Derby's not what it was - and all the better for it. This former industrial powerhouse has now transformed itself into a modern city
My first visit to Derby was brief: a few hours in the city centre as I waited to change trains for my onward journey. The city, I thought, was about as uninspiring as the guidebook said “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” would be.
On a recent return, I found a city transformed. Some £2.2 billion has been spent in recent years transforming the city from industrial heartland to a shopping and cultural capital. The Cathedral Quarter has been rejuvenated, and now boasts a vibrant café culture and heady nightlife. Its bars, pubs and restaurants make it a great base, with the wonderful Cathedral Quarter Hotel, the city’s first boutique hotel, perhaps best summing up the confidence and elegance of the area.
Yet despite the window dressing, some traditions remain: Market Place still holds a farmers’ market on the third Thursday of the month, providing a welcome contrast to the excesses of the new Westfield shopping centre just a few hundred metres further on.
Derby cathedral, which lends its name to the city’s most historic precinct, affords wonderful views of Derbyshire when its 16th-century tower is open for climbing (ask at the cathedral shop for dates). Within walking distance of the cathedral is the 14th-century St Mary’s on the Bridge, one of the few surviving bridge chapels in England. It stands adjacent to the River Derwent and still holds regular services.
In 1588, three catholic priests were hung, drawn and quartered on the bridge. Their ghosts are said to return every July 24, the anniversary of their deaths. This was just one haunted tale we heard on our ghost tour of Derby – also known as the ‘dead centre of England’, such is its popularity among visitors from the afterlife. We walked in the footsteps of executed friars and brutally murdered men, through underground tunnels and into haunted pubs. After so many tales of death and misery, we shied away from an invitation to partake in a ‘lock-in’ until 4am at the old Derby gaol. Neither the stories of dead men walking nor the thought of a séance did anything to convince me it was a good idea to spend any more time in the presence of the ghosts of Derby’s past.
A lazy afternoon spent crawling around some of the city’s historic pubs was the perfect way to shake off the gremlins of the night before. With more than 120 pubs serving real ale, Derby claims to be the ‘real ale capital’ of the Midlands. Its claims are not without foundation, with the Campaign For Real Ale holding not one but two beer festivals here each year.
There are also several micro-breweries, including one at the Brunswick Inn (1 Railway Terrace), a Victorian hostelry that was England’s first purpose-built railway workers' pub. We exercised our elbows at the wonderful Ye Olde Dolphin (6-7 Queens Street) in the Cathedral Quarter. The pub, now fully restored but still wonderfully atmospheric, dates back to 1530 and is Derby’s oldest pub.
Our hangovers gradually wore off the next day as we ventured eight miles south to Melbourne, a Georgian market town whose antique shops and galleries provided gentle places of recovery. The town is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Thomas Cook, who became Melbourne’s most prodigious – and richest – traveller.
We took a much shorter journey from the town centre to Melbourne Hall and Gardens, the exquisite estate that was once was home to Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, William Lamb. It was Lamb, as Viscount Melbourne, who gave his name to the Australian city. It is possible to wander the hall and laze in the tranquil gardens before popping into the tearooms for coffee and cake.
Back in Derby and not yet having had our fill of nature, we stopped in at the Derby Arboretum, a wonderful space that became England's first public park in 1840. Today, it’s one of almost 350 parks and gardens in Derby, which cover a combined 684 hectares.
We found even more open space and fresh air along the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, which stretches 15 miles down river towards Matlock Bath. It was in these 18th-century mills that water power was first harnessed for textile production, sparking the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The Silk Mill, on the site of England’s first modern factory, now houses the Museum Of Industry And History, which illustrates the full extent of Derbyshire’s industrial achievement. Almost 300 years later, Derby has not completely washed its hands of its drab industrial past, but it’s certainly consigned it to the history books. Just not quite ghosts and all.
Where to stay
The stylish Cathedral Quarter Hotel (16 St Mary's Gate) is a contemporary boutique hotel in a Grade II-listed building.
Where to eat
Masa Restaurant Wine Bar (The Old Wesleyan Chapel, Brook Street) is in a splendid 200-year-old chapel.