Development of the Matlock Baths

Wolley’s Well

Just over a mile SSW of St Giles’ Church, thermal springs at a constant 20 degrees C, rich in calcium (& also containing other minerals including magnesium sulphate and sodium chloride), emerge from the limestone (in what was then Matlock wood; today’s Matlock Bath) on the western hillside of the Derwent valley. The warm, acidic volcanic springs, which originate at a depth of about 2000 feet, contain dissolved calcium carbonate (as bicarbonate). On emerging at the cooler surface, it decomposes to re-deposit calcite as a fine layer. This process of calcification may be used on everyday objects, which can be turned into or – more precisely – covered with stone; hence the popularity of Matlock Bath’s petrifying wells through the Victorian period to the 1960s. Such deposits of calcium carbonate may sometimes be left on vegetation, particularly moss, which eventually rots away to leave a spongy-looking rock known as tufa. This is likely to be the process by which Matlock Bath’s tufa bank has been formed. The tufa may be seen from the side of the small pool between the A6 and Temple Road car park.

During the 17th century, one of these tufa springs – occupying the site of today’s grotto on the upper level of Temple Road car park – was used for bathing by the Wolley family (then Lords of the Manor). The grotto is inscribed ‘Founded 1696’, a reference to the construction of a lead-lined bath (essentially a wooden trough) by a group of freeholders, including George Wragg. The bath was fed by the spring and large enough to accommodate ten people. In 1698, Wragg was granted the lease and offered visitors accommodation at his nearby farm (now demolished). It was claimed that the water was good for one’s inside if one drank it, or for one’s outside if one bathed in it. Thus began the commercial development of the bath at Matlock wood.

The Old Bath and the New Bath

The lease was later acquired by Smith & Pennel of Nottingham, who constructed a complex of buildings on the site; together with improved access in 1745, by way of a carriageway from Cromford Bridge. Sections of the Smith-Pennel route, one of which ran in front of today’s New Bath Hotel at a higher level than the A6, can still be traced. It was during 1745 that another thermal spring (to the south of the Wolley’s Well spring) was used to feed a ‘new bath’ (hence the subsequent New Bath Hotel; c. 1750), although it is not clear to what extent Smith & Pennel were involved in that project. The outdoor swimming pool at the New Bath Hotel was re-opened to swimmers on 21st June 2019 as part of the recent renovations. The ‘new bath’ (indoor pool), complete with its barrel roof, survives in the basement of the modern hotel. It was in use until at least the 1990s, but is currently (2022) awaiting refurbishment. After the opening of the ‘New Bath’, the original complex became known as the ‘Old Bath’; hence the Old Bath Hotel, which actually consisted of several buildings, most of which were demolished in 1865. However, the former coachmen’s block survives as the function room of The Fishpond Hotel. The Old Bath’s replacement, the Royal Hotel, was built around 1878 at the southern end of the site, with the ‘grotto’ being constructed over the original thermal spring as a feature within the gardens. Sadly, the Royal was destroyed by fire in 1929.

The Emergence of Matlock Bath

The 18th century had also seen the opening of a couple of pleasure grounds: The Lovers’ Walks (c. 1742, then accessed by ferry) and Stephen Simpson’s Heights of Abraham (*i) (1784); as well as a third bath (*ii), established by Simpson c.1786. During the 1780s, Simpson also acquired the New Inn (*iii) (later Hodgkinson’s Hotel), which had opened some ten years earlier. George Vernon purchased the Simpson estate in 1797 and added further buildings, whose later features include the large and very prominent first-floor window (c. 1830) of the former Museum guest house. The latter took its name from an early 19th C shop – confusingly called a museum – belonging to geologist John Mawe. The shop was one of a number selling rock specimens and souvenirs crafted from spar obtained from old lead workings; a local industry since 1760. With the completion of South Parade in 1801, the growing resort – now known as Matlock Bath – was clearly the dominant centre in the Matlock area, able to accommodate 400 visitors.

(*i) The Heights of Abraham are said to be named by an officer who fought under General Wolfe on Quebec’s Plain of Abraham in 1759. Upper Tower House, the castle-like residence associated with the Heights, dates from c.1830.

(*ii) Later named the Fountain Bath, this attraction occupied the site of today’s Aquarium, which opened as a swimming pool in 1882. From 1883, hydropathic treatment in private rooms was being offered at the establishment, which was advertised as Matlock Bath Hydro.

(*iii) The New Inn was renamed Hodgkinson’s Hotel around 1830, when the tenant (later the owner) was Job Hodgkinson.

A Church, a Tower and a Railway Station

However, residents and visitors wishing to attend a Sunday service at St Giles’, Matlock (now Old Matlock), would not only have to walk there, but also cross the river by boat. This unsatisfactory situation was rectified with the opening of Matlock Bath’s Holy Trinity Church in 1842. Over the next four decades, the village continued to grow. The Victoria Prospect Tower, built to promote the Heights of Abraham* in 1844, was followed five years later by the arrival of the railway which attracted a different sort of visitor – the day tripper – prompting expansion northwards towards the station, and up the hillside served by Holme Road. The station building was designed in the Swiss chalet style to reflect the area’s ‘Little Switzerland’ image** and the platforms were particularly long in order to accommodate excursion trains. The Midland Hotel (1850s), North Parade, formerly Derwent Parade (from 1852), the Wesleyan Chapel (1862) and Clarence House Hydro (1871) up today’s Holme Road, were all part of this new growth; whilst the grounds at High Tor – which are easily accessible from the station – were opened to the public by Richard Arkwright’s grandson, Peter, during the second half of the 19th century. They included new walks and a carriageway to Old Matlock known as the ‘alpine route’. However, Matlock Bath could not grow for ever. Indeed, in the 1880s, it began to experience ‘housing stagnation’, whilst by contrast, Matlock Bank – along with Matlock Bridge – expanded greatly; a scenario which led to the early twentieth century birth of the town of Matlock as we know it today.

*By the 1870s & 80s, donkeys were available for visitors wishing to avoid the steep walk up to the Heights of Abraham.

**The name ‘Little Switzerland’, describing the view from the summit of High Tor, is attributed to Lord Byron.

Two Pavilions, a Bridge and Derwent Gardens

Although Matlock Bath’s dominance in the area may well have come to an end during the 1880s, the village continued to retain its individual identity. This is well illustrated by the impressive glass & cast-iron Royal Pavilion (*i) (now demolished), which opened in 1884; the construction of Jubilee Bridge (*ii) in 1887 (refurbished 1992), giving access to the Lovers’ Walks; a new bandstand, completed in 1893, at the far side of the bridge; and the creation of Derwent Gardens, the focal point for Matlock Bath’s annual illuminations (*iii) since 1897. Today’s Pavilion, opened in 1910, stands on the site of the Old Bath Hotel’s stables, whose horse-and-carriage washing facility became Matlock Bath’s thermal fish pond. Inside the Pavilion is an excellent mining museum, a reminder that lead extraction has been a very important activity in this area since at least Roman times; with old mine shafts and tunnels, many of which have been blocked or capped, being commonplace. Nowadays, such workings are used to access the Great Rutland Cavern, which opened in 1912 as a show cave noted for its geological interest and associations with the Nestes lead mine; and the Great Masson Cavern (a show cave since 1844), where fossil shells – together with colourful formations of sparkling fluorspar – continue to fascinate visitors. During the 1890s, the Royal Cumberland and various other caverns were offering similar experiences, whilst stalagmites could be viewed in the Speedwell Mine and the Devonshire Cavern. Today, however, only the Rutland and Masson Caverns, both located within the Heights of Abraham complex, are open to the public.

(*i) The Royal Pavilion was situated behind the Royal Hotel, within what are now the grounds of Gulliver’s Kingdom.

(*ii) The Jubilee Bridge was constructed by the Butterley Company (of Ripley) across the River Derwent, in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It provided a pedestrian link to Lovers’ Walks; visitors no longer had to use a ferry.

(*iii) The first illuminations were held in 1897, when Lovers’ Walks, together with boats on the river, were decorated with candle lights to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Matlock Bath Today

Matlock Bath, which includes Matlock Dale, is a picturesque and popular destination for many people, including motor cyclists and day-trippers; whilst those wishing to stay for longer may be accommodated in various B&Bs and hotels of which the most iconic (& most expensive) is the New Bath Hotel. The latter’s swimming pool, which dates from 1933, is fed by thermal water (at 19C / 68F). Following refurbishment, it re-opened in 2019. Although a significant number of visitors to Matlock Bath arrive by bus, coach or train, most come by car; perhaps to enjoy one or more of a host of specific attractions already mentioned: the High Tor Grounds, Heights of Abraham, Lovers’ Walks, Derwent Gardens and Peak District Mining Museum. Additions to that list include Temple Mine, Matlock Bath Aquarium, Gulliver’s Kingdom theme park (1978) and the cable cars to the Heights of Abraham, which have operated from their base near the railway station since 1984. Others are drawn to the village’s unique riverside promenade, a product of the 1960s road improvement scheme which created the current appearance of Matlock Bath as an inland ‘seaside-style’ resort, complete with amusement arcades, ice cream parlours, cafes, fish bars and shops, behind which houses appear to be built on top of one another as they cling to the steep hillside.

The thermal tufa springs and ponds, including the fishpond, create considerable all-year-round interest, whilst the riverside is converted into a magical wonderland for several weeks each autumn evening during the period of the Matlock Bath illuminations. Some of us, however, are simply attracted by the impressive scenery of the Matlock Dale gorge, with its popular canoeing course and fine walking routes from where there are dramatic views of High Tor. This spectacular 300 foot-high cliff – a magnet for intrepid rock climbers – has also attracted painters since the nineteenth century; hence the name Artists’ Corner, where a small settlement of ‘picturesque villas and cottages’ had been established by the 1870s. A delightful chapel was built into the hillside in 1897, up what is now St John’s Road. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the building was designed by Sir Guy Dawber for the wealthy local resident, Mrs Louisa Sophia Harris, who lived at The Rocks, nearby..