Derby, historically, was one of the great centres of British rail. Coincidentally, it was the railways that drew us there – or, at least, the fact that a trip from Glasgow is sixty quid return.
Beyond that, Jehane and I arrived at the weekend with very little idea of what to expect – but what we found couldn’t have been any more on brand.
We spent most of our time in the Cathedral Quarter. Arguably one of the birthplaces of England’s Industrial Revolution (the town’s historic silk mill is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site), the winding streets and picturesque buildings are now home to shopping, bars, restaurants and nightlife. What’s particularly striking is that chain bars like Revolution and Wetherspoons rub shoulders with some genuinely independent alternatives, which isn’t something I’m used to seeing in many city centre nightspots.
Our base for the weekend was Derby Cricket Ground Travelodge*, located just outside of the city centre by Derby County Cricket Ground. Although just about walkable from the Cathedral Quarter had the weather been on our side, we instead took advantage of Derby’s iconic yellow taxi fleet as well as the ubiquitous Uber to get around. At around £4-5 for a trip into town, it didn’t work out much more expensive than the equivalent bus routes and saved us from walking in the rain.
(Check out our ridiculously glamorous, oversized bay window btw – if it hadn’t overlooked a rainy car park in the East Midlands you could almost have pretended you were in the Mediterranean!).
Since our visit coincided with Saturday night, we decided to play smart and book ahead for dinner. After drawing a surprising blank when searching for Derbyshire bloggers, Jehane opted for The Distillery on Friar Gate based on the strength of its cocktail menu. We arrived to fairy lights glimmering in the rain and our name on a chalkboard on our table upstairs, as good as confirming that we had made the right choice.
The Distillery has definitely gone for quality over quantity with a menu consisting of a few pub classics, some classic grills and “low and slow” cooked meats, rather than trying to do a bit of everything. You can’t go wrong with a rump steak after a day of travelling, so I opted for that while Jehane ordered the Jack Daniels chilli beef brisket. While hers was definitely the more exciting choice – the meat was deliciously tender, with a sweet Jack Daniels and chilli kick plus plenty of sides – I had no complaints about my steak either, and the seasoned chips were perfectly done.
Drinks-wise, I was a little disappointed that the Pomegranate Punch (Havana 3 rum, Grand Marnier, grapefruit and rhubarb bitters, pomegranate, orange and lime) I’d been excited for all week turned out to be a short drink, but only because it was so bloody tasty I could have had a bath of it. Besides, Jehane’s longer Raspberry Lemon Drop (Ketel One Citroen vodka, Chambord, raspberries, lemonade and lemon) disappeared just as quickly. Later, I also devoured an incredibly refreshing Raspberry and Peach Tea Cooler (peach-infused lemon green tea, peach purée, Chambord, damson vodka and fresh lime), while Jehane put the bar staff to the test by ordering an ice cream style dessert cocktail so thick it seemed easier to eat it with a spoon than to drink it.
Shoutout too to The Distillery’s dessert menu: again, a small selection, but one which managed to include both your classic sticky toffee pudding and this frankly ridiculous mojito cheesecake bar served with mint choc chip ice cream and a mint and almond pesto. Had I thought it through I’d have realised that all that mint and my fruity drink were never going to “go”, which is the only reason I never got to finish it. I really loved The Distillery – it had such a warm, welcoming vibe, and although clearly popular with roving packs of lads on their big night out of the week never felt uncomfortable for it, in part because of the decision to set the restaurant upstairs from the bar.
Wandering out in search of a cash machine, we stumbled into a huge, colourful street dance performance. This was The Garba: large-scale Indian community street dance given a delightful informality by the members of the public stumbling in and out of the throng, and one of the highlights of the Derby Festé. Yes: somehow we’d managed to miss the fact that our visit coincided with the city’s internationally acclaimed annual outdoor arts festival. Just another case of Derby exceeding, and confounding, expectations.
Our final destination that evening was, I swear, just as exciting: Alchemy, Derby’s late night board game cafe bar. As the board game addict of the pair of us, Jehane was unsurprisingly quick to spot this place as we swung by in our taxi – but it’s hard to miss, filling out as it does the sprawling 17th century Jacobean House on Wardwick. (Two fun facts for you: apparently, Bonnie Prince Charlie got as far as Derby when he attempted to march on London and reclaim his throne; and also, this claims to be the most haunted building in the city).
As an example of what I loved about Derby, there really isn’t one more striking than there being an all-you-can-play board game cafe sited next door to one of the city’s most terrifying-looking nightclubs. Dodging the flyers on our way to spend two hours playing Pandemic was easily a highlight of the weekend – along with getting my first Jane Austen tenner in my change. Along with the first tenners of many listeners to The Guilty Feminist podcast, mine went to The Dahlia Project to support survivors of female genital mutilation.
We’re big fans of escape rooms, Jehane and I, and have even done a few together, so on one of our telly dates before our trip we spontaneously booked a visit to Unescapable – even though the only time slot available was at 10am on Sunday morning. The website warned us that the room involved “some scares”, but as veterans of Glasgow’s own zombie escape room we figured it was worth it to go back in time to a 19th century dressmakers’ workshop.
We lasted 40 minutes.
I have never been so terrified in my life. I recommend it 100%.
Unescapable is another one of those hidden Derby treasures, located behind a hidden door on Wardwick and expanding backwards
in time behind the street. We’d probably walked past it several times the night before, and hadn’t spotted it. It’s run by Joe (who we met) and Stu (who we didn’t), who devised and decorated two fiendishly clever rooms with nothing but some YouTube videos for guidance. Even though we couldn’t finish it (and, by all accounts, dropped out at exactly the right time…), “Edith” was the best – and certainly the most immersive and well-thought out – escape room experience I have ever had. I honestly can’t sing the praises of these guys enthusiastically enough, and if you happen to be in Derby I urge you to give it a go – there’s even a third room on the way, if their Instagram is anything to go by. Just, maybe bring a decent-sized group..?
On Joe’s recommendation, #TeamGretchen made our way to The Book Cafe for a restorative cup of tea and to wait for the cat cafe Jehane had Googled the night before to open. An independently-run cafe full of the sort of quirky details I love (books may feature prominently) and with some really tasty-looking, well-priced food, this would have been an ideal brunch spot had we not already filled up on all-you-can-eat Travelodge breakfast. Well, you have to get your money’s worth, don’t you?
Curious Cats isn’t a cat cafe in the same way as somewhere like, say, Edinburgh’s Maison de Moggy. Although it began life as a tea room with a dozen permanent feline residents, it now operates primarily as a rehoming centre – with the idea that you can come in for a cup of tea or a sandwich while giving rescue cats as a chance to get accustomed to people before moving on to permanent homes. Rather than court parties or charge an hourly fee for your visit in the way that a “traditional” cat cafe would, Curious Cats is free entry and drop-ins – if there is space – are encouraged.
With October breaking, the place was decked out for Halloween – but the specimen jars, old portraits and assorted curios give the place witchy vibes all year round. Cats roam freely across several floors of yet another old Derby townhouse, and the staff clearly adore each and every one of their charges despite knowing that the whole point of the business means they’re going to have to say goodbye eventually. I get the feeling that the cafe boasts plenty of regular visitors, each of whom asked after previous residents who had since found their forever homes.
As the day’s first arrivals, Jehane and I had barely got settled before Frank, one of Curious Cats’ senior residents, set up camp on her lap and refused to budge for a good half-hour (he’s the one branded “thief” in the photo above). In fact, he didn’t move until the milkshakes we had ordered arrived. Now, we’re not daft enough to order full-on meals in a cat cafe – in my experience, even keeping as much of a glass of water out of the reach of troublesome paws can be a trial in that scenario – but we couldn’t resist the milkshake menu. And neither, it seems, could Sammy.
We just missed the introduction of new milkshake flavours for Autumn, if the Curious Cats Facebook page is anything to go by – I’ve just seen mention of toffee apple and pumpkin spice varieties, either of which would be enough to get me back on a train. A couple of the curious cats have headed off to their new homes in the week since our visit, and I look forward to keeping up with the adventures of the rest of them too.
With our train home quickly looming, we decided to hit the road with a late, hearty lunch at Turtle Bay. This Caribbean-themed bar and restaurant had been buzzing on Saturday evening but was just as suited to a laid-back, leisurely lunch – and it turns out the only thing better than jerk chicken is jerk chicken you don’t have to cook yourself.
While we weren’t planning on more run-based drinks, the siren call of buy one get one free cocktails on Sunday afternoon was just a little too strong – as was this delicious reggae rum punch. Turtle Bay is, it transpires, a Bristol-based chain with branches throughout England and Wales – go and have some grilled pineapple for me, since I’m still kicking myself for being unable to face dessert.
Derby is a beautiful city, full of history and gorgeous architecture – and yet, we were so busy having thoroughly modern fun that with the exception of some of the Cathedral Quarter’s repurposed old buildings, the most we really saw of it was on our walk from the city centre to the train station. And let me tell you, after our haunted escape room experience the sight of the abandoned Victorian-era Derbyshire Royal Infirmary (warning: Daily Mail link, but the pictures are great if you’re into urban exploration) sent a shiver down the spine.
Reading back this post, which has taken me about three days to write, I don’t know what I’m more surprised by – the fact that we managed to cram this much into (less than) 24 hours, or that we did it in Derby. As lesser-known English cities go, it was certainly full of surprises – and one that I suspect I’ll be returning to sooner or later!
Thanks to Travelodge for the complimentary stay and a little bit of spending money. All opinions and discoveries are my own and unbiased.