Saint Mark's Basil­ica, Venice

Un­known, 1890

Geographical - - RGS-IBG ARCHIVE -

Con­se­crated in 832 AD as an ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal build­ing to house the re­mains of St Mark (the saint who evan­ge­lised the peo­ple of the Veneto, be­com­ing their pa­tron saint), Venice’s most fa­mous church has long at­tracted vis­i­tors. One of the best-known ex­am­ples of Italo-Byzan­tine ar­chi­tec­ture, it sits at the east­ern end of the Pi­azza San Marco, where it con­nects with the Doge’s Palace, the one-time res­i­dence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme author­ity of the for­mer Vene­tian Re­pub­lic. St Mark’s re­mains were stolen from Alexan­dria, Egypt, by two Vene­tian mer­chants in 829 – an act of ‘pi­ous theft’. A mo­saic in the basil­ica de­picts sailors cov­er­ing the saint’s re­mains with pork and cab­bage leaves in an at­tempt to de­ter Mus­lim guards from mak­ing a close in­spec­tion.

His­to­ries such as these, com­bined with the ar­chi­tec­tural and artistic her­itage of Europe’s most ro­man­tic city, have long drawn tourists to Venice. Since the end of the 18th cen­tury, tourism has been at the heart of the Vene­tian econ­omy, with lux­ury es­tab­lish­ments such as the Danieli Ho­tel and the Caffé Flo­rian specif­i­cally built to cater to wealthy for­eign­ers. By the late 1800s, more than 5,000 pack­age-hol­i­day tourists were com­ing to Venice ev­ery day dur­ing the high sea­son and even at that time, they caused some con­ster­na­tion, with the nov­el­ist Henry James re­fer­ring to them as ‘troop­ing Bar­bar­ians’.

Nev­er­the­less, un­til the 20th cen­tury, such vis­i­tors were still the wealthy mi­nor­ity and fairly peace­ful scenes such as that de­picted here were nor­mal. To­day, how­ever, Venice’s cul­tural fi­bre is un­der threat from the in­tense pres­sures of mass tourism. Some 30 mil­lion vis­i­tors pound the cob­bled streets ev­ery year (when there isn’t a pan­demic on), over­crowd­ing nar­row walk­ways and the city’s iconic canals. Res­i­dent num­bers have dropped from 175,000 in 1951 to just 50,000 in 2019; tra­di­tional shops have given way to sou­venir shops and sand­wich bars; enor­mous cruise ships dock in the city cen­tre. Car­ry­ing up to 4,000 pas­sen­gers, these leviathans pol­lute the city’s frag­ile la­goon en­vi­ron­ment and cre­ate waves that erode an­cient foun­da­tions. Con­se­quently, Venice has found it­self at the heart of the cur­rent de­bate about sus­tain­able tourism, a place sim­ply too pop­u­lar for its own good.

Abalmy af­ter­noon in late sum­mer. A row of mo­tor­cy­cles lines a sweep­ing prom­e­nade, their chrome and mir­rors glint­ing in the sun. Bleeps and bells ring from a nearby amuse­ment ar­cade. Bik­ers in boots and fam­i­lies in flip flops browse post­cards and sou­venirs. Some hold ice cream cones, oth­ers trays of fish and chips. This vi­brant week­end scene is typ­i­cal of many Bri­tish sea­side re­sorts. Yet in­stead of golden sand and rolling waves we’re by a busy road, the A6. Across the tar­mac, the River Der­went lies hid­den be­low a steep bank of trees.

Mat­lock Bath nes­tles at the bot­tom of the Der­went Val­ley in the Der­byshire Peak District. The vil­lage has be­come a unique anom­aly within Bri­tain’s old­est Na­tional Park. It’s the sea­side re­sort a hun­dred miles from the sea. There is even an an­nual fes­ti­val that ri­vals any­thing at Blackpool. Oc­to­ber sees crowds gather to en­joy the Mat­lock

Bath Il­lu­mi­na­tions. A pa­rade of floats on the river bathe the wa­ter in colour­ful lights. Sadly, cur­rent cir­cum­stances can­celled the 2020 event.

My last visit to Mat­lock Bath was while stay­ing with fam­ily in Not­ting­ham, a re­turn jour­ney of 50 miles. An­other day-trip­per, al­beit more lo­cal, is Pro­fes­sor Joe Smith, Di­rec­tor of the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety (with IBG). Smith grew up nearby and vis­ited from an early age. ‘I re­mem­ber go­ing as a child on the bus. Ev­ery­thing you would find at the sea­side was there; fish and chips, rock, can­dyfloss.’ Smith’s fam­ily tree has roots in the Der­went Val­ley span­ning at least two cen­turies. ‘As they say of sheep I feel “heft” to this part of Der­byshire.’

The trail starts at the Grand Pav­il­ion. Its domed roof and baby pink walls sug­gest Ital­ian and Moghul palaces. The build­ing opened in 1910 as a the­atre and en­ter­tain­ment venue. Its vast size sug­gests how many peo­ple en­joyed these fa­cil­i­ties. The Pav­il­ion pro­vides other clues to the vil­lage’s de­vel­op­ment.

Down­stairs is home to the Peak District Min­ing Mu­seum. ‘The Der­went Val­ley de­vel­oped through the man­age­ment of wa­ter,’ says Smith. ‘First came min­ing, then hy­dro power and then leisure.’ Peak District lead min­ing has been traced to the 12th cen­tury. Five cen­turies later, lead was Bri­tain’s most valu­able com­mod­ity af­ter wool. Lead was used to make roof­ing, glaz­ing, pipes and am­mu­ni­tion. Wa­ter was cen­tral to smelt­ing and ‘dress­ing’ (clean­ing) lead ore. To ex­tract the ore, tun­nels called ‘soughs’ drained ex­cess wa­ter into the River Der­went. Among the ben­e­fi­cia­ries were Sir Richard Ark­wright’s Crom­ford and Mas­son Mills. Both are just down­river of Mat­lock Bath and now part of the Der­went Val­ley Mills UNESCO World Her­itage Site. Count­less mills har­nessed the fast-flow­ing Der­went’s power, in Ark­wright’s case to spin cot­ton.

Smith’s fam­ily were in­volved with the in­dus­try. His pa­ter­nal fore­fa­thers were clock­mak­ers. By the 1850s they were mak­ing clocks and gears for build­ings through­out the Der­went Val­ley, in­clud­ing wa­ter mills. ‘At the point of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, you needed gears,’ Smith ex­plains. ‘Gears unite ma­chines, ma­te­ri­als and peo­ple.’ And clocks don’t just tell the time; they make and keep time. ‘Clock tow­ers we of­ten think of as pub­lic and dec­o­ra­tive were in­dus­trial tools to dis­ci­pline a work­force.’

Be­sides in­dus­trial fuel, the river pro­vided an­other qual­ity that ben­e­fited the vil­lage. Der­went Gar­dens is a

Peer­ing down, the pas­tel coloured houses and shops line the bot­tom like sweets in a bag

pleas­ant park scat­tered with grot­tos and foun­tains. At the far end are some shim­mer­ing springs. Steam rises from the wa­ter, which feels cosily warm to the touch. The vil­lage is named af­ter ther­mal springs dis­cov­ered in the 1600s. This warm­ing ‘bath’ soon gained a rep­u­ta­tion for medic­i­nal qual­i­ties. The ther­mal springs were said to cure a va­ri­ety of ail­ments and when the Old Bath Ho­tel opened in 1698

(on the site of what is now the Grand Pav­il­ion’s car park), Mat­lock Bath be­came a renowned spa re­sort. ‘My ma­ter­nal great grand­fa­ther was mad for cu­ra­tive wa­ters,’ Smith says. ‘He was a self-taught chemist and built up a suc­cess­ful paint­works com­pany. Us­ing his paint-got­ten gains he in­vested in a hy­dro, a spa ho­tel, in Mat­lock. My dad re­mem­bers swim­ming there as a boy be­fore the war.’

Be­sides ‘tak­ing the wa­ters’ many vis­i­tors took to the scenery. From Der­went Gar­dens the trail climbs the steep tree-lined val­ley. Peer­ing down from the sum­mit, the pas­tel coloured houses and shops line the bot­tom like sweets in a bag. Ahead is the vast lime­stone crag of High Tor. At 300 feet, it’s one of Eng­land’s tallest in­land cliffs. High Tor cre­ates a dra­matic, al­most alpine set­ting. Mat­lock Bath’s Vic­to­rian nick­name was ‘Lit­tle Switzer­land’.

To­day there is even a ca­ble car, which takes vis­i­tors to the Heights of Abra­ham coun­try park.

Mat­lock Bath’s sight­seers in­cluded Lord By­ron, Charles Dick­ens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the then Princess Vic­to­ria. An­other was Mary Shel­ley.

Her 1818 novel Franken­stein in­cludes a com­ment on the land­scape: ‘The coun­try in the neigh­bour­hood of this vil­lage re­sem­bles Switzer­land; but ev­ery­thing is on a lower scale.’

Shel­ley’s ref­er­ence re­flected upon wider events. Franken­stein was pub­lished three years af­ter the Napoleonic Wars ended. Fol­low­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion, mil­i­tary con­flict raged in Europe for al­most 25 years. Vis­it­ing the Con­ti­nent be­came very dan­ger­ous so, in­stead of tak­ing ‘the Grand Tour’, wealthy Bri­tish trav­ellers ex­plored their home­land.

The Peak District, Lake District and else­where be­came fash­ion­able re­treats. The sum­mer of 2020, with its Euro­pean quar­an­tines and Bri­tish stay­ca­tions, of­fers an in­trigu­ing par­al­lel. Con­stant dan­ger, re­duced travel, in­creased re­stric­tions, a sim­i­lar rise in lo­cal tourism.

Mass tourism came to Mat­lock Bath when the rail­way sta­tion opened in 1840. From the view of High Tor, the trail winds down­hill past the sta­tion car park. Vic­to­rian tourists packed into 19 trains per day. Mat­lock Bath still has one of

Der­byshire’s long­est sta­tion plat­forms. The small vil­lage soon strug­gled to meet this in­creased foot­fall. To re­lieve con­ges­tion river­side paths were ex­panded, in­clud­ing the ro­man­ti­cally named Lovers’ Walks. The Lovers’ Walks were first laid out in the 1740s and are among Bri­tain’s old­est pub­lic plea­sure gar­dens. Re­mark­ably, the trees lin­ing the paths are much older and pro­tected as An­cient Wood­land.

The trail con­cludes with an­other ‘Source of Cu­rios­ity and Amaze­ment’. Mat­lock Bath Aquar­ium is home to the vil­lage’s only sur­viv­ing pet­ri­fy­ing well. Vic­to­rian vis­i­tors flooded to see how it mys­te­ri­ously turned ob­jects into stone. Pet­ri­fied cups, jugs and even hats were sold as cu­rios. Such wells were of­ten as­cribed as works of magic or witch­craft. The ac­tual source is the lo­cal Der­went lime­stone, which makes Mat­lock Bath’s ther­mal springs very rich in cal­cium. When the wa­ter evap­o­rates, de­posits of cal­cium car­bon­ate and lime salts coat items left nearby.

Mat­lock Bath may seem like a sea­side re­sort with­out the sea but the pet­ri­fy­ing well is a re­minder that in fact wa­ter is ev­ery­where. In the form of the Der­went, it lit­er­ally runs through the vil­lage. Wa­ter cre­ated the ther­mal springs and pow­ered the Vic­to­rian industries, and still fu­els to­day’s tourists. From lat­tes to lol­lies, there is al­ways a re­fresh­ing drop nearby.

Mat­lock Bath on the steep banks of the Der­went River

South Pa­rade in Mat­lock Bath

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