Applause broke out in a packed meeting at Matlock Bath's Grand Pavilion on Wednesday night as Derbyshire Dales District Council announced immediate safety measures that ensure this year's Illuminations are saved.
A geological report into a deteriorating rock face forced the closure two weeks ago of the historic Lovers' Walks 60 metres below, potentially leaving the District Council, which organises the annual Illuminations, without an evacuation route in the event of an emergency.
But a report received from geological specialists only two hours before the 7pm Public Meeting informed the council that remedial work can begin on 1 July and will take three weeks to complete - enough time to put plans in place for one of the region's premier autumn festivals, scheduled to run from 12 September to 31 October.
A full meeting of the District Council will be asked on Thursday evening (25 June) to approve spending of around £25,000 for scaling work to remove unstable rocks to make the area safe. The Illuminations, dating back to 1897 and organised by the District Council since 1984, are credited with bringing a £3-million boost to the local economy every year.
But a shadow was cast over this year's event when the Lovers' Walks, including a children's play area, was fenced off after a geotechnical appraisal, prepared by Tideswell company Rock Solutions Ltd, highlighted safety dangers. Hillside walks in the area were also designated as out of bounds and the cliffs were closed to climbers.
The Public Meeting was called by the District Council to update concerned locals, including traders, and around 60 local people, traders and members of the famous Illuminations boat building community packed the Pavilion's Pump Room. Also there were media including BBC East Midlands TV and Radio Derby.
The meeting was chaired by Cllr Joyce Pawley, a Matlock Bath district councillor, and also on the top table were District Council Chief Executive Dorcas Bunton, Corporate Director Paul Wilson and Head of Community Development Ashley Watts. Council Leader Cllr Lewis Rose OBE was in the audience.
Dorcas Bunton went through the process to date, explaining that a large boulder had fallen onto the paths in 2013, at which time the District Council had immediately sent in contractors to do scaling work to make that area safe. The council had also put in a catch fence and warning signs at that time, and regularly inspected the site.
The council had commissioned a survey and quotes were received back in February 2014, but the chosen specialist contractor was unable to start work until the following winter because of the dense vegetation around and below the rock face. Mrs Bunton said that the council had continued to inspect the site in the meantime.
She said contractors had carried out their survey in January this year and the District Council had received their report on 1 June.
"I made the decision to close Lovers' Walks as we couldn't ignore the advice in the report," Mrs Bunton said, "or the subsequent legal advice informing us we had a duty of care to the public along the length of Lovers' Walks.
"We've had the specialist contractors back on site today and they have told us there is evidence of further rockfall and instability and remedial work is needed to make it safe. They have costed this for us and confirmed if we carry out the suggested work that public safety will be significantly increased and we can reopen Lovers' Walk from the station to the New Bridge in Derwent Gardens. We haven't yet surveyed the New Bridge to Willersley stretch as, naturally, we have prioritised the route we need to reopen for the Illuminations.
"We will be asking our councillors tomorrow to endorse the instruction given to the contractors to start on site on 1 July for work that will take three weeks. So we are able to reopen Lovers' Walks and the Illuminations will go ahead."
Applause broke out in the audience at this announcement and questions followed. One audience member asked about the nature of the remedial work, and Paul Wilson said the work would involve scaling, removing loose material and rocks to reduce the risk of boulders falling down through the woodland onto the footpath.
Cllr Irene Ratcliffe, the Derbyshire County Council local division member, asked if the report highlighted the cause of the problems. Dorcas Bunton responded that it was down to natural erosion. Scaling would reduce the risk substantially but the rock face would need to be continually monitored and a more permanent netting solution could be considered in the future. Scaling was a shorter term solution.
- The Lovers' Walks are a series of footpaths both along the riverside and up and over the precipitous and spectacular cliffs.
- Woodland still covers all but the paths of Lovers' Walks and is classified along with the High Tor woodlands as ancient, and has been designated as 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest' by English Nature.
- These woodlands also have wider recognition as they form part of the Peak District Dales Woodlands 'Special Area for Conservation' as they contain habitat which is rare or threatened within a European context and are considered to be one of the best UK examples of 'Tilio-Acerion forests of slopes and ravines'.
- The Lovers' Walks are connected to Derwent Gardens on the opposite side of the River Derwent by a river bridge built in 1969. Derwent Gardens hosts the District Council's annual Matlock Bath Illuminations spectacular every autumn.
- The original Lovers' Walks was created sometime before 1742 and is believed to be the oldest surviving example of a public pleasure ground and has been in continuous use since the 1740s.