Category Archives: The Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Biker’s spa

Royal Well, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

Royal Well, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

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:

Further along the valley, the Temple Hotel [] 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

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

“The most perfect of all station houses”

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (1976)

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (1976)

The 2012 version of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings list headlined Wingfield Station, Derbyshire of 1840, by Francis Thompson (1808-1895), one of the very first architects to specialise in designing railway buildings:

The Transport Trust considers that “Francis Thompson’s best work was on the North Midland Railway, between Derby and Leeds”, yet all the others have disappeared, apart from one small isolated structure at Chesterfield and his Railway Village, next to the main station in Derby.

Wingfield Station appeared, transformed into a suburban villa, in a supplement to John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture.

As long ago as 1950 Christian Barman, author of the pioneer study An Introduction to Railway Architecture, described it as “the most perfect of all station houses”.

Passenger services ceased in 1967, but trains still thunder past twenty-four hours a day:  the North Midland line remains a major trunk route between Sheffield and London, and between the North East and South West of England.

Soon after the station closed to passengers it was bought as a residence, but the passing trains must have made life intolerable.  For several decades the building has simply been left to rot, and lead thefts have led to extensive water damage.

The Victorian Society commentary unequivocally lays the blame for the dire condition of this beautiful little building on neglect by the private owner and negligence by the local planning authority, Amber Valley Council:  “The building has seen too much time go by to wait any longer. The council needs to take action urgently:  compulsory purchase looks to be the only answer.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the national publicity will lead to a burst of energy from a cash-strapped council.

Even more interesting will be the search for a practical use for an elegant station building with too many trains and no passengers.

Update:  At last, moves are afoot to rescue this long-neglected and important building:

Further update:  The best news ever about Wingfield Station is that it’s been handed over to the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust:

Going nowhere anytime soon

National Tramway Museum, Crich: Derbyshire:  Sheffield 189 (running in 1968)

National Tramway Museum, Crich: Derbyshire: Sheffield 189 (running in 1968)

The last time I had a chance to indulge my inner anorak talking to someone from the National Tramway Museum, Crich I made a point of asking why, whenever I visit the museum, I never get the chance to ride on the dignified, elegant Sheffield trams I remember from my childhood.

The superbly restored Sheffield 74 operates quite often, but otherwise the Sheffield vehicles in the collection stay in the depot.

The two Crich volunteers, who themselves happen to come from Sheffield, looked a little shamefaced, and said they were itching to get their hands on repairing and restoring Sheffield’s Last Tram, the Roberts car 510, which had a number of technical defects and needed a complete overhaul:  it has since been beautifully restored and returned to the rails on May 17th 2014:

But what, I asked, about the two most representative Sheffield trams, the Standard 189 and the Improved Standard (similar but with curves) 264?

It seems that they both have serious bodywork defects.  The frames are creaking and they aren’t safe to run.

I felt like Dame Edith Evans, who refused to play Lady Macbeth because, she said, there were some pages missing from Shakespeare’s script:  “Why does she go mad?  She was perfectly all right at dinner.”

Both these trams came to Crich in 1960, straight from the streets.  They were perfectly all right when they left Sheffield.

When the museum began running services in 1964, those trams that were already in running order were the mainstay of operations.

Gradually, new restorations joined the fleet, and the Sheffield standard trams were parked up indefinitely.

In fact, the humid climatic conditions at Crich mean that even over a winter, trams stored in the depots attract damaging amounts of damp, and the lower-deck panels of 189 have suffered particularly badly:

There’s an additional irony.  264, which always ran in the mid-1930s cream-and-blue livery, has been repainted twice since it reached Crich.  189, on the other hand, has the older, elaborate, traditional Prussian blue livery that dates back much further.

As such, it was rarely if ever repainted after it was built in 1934.  Once the elaborate lining and lettering had been completed, such trams were given many layers of varnish.  Every few years, the varnish was sanded down and reapplied.

So, my Crich contacts told me, the actual paintwork of 189 is a historical artefact, and as such should be preserved intact.

The fact is that Crich, like almost all museums, has far more exhibits than it can show at once.  But its pioneering raison d’être from the early 1960s onwards was to run as a working line, alongside the early preserved railways like the Talyllyn and the Bluebell.

So I hope that before I become completely doddery I’ll have the chance to catch an orthodox second-generation Sheffield tram, as I used to do when I went to school in the 1950s.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see  There is a detailed and richly illustrated history of the museum at, and

Three new handles and two new heads

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Sheffield 74

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Sheffield 74

As part of its mission to show fully the evolution of British railed street transport, the National Tramway Museum has carried out some remarkable restorations.  Indeed, some of the restorations are almost reconstructions.

One of the oddest-looking stages in the development of the British tramcar from an electrified, railed, double-ended horse bus to a suitable vehicle for speedy, weather-proof mass transportation is illustrated by the impeccable example of Sheffield 74, dating from 1900 but displayed in its late Edwardian condition.

It’s fundamentally a four-wheeled open-top tram, but with the upper deck enclosed in a substantial and shapely top cover.  However, in order to sit in sheltered state upstairs, you have to brave the icy blast climbing up and down the stairs from the platform.

It was a half-way house, dictated by the nervousness of designers and – more significantly – the Board of Trade about the feasibility of extending an upper deck out over the platform.

Fairly quickly those concerns were dealt with, and most British double-deck trams from the First World War onwards had a full-length double deck, commonly fully enclosed by glass:  [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool].

Sheffield 74 went through a number of metamorphoses, including transfer to Gateshead, where it ran until the early 1950s.  It must have looked as we now see it for only a few years.

When I first rode on the restored 74, I asked one of the crew how much was actually original.  The answer was identical to the answer I got when I asked about a tram at the Birkenhead Tramway – only the lower saloon, which in this case survived in Gateshead as a garden shed.

In the restoration of Sheffield 74, the top deck was taken from another Sheffield tram, 218, with parts from a third, 215, and the chassis (in tramway jargon, the truck) is from Leeds and the motors from Blackpool.  Most of the rest is, apparently, a superbly crafted fabrication.

The wizards of the Crich workshops have performed this feat time and time again – Derby 1 (formerly a summer house), Chesterfield 7 (a cottage), Leicester 76 (a cricket pavilion).  Some others, such as the Leeds trams 345 and 399 and the Liverpool Green Goddess 869, stood derelict for so long that they had to be fully rebuilt to be fit for passenger service.

What you see is not always what you got in vehicle restoration:  sometimes the shining monster is back-restored from a later design (like some of the locomotives currently emerging at Didcot) or even built totally from scratch, like the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado.

But up to now, the workshops at Crich and the other British preserved tramways have always ensured that what you see is built round something original, and what you get is at least as good as new.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see

Chapel on the hill

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

A few weeks ago I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Friendless Churches – not something I do every year, but an opportunity to see and photograph the immaculate restoration of the Chapel of St John the Baptist, Matlock Bath, designed by Guy Dawber (1861-1938) for Mrs Louisa Sophia Harris, who lived at The Rocks, on the cliffside above Artists’ Corner in Matlock Dale.

Mrs Harris disliked the liturgical practices of the vicar of St Giles’, Matlock, and objected to his refusal to memorialise her pet dog, so she erected her own private Anglo-Catholic chapel at the end of her garden in 1897.

St John’s Chapel is a delightful architectural composition, its simplicity relieved by the oriel window and bell turret that punctuate its setting on the side of the cliff.

It’s also a gem of Arts & Crafts design, with stained glass by Louis Davis (1860-1941), plasterwork, embellished with painted vines and individually-modelled swallows, by George Bankart (1866-1929) and a painted altarpiece by John Cooke.  The rood screen, and probably the other interior fittings, were designed by Guy Dawber.

After many years of neglect and wanton vandalism, the chapel was vested in the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2002, and they have spent some £300,000 returning it to immaculate condition.

The Friends’ website is at, which is the portal for gaining access to their properties.  There is an introduction to the Friends by the Secretary, Matthew Saunders, at

The AGM took place at Masson Farm [] and included a high-quality afternoon tea with a view to match.

You know you’re at an upscale AGM when someone sends apologies for absence because they’re helping to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.


Duke’s Dome

Devonshire Campus, University of Derby (former Devonshire Royal Hospital), Buxton, Derbyshire

Devonshire Campus, University of Derby (former Devonshire Royal Hospital), Buxton, Derbyshire

Any modern tourist resort needs a car park.  A Victorian resort needed a railway station.  In the days of coach-travel, stables were essential.

When the 5th Duke of Devonshire developed the spa at Buxton, he commissioned the architect John Carr of York also to build a commodious stable block on the hill at the back of the Crescent (1780-90).

The Stables (1785-1796) was a huge octagonal building accommodating 110 horses and sixty coaches, with a circular covered gallery around the internal courtyard for exercising.  Ostlers and grooms were accommodated above the horses, to take advantage of their body heat.

On top of the capital cost of the Crescent – £38,601 18s 4d – the Stables cost the Duke a further £40,000.

The imminent arrival of the railway in 1863 indicated that the Stables would soon be redundant, and the Seventh Duke allowed two-thirds of the building to be converted by the Buxton Bath Charity “for the use of the sick poor” by the Chatsworth estate-architect Henry Currey in 1859.

Subsequently the courtyard was enclosed in 1881-2 by the superb 156ft-diameter dome – the largest in the world at the time of construction – by the Buxton architect Robert Rippon Duke (1817-1909).

Robert Rippon Duke is one of those minor Victorian architects who never made a national reputation, but stamped his identity on a particular locality.  His life is chronicled in an admirable biography by Mike Langham & Colin Wells, The Architect of Victorian Buxton:  a biography of Robert Rippon Duke, “the Duke of Buxton” (Derbyshire Library Service 1996).

The hospital was renamed the Devonshire Royal Hospital in 1934, and continued to offer hydropathic treatments until 2000.

After it closed, the University of Derby took over the site, restored and converted the building as reopened it as the Devonshire Campus in 2003.

The dome is open to the public and, because the campus houses the faculties of hospitality and what are described as culinary arts, there’s always a cup of coffee to be had at Bistro 44, and serious food at the Fine Dine Restaurant  Be sure to book.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The shortest way, or the prettiest

L&NWR Station, Buxton, Derbyshire

L&NWR Station, Buxton, Derbyshire

At one time, you had a choice of rail routes to travel between Buxton and Manchester.

As a result of farcical Victorian competition, there were two Buxton stations, served by two companies, running between Buxton and Manchester by completely different routes.

The London & North Western service, which survives, took a reasonably obvious way over the hills to Whaley Bridge and Hazel Grove, where it joined the main line through Stockport to Manchester.

The Midland route, which was a by-product of that company’s desperate dash to find an independent route from Derby to Manchester, dived through deep Derbyshire limestone dales and a lengthy, 1½-mile long tunnel at Dove Holes, to link with the Cheshire Lines into Manchester Central.

Though the Midland line passenger service closed in 1967, almost all of the track is still in place for use by mineral trains.  Only the approach tracks into Buxton and the Midland station have gone, replaced by the town’s inner relief road.

Present-day trains run into the North Western platforms, and though the train-shed roof has been demolished, the distinctive gable with its Crystal Palace fanlight window remains.  The adjacent Midland station was a mirror-image of this.

The shape of the window hints at the involvement of Sir Joseph Paxton, the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener and a Midland Railway director.  It seems that the Duke, as principal landowner, insisted that the two stations should sit harmoniously side-by-side, and Paxton was instructed to advise the architect, John Smith.

Indeed, when the two companies opened on May 30th 1863 it seems that the inaugural dinners were scheduled to begin an hour apart.  Presumably, Paxton turned up to both, and got two starters and only one pudding.

A full and well-illustrated account of the Buxton Midland station can be found at

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Buxton’s Crescent

Assembly Room, former Great Hotel, The Crescent, Buxton, Derbyshire

Assembly Room, former Great Hotel, The Crescent, Buxton, Derbyshire

The major health-resort of the Roman Empire was Aquae Sulis, which we know simply as Bath.  The second most important was Aquae Arnemetiae, high in the bleak Derbyshire hills, which is now the town of Buxton.

Whereas the spring-water of Bath steams at a temperature of 116°F, Buxton water is comparatively tepid at 81-2°F.  If you’re in Buxton, you don’t have to buy the stuff in a bottle;  you can simply fill your flask for free at St Ann’s Well opposite the Crescent.

The fifth Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), taciturn husband of the effervescent Georgiana (respectively played by Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess, 2008), reputedly used a single year’s profits from his copper-mine at Ecton, Staffordshire, to set up Buxton as a rival to Bath.

He employed the architect John Carr of York from 1780 to 1790 to build a crescent of hotels and lodging-houses, resembling John Wood II’s Royal Crescent at Bath.  Whereas John Wood had the advantage of an eminence overlooking the Avon valley and sufficient space for his expansive half-ellipse of thirty residences, Carr had to incorporate the thermal spring on a cramped site at the bottom of a steep hill.

Carr made the best of it, and designed a semicircular crescent with an arcade that offers protection in a town that famously catches the worst of the weather at every season.  Because of its low-lying position, the building is visible from all angles, especially by arriving travellers, so the cornice continues right round the building, hiding all the roof features except the cruciform chimney-stacks.

From no viewpoint is it apparent that the two return blocks are asymmetrical:  the east wing has seven bays, while the west has only five.  The wedge-shaped lodging houses are arranged with three storeys facing into the Crescent and four behind, so that the arrangement of rooms and staircases is curious and complex, to maximise the flexibility of accommodation for first- and second-class guests.

John Carr also gave Buxton, for the first time in its history, an imposing formal assembly room as part of the Great Hotel in the eastern pavilion.  Carr’s command of three-dimensional planning challenged his masons:  he was obliged to make a full-size model of the assembly room staircase which sits within the spandrel where the curved south wall joins the rectangular east wing.

This beautiful Adamesque assembly room with plasterwork by James Henderson Jnr of York was, in the 1970s, beautifully restored as the local branch library, until it became clear that the weight of the books and bookcases was threatening the stability of the floor.  The library was quickly removed, and from 1993 onwards the rest of the building gradually fell derelict.

The whole exterior of the Crescent has been restored, but schemes to renew the interior and bring the building back into use have repeatedly stalled.  The latest project is detailed at

The Buxton Crescent has stood empty for too long.  It’s a building that deserves to be enjoyed.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Mary, Queen of Scots slept here

Old Hall Hotel, Buxton, Derbyshire

Old Hall Hotel, Buxton, Derbyshire

When I lectured to the Cavendish Decorative & Fine Arts Society in Buxton [], I was taken for an enjoyable lunch to the Old Hall Hotel [], where the food was as excellent as the service was leisurely.  I chose wild boar burger which, to be honest, tasted much like any other hand-made burger – very good indeed.

The Old Hall is at the heart of historic Buxton.  It stands on the site of the Roman bath and medieval holy well, and was constructed as a typical Midland four-storey high house [compare with North Lees Hall, Hathersage] by George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury who recovered from an attack of gout after trying the “baynes of Buckstones” in 1569.  It had a battlemented roof and contained a great chamber and lodgings for up to thirty guests.

Here he entertained most of the greatest names in Elizabethan politics – Lord Burghley (1575), Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (five times between 1576 and 1584) and his older brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick (1577).  Queen Elizabeth herself never travelled this far north, but did receive a delivery of Buxton water, which gave her no benefit:  it was said not to travel well.

Lord Shrewsbury was the fourth husband of the formidable Bess of Hardwick and the custodian of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here nine times between 1573 and 1584.  Caught between his domineering wife, the duplicitous Scottish queen and the volatile English one, he lived an unenviable life.

Buxton Old Hall was substantially rebuilt in 1670 and again in the late eighteenth century, but its core survives within the present-day hotel, as becomes obvious when you move from room to room through thick walls and odd doorways.

Celia Fiennes hated it when she visited in 1697:

Its the largest house in the place tho’ not very good… the beer they allow at the meales is so bad that very little can be dranke…if you have not Company enough of your own to fill a room they will be ready to put others into the same chamber, and sometymes they are so crowded that three must lye in a bed;  few people stay above two or three nights its so inconvenient:  we staid two nights by reason one of our Company was ill but it was sore against our wills, for there is no peace or quiet…

Needless to say, it’s much improved over the past three hundred-odd years.  They take their time over the boar burgers, and the result is worth waiting for.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

One notch after another

Ultimate Driving Experience, National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire

My friend John from the Isle of Man had the time of his life learning to drive a tram at the National Tramway Museum, Crich.

The Ultimate Driving Experience [] was a retirement present from his colleagues.  I had the privilege of being the photographer, which brought with it the challenge of working out how to capture someone driving a moving vehicle fitted with a windscreen.

John was superbly looked after from start to finish by his instructors Nigel and Paul.  Paul is a superlative driving instructor, and Nigel (nominally the conductor) kept us interested and informed and patiently answered our questions throughout the day.

The day starts, over a cup of coffee, with classroom instruction.  John needed to know one end of a tram from the other, as it were, and to be aware of the safety requirements of steering fifteen tons of tram along predestinate grooves.  (Nigel told us that a recent visitor actually asked him how you steer a tram.)

John’s chosen Blackpool tram was in the sick bay, so he was given a huge, bosomy Liverpool “Green Goddess”, a shiny powerful beast that hadn’t been out of the depot for some weeks and took a certain amount of getting going.  At one point we had to call the Crich equivalent of the AA when 869 mysteriously parked itself on the main line and refused to budge.

I was grateful to be allowed to listen in on the entire day so that I learnt a lot that I’d never realised about these ponderous vehicles.

The technology, for instance, is at once simple and complicated;  the machinery is both robust and extremely delicate.  Six hundred volts moving from wire to rail through a wood, steel and glass double-deck vehicle is not to be messed with.  Direct current behaves in a different way to the alternating current we use at home.

If you treat the tram properly, John was told, it’s really quite easy to move;  if you’re uncertain, there can be smoke and bangs and flashes – and you can cause damage that takes time and money to put right.  It very rarely happens.

I learned, watching and listening to Paul’s meticulous instruction and encouragement, that driving a tram is much more about coasting and momentum than I’d imagined.  As with a car, you keep your foot off the throttle as much as you can.

Making it move is one thing;  stopping it is another.  This is why the regular Crich tram-drivers have one or more of seven different licences, largely because of the variety of braking systems in the historic fleet.

We were hospitably received by this exceptionally professional museum – coffee in the morning, lunch, and then more coffee at the end of the day, constant friendly attention, the run of the museum both on foot and in our own big green tram.  We arrived at 10 am and left at 5 pm, and Paul and Nigel showed no haste to see us off.

I know more about trams and Crich than I’d have learned any other way, and – thanks to his former colleagues – John has another skill to add to his CV.