As the Matlock Bath Illuminations return this month, Richard charts the history of this local custom and learns that whilst much has changed since its inception in 1897, this is a tradition that remains true to its roots.

For several centuries Matlock Bath has proved a draw for tourists who have flocked to the village to admire the local scenery, take the waters and enjoy the various amusements which, over the years, have ranged from petrifying wells to slot machines.

Famous visitors include depraved poet Lord Byron and Victorian aesthete John Ruskin. It was, however, a regal visit which inspired this month’s featured tradition.

With its amusement arcades, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours, Matlock Bath has often been described as resembling ‘the seaside without the sea’.

What it does have is the River Derwent, which flows prominently through alongside the main A6 road and forms the arena for the annual Matlock Bath Illuminations, otherwise romantically known as ‘Venetian Nights’, when a series of specially-constructed illuminated boats take to the water to impress spectators.

What was to become an annual tradition arose out of Matlock Bath’s festivities staged in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Great British Life: Decorated boats at the Venetian Fete postcard c1950s. The boat nearest the camera seems to have half-sunk Photo: Richard BradleyDecorated boats at the Venetian Fete postcard c1950s. The boat nearest the camera seems to have half-sunk Photo: Richard Bradley

The programme for the celebrations included illuminating the riverside gardens by candlelight, fireworks, bonfires, and illuminated boats taking to the water - although most of these entertainments had been provided in various forms prior to the Jubilee, with the dramatic riverside cliffs having been augmented by various methods of illumination throughout the 1800s, as well as river-based regattas and swimming contests being held on the Derwent.

The inspiration for bringing together the illuminated elements for the Jubilee was a remark made by the Queen when she stayed in Matlock Bath as a young princess: she recalled looking out her hotel window and seeing the candle lights reflected in the River Derwent below.

Benjamin Bryan in Matlock Manor and Parish gives us a flavour of the 1897 attractions, which he describes as an ‘occasion of great rejoicing’:

‘The place was prettily decorated, garlands with mottoes being hung across the main thoroughfare. On one of these was "The Record Reign," with the word "Unfinished" on the reverse. Another motto was, "Sixty, not out." […at nine o’ clock there was] a general illumination by fairy lamps and Chinese and Japanese lanterns; at half-past nine, a flight of rockets from the top of Masson, and a torchlight procession from near the Jubilee bridge down the eastern bank of the river, then up and over the rocks, and back to the starting point.

Great British Life: Matlock Bath Illuminations programme from 1978 Photo: Richard BradleyMatlock Bath Illuminations programme from 1978 Photo: Richard Bradley

‘This was followed by a procession of illuminated boats on the river and simultaneous illumination of the walks and rocks by coloured fires. At ten o'clock, the final instalment was reached, a bonfire being lighted on Masson.’

The illuminated event quickly became firmly lodged in the public consciousness and was subsequently repeated. Just two years on from the Jubilee, it was referred to confidently in the press as the ‘annual Venetian Fete’.

The Sheffield Independent of September 5 1899 estimated 10,000 visitors were present along the promenades and banks of the Derwent.

Up until the First World War years (when the custom was suspended), the Venetian Fetes were held in both May and September.

Since their resumption in 1919, the Illuminations have crystallised to become a firm fixture of early autumn weekend evenings in the Derbyshire calendar – taking advantage of the shortening nights to enhance the effect of the illuminations and bringing additional custom for local businesses after the end of the summer tourist season.

Great British Life: Frankensteins Monster rising from a coffin boat Photo: Richard BradleyFrankensteins Monster rising from a coffin boat Photo: Richard Bradley

The event again ground to an enforced halt in 1939 because of war, and remained lapsed during the postwar austerity period, but was revived in 1950, which marked the first time the hundreds of glass candle lanterns along the riverside walkways were replaced with electric lighting.

Throughout the inter-war years, the Venetian Fete had been held on the first Saturday night in September, but from 1952 onwards the season was extended throughout September weekends and into October, leading to their rebranding from the Venetian Fete to Venetian Nights.

In the early years of the 1950s revival the A6 through Matlock Bath was closed for the opening of the Illuminations with visitors spilling into the roadway. However, by the mid-20th century the automobile was ascending in its dominancy.

This phenomenon led to a scheme to widen the A6, necessitating blasting through the rockfaces by the side of the existing road, demolishing several buildings and the relocation of the Venetian Nights from the Promenade Gardens further down the river to its current site at Derwent Gardens from 1967 onwards.

During these years the event was organised by the Matlock Bath Venetian Fete and Illuminations Committee, who set about making improvements to the riverside gardens including construction of a new bridge to allow better access for visitors and a bandstand.

Great British Life: Lighting up the candlelit boat, 2018 Photo: Richard BradleyLighting up the candlelit boat, 2018 Photo: Richard Bradley

There had always been a fireworks element since its Victorian inception, as Bryan’s account highlights, but by the later years of the 20th century, entertainment had become a slicker, glitzier affair.

According to the 1978 souvenir programme I have in my collection of local history ephemera, attendees that year could look forward to fireworks including The Great Tank Battle, The Mighty Zambesi Falls, and ‘Fred and Frieda the Firey Pigeons’.

There was also entertainment from The World’s Famed Escape Artiste, Hardeeni, aged only 26 but who had been studying ‘this gripping and mysterious art’ of escapology for 17 years.

To cap it all, the opening night was graced by Blue Peter’s Peter Purves, who was due to leave the station approach road at 7:45pm in a procession led by the Chesterfield Toppers Carnival Band.

After arriving at Derwent Gardens there is the promise that ‘Peter will then have a few words to say’ and would sign autographs ‘for Illuminations programme holders only’ before performing the Switch-on Ceremony around 8.40pm.

Other celebrities who conducted this illustrious duty during the 1970s include Chris Tarrant, Tony Hart, Keith Chegwin, Wendy Craig, and Jon Pertwee.

Great British Life: The Illuminations continue to capture the imagination of visitors, as they have done since the 1800s Photo: Simon Beynon/Derbyshire Dales District CouncilThe Illuminations continue to capture the imagination of visitors, as they have done since the 1800s Photo: Simon Beynon/Derbyshire Dales District Council

Any English outdoor occasion has the potential to be ruined by the weather and the 1983 Illuminations season was marred by poor conditions throughout.

With visitor numbers and takings well down, the organising committee lacked sufficient funds to stage future Illuminations and dissolved themselves.

At this point Derbyshire Dales District Council (then known as West Derbyshire) stepped in, the first event under their control held in 1984.

Since 1903, the Arkwright Cup provided by the local Arkwright family (descendants of Richard Arkwright of cotton mill fame) has been awarded to the illuminated boat judged to be the best design each year.

In the early years, boatbuilders frequently took inspiration from local surroundings. In 1901, Mr Allen of Cromford constructed a boat incorporating a miniature design of Matlock Bath church.

In 1908 a Mr Higton won first prize for his recreation of the Tower House from the Heights of Abraham.

A 1909 boat replicated a design for the building which opened the following year - originally known as the Kursaal but nowadays familiar as the Pavilion or ‘Pav’, current headquarters of the Peak District Lead Mining Museum.

In 1919 the winning boat’s theme was Willersley Castle, which until the war outbreak had been home to the Arkwrights.

A 1926 winning design depicted the Switchback in Derwent Gardens, a primitive form of roller coaster powered by gravity which was operational from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Other local landmarks recreated included Crich Stand (1922) and Riber Castle and Monsal Dale Viaduct (both 1930).

As early as 1900, the medium of electricity was being deployed on the boats, when J. E. Lawton turned out his electric launch. According to the Derbyshire Times, ‘It was studded with hundreds of vari-coloured lights and had a charming effect’.

By the 1950s the majority of boats had become electrically-lit – but in a charming nod to the event’s origins which continue to this day, one boat every year is solely lit by candlelight to give visitors an idea of the experience their predecessors enjoyed.

I was kindly allowed by the organising committee to attend, observe and document the 2018 Illuminations from a garage by the side of the Derwent where the boats are launched onto the river.

Here I witnessed the candlelit boat, designed with assistance from pupils of Matlock’s Highfields School, being lit up.

A handwritten note propped against the wall read ‘68 Candles’, suggestive of a big-budget Hollywood remake of the famous Two Ronnies sketch.

The themes for boat designs in 2018 included Thomas the Tank Engine, a fire engine, LNER train, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Frankenstein setpiece complete with a monster with glowing red eyes which hydraulically rose out of a coffin.

Further down the Derwent, Belper too once had its own Venetian Nights in the early 20th century, held at the River Gardens, opened in 1906. Here, local lads were granted free admission in exchange for lighting up the fairy lights comprising candles in glass jars strung alongside the river.

Belper’s event has long since fallen by the wayside, whilst upriver at Matlock Bath – albeit with evolutions along the way – the Venetian Nights continue to light up the autumn nights of the Derbyshire Dales, enchanting visitors and locals alike.