Monday 2 June 2008

down by the river....

C. and I went out for a lovely walk up on the moors around Winster in the Peak District on Sunday. It had been pouring with rain when I first woke up, but we decided we would go anyway and, as luck would have it, the weather cleared up nicely around lunchtime. We had originally planned a pub lunch in one of those proper Free Houses that seem to abound in the Peaks, but we were running a little later than planned and decided to just grab something in one of the towns we passed through en-route to the starting point of the walk.

Ripley is a dump, so obviously we weren't going to stop there, and we didn't want to take a chance on there being anything much available in the village of Winster itself, so we stopped in Matlock Bath. This is a small town nestled next to the river in the Derwent valley, with the main street tracking alongside the river as it passes through. It's pleasant enough country, and quite pretty to look at, I suppose, but as we drove into the town itself, I was a little taken aback by what I saw there.

Bearing in mind that we are right, slap-bang in the middle of the country, I was a touch surprised to find that Matlock Bath appears to be rather bizarrely modelled on the classic British seaside town. It's like a mini-Blackpool and the high street is absolutely jam-packed with fish and chip shops (there are at least ten of them over a 400m long strip), amusement arcades, sweet shops selling ice cream, candy floss and rock....hell, they even have some illuminations and make a real thing during 'the season' of having a 'Venetian' parade of boats (which seems all the more remarkable given that the river Derwent at this point is -at most- about 10m wide and is shallow enough that you can see the bottom throughout).

I couldn't help but wonder how this had happened to this little town in Derbyshire, so I looked it up. For much of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth centuries, it was customary for members of the aristocracy to spend their summers on a Grand Tour of Europe's great cities. As the political situation in Europe worsened and it became unsafe to travel, it became fashionable to visit attractions within England. Warm springs had been discovered in Matlock Bath in 1698, and they gradually became more and more popular as a destination until they were finally given the ultimate seal of approval by a visit from Queen Victoria in 1831. Lord Byron was apparently so taken with them that he compared the town favourably with Switzerland, leading to the nickname "Little Switzerland". Well, the chocolate may be more Cadbury's than Lindt, but I bet you can't get a really good bit of battered cod with proper malt vinegar in Geneva either....

I think it's fair to say that the clientèle has changed a little since then: not to put too fine a point on it, when we passed through yesterday, the streets were crammed with the kind of people who looked like they might like to holiday in Blackpool with a knotted handkerchief or a 'Kiss Me Quick' hat on their heads. Even as they took in the rarified Derbyshire air in their flammable man-made fabrics, more often than not these people were simultaneously sucking the life out of a cigarette and then exhaling a cloud of smoke all over the infant they held in their arms. I know that sounds snobby, and I'm sure many of them were very nice (the guys in the chippie we went into were incredibly helpful and friendly, for starters) but I'm just saying what I saw yesterday. The famous hot springs that started it all, incidentally have long since been turned into an aquarium and the town has taken its maritime pretensions to the logical extreme by having a lighthouse built.... only in this instance it doesn't so much save mariners from crashing into the rocks as supply southern fried chicken to passers by.

Honestly, it was thoroughly bizarre.

Winster, on the other hand, was a lovely village. Not only is it fantastically situated with a view across the peaks and onto some open moorland, but it was also blessed with cluster of really lovely old stone cottages and - the jewel in the crown - a proper pub. "The Bowling Green" is a free house that serves proper beer sourced from within a 25 mile radius of the pub and serves home-cooked food sourced from local shops. Sadly, I was only stopping for a quick pint before heading home, but it was a lovely pub and I will definitely be returning to have a meal by the fire and sheltered behind those three foot thick brick walls.

I'll maybe look to miss the morris dancing though.


  1. Oh, that's almost our neck of the woods! Yes, Winster's a lovely place, and the pub's not bad either. Open Gardens weekend is a good time to visit it, as you get to have a good snoop at the steep landscaped patches that rise up behind some of the houses.

  2. I did sneak a peak at some of those gardens on the way down to the pub, actually. I'm no gardener, but they were unusual enough to catch even my eye and distract me momentarily from my fixation on a pint of Farmers Best.