Milestone anniversaries at The Heights

The cable cars taking visitors to and from The Heights of Abraham are 40 years old this year.

A YEAR of celebration is now underway as Derbyshire’s oldest visitor attraction, The Heights of Abraham, marks two ‘milestone’ anniversaries in its 237-year history. 

This May celebrates the ‘Golden Anniversary’: 50 years since the Pugh family arrived at the run-down hilltop estate and started to restore and transform into the unique visitor attraction it is today. 

In April, it will be 40 years since the launch of the Alpine-style cable cars, marking their ‘Ruby Anniversary’. A ride in the cable cars forms an integral part of the visitor experience, making the short ascent to the summit of Masson Hill, where a different world of magnificent views and deep magical caverns awaits, which has been enchanting visitors since 1787. 

Nowadays, the family-friendly attraction welcomes visitors to enjoy two illuminated show caverns, breathtaking views, living history exhibitions, woodland trails and adventure playgrounds. 

It is five decades since the spring of 1974, when Andrew and Vanessa Pugh spotted an intriguing business opportunity advertised for sale. It was described in the classified ads of The Daily Telegraph as ‘the most unusual business – a place with woods, caves and a house’. On their first visit, the hilltop estate captured both their hearts and imaginations, inspiring them to seize the opportunity for not only a new business venture but a completely new lifestyle, as they moved from London up to Derbyshire, a county new to them.  

This was the start of a lifetime’s work of revitalising the estate. The journey began with ten years of major restoration, including upgrading the old pathways, renovating neglected buildings, including the Victoria Prospect Tower, and improving access to the ancient caverns.

“A stroke of genius led to the installation of its ‘signature’ cable car system in 1984.” 

At the end of this development phase, the visitor attraction was steadily gaining popularity, yet Andrew and Vanessa were seeking something to really set their attraction apart. A stroke of genius led to the installation of its ‘signature’ cable car system in 1984. This mode of transport was pioneering in the UK at that time, attracting much publicity and media attention. The original system had new cabins in 2004, and a continuous programme of engineering updates every year.

This year, the Great Masson cavern boasts an enhanced illumination experience, bringing an array of rainbow colour to its dramatic interiors, whereas the Rutland cavern has a tour guide in full period costume, bringing to life tales from the Victorian era of tourism. Added in 2022 was a willow sculpture trail, with installations by the sculptor, Caroline Gregson. 

It was during Georgian times, as mining in the caverns came to an end, that owners of the estate diversified and built a pleasure garden to attract visitors who travelled from near and far to take the spa waters of Matlock Bath. 

The estate’s two great caverns were a marvel to these curious travellers and the ex-miners became tour guides for the wealthy tourists. Visitors even included Princess Victoria and the great ‘Romantics’: the poet Lord Byron and his friends Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. The hillside estate, which had been re-invented with exotic gardens and serpentine paths, had donkeys carrying visitors from the resort town up the steep incline to the summit. Thankfully, the cable cars now offer a much more comfortable ride to the top of Masson Hill, to take in the picturesque views over the Derwent Valley, which Lord Byron referred to fondly as ‘Little Switzerland’.  And Joanna Brown, from Devon, pushed the ‘big green button’ to restart the Heights of Abraham cable cars for the 2024 season on February 10. She was joined by her ‘great-great-great-grandfather’, the Victorian owner of the Heights, Benjamin Bryan, recreated by living history actor, David Oxley.

Today’s visitors enjoy a multitude of added attractions alongside the show caverns. A popular spot is the ‘Vista’ restaurant with its balcony area, perched almost 1,000 feet/554 metres above sea level, offering diners a ‘meal with a view’, and the venue can also be hired for private events, such as birthdays and anniversaries. 

The Terrace café specialises in locally-made cakes and hot beverages, and The Tavern holds the oldest beer licence in the Matlocks, as in the 18th century,  hard-working lead miners socialised here after their shift.

Several multi-media exhibitions explore the social and cultural history, geology and the installation of the cable cars. There are adventure playgrounds, woodland walks and pathways to enjoy, along with several garden vistas. 

The Heights of Abraham is the second most popular attraction in the area after Chatsworth House and Estate.  The Golden and Ruby anniversaries will be marked by stunning lighting effects in the Great Masson Cavern, new displays, themed decorations and a programme of events including concerts and live actors. The attraction welcomes visitors of all ages, and is dog-friendly, with dogs welcome to ride the cable cars (receiving their own free ticket). 

For more details of special events, opening times and prices, go to