Boys, Trees and Water

Smedley's Matlock Spa

“The meandering Derwent glides through the wide lush valley over which Oker Hill keeps its single tree view. The upper reaches allow us to gaze on the gentleness of the vale and its surrounding rolling hills with the houses and cottages dotted throughout the landscape.”

Matlock to Darley Bridge through Two Dales : Circular Walk -Map and Directions : Google Earth Tour for this Walk

The writers on the Boys, Trees and Water route:

William Lisle Bowles - Samuel Taylor Coleridge – John Smedley – Robert Louis Stephenson - Richmal Crompton – Francis Sacheverel Darwin - Crichton Porteous – Joseph Whitworth – John Gisborne - William Wordsworth

With short abridged extracts from The Literary Way, written by Terry Goble and published by The Creative Peak


The title of this walk gives a potent mixture for fun. We have a wonderful rogue, who would certainly have taken the opportunity to fall into the river and get wet. A life changing event totally redirected one man’s ambitions, and through his actions, it brought a story-writer to Matlock who, while he was here, worked on a famous boys’ novel based in his home country of Scotland. The literary world benefited because he went against his father’s wishes, who wanted him to go into the family profession of building lighthouses. Our focus on water is not only the Derwent, but also its therapeutic properties.

We also introduce two of the leading romantic poets. One had a poem commissioned by the offer of money. He accepted, but Tom Moore, Byron’s biographer from Ashbourne, refused to respond to the financial enticements. Our second Romantic poet visited the area several times, but his role in this chapter was to praise a poet, whose name is far less well-known. And what better subject can there be for a customary poem than a yew tree in a churchyard.

Matlock is a small town at the northern end of the limestone gorge through which the River Derwent flows. The immediate entrance to the gorge has High Tor to the east and a very steep wooded slope to the west. It leads in a mile, or so, to Matlock Bath and then onto Cromford and the Arkwright Mills. To the north, the valley opens out to a much gentler valley and this part of the Derwent is known as Darley Dale.

Praise from a Poet

Before we leave the centre of Matlock, let’s look at the River Derwent that flows through the town. In many places it is not obvious, but the park has a good stretch and it passes under the main bridge in the centre of the town. Also, if we follow it south towards Matlock Bath we can walk along side it. The reason for focusing on the Derwent is to join with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and appreciate a poem written about the town of Matlock and the River Derwent. Let us look at the beginning of the seventeen verses.

Matlock, amid thy hoary-hanging views,
Thy glens that smile sequester’d, and thy nooks
Which yon forsaken cragg all dark o’erlooks.
Monady written at Matlock
- William Lisle Bowles

William Lisle Bowles was the son of a vicar and, after attending Oxford, he took holy orders. He was born in 1762 and wrote poetry from an early age. He was thought by some to have changed the style of poetry of the time, with the Monody, written at Matlock, being one of the examples, that earned him praise. It was written in 1791, when he was on a tour of north of England and foreign lands, after having his proposal to a young lady rejected. One who praised his style and went on to become one of England most notable poets was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who visited Matlock in August 1796. It prompted him to write a sonnet about William, who he considered to be one of his ‘greats’.

My heart has thank’d thee, BOWLES! for those soft strains,
To Bowles
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Thomas Bowles took up his living in Wiltshire. One of his fiercest critics was Lord Byron, which was interesting as Thomas Bowles’ neighbour and good friend was Thomas Moore, who we met at Mayfield on The Literary Way and was Lord Byron’s biographer.

A Dedication to Help

Let us leave the centre of Matlock and take the road up towards the hills overlooking the centre. We are going to go past the building that stands dominately on the hillside overlooking Matlock. It is now County Hall, but it was built for a completely different reason. We must again return to John Smedley and learn a little more about why he designed and constructed this building. Lea Mill which we passed on The Literary Way, in the last walk, was founded by John Smedley, senior and Peter Nightingale. The business, whilst initially successful, but ran into difficulties more than once. John Smedley had a son, born in 1803, also called John Smedley and he is the person who built what is now County Hall. The son came into textile business at a young age and it was his idea to convert the cotton machinery at Lea Mill to take wool. In the next sixteen years, which unfortunately included the death of his father, he build up the mill into a very successful business.

In 1847 at the age of forty-four he married Caroline Hayward, but the same year his life would change forever. Whilst on honeymoon, he contracted a fever and this would have a significant effect on him. During the next three years, he became weaker and lacked the energy to carry on running his business. After trying the standard drugs of the period, he went to Yorkshire for water therapy. This he believed changed his life. The illness disappeared and he returned to his full energy and determination to complete tasks. The water-cure had given him a new lease of life. The business had been run successfully by his managers during his illness. Instead of returning to full-time work, he was determined to give the benefit of the hydro treatment to as many as possible. He set about it in his old style of hard work and determination by making the treatments available for his staff at the mill.

John Smedley’s did not rest just with the hydro hospital at the Lea Mills works. In 1853, John Smedley bought a house on Matlock Bank, which became the foundation of his hydro. He was determined to help as many as possible so the facility was open to all. Over the next twelve years it was extended extensively as he bought up surrounding land. No expense was spared in the increasing elaborate provisions, which had a strict regime. There was not only hydro treatments, but diets and recuperative living. Alcohol was banned and the whole operation, conducted jointly with his wife, was run under strict religious principles. Caroline and John not only developed the hydro, but also the treatments that were on offer. At first John was highly critical of many existing medical practices, but in the end, became more reconciled with them and the hydro was eventually run by a doctor.

John was an eccentric man and very firmly believed in his own capabilities and convictions. As well as the medical profession, he also had a very long running disagreement with the established church. Unlike many others that had similar problems with the establishment, he was never sufficiently comfortable to join one of the non-conformists. He backed up his view on religion by both preaching himself, building chapels and schools for several local communities in the neighborhood of Matlock and Lea Mill.

By 1864, the Smedley hydro was very well established. John and Caroline lived in Riber Castle with a clear view across to Matlock Bank and the dominating building, the Hydro. John not only dealt with the practicalities of running the hydro, but wrote an extensive book, over four hundred and forty pages of small print and detailed information about hydrotherapy. It was a successful book as it reached a seventh edition and a circulation of thirty-five thousand. Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock remained open until the 1950s. After its closure it gained its current role of County Hall. Before we move on further on The Literary Way we will look at a famous book, which was partly written whilst the author attended the hydro.


In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Smedley Hydro in Matlock, with his father who was very unwell. He had begun the story Kidnapped during the previous year and, whilst faltering a little in his effort, he was writing it during the period he was at the hydro. It was published, in a boys magazine, over a period of months later in that year. Robert was thirty-six years-old at the time. Three years earlier he had published one of the books for which is renown, Treasure Island. Just before the release of Kidnapped, perhaps his most well-known, work, the novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published. So in the three years he produced three works which would establish his literary reputation although, like many writers, he has been in and out of favour.

Robert was born in Edinburgh into a family of engineers, who specialised in building lighthouses, but he disappointed his parents by choosing a different profession. He did study law, but never practised, as his heart was into writing. He wrote thirteen novels and many other short stories, poems and travel books. Like his father he suffered a great deal of ill-health, particularity with his chest and breathing, so much so that he was lucky to survive on a number of occasions. He remained undaunted by his illnesses and was determined to travel. He visited America and then decided to sail around the Pacific Islands. Whilst in Hawaii he became friends with the King of Hawaii and finally settled in the Samoan Islands, which is where he died aged forty-four. Kidnapped is an historical novel set in the Scottish Highlands, with the fiction being intertwined with real events and people. The book is an adventure for a young man, who confronts difficulties and people determined to stop him achieve what is rightfully his. Following on from the success of Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson produced a sequel entitled Catriona, which continues Davie’s adventure.

Let’s leave the hydro with John Smedley and Robert Louis Stevenson and take Smedley street towards Upper Hackney, which over looks Darley Dale. The sweep of the Derwent valley is at its best as the summer sun enhances the many shades of green in the trees and grasses. On the far side of the valley, there is a hill that stands out and on its summit is a single tree. There is a story to be told about this sycamore, but we shall leave it to one of the country most significant Romantic poets to explain it to us, in verse, a little later as we get closer to it. As we progress along the road we need to keep glancing down until we catch the site of a large complex of buildings which was, for many years, a school and has now become a retirement village.

A Wonderful Rogue

It is common in the teaching profession for teachers to return to the school in which they were educated. But very few then go on to become famous authors. One such woman was the daughter of a clergyman, and up to the age of fourteen, went to school in Warrington, Lancashire. The school moved to Darley Dale in 1904, and Richmal moved to. She took an instant liking to her surroundings, and her novel, Anne Morrison, illustrates her school days in the Peak. She would go on to write forty-nine non-children’s books, which were either novels or collections of short stories. Her writing career started in 1923 and would last until 1960, but her books lived on for future generations. Following her school education, she obtained a scholarship in London and became a teacher. She returned initially to Darley, but would later move to south-east London, where she died in 1969. However, it would not be her forty-nine books for which she became very famous, but a series of short stories and novels set around one character. And what a wonderful character he was! He would appear in forty-one books written and published between 1922 and after her death in 1970.

Richmal Lamburn chose to write using her middle name, Richmal Crompton. We are, of course, referring to the loveable young rogue defined by the first title, Just William. He was what every boy aspires to. A rascal, who gets into trouble, but always comes out tops in the end. His books allowed Richmal to retire from teaching. Her works were translated into many languages and became a standard library books and presents for more than one generation of boys.

Let’s pass on along the lanes and we take the route up through Holt Wood and along the delightful footpath that follows the trees that line the dams in Sydnope Valley. Through the lush vegetation we can just catch sight of the tranquil waters behind the dams. A glimpse of the dam shows us they are no longer used with rivulets of water streaming down their slopes. They were originally built to drive the textile factory at Two Dales, a little further down the valley. But we continue to climb the path until we have cleared the top dam and can see on the opposite slope a neat little waterfall. Soon after we can cross the top of the valley and come out into the high fields which then stretch upon to the moors.

The Turkish Chamelon

We broach the top of the woods and then we come in sight of Sydnope Hall. One of friends on The Literary Way is Erasmus Darwin, who we have already met several times. The Hall that we can see is where one of his sons, Francis Sacheveral Darwin, lived for many years. Francis followed his father in many ways. His natural love of plants inspired him and he also chose the medical profession. After qualifying as a doctor, and at the age of tweny-two he set off with four other young men to explore Spain and the east, but particularly to go into areas where the British had not been before. Of the five that set out, Francis was the only one to survive. Whether losing his friends or other reasons overtook him, but once he had returned home he never travelled again. Initially, he followed his father and set up medical practice in Lichfield, but soon moved to Sydnope Hall. After a period here he moved to his final home, Breadsall Priory in south Derbyshire.

Francis kept a succinct journal of his exploits in Spain, Greece and Turkey. It was for his private information, but some years later, it was published by a member of his family. It makes fascinating reading. A young man, aged twenty-two, completes his studies and goes abroad. We are sure you are thinking that it is very reminiscent of the modern notion of the ‘gap’ year. However, modern travellers do not generally encounter murder, the plague, sinking and hostile ships, and pirates or privateers. Francis set out on his travels in 1808.

Another young man, about the same age as Francis, also had similar ambitions for travel. Lord Byron also journeyed around the Mediterranean with his friend John Hobhouse. This was Lord Byron’s first trip to Greece, after which he would return to England. It was his second trip from he never returned from. Unfortunately Francis left very little detail of when he met Lord Byron in Smyrna, which is on the west coast Turkey. For on that particular day, Francis was more interested in recording his encounter with a chameleon than giving an opinion about Lord Byron.

A Love of the Countryside

As we passed through Bradbourne, earlier on The Literary Way, we discovered it was the place that Nat Gould called home. He had began working on a farm, but then moved into the newspaper industry. Some fifty years later Leslie Porteous, who came from Manchester, took up farm work on the edge of the Peak District. His family was set on him joining his uncle’s very profitable business of cotton trading, but he chose the hard work of a farm. After a few years, like Nat Gould, he moved into the world of newspapers, eventually rising to become the assistant editor of the northern Daily Mail. By the age of thirty-eight he decided to concentrate on being a freelance writer. He had moved to the village of Combs, near to the small town of Chapel-en-le-Frith. His intention was to settle in the Peak District, which had been an area he had liked from the days of his school holidays. His first book, which is mainly autobiographical, started with his fascination with farming and was called, Farmer’s Creed.

By the end of the Second World War he had moved across the Peak District to Two Dales, near Matlock. By the time he finally retired from writing he had produced thirty-one books, which were a mixture of novels and books about the Peak District. He is known for some of the best descriptions of the Peak. Several of his novels were set in and around the Derwent Valley. Two Dales was formerly known as Toad Hole. Leslie chose as his writing name, Crichton Porteous. The introduction to Broken River by Crichton Porteous says:

At one time the Darent River broke its banks nearly every winter, but since the huge new dam had been built, all the people in the valley felt safe. Then one August midnight of terrible storm, the river began to rise with terrible haste, it rose higher than any previous record, and remained at that height.
Broken River - Crichton Porteous

This book is one of the later ones on The Literary Way being published in 1956. The dam refereed to is the Ladybower Dam, which was built in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

An Inspirational Engineer

As we look at the buildings along the road through Darley Dale, one name stands out. Both the old Mechanics Institute, and also the hospital, carry the name, Whitworth. They are named after Joseph Whitworth, who was born near Manchester, but would eventually settle in Darley Dale. He and his wife funded local causes, especially in the areas of education and health. Joseph lived near the main road in Stancliffe Hall with his second wife. He never forgot his home of Manchester and the Mechanics Institute he found there went on the become part of the university and is now called the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST).

Joseph moved from being a mechanic in a factory to a member of the Royal Society, and he would create a legacy that would last until this day. He made his fame and fortune through mechanical engineering. His work, although varied, would be focused on precision engineering. He would introduce a range of techniques, which would help machines to be built accurately and to within very fine tolerances. His reputation rapidly grew and by 1858, when he was in his fifties, he was admitted as a member of the Royal Society. He had already developed screw making equipment that would precisely remake the same threads consistently. The development of this standard was encapsulated throughout the industry, and is still referred to today, with modern screws being designated Whitworth threads.

The Great Exhibition in 1851 was a show-case for Joseph Whitworth and impressed all that visited his stand with his precision engineering and increased accuracy of measurements. By then he was moving in higher circles and Prince Albert was particularly keen to see his work and help promote it, and British industry. One fascinating meeting took place during the exhibition, that was recorded in John Bright’s diary. We will meet John in a quiet dale, later on The Literary Way, but for now we can say that he was one of the leading politicians of the day.

Met also Chas. Dickens, and was introduced to him by Paxton. It was in the little room where J. Whitworth was exhibiting the machine for measuring the millionth of an inch. Dickens’s face scarcely indicates the possession of the powers of the mind he has displayed, tho’ it is intelligent in expression, and pleasant to look upon.
– John Bright

Joseph Paxton was the man who built the Crystal Palace, and we shall say more about him at Chatsworth.

The Darley Yew

John Gisborne moved with his family from Blackpool to Darley Dale in 1818. He was forty-eight years-old by then and had previously lived at Wootton Lodge near Ellastone, which was near the beginning of The Literary Way. In 1792, he married Millicent Pole and it is here that we have another connection with Erasmus Darwin, because Millicent was his step-daughter by his second marriage. John was a devout man with sufficient money to allow himself to dedicate his time to good causes and supporting those less fortunate than himself. Millicent had previously become ill, which is why they moved from Wootton to Blackpool, as the location was recommended because of the sea air. John and Millicent moved to Darley Dale, when Millicent’s health improved. John Gisborne spent much of his time visiting the poor of the area. He also decided to write a long poem while he was resident at Darley.

He had already completed a topographical poem called The Vales of Wever with its dedication to the Rev John Granville of Calwich Abbey, while living at Wootton Hall. His poem Reflections: A Poem Descriptive of Events and Scenery Connected with Different Months of the Year, takes a number of different events and local themes that he relates to months of the year. St Helen’s parish church in Darley dates back to the twelfth century and its churchyard contains the Darley Yew. It’s vast trunk shows its considerable age, however, it is difficult to establish with such trees their true age due to a hollowing process. Their longevity is ascribed to that, when they split with age, they do not seem to become infected. The Darley Yew is near the front door of the church. In John’s Reflections this is how he described the tree.

Nor shall thy reverend Yew, the Sire who holds
His sceptre verdant through the changeful year,
Unnoticed stand. Her has beheld, like three,
Thousands entomb’d within his shadow; heard
For ages past the sobs, the heart fetch’d groans
Of parting anguish ere the grave was closed,
And drank the mourner’s tears!
- John Gisborne

The Brothers

We leave the churchyard and take the path to the riverside until we reach the old Darley Bridge. It is a sixteenth century packhorse bridge over the Derwent. After passing over the bridge we can see on our left a small elongated hill with a single sycamore on the summit. This is Oker Hill and has been made famous in a poem, written in 1838, by William Wordsworth, who went to the same college, St John’s in Cambridge, as John Gisborne. Wordsworth was travelling through the area when he wrote a sonnet about a local fable. Two brothers each planted a sycamore tree on the top of Oker Hill. The brothers separated and the one who went away and soon died, as did the tree he planted. William called the poem, A Tradition of Darley Dale, Derbyshire. How it came to publication is interesting. A combination of an ambitious publisher with new techniques, combined with a man who wanted the best, led to the development a literary annual that first saw the light of day in 1828. The intent was to financially persuade some of the most acclaimed names in literature to contribute poems and stories. This, the owners thought, could be achieved by offering large amounts of money, and to a great extent they succeeded. The first edition, published in 1829, was to become renown because of the contributors. However, one person that money couldn’t buy was Thomas Moore, who we met in Mayfield. He turned down £700, the modern equivalent of £47,000 to edit the edition. I think we will agree that is a lot of money in at any times. He did, however, contribute poems.

Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge contributed and also Sir Walter Scott, who wrote some short stories. Wordsworth accepted the offer of the fees and one of his contributions to the edition was A Tradition of Darley Dale.

Let’s rest awhile at Oker Hill

In the short distance from Matlock to Darley Bridge we have been able to cover literature in many and varied forms, with a close juxtapositioning of the Romantic notions of Lisle Bowles and the scientific intents of Joseph Whitworth. Benevolence has also been to the fore in our walk with the writing of John Gisborne and the lasting legacy of the Whitworth’s name in many places. On this walk we again came into contact with the Darwin family, but this time it wasn’t Erasmus, but his son and step-daughter.

The walk along the upper edges of the Darley valley and its tributaries give some first-rate views over the countryside both near and far with the single sycamore of Oker Hill, in Wordsworth’s sonnet, capturing our attention on most of the route. The wooded walk up to Sydnope Hall, and the church set in the meadows with the revitalised steam engines chugging past, show how good it is to get away from the main road.