Visit the Peak District!

Chatsworth HouseAs ‘mature’ travellers, we usually choose a different location to visit whenever we get the opportunity, on the basis that there is so much still to see in this country and the rest of the world while we still can! An exception to this habit has been the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire, which we have visited three times in the past two years, with three quite different itineraries. 

Derbyshire is right in the heart of England, easily accessible from almost anywhere – just a half-day’s drive from our home near the South coast – and providing such a wonderful range of stunning scenery and attractions that it rewards visiting again and again.

For our first visit, we stayed near Matlock on the Eastern edge of the National Park the primary objective being to spend a day at Chatsworth, one of the grandest of grand mansion houses and country estates. This historic home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire is an ever-popular tourist attraction so, for a leisurely view of its elegant rooms and galleries, it is perhaps best to avoid weekend and holiday periods. The first house on the site was built by Bess of Hardwick on land at Chatsworth Manor and dates back to the 16th century, but subsequent rebuilding made the layout of the house and garden what it is today, and was completed in 1767. The old hunting tower built by Bess of Hardwick still remains, the chapel is unchanged since the 17th century and there is a wonderful collection of art, including famous paintings and sculpture.

A day at Chatsworth HouseThe landscaping is typical Capability Brown and, in addition to excellent catering facilities, there is an extensive estate where you can enjoy walking while admiring the gardens, fountains and cascade. If you happen to be there for a musical event in the grounds, with fireworks to round it off, Chatsworth is a truly splendid setting but be prepared for quite a long walk from the car park, especially if you are carrying chairs and picnics.

If you have not had enough of stately homes and history at Chatsworth House, it is not far to travel to Haddon Hall, the medieval manor house and home of Lord and Lady Edward Manners.  Dating from the 12th century, this gracious house with its terraced Elizabethan gardens became the location, in more recent times, for films such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and The Duchess.

Masson Cavern - Heights of Abraham, DerbyshireFrom here it is a short drive northwards to the, aptly named, High Peak, exploring some typical Derbyshire villages on the way and taking in some spectacular scenery offering views across lakes and reservoirs. Near Castleton are the famous cave systems which now provide such a tourism attraction, Blue John, Speedwell, Treakcliff and Peak Caverns as well as the source of a well-known feature of the area – Blue John stone. There are three caves where this sparkling crystal can be seen in its natural habitat, and the rare mineral can be seen in souvenir shops and jewellers throughout Derbyshire.

On route to Castleton, the village of Eyam is also worth a visit to see the museum which records, in poignant detail, how its inhabitants were struck down by Bubonic Plague in the 17th century, taking the lives of one-third of the local population.

It was in another picturesque hillside village with stone walls and cottages that we discovered a reason for our next visit to Derbyshire – this time between May and August when, one after another, villages carry out the traditional practice of Well Dressing.  Between published dates each village – proudly and with due ceremony – unveils its latest creation, each a masterpiece of design and craftwork. These remarkable pictorial displays, created entirely with natural material such as flower petals, berries, cones and moss are mounted on a clay base, which in turn are set in wooden frames and erected above the village wells. Well dressings can be six to eight feet high, and themes vary from religious verse to local folklore – they are truly well worth seeing and between July and August alone, there are perhaps 30 or 40 to be discovered.  The dressing of wells has been a regular feature of summer life in the area for centuries and, so far as I can discover, no-one knows the real origin.

Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, DerbyshireOur third visit was rather different – this time for golf and walking, and based at Breadsall Priory hotel and country club. The old Priory, was subsequently developed to become the large, 18th century mansion once home to Erasmus Darwin. But today there are other extensive facilities to be enjoyed – not least the golf course, which offers breathtaking views across the Derbyshire countryside, and one especially memorable hole with a hilltop tee. It is well worth the steep climb to complete the previous hole. While you regain your breath, you can soak up the surrounding scenery and contemplate a fairway and green stretching out into the distance some 200 feet below. It feels as though a well-hit drive will fly for miles (but for an occasional golfer it is all too easy to spoil that illusion!)

These are just some of the highlights we have enjoyed in the Derbyshire Peak District, and there is so much more. Towns like Buxton, Matlock and Bakewell all repay time spent discovering some of their local history.  So whether you plan three short visits or one longer stay, Derbyshire is certainly an area of England not to be missed.

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Retired broadcasting & satellite executive

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