James Innes-Smith

Matlock Bath

Revisiting cherished childhood memories can be dispiriting; everything appears diminished and one leaves questioning the nature of perception. Were we more open as children or less discerning? Happily, the village of Matlock Bath in Derbyshire, where I wasted so much of my youth and pocket money, is as delightfully dotty as when I last visited 30 years ago.

Situated on the edge of the Peak District at the bottom of a limestone gorge, this enchanting mix of faded Victorian grandeur, tatty 1970s tourism and dreamy, Tolkien-esque landscape was once a fashionable spa resort where ladies in crinolines came to ‘take the waters’. Warm springs were discovered here in 1698 but it wasn’t until a young Princess Victoria visited in 1832 that the village became a high-society hot spot. Byron, a frequent visitor, described the village as the ‘Switzerland of Derbyshire’.

Tourists no longer come for the healing waters but they do still flock to the Petrifying Well a watery attraction made popular by 19th-century day-trippers who came in their droves after the railway opened in 1849. Toss some loose change into the calcium-rich thermal spring and watch as your hard-earned cash turns to hard-edged stone.

Over the decades, visitors have offered up objects including wigs, crucifixes, bowler hats, umbrellas and even the odd bird’s nest. They are still here in all their limestone-encrusted glory. The petrifaction process can take several years, however, so you may want to check out some of Matlock Bath’s more instant gratifications.

Harry Hall’s Amusements arcade is a marvellous throwback to the glory days of early 1980s arcading. Astonishingly, many of the original Atari classics that fleeced me of so much sticky coinage are still here, along with a sign warning over-zealous gamers not to ‘bang on the machines’.

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