Heights of Abraham



Heights of Abraham Cable Car in Matlock Bath, England

This is a guest post by Ross Edgar.

The United Kingdom is not known for its gondolas. In fact, the UK’s gondolas can be counted on one hand. Beyond the recently constructed Emirates Air Line in London there are three other gondola systems in the country: in north-west Scotland the Nevis Range gondola near Fort William and in the English Midlands the Skyride at the Alton Towers theme park and the Heights of Abraham Cable Car.

Heights of Abraham Cable Car is designed as a pulsed gondola. Image by Ross Edgar.

The gondola at the Heights of Abraham is particularly interesting as it was the UK’s first alpine-style gondola. Originally constructed in 1984, the gondola transports passengers from the town of Matlock Bath in Derbyshire to a park atop Masson Hill, 169m (or 554 feet) above the town. The system features four sets of three cabins in a pulsed configuration.

At almost 30 years old the Heights of Abraham gondola certainly shows its age in its design. The system at Matlock Bath is a pulsed gondola; a configuration that, although relatively inexpensive, has fallen out of favour over the past couple of decades due to its limitations. By definition pulsed gondolas are non-detachable and therefore cannot be stored when not in use and more significantly, cannot transition onto an independent conveyor system within the stations. Therefore, for the purposes of boarding and alighting the entire system must be slowed to a suitable pace. In the case of the gondola at the Heights of Abraham the system is stopped entirely for this purpose, when two sets of cabins are in the stations and the other two are at the midway point.

Cabins in station. Image by Ross Edgar.

The winding system in the valley station is another point of interest. When the system is in operation the winding gear is able to move backward and forward within the station, along with the cabin guide rails. This feature presumably serves to maintain the tension in the cable as the cabins ascend and descend. As more modern systems do not utilise this mechanism a more effective way to achieve sustained cable tension must have been found. If anyone has more insight on this winding system, it would certainly be welcomed.

Guide rails. Image by Ross Edgar.

Moreover, the Matlock Bath gondola shows very little signs of modernisation since its original construction. That said, at some point in the life of the system the cabins have been replaced with modern equivalents. An example of the original cabins can be seen today at the valley station.

Original cabins - 1984 model. Image by Ross Edgar.

The most interesting feature applicable to the urban application of gondola technology is the minimalistic nature of the stations. This is especially true of the summit station. Granted the Heights of Abraham stations do not feature more complex secondary systems for use within the stations which allows for a more compact design. However, the principles can still be applied. The summit station features little more than the upper winding mechanism and a partial rain shelter. When the majority of modern gondola systems feature sizeable stations, often on multiple levels, it can be easy to forget how compact a gondola station could be. This is an important fact to remember when considering constructing a gondola system in a congested urban environment.

Summit (top) station in the back. Image by Ross Edgar.

Valley (bottom) station. Image by Ross Edgar.

Interestingly, the company that owns the Heights of Abraham gondola has since become a consultancy for similar projects within the UK and further afield. These projects have included the cabins for the London Eye, the Skyride at Alton Towers and a now-dismantled pulsed gondola system in Stoke-on-Trent as well as projects in China, Jordan and South Africa.


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