Secret boat-building mission across the Dales

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In sheds, garages and lock-ups across the Derbyshire Dales, top secret missions are being finalised ahead of the launch of one of the region’s premier events.

Enthusiasts are decorating boats for this year’s Matlock Bath Illuminations – and this year’s theme is the closest of closely guarded secrets.

Just ask Pete Hartshorn and Christine Dence, who with a third team member Richard Wood, have scooped the top award at the Derbyshire Dales District Council event for four years out of the past six.

Working from a secret location somewhere in the Dales, the trio will be burning the midnight oil until opening night to make sure this year’s boat – which Pete will row up and down the Derwent as part of a colourful flotilla – is a surprise on opening night.

“It’s not unusual to work through the night,” said Christine, busily soldering small bulbs onto a wooden section of the boat. “The planning starts around March time, but the panic really sets in during the last few weeks. I’ve booked off Bank Holiday week from work, because I know every available minute will need to be devoted to the boat.”

Pete, in the workshop creating a splendid shape out of papier mache, is proud of the group’s record going into the 116th Illuminations festival.

He said: “We call ourselves the Motley Bunch, and we only entered for the first time in 2007, when the theme was an ambulance. And we won! We followed up the next year with a pirate ship theme and won again, but disaster struck in 2009 when we went with a carousel but didn’t factor in the gyroscopic effect of the carousel as it spun around. The boat was impossible to control and we almost capsized!”

But the Motley Bunch were back with a vengeance in 2010 with a spectacular entry called Avatar, which won again, and after missing out in 2011, they triumphed again last year with ‘Noddy’s Car’ – Pete’s personal favourite.

Every year, judges of the decorated boats competition are picked at random from the crowds in the District Council’s Derwent Gardens, deciding the destination of a cash prize and the prestigious Arkwright Cup, donated in 1903 by Sir Richard Arkwright.

But Pete and Christine are still finding their sea-legs compared with veteran boat-builder David Gregory of Matlock, who first entered the competition in 1971 and has won top prize 11 times. The 116th Illuminations will be the 43rd time David has entered the popular competition.

“We’re all good mates,” said Pete. “In fact the only people we share our themes with every year are the boat builders we’re competing against. It makes sense to check that there are no unintentional duplications.

Starting on August 31, the unique parade of illuminated boats takes place from 7.45pm every Saturday and Sunday evening until October 26 and can be viewed from Derwent Gardens. The Gardens and nearby Lovers’ Walks will also be bedecked with colourful lights.

Derbyshire Dales District Council Chairman Councillor Geoff Stevens, who has been involved in the Illuminations since the 1960s, said: “The brilliant new ideas the boat builders come up with ensure this unique family experience is a winner year after year. Around 100,000 people visit annually and this undoubtedly boosts tourism, trade and jobs locally.

“Anyone who has witnessed the centre-piece parade of illuminated and decorated boats making their way up and down the beautiful River Derwent will agree it’s a beautiful spectacle hard to beat wherever you go in the UK.”

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