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Exploring Matlock

Exploring Matlock
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Matlock started off as a collection of small settlements in the Middle Ages which, thanks to the coming of the railway and a consequent astonishing boom in demand for hydropathic health treatments, quickly became subsumed into a new, rather homogenous whole. When it came to treatments, the Regency upper classes favoured Matlock Bath; the Victorian bourgeoisie, Matlock’s hydros.  

I say homogenous, because the main spur to expansion was the first of the successful hydros, founded by John Smedley in 1853, and which movement had all but burned out by the outbreak of the Great War 60 years later. To build so much housing, so many shops, chapels and other necessary adjuncts to life in just a few decades produced a town of architectural uniformity. Unrelieved locally quarried millstone grit buildings, often rock faced, few were designed by architects of any flair. What relieves the uniformity, though, is the topography and the views: the one vertiginous, the other incomparable. To pick out exceptional items of interest was, therefore our intention when setting out. 

This tour requires a walk that is practically vertical from north of Crown Square, so you need to be fit! We put our vehicle in a car park at the end of Olde Englishe Road, a right turn off the A6, here Dale Road, as you approach Matlock Bridge: £2.50 for a couple of hours  The street name, by the way, is derived from a former large pub of ponderous arts-and-crafts appearance set on the corner with Dale Road. How it acquired its name is beyond comprehension, although we were told the additional ‘e’s are a more recent conceit. To get to Dale Road, however, we also passed a really rather good stone apartment block with the pleasant Cool River Bistro in its ground floor. Deservedly, we felt, it won the RIBA award for 2015. 

Dale Road is lined with a motley selection of undistinguished late Victorian buildings, all shops, relieved only by a pair of former banks on the right, and almost at the end (ex-HSBC) with an angled entrance surmounted by a good turret clock in a pediment by Smith of Derby (1913), its stolid impact contrasting with the dignified provincial Baroque revival of the 1901 ex-NatWest, a really good building, probably by Derby’s John Somes Story. We also dallied in the antiques emporium a little further along. This was once Matlock’s premier shopping street. 

Yet, looking to our left, we spotted a curved Doric peristyle (a row of columns supporting an entablature to you and me) recently reconstructed after being demolished by an errant lorry, overborne by an impressive weeping elm, beyond which one can see the finest Georgian house in Matlock, stone-built ex-RBS Bank House. It looks early Georgian, but Clare Hartwell in the new Pevsner reckons it’s late 18th century; either way it presents a most elegant façade, despite clumsy extensions to right and left. 

We decided to go for broke and tackle Bank Road, which rose straight up in front of us as we crossed the Medieval bridge over the Derwent (tactfully widened on the south side in 1904) and encountered Crown Square, which modern traffic requirements has turned into Crown roundabout to no good effect. The Crown Inn, between Chesterfield and Bank Roads, with its teetering Louis XIV tower and openwork metal coronet, is no longer a pub but a Costa. Opposite, backing on to Hall Leys Park is the jolly Arts-and-Crafts Nationwide Building Society building, ornamental black and white gables on two fronts joined by a drum tower with a finialled lead dome.  

The square boasted a pavilion-style tram shelter from 1899 to 1927, but this went to leave only a small island bearing a crown apparently made of roller bearings sat on a concrete cushion, complete with tassels. Even its lack, though, reminded us that it was from here that cable-operated counterbalanced tramcars operated, bankrolled by locally born publisher of Tit-Bits, Sir George Newnes, to obviate the punishing climb up the Bank and Rutland Street. 

We of course, felt we were made of sterner stuff and tackled the Bank. A few notable buildings, including a plethora of dissenting chapels (all, oddly, on the east side) marked the ascent, including Bridge House of 1861, extended as a hydro later, extended around 1900 with tall first floor arcaded windows as the Town Hall, but now still serving municipal duty for Derbyshire Dales Council. The churches included Our Lady & St Joseph’s (RC) by Derby’s tragically short-lived Edward Fryer of 1883; further up beyond a pair of good Georgian style modern stone houses, the Methodist/URC chapel of 1882 with its spindly tower and spire tacked on in rock-faced ashlar in 1900.  Beyond again, the odd matching pair of Primitive Methodist chapel and school, in rather odd Gothic with miniscule flying buttresses along the sides. 

For those even more unfit than Carole and me, a welcome seat has been installed just below Smedley Street which is ideally placed to provide respite from the relentless ascent. This brought us to Smedley Street, on the corner of which stands the 1853 hydro founded by John Smedley, notorious a few decades back as the ‘Matlock Kremlin’, but a building of stupendous size, extended by Smedley himself with a new range to the east in 1867, magnificently lavish interiors (no wonder it was chosen as the County Council’s HQ in 1955!) and stretched again in castellated style to the NW, ending in the domed 1900 winter garden. 

The vertiginous Rockside Steps

The latter we saw from Smedley Street, having passed the grand entrance of the hydro of 1885, by G E Statham of Matlock, although walking down the street is like a journey up a man-made canyon between stone cliffs, for the road is not wide and the ashlared walls of the hydro are tall, one side being connected to the other by a striking pair of double decker bridges. Smedley obviously liked these, building another at his mills at Lea. We enjoyed the front of the solarium annexe half way along on the right, glass and timber mullions, rather impressive. At the end, some late Georgian cottages, wrecked by uPVC windows, before we turned sharp right into Wellington Street, the date of which is fixed by the national outpouring of grief on the Iron Duke’s death in 1852.  

As a result, there are earlier houses either side with a couple of much earlier – perhaps early 18th century – cottages which you can pick out on early photographs in which one can see nothing but the hydro and the earlier farmsteads dotting the green hillside. Soon, we reached steps ascending to our left and, keen to see Matlock’s finest building, we ascended, debouched into a narrow lane and ended up in Cavendish Road. 

Here we turned right between staid Victorian villas until, there it was: Rockside Hydro. As we ascended a seemingly interminable stepped lane to Rockside Road, it had begun to dominate the skyline, its architectural bravura making an indelible impression. Yet what you see today is all that was built of an ambitious extension to a Classical hydro of 1862 added in 1904 to the designs of Sir Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, a post-Arts-and Crafts partnership which began in Buxton and eventually went on to fame designing Letchworth Garden City and other ground breaking schemes.  

Five stories and attics, narrow end to the slope, high roof with dormered rows of lights set off by tall stacks are framed by a pair of epic, slim, octagonal towers with conical tops and lanterns: ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria would have loved it, if set amidst the Alps. The effect here is nearly as spectacular. We looked at it from above though, to enjoy the way it was designed and the manner in which it had been converted first into a teacher training collage and more recently into luxury flats.  

From, Rockside Hydro (from which terrific views of Riber Castle now restored, Masson Hill and the Derwent Valley) we continued down Cavendish Road and right into Wellington Street, descending further by taking a ginnel to our right down into Rutland Street. Here we were confronted by a really enjoyable late Victorian building, irregular, but with enough pretension to stand out, now a motor garage, but built in 1893 as the tram depôt. This was designed by J. J. Turner for George Newnes in 1893, and engaged us with its quirky gables embellished with bold finials set on plain pilasters, artfully contrived offices and a separate boiler house still fronting the huge broached stump of the long-lost boiler house chimney. It is now distinguished by a blue plaque to mark its origin. 

From here we continued on down Rutland Street, past Rutland House, an 1863 former hydro with three bays facing the street but eleven facing down the hill, of three storeys, the roof peppered with dormers and chimneys. It was once Matlock House Hydro. From there we turned into Smedley Street to reach Chesterfield Road, on the corner of which was a really delightful former chapel, almost classical, but mid-Victorian in date. We were unable to discover its origin. 

Chesterfield Road is of no particular interest, but gives onto Steep Turnpike on the right, a steep narrow descent back almost to Crown Square. The house on the right was yet another former hydro, but past the anodyne Evangelical chapel below it we came to a good late Georgian house (probably 1850s if truth be known) on the left with stone a coach house on the opposite side of the road with a blocked carriage arch. This was once Harley House Hotel where, in 1883, the late Viscount Stansgate’s great-grandfather, the Revd. Julius Benn, was killed by a blow to the head with a chamber pot wielded by his dippy son, William. William  found guilty but insane, was eventually released, married and was father to the well-remembered character actress Dame Margaret Rutherford. Honestly, these aristocrats: no blue plaque there! 

 At the foot of Steep Turnpike, having passed the Matlock library (housed in a good Regency villa called The Firs), we crossed the main road, and entered Hall Leys Park, a Victorian pleasure ground still largely unspoilt in which the former tram shelter from Crown Square now sits. Here a comfort stop may be made (at a cost of 20p). We went half left across the sward until we reached the modern footbridge across the Derwent. This gave us a great view of the river and of the backs of the Dale Road buildings, and debouched on to the car-park, where we were able to choose between finding a good pub or the car to go home. 

As the walk was quite two miles and had taken an hour and a half (including time to enjoy things) we headed for the former, which was not as easy as oner might think. Because Matlock had very little existence prior to the coming of the Manchester, Buxton and Midland Junction Railway in 1849, there were never that many pubs. The Hydros had their own catering, and the few old pubs there were, are all gone, even the ghastly Old Englishe is now a bistro. This in contrast to our experience of Ilkeston a month before, where there was an embarras de richesse.  We chose the Monk Bar at the end of the lane in Dale Road: absolutely no complaints! 

Walking around Matlock was exceedingly pleasant. We resolved soon to do a further perambulation around Old Matlock (which it was not possible to take in on this occasion), which still retains a village atmosphere. But whatever you may think of our itinerary, you’ll certainly feel ready for a bath and an early night after doing it! 

All Pictures credited to MC, 

taken 26.07.20

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