‘The most unusual business’ - the story of the Heights of Abraham

The CLA’s Natalie Oakes takes a trip up the alpine cable car to visit CLA members the Heights of Abraham and discovers more about Derbyshire’s oldest visitor attraction
Heights of Abraham
This year marks 50 years since the Pugh family arrived at the Heights of Abraham and 40 years since the cable cars were installed

Rural tourism accounts for 70-80% of all domestic UK tourism and contributes significantly to the UK’s economy by adding £14.56bn to England and Wales’ Gross Value Added.

The sector, like many, has faced challenges with the cost-of-living squeeze, post-pandemic economic recovery and growing competition. However, it also creates jobs, contributes to local infrastructure and helps conserve the natural environment. One such tourist attraction drawing people into Derbyshire is the Heights of Abraham, operated by CLA members Andrew and Vanessa Pugh, their son Rupert and his wife Sophie.

Derbyshire’s oldest attraction

Acquiring its name from a historic battle fought on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, the Heights of Abraham sits at the top of Masson Hill in Matlock, which also features a network of shafts where galena (lead ore) was once mined. It is not only Derbyshire’s oldest visitor attraction but one of the most popular, along with nearby Chatsworth House.

The estate opened in 1787 as a Georgian pleasure garden, with visitors making their way to the top via steep slopes to enjoy panoramic views of the Peak District. Nowadays, visitors don’t have to make the steep climb to the summit; they can jump in an alpine cable car and travel up in style. The 60-acre hilltop estate attracts thousands of visitors every year with tours of its show caverns, formed 350 million years ago, woodland footpaths and the glass-fronted Vista café and restaurant boasting spectacular views.

Restoring The Heights

Andrew and Vanessa purchased the estate 50 years ago when their curiosity was piqued after seeing an advert for an intriguing business opportunity with the title: ‘The most unusual business – a place with woods, caves and a house’. The dynamic and imaginative couple, who came from a corporate background in London, found a rundown Grade II listed estate in need of complete restoration.

They began their 10-year renovation programme in the winter of 1978, felling over-mature trees, opening up the woodland around the estate to restore ‘vistas’ from which the valley below could be viewed, and uncovering and sympathetically replanting shrub borders.

Andrew says: “Each task was a challenge, and everything was harder working on a hill. It was alien terrain for construction vehicles.”

Heights of Abraham
Left: Vanessa and Andrew Pugh. Right: a visit to the caves on site

The summit paths, which were badly worn by natural erosion and continual use, were rebuilt with fencing and resurfaced, providing new walkways and easier visitor access to the summit. The old mine shafts, some of which can still be seen today, were safely capped.

Buildings around the estate were carefully restored with the conservation of their history in mind. One of the site’s oldest buildings, the Summer House, had its tin roof replaced with thatch; badly worn steps in the Victoria Prospect Tower were repaired; and the castellated house was renovated, including the installation of central heating and repairs to the roof. Electricity and utilities were also added.

Despite the large task at hand, Andrew and Vanessa never had any doubts about taking on such a project.

Creating sustainability

Once initial restorations were complete, the unique landmark quickly became an asset to the area, although it was clear that accessibility was an issue, with visitors not wanting to scale the hillside paths.

Andrew and Vanessa came up with the idea of installing an alpine-style cable car, a pioneering system in the UK at the time. Spending the winter of 1982 planning and perfecting their idea, they secured planning permission in 1983 and work began that September.

They had a tight schedule with a six-month build time and plans to open for the 1984 summer season. With the expertise of a French team, a local building firm and a helicopter, the cable car was erected and opened to the public on 21 April 1984.

Following the success of the cable car installation, the Pughs opened up the Great Masson Cavern, improving the tour and installing the old stairway back to the surface, which had originally been closed off, allowing visitors to walk through the hill for the first time in 100 years.

Vanessa says: “Andrew used to have to go into the caverns and light hurricane lamps to guide the way for visitors – it was a real novelty having electric installed.”

At the exit from the Great Masson Cavern, an interpretive viewpoint has been installed highlighting the old lead mining activity, which has created a unique plant habitat that is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is collaboratively managed and conserved with Natural England.

The last part to be developed was the lead mining spoil heaps, which have been excavated to create replica miniature landscapes of High and Low Peak Derbyshire. These form waterfalls and a pond, flanked by moorland, riverside trees and plants, which have been introduced to encourage wildlife.

cable cars Heights of Abraham
Before and after: the original cable cars installed in the 80's compared to today

The Heights today

The Heights of Abraham is now a unique and thriving landmark that has gained popularity, continually changing with the times and encouraging visitors to return. Andrew and Vanessa have taken a step back and their son, Rupert, and his wife, Sophie, have taken the helm.

And 2024 is a special year for the family, representing 50 years since they arrived at the estate and 40 years since the cable cars were installed.

Throughout our time as custodians, our ethos has been to restore and regenerate the estate while also being innovative to ensure this historic landmark is preserved for future generations

Andrew Pugh
Find out more about the Derbyshire attraction