Taking The Waters

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January 5th 2019
Published: January 11th 2019
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The Peak District can be a tricky place in winter. The weather can change in an instant in the high altitude – well high altitude by UK standards. The Other Half seemed keen to have a day out, so I scoured the fixtures for inspiration within a sensible mileage. I checked the weather forecast to see if the relatively mild and dry conditions would forecast would continue into the weekend. I didn’t fancy the prospect of snow. I sent her a link to the Visit Buxton website, which carries some carefully selected photography that highlights the town as a cross between Harrogate and Bath. I knew full well that she would bite on the possibility and then I causally mentioned, that Whitby Town were also scheduled to be making an appearance in town. We set off early to make the most of the daylight. The journey was a mere 40 odd miles, but once into Derbyshire the roads make progress slow. I have never got my head totally round the Peak District. I am used to the wide open spaces of the North Yorkshire Moors. The proximity of the large conurbations in Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Greater Manchester means large number have fairly easy access and the roads are often gridlocked around the major attractions. The sections around Matlock and Darley Dale are also very industrialised and surprisingly still so. We hadn’t been in this direction for a while since an excursion to the John Smedley knitwear factory at Lea Mills – bargains galore are sometimes to be had from the makers of the finest UK knitwear, so much so that punters even fly in from Japan with an empty suitcase - and an extraordinarily good second hand bookshop in Cromford . Matlock Bath – which can be a bit of a circus on a summer Sunday – was all quiet just after 9 am on a winter Saturday morning. The outlets in the unofficial inland centre of fish and chip sales were closed. I puzzle quite why fish and chips is a logical food choice for so many, such a significant distance from the nearest piece of sea. We headed on to Bakewell – home of the pudding, not the tart. It always looks attractive. We parked up in Buxton and started our wander.

My initial impression was that I had misread the weather. It was bitter. A nasty wind chill was making it feel sub-zero in England’s highest market town. A very limited number of market stalls were setting up in the upper Market Place near the Town Hall. Footfall looked meagre, so it could have been a long day for them (or indeed a short one, if they packed up early and went home). The Town Hall sits on an elevated position overlooking the town. A tree lined pedestrian avenue focuses the eye down towards The Crescent and the spa area of town. The similarities of Buxton to Harrogate and Bath is no coincidence, as the expansion of the town was linked to the influx of people coming to “take the waters”. The Romans were the first to arrive – one of their original markers was located up near the football ground and is now housed in the museum. They named the settlement – Aqua Arnematiae – which is The Water of the Goddess of the Grove. It was popular in Elizabethan times – Mary Queen of Scots came to stay, whilst she was under house arrest by the Earl of Shrewsbury. Visitor numbers ramped up in late Georgian times when Buxton transformed itself into a resort destination. The Duke of Devonshire pumped a load of his industrial profits to make it a destination from 1780 onwards. I had never really considered that they would be any discernible difference in the spa waters between towns, but by all accounts Buxton water has a temperature of 28 degrees. Matlock Bath nearby could only boast a temperature of 21 degrees. The view from the Town Hall is pretty impressive. The land drops away on what they call The Slopes. The War Memorial is half way down and The Crescent is at the base. It was built at vast expense in the 1780s and modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath. It has been undergoing a serious renovation for the last 10 years or so and a few strands of scaffolding still mask the exterior at one end with some unsightly works containers adding to the visual eyesore. I am not sure what the finished building will be used for, but whatever the final purpose it can’t fail but to be impressive.

The Old Hall Hotel sits at the end of The Crescent. It was established as a hotel in 1727 and is possibly still “the hotel” to stay at when in town. It faces the Pavilion Gardens, ornate Victorian gardens which stretch out into the valley. They were originally known as the Serpentine Works and were expanded with a cast iron Pavilion in 1871. The large glasshouse that houses the current Tourist Information centre, a café and a hot house Winter Garden of tropical plants were all closed. The design was similar apparently to that of the original Crystal Palace. The Opera House backs on to the building. It was added in 1903. A design by Frank Matcham, who also lists the London Palladium among his other credits, it showed the confidence of Buxton in this era. The 900 capacity venue was built for live performance, but was largely used for cinema from 1927 onwards. A refurbishment in 1976 brought performances back. It seems to have gone from strength to strength and even survived the hiccup of the ex-Finance Chief having it away with about £250,000 to “fund his lavish lifestyle”. One of little luxuries was listed as a Manchester United season ticket, which shows how times change. We nipped into the grand foyer. “Opera House” was inscribed in the floor by the booking office. It wasn’t possible to take a peek inside. A coffee morning in one of the bars looked a strangely subdued gathering.

The nearby Devonshire Dome is nothing other than impressive. The correct name for the building is the Devonshire Royal Hospital, but that was never the first intended purpose. The building was constructed in the 1780s as a stable block and extra accommodation for the servants of the upmarket guests staying at The Crescent. The 100+ horses were certainly well catered for, at least in terms of the architecture of the accommodation provided. By 1859, the horses were on their way out. The Duke of Devonshire was persuaded to convert the building into a 300 bed hospital to rival the similar establishments in Harrogate and Bath. As part of the conversion, architect Robert Ripon Duke devised what was the world’s largest unsupported dome. The dome is pretty distinctive today, so must have been fairly special in Victorian times. The dome was 145 feet, which comfortably beat St Peters Basilica in Rome at 141 feet and dwarfed that of St Paul’s Cathedral at 112 feet. It is obviously tiny compared to such as something like the Georgia Dome in Atlanta at 840 feet, but still remains the largest in the UK today. Spa baths were added in 1913 and the hospital functioned until 2000. The building has now been renovated and incorporated as a campus of the University of Derby. Alas, it was a Saturday and the campus was closed. The University makes extra by hiring the building out for exhibitions and glamorous weddings. We were therefore unable to get inside. On a weekday, you can apparently just wander in and use the café. The only Victorian dome with a Costa Coffee franchise hiding within?

A huge hotel dominates the hillside on the far side of the town centre. The Palace Hotel was built by Henry Curry, the Devonshire Estate architect in 1863, who was also responsible for the construction of the Pump Room. As with many large hotels, it became a victim of the sunshine package holiday and apparently closed down in 1970. An unwanted relic of a former time. Today it is back up and running, having being renovated and re-opened in 1996. It is now part of the Britannia chain, who run other similar Victorian hotels and fill up the rooms by making them available as centres for coach tours. We climbed the steps and entered through the swing doors. I was instantly transported to the days of my youth – it could have been the Zetland Hotel in the North East premier Seaside Resort. A dramatic staircase led from the reception and staff were busy in the huge breakfast area clearing up after finish of service. A coach was outside, so some were enjoying a post-Christmas trip in Derbyshire – one of their number was having a power nap on a couch in reception fortified by their bacon and eggs. We walked down towards the town centre and into the Cavendish Arcade. The Victorians loved a covered shopping environment and the pavements outside had the wrought iron canopies that seem so familiar. The Cavendish Arcade wasn’t a covered shopping environment and was originally built as the Buxton Baths on the site of the original Roman structure. It is now an Aladdin’s Cave of small shops and cafes. The walls are still covered in sky blue tiles with a decoration. They looked original. The roof was a mosaic of coloured glass, which is apparently part of the largest stain glass window in the UK. Large domes. Large stained glass windows. There was a theme going on in Buxton.

Turners Memorial stands out front. It was erected to the memory of Samuel Turner, who was among other things a Director in the Buxton improvement Company. He was instrumental in growing and developing the town. This area used to be the bus terminal and the Memorial was damaged in 1979, removed and forgotten about. It was restored and added back to the townscape. Buses no longer turn in this area! Buxton is synonymous with the waters. I was therefore amused to see the plaque on the fountain across the way stating “unfit for drinking”. We headed into the nearby Café Nero instead. The main shopping street is a little tired, but not anymore than elsewhere these days. We cut through a very small version of Marks and Spencer to find a Waitrose in the covered modern arcade behind the street. We moved off to the Buxton Museum & Gallery, which is set in an imposing building up the hill towards the Town Hall. It was free admission, which encourages a visit. I have visited a fair few of these small town museums over the course of the last year. The standard format was followed here with a run through the history of the town. A side gallery of photographs was attached with a small shop. There were no surprises here, but some interesting discoveries. Ashford Black Marble was one. It is neither marble nor black. It is in fact a form of limestone, that turns black when polished. The main source is close to Buxton and the museum houses a good collection of decorative pieces manufactured during the Victorian heyday of production.

After my New Years Day experience, I had high hopes for Whitby Town’s prospects this afternoon. The league table and form book suggested otherwise. Silverlands is the highest football ground in England, so in some ways is in the holy grail of lists to be visited. At 997 feet above sea level , it shades past Tow Law of the Northern League. The highest league ground is West Bromwich Albion at a mere 551 feet. Buxton were formed in 1877, so they have been around a long time without ever getting close to Football League status. The Tarmac Silverlands Stadium is just up the hill off the town centre and is a mix of traditional and modern. The Main Stand is a 1960s creation with tip up plastic seats fixed in amongst the original wooden backrests. The seats were apparently acquired the old Maine Road, when Manchester City relocated out of Moss Side for the Etihad. The Other Half promptly rapped her knee on a metal upright that is part of the old wooden seat uprights and announced it reminded her of Hearts Tynecastle Main Stand in Edinburgh – except the seats were blue. She was somewhat placated when she spotted the club mascot dressed as a Buck wandering around the perimeter of the pitch. A long shallow covered terrace opposite provided little obstacle to a number of footballs being launched out of the ground. A good job Micky Droy never played here. The majority of the Buxton support populated the larger covered terrace behind the goal. The playing surface was artificial 4G, which is arguably a good move with an altitude that could mean lots of frost postponements. The pitch and the floodlights – presumably added after a Football Foundation grant – allows community use and brings in extra revenue. The game was a bit of a non-event. Whitby had clearly over exerted themselves against Scarborough a few days before and looked tired. A soft penalty in the first half against the run of play and a second soon after the break were enough for the hosts. The majority of the 321 went home happy. As the Man from Montreal suggested over the Christmas break, the romance of attending the fixture often surpasses the reality. In this case he wasn’t wrong, although we were spared the 127 mile journey back to North Yorkshire.

Appendix 1

Evostik Premier League (North)

Buxton 2 Whitby Town 0

Date: Saturday 5th January 2019 @ 1500 Hours

Venue: Tarmac Silverlands Stadium, Silverlands, Buxto. Derbyshire. SK17 6QH

Attendance : 321

Scorers : 1-0 Hardy (Buxton) Pen 16 Mins, 2-0 Pritchard (Buxton) 50 Mins

Additional photos below
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