Milestone anniversaries at Derbyshire's oldest visitor attraction The Heights of Abraham

A dynamic duo who transformed a rundown hilltop estate in the Derbyshire Dales to create a unique visitor attraction have double cause for celebration.

Andrew and Vanessa Pugh are marking the 50 years since they took over The Heights of Abraham and 40 years since they introduced the alpine-style cable cars, the first passenger system of its kind in the UK.

Their amazing story began when they spotted for sale in The Daily Telegraph: “the most unusual business – a place with woods, caves and a house.”

Neither of them had been to the Derbyshire Dales before, but the advertisement had piqued their interest and they drove from London to Matlock Bath on a rainy Sunday in February to meet the vendor. The neglected hilltop estate and old-fashioned home were not for the faint-hearted but Andrew and Vanessa could see the potential and were ‘sold’. They agreed to take over the Heights in time for Spring Bank Holiday of 1974.

Following their ambitious purchase, Andrew and Vanessa spent their first summer at the estate running the business pretty much as the previous owner had established. Despite the paths being dilapidated in some places and non-existent in others, there was one part of the business that attracted a brisk trade – The Tavern pub. Originally licensed to benefit the 18th century lead miners, The Tavern continued to attract the mining community from around the region. Historic beer laws governing the estate’s watering hole meant longer opening hours than the pubs in Matlock Bath.

The steep climb was also rewarded with home-cooked light bites for customers. Vanessa recalled one favourite recipe, a ‘Belgian Biscuit Cake, easy to make and the visitors loved it’ – and many dozens of toasted sandwiches. Meanwhile, logistical nightmares which Andrew had to contend with included wheeling barrels of beer up to The Tavern on unmade paths.

As their first season came to an end, Andrew and Vanessa travelled abroad to be married and were hosted to an extended honeymoon thanks to the courtesy of their friends in South Africa, who they had met in their power boat racing days.

Refreshed by their winter honeymoon, the couple began a ten-year project of restoration on the visitor attraction and the grounds as well as their antiquated home which had no central heating system and a leaky roof.

Work started on rebuilding the Victoria Prospect Tower, re-routing power cables underground and restoring the old pathways. East Drive was completed just in time for the Easter weekend when suddenly torrents of rainwater caused a landslide and the driveway collapsed. But the show had to go on and visitors were diverted to use another entrance.

During the Seventies, the estate was vastly improved and the couple welcomed their son Rupert into the world in 1976.

With new attractions such as Alton Towers and Center Parcs transforming the leisure market and raising the bar of customer expectations during the Eighties, visitors were less willing to put in the leg work to visit the Heights. Andrew and Vanessa put their minds to improving accessibility and one winter’s evening in 1982 plotted out a course for a cable car ride, which would transport visitors from the main hub of Matlock Bath up the Heights, via a path where there was no houses.

The couple had just 10 months to make their vision a reality before the start of the summer season 1984. This included having to secure outline planning permission, architects’ plans, support from Derbyshire Dales District Council, English Tourist Board, a cable car system from Europe and several investors to raise a huge sum of finance.

The very day that the couple signed contracts with the bankers, the contractors broke ground to signal the start of building work.

A helicopter was employed to lift sections of the towers into place and the Herculean task allowed just a nine-day turnaround to deck out the interior of the Treetops Visitor station at the top.

On April 21 1984, the visitor attraction launched its cable cars to the delight of many visitors, some of whom dressed up in Victorian style fancy dress to secure free entry on the day.

This unique and ever-evolving visitor attraction is still privately owned by the Pugh family. The Heights is now managed by Rupert, who along with his wife Sophie, have a young family of their own. His parents, now in their 80s, still take an interest in the running of the estate, which is also their family home.

In a year of celebrations to mark the double anniversary at the 237-year-old estate, the Heights will be extending its season to the year end for the first time in its history, with a twinkling festive illuminations event, running from November 22 to December 30 (excluding December 24-26).