Custom contrived: Matlock Raft Race, Derbyshire

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Matlock Bath is justly proud of its Venetian carnival but there is another aquatic antic which is less genteel and shows the other side of the town a more raucous one. On Boxing Day crowds line, many prepared with deckchairs and pack lunches to watch below and indeed interact with the bizarre array of rafters below, as they speed or drift passed.

Draft idea or not

Local tradition tells that in 1961 a group of divers finding little they could do over the cold winter months decided it would be a good idea to come up with a fun charity event. Obviously picking Boxing Day as a day associated with wacky races and sports in general they set about organizing their first raft race. From the first year it was a huge success with people entering from all over the country with over 100 rafts taking part. Over the years the event has become more and more popular and as befits a calendar custom more and more bizarre!

Like most races its impossible to see beginning in end and most spectators simply watch for them as they flow and often rush down river, over the weir, often creating some hilarity depending on the seaworthiness of the raft and then to Cromford meadows at the finishing line.

Raft of ideas

With around 50 rafts there was a great array of oddness. There is a prize for the best dressed raft and it did not disappoint. Dressed in their obligatory helmets and floating devices for safety reason can be seen super heroes, men in drag, cartoon characters, there was a real attempt to make a show of it. The rafts were pretty amazing too and a considerable amount of effort had gone into them. The most amazing were the cut down cars, in particular in a mini, which sadly in its appearance stuck in the water would have been seen in the 2019 floods thereabouts. An account in the Matlock Mercury published on Saturday 29 December 2012 put it well:

In a show of bravery and sheer madness the intrepid rafters dressed up as members of the Muppets and Santa Claus, furiously paddling Minis through the rapids to the delight of spectators.”

Image may contain: water, outdoor and nature

Raft of missiles

The custom is not the most popular amongst certain quarters. Huge crowds had assembled overlooking the river cheering and waving.  Along the path by the river signs proclaim:

“No Eggs No Plastic bags”

This is reference to one of the strangest aspects of the custom, the throwing of objects at the rafts. As if navigating yourself down a river on a cold day in December was not enough the tradition of throwing eggs and flour at the participants has developed. When I arrived the whole walkway had become a slippery morass of flour and egg like some pancake making disaster. Crowds cheered as they pelted the contestants with flour bombs made on flour wrapped in clingfilm – hence the concern that these would affect the wildlife – a point I could not disagree with. Indeed, this aspect of the custom is one which would bring it close to closure I feel. One person on the bank had a whole bag full of pre-wrapped flour bundles, there must have been hundreds.

Image may contain: 3 people, outdoor and water

On the Derbyshire Dales website in 2017 the following pleas were made, with Paul Reeves, Environment Officer at the Environment Agency, saying :

“We realise the Matlock Raft Race is an important social event for the area, which attracts a large number of local residents as well as visitors from further afield, has a positive impact on the local economy, and raises funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

“However, we are appealing to spectators to consider the environment by not throwing flour-filled plastic bags or other objects at the raft racers and into the water this year.

“If plastic or paper bags enter the watercourse, they pose a real threat to wildlife both locally and further afield. Last year there were sightings of water birds trying to eat floating flour-filled bags, and the deadly impact of plastics on river and sea life is well known and currently in the news.”

Councillor Lewis Rose OBE, Leader of Derbyshire Dales District Council, said:

“The Boxing Day raft race has become something of a tradition here in the Derbyshire Dales and long may it continue. However, we absolutely support the Environment Agency’s plea to spectators to refrain from activities that threaten the environment and wildlife, as well as littering our waterways and streets.”

It made no effect as I saw in 2018!

Of course the rafters do not just idly pass by and let this rain of missiles happen. No they are prepared. Many carry super-soakers and some even water cannons. A number protect themselves with umbrellas. The crowd at times can get thoroughly wet and flour covered and one wonders how this all started. Did the rafters start the war or the onlookers felt the need to get involved. It is all hilarious stuff and a cheer goes out if a hit on the raft results in a participant covered in flour – but they were soon to hit back.

I watched as a cloud of flour fell over the edge to coat a superhero below soon to be greeting the assailant with a rapid fire of the water cannon. I passed a family covered head to toe in flour who had been caught in the crossfire. They were as happy as can be. But it is messy stuff. Unpopular and from the mess and litter one could see why but it would be a shame to see one of the best aspects of the custom disappear due to a lack of lateral thinking.

Recent events with flooding meant that the Raft Race was cancelled for the first time perhaps ever. One is concerned that the gentile folk of Matlock Bath do not use its temporary cancellation as a permanent one

On their website it was clear how popular the custom is:

Social media activity around the cancellation was outstanding (the cancellation post reached over 20,000 people and shared by 1,500 people), it is clear that the event is well loved and appreciated by individuals and families, some travelling from far afield to take part and see the event.”

On the website the organised discussed its cancellation. It seemed that there were genuine reasons for the cancellation following the terrible 2019 floodings. However it did seem a shame in a year when Matlock’s river had become a threat not a gift not to allow something which would have seen it in a positive light. However I feel we will once again be covered in plumes of flower and soaked to the skin when it returns in 2020.

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