On the Derwent River in the embrace of a deep wooded gorge, Matlock Bath is a scenic spa resort developed in the 18th century.
Up to that time this almost Alpine landscape on the edge of the Peak District had been exploited for lead and limestone.
And when the Heights of Abraham pleasure park was opened, those cavernous lead mines became part of the attraction.
To get to Heights of Abraham you can catch a cable car over the valley, while the family theme park Gulliver’s Kingdom also uses chairlifts to help you negotiate the near vertical slopes.
The Peak District and the limestone landscape of the White Peak is just behind Matlock Bath, while the momentous UNESCO-protected industrial heritage of the Derwent Valley lies to the south.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Matlock Bath:
1. Heights of Abraham
Perched on the west side of the Derwent Valley gorge is a park that has been attracting visitors since 1780. To get there you can haul yourself up the slope on foot or catch the scenic cable car across the gorge from the east bank, which has been running since 1984. At the top you’ll find 60 acres of landscaped woodland, awesome views of the valley, visitor centres in chalet-style buildings and two man-made caves which we’ll talk about shortly.
For views that take in the valley, Matlock Bath and nearby landmarks like Riber Castle, make for the Victoria Prospect Tower, dating back to 1844 or the Tinker’s Shaft platform, which has panels detailing the lead mining history of the Heights of Abraham.
The Long View pavilion records the 240-year history of the Heights of Abraham as a visitor attraction while the Masson Pavilion is dedicated to the Great Masson Cavern.
2. Great Masson and Great Rutland Caverns
Included in the price of the cable car are tours of the Heights of Abraham’s show caverns.
These labyrinths twisting through the hillside were first excavated by the Romans and grew over the next 1,800 years, reaching their apogee in the 17th century.
In both caves, man-made passages are grafted to natural chambers and tunnels that have been 350 million years in the making.
Of the two, Great Masson is the showstopper, with vaulting ceilings more than ten metres high and high-tech lighting installations for extra spectacle.
The Great Rutland Cavern puts you in the boots of a 17th-century mining family, and has lots of well-preserved inscriptions by miners on its walls.
3. Peak District Lead Mining Museum
A good complement to the Heights of Abraham’s showcaves, this museum back on the valley floor goes into depth on the region’s lead mining history.
You’ll hear accounts of what day was like for the men and women (and children) who had to make their living in this industry, and take a tour of the Temple Mine, exploited for lead and fluorspar in the 1920s (tour times are less frequent in winter). Children can also scurry through three mock mine tunnels, while there’s an abundance of antique equipment recovered from mines in the area.
You won’t be able to ignore the Wills Founder Water Pressure Engine, now 200 years old, which used gravity to pump water from the underground.
The noted geologist Robert A. Howie also left a huge collection of minerals to the museum.
This donation was so large that only a portion of the 3,000 specimens can be shown at one time.
4. Peak District
Matlock Bath is in a prime position for anyone who wants to experience the majesty of the Peak District.
The southern region of the range is known as the White Peak, a region of rocky grassland, grazed by sheep and cattle and where the pale limestone has been eroded into caves and ravines.
At Matlock Bath you’re a couple of short miles from the High Peak Trail, a forgiving 17-mile path from Dowlow to Cromford.
This is on the course of the High Peak Railway (1831), built to link the Cromford and Peak Forest Canals.
The railway was designed just like a canal, and in the early years the railway used horse-power and stationary beam engines in engine houses instead of steam locomotives.
5. Derwent Valley Heritage Way
Matlock Bath is also around the midway point of a 55-mile walking trail, following the Derwent River from near Bamford in the north to the picturesque inland port of Shardlow in the south.
You could walk north towards the picturesque town of Bakewell and the magnificent Chatsworth House, while to the south the valley becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the place where the modern factory system was founded in the 18th century.
We’ll mention Richard Arkwright’s Masson Mills and the Cromford Canal below.
Venture a little further and you’ll come to High Peak Junction (1830), one of the world’s oldest surviving railway workshops, and the Leawood Pumphouse with a working steam engine dating back to 1849.
6. Gulliver’s Kingdom
In another panoramic spot on the west side of the gorge, Gulliver’s Kingdom is a theme park for kids aged 3 to 13. On this vertiginous terrain, the park’s log flume, tower rides and rollercoasters are even more hair-raising as you stare into the abyss-like valley as it drops more than 100 metres.
Access to Gulliver’s Kingdom is easier for the park’s chairlift and travellator, great news for parents with small children and buggies.
Joining the line-up of rides like the Switchback rollercoaster and the self-driven Cycle Monorail is the Crow’s Nest Quest, a pirate-themed high ropes course that opened in 2017 and has more than 20 challenges for young adventurers.
7. Lovers’ Walks
Cross the bridge from Derwent Gardens and there’s a tangle of walking paths weaving up the precipitous east bank of the gorge.
The ancient woodland habitat here is rare in Europe and is considered a standout “Tilio-Acerion forest”, of the kind only found on slopes and ravines.
Also fascinating is that the paths date back more than 270 years, which puts Lovers’ Walks among the oldest surviving examples of a public pleasure park in the UK. In the 18th century the paths were reached by ferry, as the cast iron bridge at Derwent Gardens wasn’t constructed until 1969. Through the foliage near the top you’ll see a little cascade fed by a natural spring, while at the foot of the slope is a refined set of formal gardens and play area.
8. Masson Mills
A linchpin of the Derwent Valley UNESCO site, Richard Arkwright built this water-powered cotton-spinning mill in 1783. One of the many innovations made by this construction was placing the staircase in a central projection, which left the factory floors open and uncluttered.
Inside is what has been hailed as possible the country’s finest collection of operational textile machines.
Much of this is in situ, but there are also artefacts gathered from textile mills all over the UK. You’ll be treated like a worker when you visit, which is better than it sounds, and will get to see working cotton mules, pirn winders, “The Devil” which broke up raw cotton bales, cotton doubling machines, the largest bobbin collection in the world, the oldest working looms in the world and the original 1785 bell that signalled the start of a shift.
9. Black Rocks
This mammoth gristone outcrop is on the High Peak Trail, a little way from Matlock Bath.
On the outcrop’s lower slopes is scree from when the rocks were mined for lead.
The plants growing here now are known as leadworts for their unique tolerance to lead-rich soil.
A relatively strenuous climb will be compensated with superb views.
You could also use the High Peak Trail to visit Sheep Pasture Top, for another spellbinding view of the Derwent Valley, Cromford and the Matlock Gorge.
The Middleton Engine House, not far west, still has a beam engine that powered the High Peak Railway and can be visited on open days.
Alternatively you could journey through the heather and mixed woodland of Cromford Moor.
10. Cascades Gardens
Also benefitting from Matlock’s massive landscape is a visitable four-acre garden around a bed and breakfast in Bonsall.
Set on terraces on the site of an old corn mill, Cascades Gardens was first planted in the 18th century and has a new “room” at every turn.
There are roses, perennial flowerbeds, alpine and coniferous rockeries and waterside beds.
The Bonsall Brook flows through the garden, plunging over cascades and small waterfalls, which are beautiful after a spell of rain.
You can walk the path to the cliff-top for a romantic view, and call in at the nursery which sells many of the species grown in the garden.
11. Matlock Bath Aquarium
An eccentric family spot, the Matlock Bath Aquarium is in the resort’s converted Victorian bathhouse.
The Matlock Bath Aquarium is a light-hearted Victorian-style miscellany, with a carp collection in the thermal pool, a display of gemstones and fossils from around the world and the only “petrifying well” in the area.
This spring cakes anything left in it with limestone deposits.
There’s also an exhibition recounting Matlock Bath’s storied past, one of the largest displays of holograms in Europe and an extensive collection of Goss crested china from the 19th and 20th centuries.
12. Hall Leys Park
Matlock proper is only a few hundred metres up the road, and at the heart of the town is the fantastic Hall Leys Park.
Commended with a Green Flag, this is a wonderful low-cost hang out for families in summer.
On hand here is a children’s boating lake, interactive play area, a miniature railway and a putting green.
For bigger kids Hall Leys Park has a skate park, and there are acres of open greenery if you want to park yourself on a sunny day and have a picnic.
Free Wi-Fi is provided, and the cosy Cafe in the Park makes afternoon tea.
The next stop along the Derwent Valley from Masson Mills is Cromford, a village built by Arkwright for his workers in the mid 1770s.
The centre of attention is the Cromford Mill, raised between 1771 and 1791. As the first successful water-powered cotton mill in the world, it changed the course of manufacturing history.
Cromford Mill is at the head of the namesake canal, extending down to Langley Mill 14.5 miles away.
It’s a walk worth making as part of the Derwent Valley Heritage Way.
You could also experience something novel and take a horse-pulled canal trip down a section of the waterway aboard the Birdswood heritage narrowboat.
14. Hopton Quarry Nature Reserve
A couple of miles west of Cromford, on the cusp of the National Park is a ten-acre reserve where three former limestone quarries have been reclaimed by calcareous grassland and woods.
The site is impressive for its walls of rock, gradually being taken over by greenery.
Try to time your visit for late spring or summer, when the flat floor of the quarry has a nationally important array of wildflowers.
Among them are orchid species like the frog orchid, rare fly orchid, common spotted orchid and fragrant orchid.
Also look out for little signs of the industry that came before, like grated lead mine shafts and the remnants of old kilns.
15. Matlock Bath Illuminations
First held to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897, the Matlock Bath Illuminations is a fine eight-week coda to the resort’s summer season, taking place between the start of September and end of October.
Since its inception the event has been organised by the Matlock Bath Venetian Boat Builders’ Association.
They construct illuminated models according to a new theme each year and these are mounted to a small flotilla of rowboats.
The place to see the Illuminations is at Derwent Gardens, where you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee.
The illuminations float by every Saturday evening, and are followed by a fireworks finale.