described the late eighteenth-century lifestyle: “…the company…had their meals at 1s each in common ‘in a very sociable manner’; they dined at 2 pm and had supper at 8 pm and were free to drink as they pleased. The evening concluded with dancing or card-playing. Visitors inclined to exercise could take the ferry near the Old Bath, rowed by Walker the boatman, to the other river bank where he had made a Lovers’ Walk.”
Indeed, Dr Hembry relates, when the teenage 5th Duke of Rutland turned up with some friends at the end of the season in 1796 he had the place to himself.
Nowadays the main road runs through the dale, and at weekends it’s the resort of bikers, whose gleaming machines are lined up outside the cafés and chip-shops. The black leather gear may look intimidating, but you may be sure the people inside are entirely respectable.
Indeed, when my mate Richard bid at a fantasy auction for a ride on a Harley Davison, he found himself whisked off to Matlock Bath for a greasy-spoon breakfast by a hospital consultant.
There’s a particularly well-constructed website of Matlock and Matlock Bath history at http://www.andrewsgen.com/matlock/index.htm.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.