FEATURE: Matlock Bath is well known to attract a different kind of tourist. Hundreds of motorcycles descend on the village each weekend, peaking on summer Sundays. But what is it that attracts these leather-clad free-riders to this quaint town in the Peak District?
First published August 20, 2015
The wind in your face, a powerful beast forged in steel between your legs. Oh, to be a biker...
You will often see people admiring the bikes along Matlock Bath’s North Parade and indeed, we’re told they even draw people to the area to look at them.
But how did such a small village with a history of attracting pleasure seekers earn its nickname as a ‘mecca’ for British bikers?
Motorbikes and Matlock Bath have been synonymous for the past 40 years. In fact, some say they keep the village alive.
Local lad Ian Wolfie, 46, is a former British championship racer and he says Matlock Bath would not survive without its bikers.
Originally from the area and now living in Somercotes, he has been riding motorbikes for the past 25 years and it was the abundance of bikes which inspired him to ride professionally.
“It’s always been a thing here ever since I was young. It’s the reason I went into racing,” says Ian, who has pins in his leg, hand and collar bone.
“Needless to say I don’t get on a bike anymore.”
But the bikers are still what make Matlock Bath home.
“They’re everybody’s friend around here,” he said.
His partner, Angie Tugwell, remembers the days when bikers ruled the roads.
“It used to be Thursday nights at the pub doing donuts and stoppies, but the meetings ended about six or seven years ago,” says Angie, originally from Kent, who ‘fell in love’ with bikes at the age of 15.
“Nothing beats a wet (backside) in winter and bugs in your teeth in summer,” she said.
And the culture around bikers has changed a lot, she adds.
It’s largely Sunday cruisers now, the gangs and criminal element have all but disappeared, as have the meetings, with MFN, a festival just off the M1, becoming a last refuge in the Midlands.
But they’re still a centre point of the village. But why does she think all the bikers come here? It’s simple. “All the bikers stick together,” she says.
But if all the bikers come to Matlock Bath for the other bikers, we may have to look a little further back to understand how this cycle began.
Local historian Peter Baranek, 68, says the history of Matlock ‘Bike-Mecca’ Bath may go back as far as the First World War.
He added: “Even after the war broke out, Matlock Bath was very popular for cycling ride-outs.
“My own grandfather was a member of an Edwardian cycling group and they had various schedules, and Matlock Bath featured very heavily.
“So it may have all started as motorcyclists joined these groups too - we know of at least one organisation who used to include motorcycles by the start of the century.”
And the filling station on the promenade was an important influence before the road widening scheme in the 1960s.
“Two brothers ran it, selling national fuel, and they used to hire out motorbikes for the day. But it was pulled down as part of the road widening,” he continued.
“Between them and Adrian Peach’s shop opening when Sunday trading laws changed, nobody seemed too bothered with that in Matlock Bath, so all the cafes, and the motorcycle shop were open on Sundays, but it’s a question of which came first. The motorcycle shop or the motorcyclists.”
The perception of the bikers changed dramatically in the 1960s, when a criminal element followed them from all over the country into Matlock Bath - and the village was known to be a stopping point for the Hell’s Angels as well as a haunt for a Midlands chapter.
Former police officer Garry Purdy remembers when the culture really took off in the area in the 60s and 70s. Also a district councillor, he joined the force in Matlock Bath in 1971.
Garry said: “I grew up in Matlock and we were used to Matlock Bath closing at the end of September, so when I came back as a beat officer, all of a sudden we were saying ‘what’s going off here? That’s when the phenomenon of the motorbikes started to land. There were two chapters of Hell’s Angels in the country, one in London and Scotland, and when these guys came in, you knew they were hard.
“It was all about knowing how to deal with them. You’d approach them and say can I speak to the general, or some such authority figure. On your own as a young bobby, you knew these guys were armed, and you had to be a bit subservient to get them to do what you wanted.
“But we had more trouble at that time with the Troggs - they wanted to be Hell’s Angels, but these boys were spat on by the Hell’s Angels.
“They tried to emulate them and had flashers on their jackets, and they copied their horrific initiations.
“They were into drugs, minor crime and we regularly had trouble with them sleeping in caves.
“There was one incident of them jumping off the bridge, plunging into the river to try and frighten families in the rowing boats below.
“And I remember one day when the pump room cafe was exceedingly busy and the lady who ran it was screaming, ‘Garry come quick, you won’t believe this but they’re (have a go at) each other on the lawn,’ and would you believe, there they were trousers down.”
So, it’s amazing how perception has changed – back in the 60s there was an attempt to rid the area of bikers completely, adds Garry.
“We had a delegation of traders asking us to ban them. We said it’s not within our remit. They felt they were taking trade away from their business,” he said. But since then the public has stood behind them, with one petition fighting off plans to make North Parade ‘pay-and-display’ so they wouldn’t be deterred - and now traders along North Parade say they are crucial to the local economy.
“I know full well the traders do welcome them. The ‘Friends of Matlock Bath’ say they love them. But it is a grey area, some people do find them a nuisances, so you either love them or hate them.”
Tourism on Two Wheels
The village has remained a home to bikers because they feel welcome, and it is important to be around your own – remember, bikers stick together.
“It’s just a thing, you can sit on your own but you’ll always get someone come up and talk to you. It’s the camaraderie,” said 54-year-old biker, Clive.
And that is just how it is in the motorcycling community, added Graham, 58, from Matlock. “You know, when you come down the road a real biker will always nod. And if you ever break down you’ll find any passing bikes will make sure you’re alright, because it’s nasty for anyone to be stuck in the rain.”
Tony, 72, from Tibshelf added: “I’ve been coming here every day since I was 20-years-old - I’m only a young lad.
“You can come here, plonk yourself down and have a chat with like-minded people.”
Couple Jason and Faye Green, from Peterborough, said they travel to the area three times a year to be among other bikers.
Bricklayer Jason, 44, said: “Initially we came for all the bikes, but it’s a beautiful place, so we always stay a few nights.”
Education worker Faye, 43, added: “People come for the roads, there’s some great roads coming into town, where we come from it’s all straight and flat.”
Costas Theodoulou, owner of the Promenade Fish Bar, said: “They’re very important for the area. It wouldn’t be the same. It’s so important to see them come, so we look after them and keep the tea and coffee prices down.”
Anthony Clark, owner of Charles Restaurant, said: “They mean quite a bit because they draw people in to look at the bikes. But the restriction on parking is not doing this area any good at all. It’s stopping them from staying, and it might be they won’t want to come here in the future. They’re very important to this area.”