The splendours of Matlock Bath are perhaps difficult to explain to anyone not familiar with English eccentricity. Bereft of the seaside, Midland’s people appear to have created one inland, with its fish and chip shops, stick of rock emporia, amusement arcades and kiss me quick frivolity. If one looked at the main parade of shops which not only regale in these but are joined by an aquarium, rides, ice-cream eaters and rows of motorbikes..one could see it easily transferred to face some salty sandy strip, waves breaking and long pier but no..turn around and you’ll see the great river Derwent slithering through this valley of vicarious vicissitudes instead. This was and is a spa town and like many spa towns it had a defined season. Defined seasons are all very well when we are by the sea, when sun bathing is a bit problematic in Autumn…but I get the impression that for spa towns, especially those in the decline in the late 1800s, any way of extending this season and bringing more tourists in would be welcome…so as the summer season comes to an end, days shorten, Matlock Bath invites you to its most colourful attraction…the Venetian illuminations.
The event dates back to 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which is interesting as Victoria was said to be the inspiration. She recalled that when staying in Matlock Bath, she remarked how she saw the candle lights of the town reflected on the Derwent when staying there and thought the mist over the river was magical…and so the town decided to capitalise on this description. These were the days when everyone hung on the thoughts of the monarch…has little changed!?
Tripping the light fantastic
So in 1897, a selection of fairy lamps, Chinese and Japanese lanterns was used and a torchlight procession was undertaken through the village. Coloured bonfires lit up the gorge and illuminated boats floated down the river. So popular was the event, that the local trades people invested in glass bucket lanterns to illuminate the parade during the first Saturday in September every year. The growing popularity resulted in the formation of a ‘lamp committee’ which organised these displays but it was not until 1903 that the decorated and illuminated boats became a regular part of the event with a competition for the best one established called the Arkright Cup. This competition continues till this day, with a longer month or so long festival being established in 1952.
The delightful Riverside gardens are the venue for this curious custom. No better location can be found which typifies the Victorian splendour of old. Here everything trees, fountains and wells, are adorned with old fashioned bulb lighting which as dusk envelops gives the area a magical enchanted feeling.
I arrived at the opening ceremony to watch, the councillor to officially open the illuminations. The switch on in the 1970s and 80s was done by people as varied as children’s artist Tony Hart to Doctor who’s Jon Pertwee, disappearing in the 1990s in a way competing with Blackpool’s famous switch ons, which still continue. Two small children were selected and I was amused to watch another have a hissy-fit when they were not selected: I do hope they have the same view after seeing the Blackpool lights switched up by some celeb?!Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one! Now with the help of these two small children selected from the audience, the delightful fairy-tale delight was switched on for another year. In reflection perhaps a celeb may raise the profile of the event, but understandably absence considering the appearance fees those celebs charge.
The main attractions here of course are the boats. During the day, these I must admit look unimpressive, but under the cover of darkness, their magnificence comes to life, especially when they are lit up all at once on their first outing. What is impressive, aside from the hundred and possibly thousands of bulbs, are mechanisms used, this year having a working Ferris wheel, swaying Chinese Dragon, and blinking eyed Thomas the Tank Engine Lorry. The first float however comes out solely being lit by candles as traditional, a custom which begun in the 1980s I believe to show what the original floats look like, in 2013 it was a bomber..impressive but not ad the main show and difficult to get a decent photo!
At the end of the first evening, it was called upon for the councillor again to give out, the prizes. A strange collection of people clumped near the bandstand: Chinese mandarins, Smurfs, Willy Wonka! Four prizes were on offer in this Arkright cup. This competition has attracted some regular entrants, such as electrician David Gregory, who since 1971 has entered every year and won the cup 11 times.
With over 1800 coloured bulbs per boat, and over 100,000 visitors, Matlock’s illuminations are certainly in the big league when it comes to customs but outside the area little known especially compared to Blackpool. Fortunately, for anyone reading this unlike when I describe these customs, they have finished, but in this case, the Illuminations continue every weekend until the end of October, so there’s still time to experience them if you are in the area.
On certain weekends, the night finishing with a spectacular fireworks. A strange melancholy amongst the obvious vibrancy of a sky scattered in fireworks. The fireworks themselves subtly telling us that winter is on its way, time to tidy up and put the shops to bed..close down and finally reconcile oneself to the quieter winter ahead!
Copyright image and text Pixyledpublications