Those of you more familiar with England, who have dared to venture north of Oxfordshire, will have probably passed signs on the motorway boasting ‘Matlock’. Perhaps, if you’re from the North or Midlands yourself, you may have even enjoyed a day out with the family in this quaint pocket of the Peak District. Or, there’s the slim possibility that you remember seeing the name in Frankenstein or Pride and Prejudice where it features as a holiday destination for a quick narrative break. Even though the spas that put Matlock on the map in the Victorian era are now converted into county offices or luxury flats, the town continues to be a place of retreat and relaxation. That is, if long walks up steep hills fall under your definition of ‘relaxation’.
A Google search quickly reveals the town’s heritage as a Victorian spa town, although little is said on its industrial history as the alleged birthplace of the Industrial Revolution beginning with Richard Arkwright’s prototype cotton mill. A mill which he cannily hid away in the Lumsdale valley so as to avoid his competitor’s gaze. The site has remained Matlock’s best-kept secret for a few centuries until people cottoned on a few months ago, during the throws of lockdown, and it became so swamped in tourists (people drove from as far as Liverpool??) that the Arkwright society had to close the area entirely.
This is not the only event that has increased tensions between locals and tourists since corona made its dramatic debut in the UK. With that in mind, I’m reluctant to recommend it to others, but I can’t help but encourage those of you that ever find yourselves in the Peak District to visit the site; it’s untouched history – no tourist office, just a few signs for information and fences for safety. You can make the site part of your route to The Gate (a lovely pub) in a neighboring village; the walk takes you through gorgeous woodland with views the Romantics could only ever refer to as sublime.
As much as Matlock’s stunning landscape owes itself to severe inclines, I can’t help but resent the fact that I can’t leave my house without engaging in a full cardiovascular work out. In Matlock, every day is leg day. Most of the town’s residential areas are built into one big hill, whilst the town centre is in one flat part of the valley – to save day-trippers the sweat. My house happens to be nearer the top of this hill, around 100m above sea-level, and I’ll admit that the leg-work is worth it for the view.
My bedroom window offers what every estate agent or TripAdvisor page would affectionately call ‘panoramic views’; from my desk I can see Matlock’s town centre and the huge green hills encompassing it – from the Gothic castle on the left to the orange glow of our local Sainsburys on the right. As a young and spry teen, I would often trek up to said castle because it is the perfect (no, really) spot to sit and watch a sunset and then wait for the stars to appear; the higher altitude and lack of light pollution makes for a pretty nice night sky. Pro tip: if you’re going to do this, bring a torch, because stumbling back down the hill in pitch blackness is a health and safety nightmare.
For more views (and health and safety nightmares) there’s High Tor – a popular walking route among tourists – which is essentially a big old cliff. It was from here that I, on my twentieth birthday, with my best friend from home and best mates from uni, watched the Matlock Bath Illuminations fireworks display (a big local event). Easily the best view, zero cost and only a slight risk to life and limb. I won’t elaborate on the Matlock Bath Illuminations because this neighbouring village is a whole other (seaside in the countryside) world.
Like many students from the North/the Midlands (I’m not here to engage in another dispute about where the North begins and Midlands end), I spent my first few terms at Oxford grappling with imposter syndrome and an unwillingness to relinquish my hold on the town where I was born. Most people from slightly obscure or smaller towns tend to introduce themselves as being from a nearby city – hence all the jokes about people not-really-from-London identifying themselves as Londoners. I refused to do this and consequently spent a lot of Freshers explaining precisely where Matlock is in the country.
This pedantic approach to standard student small-talk stemmed from a, albeit snobby, disdain for Derby. It’s rare in modern society that the countryside trumps urbanity in terms of cultural and historical interest, but in Derbyshire this is 110% the case. Where country estates like Chatsworth and lovely little towns like Bakewell, Buxton, and Matlock contribute a lot to Derbyshire’s image, Derby’s role is more functional and it’s hard to get as excited about car manufacturing as I do about Bakewell pudding, Buxton’s opera house, or Matlock’s former mill and spas.
I didn’t anticipate feeling so defensive of my regional identity, but once I arrived at Oxford and was confronted by swathes of Southerners (whom I love in spite of their overuse of ‘calm’ and other London slang I still don’t quite get), I began to feel out-of-place for the first time in my life – sheltered as I am. I felt compelled to educate my Home Counties peers on the majesty of Matlock, to assure them that the Midlands and the North have as much, if not more, to offer in the way of natural beauty as the Southern coastlands and Cotswolds. I’d complain about the frankly shite quality of Southern water in contrast to my local (Buxton) water, but would secretly enjoy the flat and easy walks that make weekly shops less of an ordeal. I’d tease my friends for being ‘nesh’ or ‘mardy’ and greet people with ‘ey up, duck’ – a phrase I never would have used growing up, but one that my friends and I seem to have adopted since going to uni, perhaps because it makes us feel at home.