Revisiting my past: Matlock
Subtitle: And failing to do so.
I decided a while ago that I’d try to revisit places of my youth before either they change too much or I forget about aspects of the place. The obvious first one for me to do was Matlock. Significantly the closest and the second shortest place that I have ‘lived’. In the 1980s I did my Teacher training at Matlock College of Further and Higher Education. During my time there I went Climbing, walking, running and played Volleyball. Oh, yes, I also completed my PGCE. One part of my time me there that I was not going to try to revisit was running from Marble Arch, London, to Matlock using the A6. Whilst this was as a relay, a ‘rag week run, there were only 4 regular runners to share the initial main load and by Leicester it had come down to myself and a ‘ringer’ from the local running club doing the main 3 to 4 mile shifts with the others doing a mile or so at a time. After leaving Marble Arch 2 hours late, around midnight, we finally got back to Matlock about 4:30 pm. We were due to meet up in the college bar later that evening. Even though I was distinctly off-campus I was the only one to make it.
I did try to do this trip a little while after I moved to Stoke. After nosying around Matlock itself I went up to Starkholmes to see where I lived. With some anxiety I decided to ring the doorbell and see if my old landlady was still there. As soon as Jean answered the door I recognised her and she, in disbelief, recognised me. About 3 hours later I resumed my journey. By this time I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to get to Cromford Wharf let alone Black Rocks or Middleton Top.
Cue the first day of my summer holiday 2018. Due to the engineering works at Derby Station meaning bus replacements on both the Stoke and Matlock lines, this first Saturday was going to be my one opportunity during the summer break. On the Friday, and for the preceding two weeks, I was distinctly exhausted. I was also in pain with my left ankle, sprained right index toe and shin splints. It in light of this, I didn’t pack on Friday evening. I was resigned to not doing the walk on the Saturday. Getting up on Saturday morning and my ailments didn’t feel so bad. That, along with the much needed rain that had been forecast now being due late afternoon, I decided to go. Quick rummage for the necessities and sorting of camera gear followed by a dash to get the 08:45 to Derby.
At Derby the train to Matlock was already pretty much full so it was standing room only. When I lived in in Starkholmes the line was still twin track but now it becomes single track from Ambergate This means that the driver has to get a token to show that his train is the only one on the single track section. No need for signals etc when only one train is allowed on the line at a time.
Getting off at Cromford is a definite memory jerker as well as an architectural treasure. I was intending to follow the route of my longer weekend runs but start from Cromford as opposed to Starkholmes. The section from Starkholmes to Cromford is just a winding and ‘mundane’ road with a view across to Black Rocks. Probably a bit more dangerous nowadays and definitely so at mid-morning as opposed to early morning. I’d also decided to try to navigate by memory, not map. Heading away from the station the first part that I came to was Cromford Meadows. Immediate memories of practicing tent pitching with the local Scout troop that I was attached to.
Next up was the entrance to Willersley. The residential centre, now a retreat hotel, was not my interest. The vertical limestone rockface along the path from the church was. Within a short distance I came to a sign post, not something that used to be there. Back then the path that I was on was a ‘permissive path’, not a right of way. I cannot remember if the land belonged to Tarmac or the Brotherhood who resided at Willersley. I do remember being cautious there. Climbing was grudgingly permitted, expletives were not allowed. The rock itself is Limestone and, for me, it gave me a lengthy traversing opportunity. Getting far off of the ground was not an option for me due to the difficulty and lack of passers by. Since going along to the rockface was not on my route at this time I followed the sign to the mills.
When I was last here in 1982 the Mills were either derelict or boarded up abandoned waiting for something to be done with them. Plans were being made at that time and funds were being sought for some restoration / preservation. The sight that greeted me was not what I had anticipated. Now it is a bustling artisan shopping area with refreshment outlets and even a kids area. There were also a few information signs about parts of the site and some model water wheels by the side of the deep plunge pool near the entrance. This was a sample of what was to come for the rest of the trip. Buildings that were shells and stood as a reminder of the industrial past of the area are now a useful part of the local economy again.
Soon after leaving the mill site I got to Cromford Wharf. More building restoration and more food outlets and facilities. The canal at this point is navigable and a narrow boat plies its trade with the tourists. Gently scattering the waterfowl as it makes its way along.
As I headed along the canal’s towpath it was ‘better’ maintained than I seem to remember. No ruts or other hazards and a harder surface. At this point I was glad that I’d decided to wear trainers rather than boots. Whilst they were not supportive for the toe, they were light, cushioned and very breathable on this hot summer’s day. After breaking an ankle I found that the foot had got a bit longer. This meant I’ve needed to go up half a size on some makes. These trainers, New Balance Yazee Summit 2, are that half size bigger but feel a bit tight. With some still available in a sale the sooner I know if they are too tight the better.
Approaching the Cromford and High Peak Railway buildings at High Peak Junction I thought I recognised a dog and then it’s owners. One of the regular Train Conductors on my commute was out for a walk with his wife and their dog. Brief natter before the narrow boat approached, requiring a swing bridge to be opened. I continued down the canal to Lea Pumping House. Whilst my running route headed over the swing bridge I wanted to go down to the pump house. One of the batches of questions in an online English Functional Skills assessment that we use at school is about the area and the pump house features in it.
Just past the pump house is an aquaduct over the River Derwent. At this point the canal is closed off for navigation thus allowing the ducks to stand and feed on the surface level vegetation. The ruined building at the end of the aqua duct, whilst still derelict, it has been decorated with paintings on panels in the boarded up windows. As with a lot of the features along the way, there is a QR code on a post by the building. This technology is a far cry from the Commodore Pet and RM 380z computers of the era when I was last here. Crossing over to the other side of the canal I started heading back to the Junction. The transfer bay at the wharf was undergoing re-roofing so it was surrounded by scaffolding.
The attached railway goods shed still had signs indicating that it was under Derbyshire Council control but as a bunkhouse as opposed to a residential centre. The signs were faded and, in one case, covered. I don’t know if it is just closed during the restoration next door to it or if a change of use is nigh. The sheds to the side have been tidied up as well.
When I got to the area at the foot of the incline it was back to tourist facilities combined with a look back in time. In addition to a shop and facilities the workshop was open. Hard for me to compare the sealed buildings that I remember with the details on show inside being much like they must have been left when the line closed in 1967. I was referred to a time line showing key dates for the area. I didn’t get beyond Alison Hargreaves 1995. The first woman to solo Chomolungma / Sagarmatha ( tourist name = Everest) without supplementary oxygen or Sherpa assistance. Only Reinhold Messner had done so previously. She repeated this later on in the year on K2 but, alas, she died during the descent. She wasn’t one of the top female mountaineers, she was one of the best in the world irrespective of gender. I first met her when she was working in The Bivouac in Matlock.
Earlier, as I approached the Junction I was glad to see the water tank standing out above the roof of the repair shed. There are a couple of 20T brake vans next to it. I remember there being one and some water tank wagons. At some point someone has removed the builders plates from the chassis so origin cannot determined. I couldn’t decide if they were old LMS ones or BR.
The winding wheel at the foot of the incline has been restored to a visual representation of how it was whilst working apart from the steel hawser cable being secured at the ends.
Next it was onto the catch pit. This was installed after a wagon cut loose and jumped over the canal and on to the adjacent Midland main line to Manchester from London. The wagon embedded in the pit is evidence that it was used at least once.
Heading up the incline the surface was definitely more small gravel than I remember and no signs of earth. Clearly the weather was too dry for there to be any mud but, even if it was wet enough, there was no earth for the mud that I remember. The 1 in 8 gradient is consistent for nearly a mile. Every so often there are now warning signs to cyclists about low walls and long drops. I recall old sleepers being set on their sides in the old track bed. For me they gave a need for an extra push up in the step since I had to clear it. Mini hurdles up the 1 in 8, all part of the fun. Their actual purpose was to divert water from running all of the way down the incline and aggressively eroding the surface. Now there is a stone covered drain down the sides as well as some diagonal runoffs to the sides with actual drain covers.
Gaining height opens up the view through Matlock Bath and on to Matlock. The cable cars over the A6 are hard to miss. When the development was announced I was somewhat stunned. Climbing on High Tor in the summertime had been frowned upon and even banned due to the possible distraction of the speck of a climber being spotted being a distraction to motorists on the A6. Now they have a regular shuttle of cable cars overhead.
As the gradient levels off when getting to the top of the Sheep Pasture incline the old winding house comes into view. Whilst this hasn’t been commercialised it has been opened up so, as with the workshops at its foot, it was the first time I’d seen inside.
Nothing of the old machinery is left, just a hanging stair case. I lunched whilst sat on a bench by the side of the old trackbed.
Looking out over Via Gellia, Cromford, Matlock Bath and Matlock I was also able to see some of Starkholmes and Riber Castle. Running up to Riber Castle from Starkholmes is steeper than the incline and, now, is definitely harder going underfoot albeit a softer surface. If I was looking for a short, sharp hill run I used to use that footpath. More of a leg killer was to go down the side of High Tor to the Wye and then back up and on to Riber.
Lunch finished and it was on towards Black Rocks. As well as climbing sessions at Black Rocks with a friend from College I’d also have a scramble around as a pause from the run. A few repetitions of slab end, merely a Mod in the old guide, now a Diff with my preferred route,the direct or a VDiff, we’re the norm. Wrestling with SOUTH Gully required a bit more effort and care. As I approached I was looking for Railway slab and it was easily identified from my memory.
I encountered two sights that I definitely never encountered there previously. The first was two parents with their two children using a rock to scrawl their names onto one of the large boulders. Neither a suitable example to be setting the children nor an appropriate use of the outdoors.
It will be a visual eyesore for quite some time. The other sight I wish I’d taken a photo of just to prove I wasn’t dreaming it. Three groups from a Hen Party came past. Unlike the squarking, sozzled and swearing public nuisance groups that I encounter on the trains, this lot seemed to be sober and were coherent. They were having a team-building day. I did dare to snap the plank walking and Tower of Hanoi equipment.
As a climbing place Black Rocks is a bit unusual in that the immediate approach is a limestone scree slope whereas the rock itself is Gritstone. Unlike the incline, the approach seemed to be steeper than I remember. It was definitely a much loser surface and more eroded. Up to this point the New Balance Vazee Summit 2 trainers had done well. Now, unfortunately, the cushioning of the ‘blown rubber’ sole gives the tread lugs a lot of movement and this was being a disadvantage. Couple this with one complaining ankle, the other ‘still need to build up my confidence after the break’ ankle and the damaged index toe, it was not a confident me walking up there. Bring back the original Karhu Groundhogs !.
Once away from the glare of the sun on the limestone, the Gritstone took over with its unabashed ruggedness and shapes. Whilst I had a movement memory of Slab End in my mind, ‘up some chipped step holds, move left and mantle over to the top’, I wasn’t sure that what I was looking at was Slab End. The reason why was because in my mind it was a ‘nothing route’, just a few moves and up. What I was confronted with wasn’t particularly high but was both higher and steeper than I remembered. Adjacent was a much shorter and less steep slab, again with a mantle finish. Out came the guidebook, Derwent Valley. Quick check and what I initially thought was Slab End was it. In my current state I was not going to venture onto it, another visit beckons when I am fit again, albeit I will not be as fit as I was back then.
Working my way around I ventured up to the top. Clearly the area has been much abused by the graffiti and littering brigade. McDonald’s drink container, wrappers, barbecue trays and other remains from their abuse of the environment.
‘Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints’.
From the top the view was again a mixture of reminiscing and change. The contours were the same but there has been a lot of housing development. I went back down, circled the base a bit and then headed off for the Middleton Incline. On a climbing visit day we’d stop off at Matlock Bath for some refreshments before she went back up to halls. Today I was continuing with my old running route by carrying on along the track bed of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. At Steeple Grange there is a lot of, what is for me, new housing. The Steeple Grange Light Railway is another reclamation of what was to make use of it in the present and preserve it for the future. In contrast, just beyond are some rusting wagons in a quarry exchange siding area.
The lower winding wheel and pit for the Middleton Incline has been preserved but not restored. Rusting cables and weather worn wheel mixed in with rotted timbers. On the way up there were more hazard warning signs, including ones for us mere two-legged as opposed to 2-wheeled mortals warning us of potential rock fall.
At Middleton Top the engine house building has clearly been maintained, some of the original stone ‘sleeper’ blocks are still in place and they are joined by an oddity. There is a mineral wagon in Midland grey with MR boldly painted on its sides. The chassis though, or at least the axle boxes, are from the later LMS period. It might be that the underframe is Midland but the axle boxes were replaced with LMS ones during the working life of the wagon.
I knew that there was now a cycle rental place a bit further on. I suppose I should have expected the large car park and other facility paraphernalia that was also there.
I gently took some steps towards the Hopton incline but realised I was realistically out of time for this saunter. Heading back down the Middleton Incline I realised that it was time to get the map out. I’d managed without so far but I needed it now. The area by the Black Rocks car park had changed a lot so I thought it prudent to check where I needed to be heading to get down to Cromford. I didn’t remember anything about the road down from Black Rocks to Cromford. I definitely didn’t remember the downhill 1 in 8. I remembered it was downhill but not the steepness or length. Back then I was usually thinking of a Derbyshire Oatcake, bacon and egg breakfast. Yes, horror of horrors, I prefer Derbyshire Oatcakes, or at least what I remember of them, to Staffordshire oatcakes.
Looking back I could see some people enjoying the top of the rocks. Also the view ahead of upper Matlock. At Cromford I first headed to the Methodist Chapel where the Scout group met. Then over to the other side of the mill pond for Scarthin Books.
At the A6 the seemingly out of place chalet style architecture of the wooden tea shop contrasts distinctly with the stone built houses. It was good to see them still there.
I knew that I did not have the time left to head through Matlock Bath and on to Matlock so my intended journey was not complete. I was however able to head back towards Cromford Station using the path running between the river Derwent and Willersley Rocks. The steep limestone with encroaching woodland has not lost its intimidating feel. There was also a familiar sight that once I saw it, I remembered its existence. When I saw the short metal marker post it was as though I’d never forgotten about it even though I’d not thought about it for 36 years. It provided a ‘cheat step’ for a climb.
At Cromford Station I had a short while to wait and then it was back to my present. Whilst I try not to live in the past I do believe in not losing sight of it. Remembering how things were and using that to improve our current and future existence is, to me, important.
With my journey not complete I have a reason to go back. How soon that will be I do not know. I do know that it will again be going back to the future.
As for those New Balance Yazee Summit 2 trainers, well good and bad. As mentioned above, on rock the soft blown rubber sole allows for movement rather than the digging in and gripping that a hard rubber would do. On the upside, I definitely can move in them. If I was still doing challenge walks or cross-country runs then, on suitable terrain they would definitely be amongst my footwear choices. They are undeniably fast as in they are light, comfortable, dynamic and superb heel to toe transition. The last pair of low heeled and fast trainers that I had that were as comfortable and good with mud traction were ETA. Alas ETA, British owned, designed and made, ceased to trade many years ago. Since then the New Balance 904 met the fast and comfortable but without the traction. Inov8 FlyRoc 375 had the low heel and deep tread for good traction but a bit too flexible in the mid foot for my plantar fascia. Of course, now that I’ve found my perfect fast moving trail shoe, what else do I find ?. Yes, you’ve guessed, it is no longer available in the UK !. Life is like that, grab positive opportunities while you can because as time passes so will they.