diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 28, 2017

Location: Matlock Bath, Derbyshire DE4 3NT [map]
Open: 10am-4.30pm (Easter-ish to October half term)
Admission: £16.00 (20% off for those arriving by train)
3-hashtag summary: #cablecar #leadmines #panoramic
Website: www.heightsofabraham.com
Time to set aside: half a day

England's other cablecar is in Derbyshire. It doesn't travel quite as far as the one in London, but it rises almost twice as high, was installed 28 years earlier, and the view is arguably much better.

The Heights of Abraham is a hilltop attraction above the spa resort of Matlock Bath. It's of Victorian origin, laid out with serpentine paths on steep wooded slopes, and so named because it was said to resemble the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. But hiking up the cragside was a bit of a schlep, so in 1984 the owners invested in a cablecar to whisk visitors to the summit, and hundreds of thousands of people still visit every year.

The cablecar sets off from a pseudo alpine chalet round the back of Matlock Bath station. It's nothing big and flash, so there's no sponsor's name emblazoned round the rim. The cable is one continuous loop, and the cabins are grouped together in four lots of three, so there's always a front, a middle and a rear. I got one complete triplet to myself, which was fabulous, whereas an hour later the pods were rammed with pensioners on a coach trip.

The whole set-up runs at three possible speeds, depending on how busy it is. I got slow on the way up, which was also fabulous, and the maximum 13mph whizz on the way back down. That said, there's always a pause halfway as the system slows to a crawl to allow passengers to alight and board at both ends, which means you get to hang almost motionless above a deep gorge with panoramic views of crags and trees and a little snaking road beside the river.

There's never been a mid-air evacuation, but you might feel quite exposed when the cable pauses and strands you briefly in the sky. I was doing fine despite being the only person up there, until my camera gently slid off the seat and I realised what that meant, and then I stopped thinking about what it meant and I was fine. The ascent continues above the hillside through an avenue cut into the trees, and up and over a final tower, and then you disembark.

Your cablecar return ticket entitles you to visit all the other attractions at the top of the hill. One of these is the chimney-like Victoria Prospect Tower, knocked up in 1844, inside which a 54 step spiral staircase corkscrews to the roof. The staircase lacks a central support so is seriously hairy if you meet a group of people coming the other way, but the view down across the Derwent valley is great (and oh, it's even hairier coming down).

Yes there's a cafe, whose terrace hogs one of the best views, plus a restaurant on top if Hunter's chicken is more your style than jacket potato. Yes there's a gift shop,with a particular focus on gemstones, including a little £5 box of Derbyshire Minerals I remember buying 40 years ago. There's even a museum, on the small side but the story's nicely told, with Matt Baker's midair cablecar rescue for Blue Peter screened partway round.

But the real reason everything's here has nothing to do with cablecars or Victorian pleasure grounds, it's mining. Rich seams of lead were mined here for over four centuries, chipped away from the surface downwards, then within the hillside itself, by successive generations. A series of artificial caverns now exist inside the rock, conveniently exhausted just as the railways came to town, and since converted into a subterranean tourist attraction.

There are two underground tours to take, the first (and best) into the Great Massow Cavern. Your half hour trek follows a hollowed-out pipe seam to reach the great chamber, impressively illuminated, with stops along the way for the guide to explain all the slog and shenanigans that once went on down here. The full underground climb includes 171 steps and emerges at the very top of the shaft, on a hilltop with even better views of Matlock across the valley.

The other cavern system is a lot lower down, and much more capacious, if briefer to explore. The chief rock down here is limestone, with mineral-rich seams threading through, though almost none of the valuable lead remains. At one point an animatronic miner will talk to you for ten minutes, which the guides must be heartily sick of standing through, but you'll know everything there is to know before you leave.

I love a good geology/history field trip experience, and this is most definitely that. It's also delightfully scenic, in a way that southeast England never is, and should look even better as the autumn colours spread over the next few weeks. Plus of course there's another ride in the cablecar to enjoy on the way down, and by timing that right I got the descent all to myself again. A cracking half-day out, these dizzy heights.

And while you're here, explore Matlock Bath
How very genteel. Matlock Bath sweeps along the west bank of the river Derwent, occasionally making a break for the higher ground above. For Midlanders this was a premium resort, as the string of tasteful shops attests, along with an aquarium and an amusement arcade to maintain the fun. Come promenade, or visit the pump room as your ancestors would have done, although it's only a museum now.

What struck me most was the number of fish and chip shops - I counted seven. Some of these serve something I've never seen advertised before, namely Mini Fish, Chips & Peas, which may particularly appeal to pensioners' palates. The main street was also packed out with motorbikes, and cod-chomping bikers, midway through an exhilarating Peak District joyride.
Autumn is the season for the Matlock Bath Illuminations, a weekend-only flotilla of dressed-up model boats, a bit like Blackpool but afloat. Green netting ensures visitors can't get a glimpse unless they've paid up to enter Derwent Gardens, where a collection of food stalls (fish and chips included) await.

And while you're here, walk to Matlock
Do I have time to do this, I wondered, but I'm so glad I did. Not the tame valley road but the proper two mile hike over limestone heights, ascending steep zigzag paths to the rim of High Tor. These are some of the highest inland cliffs in England, and it's exhilarating when the track suddenly reaches a rocky perch above a sheer drop, with the lush shades of the Derwent valley laid out across and below.

Walking gets a bit easier from the summit onwards, as the town of Matlock arrays itself across the hillside ahead. I approached via the top of Pic Tor, where the huge war memorial looms, then stepped through St Giles' graveyard to descend to town level. Matlock's full of character, in places smart, but I only had time to scratch the lower streets. I did however manage to source the Bakewell slice I'd been craving, thickly iced, in the cafe by the bandstand, before starting the long journey home.

Sorry to do this to you again, so soon after Folkestone and Open House, but here are 33 photos I took during my Derbyshire day out. A lot of them have cablecars in.

My Derby/Matlock gallery
There are 33 photos altogether [slideshow]

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