BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I am not fond of business meetings on Saturdays. I treasure the weekends – time to spend with the family. Nonetheless, a trip to Buxton did seem appealing.
The elegant town that is Buxton has been welcoming visitors to enjoy its natural thermal springs and superb setting three hundred metres above sea level since Roman times. Known then as Aquae Arnemetiae, or the Spa of the Goddess of the Grove, its fortunes are currently reviving thanks to the restoration of its Grade I listed centrepiece, The Crescent, as a five-star hotel and spa. Buxton is deservedly renowned for its stunning Georgian and Victorian architecture – much of it linked with the 5th Duke of Devonshire’s ambitions to create a spa town to rival Bath back in the 18th century. Among its finest architectural gems are the striking Devonshire Dome, which has a larger span than St Paul’s Cathedral, was built by the Duke of Devonshire as stables to complement The Crescent, became a hospital and is now a university. Another masterpiece is the exquisite Edwardian Opera House, home of internationally-renowned Buxton Festival and a host of other festivals, theatre, music and comedy shows throughout the year. Close by is the historic Old Hall Hotel, where ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots was held captive in the sixteenth century.
The Crescent, Buxton
I, uncharacteristically, managed to arrive an hour and a half early for my meeting so walked through town after a wake-me-up espresso in the Palace Hotel and soon found myself standing opposite The Buxton Pudding Emporium.
A Fruit Fantasy Loaf Cake was calling out at me from a window display – for some, no doubt, subliminal reason – but I found the courage to sidestep temptation and took a path leading off into the stunningly-landscaped and restored Pavilion Gardens – an area of formal borders and lawns which, I jest you not, relegate Regent’s Park to the Peckham Rye league.
Amidst such contrived urban loveliness, I perched on a park bench in the blazing sunshine for half an hour and enjoyed the view of maskless people freely strolling around as if Covid were a thing of the past. My park bench was located in front of a sumptuous Victorian terrace while in front of me a bank of daisies descended to a magnificent pond – attached to the River Wye – replete with ducks and pedalos.
I then telephoned my meeting partner to let him know that I was early to the point of impoliteness. He told me, somewhat worryingly, he was still deciding which clothes to wear and would be a while – that I should go grab a table in a terrace café in front of The Crescent as we would be eating nearby for our lunch meeting. After warning him that I had arrived in mere jacket and jeans and that he really shouldn’t go to any sartorial lengths – I don’t think he heard me – I strolled leisurely back across the park and up by the town’s war memorial, known locally as ‘The Slopes’, overlooking the town centre and The Crescent.
The memorial is an impressively tall obelisk with a laurel band and a pyramidal cap, which bears bronze panels on three sides, and at the front a bronze figure of a winged angel, representing “Victory” holding a sword brandishing a laurel wreath. From the same level as its plinth I could see that there was one remaining table at the café in front of The Crescent so, after paying my respects, turned about heel and made a bee-line for it, profitably as it turned out.
As a reward I ordered myself a gin and tonic from a Polish waitress whose mask failed to hide her sulkiness – post furlough blues perhaps. There was still half an hour to wait for my meeting partner to show up, and a whole hour before lunch, and I was somewhat quenched and sweltering in my jacket from pottering around town in the midday sun. My drink was served alongside a bowl of monkey’s caviar – peanuts in shells – I cherished every sip and crunch. With that Georgian backdrop even a cherryade from Spar would have tasted celestial. What a beautiful town! I wholly recommend a visit, Dear Readers.
A couple of American ladies were seated at the table next door and I refused to succumb to ‘I’m so sorry, it was destroyed in 587 BC’ quips when they asked for directions up to Solomon’s temple – a Victorian folly built on top of a Bronze Age barrow, sitting on top of a ridge from where there are good 360-degree views over the town and the surrounding countryside, so I was told.
One of the ladies came from Bloxom in Virginia, a town I had visited before, so we had a good conversation for all of two minutes about that deadbeat place. The chatty one and her friend told me how much they loved England. The chatty one was kind enough to inform me that the Emperor Hadrian had visited Buxton in 122 AD “a long time before Bloxom was ever even thought of”. Indeed.
The effects of the long drive to Buxton, the soft lilt of the captivating Americans and the inebriating effects of the gin and tonic, enforced by the brilliant sun beating down on my head, were conspiring to send me off to the Land of Nod. In such a stunning setting there was a sense of positivity and peace that our inability to travel during lockdown had so starved us of. Then, just as perfect harmony was descending upon us, one of the American ladies abruptly took a deep intake of Derbyshire air and pointed across the cobbled road at a man in rather bright-coloured clothing running in our direction. They became most agitated.
The ladies started laughing.
I squinted in the sunlight and, as peace fast ebbed away, the truth soon dawned on me.
People at other tables and standing in the street were pointing at this most eccentric of dressers. If Japanese tourists had been allowed in to the country they would have clicked determinedly on their camera telephony. I was sure I heard someone mutter ‘circus freak’.
“Bloody hell,” I exclaimed and almost choked on a nut when my eyes focused on the bumbling monstrosity in their crosshairs. I leant on the arms of my chair and just about managed to get to my feet.
“So sorry I am late, Dom. I couldn’t decide between the pale chinos or the mauve moleskins.”
“Ladies, please let me introduce you. This is my friend and colleague, James Bembridge…..”
Dominic Wightman is the Editor of Country Squire Magazine – James Bembridge his long-suffering Deputy.