We bought Britain’s weirdest attraction on impulse after seeing an advert in The Telegraph

I’m swinging in the wind, some 330 feet in the air. Below are lush meadows and densely forested slopes; the only sound is the delighted squeak of the cable car behind me. The scene is almost Alpine. But there are no cowbells or towering peaks. Instead, the treetop views are of tightly packed rows of stone terraced houses, a train chug into a station, and a cluster of motorbikes dodging traffic on the busy A6. I’m in Derbyshire, heading for one of the UK’s most bizarre tourist attractions – and a cable car is the only way in.

This is no one-hit wonder – the hilltop Heights of Abraham (more on the esoteric name later) in Matlock Bath has been attracting visitors to its show caves and romantically “wild” hill gardens since 1787. (A canny local entrepreneur had seen the potential of converting the original lead mines, on the rocky slopes above the town and the River Derwent, into show caves – with former miners as guides – thus adding an extra attraction to the town’s spa waters.)

This year the attraction celebrates 40 years since the cable car was installed (certainly a novelty, and a first for the UK, in 1984; an uphill grind was the previous way to enter). More interestingly, however, it is 50 years since Andrew and Vanessa Pugh responded to a puzzling advertisement in the Daily telegram which read something like: “For sale: the most unusual business you’ve ever thought of: woods, caves and a house”. Despite never having heard of Matlock Bath (let alone the Heights of Abraham), they drove up from their home in London and bought the business, more or less on impulse. And they’re still there today.

Andrew and Vanessa Pugh moved to Matlock Bath over 50 years ago

Andrew and Vanessa Pugh moved to Matlock Bath over 50 years ago

“We loved the house and had no obligations,” Vanessa emphasizes. “We liked the idea of ​​an adventure and had the confidence of youth.”

Self-confidence and buckets of hard physical work were required. By 1974, the site, named for its apparent resemblance to the site of a decisive 1759 colonial battle against the French near Quebec, had lost the allure of its Georgian and Victorian heyday when visitors included Queen Victoria and Lord Byron. The romantic winding paths and “surprising” vistas were overgrown, the forest and gardens unkempt, only one of the two show grottoes was in operation, and there was just a small café.

“This was a wasteland,” Andrew gestures. We’re sitting in the airy, chalet-style Vista restaurant near the top station of the gondola, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and balcony overlooking the gorge-like Derwent Valley. Behind us stretch a small amphitheatre, an adventure playground, two exhibition centres, a rose garden, a pergola-lined picnic area and the restored show cave, the Great Masson.

On the slopes below are another show cavern (the Great Rutland), a woodland play area, a lookout tower, a pub and a summer house. The winding paths that weave between these attractions are busy with families, while people in Victorian costume provide entertainment. Everything (bar food and drink) is included in the entrance fee.

People in Victorian dress at the Heights of AbrahamPeople in Victorian dress at the Heights of Abraham

People in Victorian costumes provide entertainment at the Heights of Abraham

Andrew and Vanessa have the scent of James Bond and his leading lady about them. Before they met in 1972, Andrew was a professional powerboat racer, travelling abroad for competitions and living a bachelor life. Vanessa, who worked for a property developer on London’s fashionable Jermyn Street, caught his eye at a dinner party; she was glamorous, blonde and feisty. At 79, she still is – with a sparkling charm and infectious giggle.

Andrew (now 83) was hooked. “Up until then I had lived for the moment. But a lot of people die in powerboat racing and when I realised we were going to be a ‘team’, well…” he digresses. He realised he had to change his life to keep his wife. “We decided to look for a company where we could work together. We had assets in common: Vanessa is a great manager and organiser; I can do practical things.”

They spent their first 10 years restoring the attraction, working in the site’s pub – “I made cheese toasties, Andrew served beer,” Vanessa recalls – and wheelbarrowing paraffin to the reopened Great Masson Cave to fill hurricane lamps. They also found time to marry and have a son, Rupert (now the site’s development director). In the winter of 1983, Andrew recalls: “We were very proud of what we had achieved, but people weren’t prepared to pay more and the tourist industry was changing. So we either gave up or did something dramatic.”

Ask why they haven’t introduced the cash machines like the arcades, hologram rides and gift and sweet shops that lure day-trippers to Matlock Bath below, and they look politely shocked. “It would have made a lot of money, but we would have felt like we’d failed,” Vanessa explains. “This is a historic place and making our history interesting is what we do.”

The underground tours of the two caverns, I later discover, are not full of exploding pyrotechnics but are a careful balance of education and entertainment. The guides point out burn marks from miners’ candles, gleaming minerals – zinc, barite, fluorite, malachite – and hundreds of fossils. I learned that the miners drank large quantities of beer because it was considered a cure for lead poisoning, and that much of the lead needed to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 came from mines in Derbyshire.

Heights of Abraham Cave ToursHeights of Abraham Cave Tours

Guided tours of the underground caves combine education with entertainment

Most evocative is the realisation that these dark (we stand in near darkness for several minutes), cold (around 10C) and sometimes cramped (some passages are narrow and low) conditions, experienced only fleetingly, were the miners’ daily existence. Plunging into daylight through an old mineshaft, 130ft higher than the lowest point in Great Masson Cavern, is both disorientating and breathtaking; the views across the valley to the cliffs of High Tor, bleak Riber Castle and the surrounding Derbyshire hills remind us just how high up we are.

And this height had become a sticking point by 1983; the steep route to the site discouraged visitors. For Andrew, the solution was clear: a cable car. The fact that this exotic transport system had to avoid houses, had to be in a straight line (corners are shockingly expensive), had no precedent in the UK (Italy, Austria and France were the only countries producing it) and required huge loans did not dampen their spirits.

Matlock bathMatlock bath

In 1983 the steep route to the site was daunting for visitors – ShaunWilkinson

It says a lot about the couple’s charm, conviction and energy that by September 1983, the agreement and financial backing were in place, and the cable car was built and opened in April of that year. “We couldn’t do it today,” says Vanessa, who still looks amazed that they pulled it off. “But we had so much support. Our greatest asset is our team of people here.”

The respect is a two-way street; I’ve rarely seen so many staff happy in their jobs. Although their roles are more in the background these days, the couple – who live on site in a whitewashed, three-towered fairytale folly (the house Vanessa charmed in 1974) – walk to the Vista every day. “Some people think we’re idiots, but we still get a kick out of it,” says Andrew.

“We absolutely love it, never get tired of it, I think it keeps us going,” Vanessa laughs with her 100-watt smile. “We bought a lifestyle.”

How to do that

Tickets for the Heights of Abraham start at £25 for adults and £17.50 for children. Children under five go free (01629 582365).

Where to stay

Darwin Forest offers luxury self-catering lodges in a woodland setting with a restaurant and leisure activities, and discounted tickets for Heights of Abraham. Four nights from £419 for two, £429 for four (01639 732428).

Other things to do

Cromford Mills: Birthplace of the modern factory system and site of the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill, designed by Sir Richard Arkwright.

Peak District Mining Museum: Traditional museum telling the story of the area’s geology and the lead mining industry, plus a tour of the lead and fluorspar mine.

Gulliver’s Kingdom: An adventure park for children with, among other things, a tree trunk slide, a climbing rope park and a dinosaur park.

To walk: High Tor cliff and former lead mines, plus paths along the River Derwent.

Rowing boat rental: See Matlock Bath Boats.

Helen Pickles was a guest at the Darwin Forest lodges

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