The White Peak: More than just a setting for period dramas
Having spent childhood summers in the White Peak (the southern part of the Peak District), I admit to possibly being biased; that said, it is undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of England. You can have the challenge of climbing its rocks or cycling its old railway lines, sample local treats in the tea rooms or discover its history in one of the many stately homes; here’s my pick of the places not to miss.
Matlock Bath and Matlock: The ‘seaside’ town of the Midlands and its sister
I have heard Matlock Bath described as a landlocked seaside town, and it’s true that Matlock Bath is a town defined by its water, although it’s a river, and not a coast, which the town has flourished around.
Nestled in a limestone gorge, the area around Matlock Bath was mined from Roman times, but became popular as a spa town in the 19th Century. Now it is perhaps the most famous town in the area, drawing hundreds of families and motorcyclists, especially on sunny days, to enjoy ice cream and fish and chips. The water still draws tourists for boating and canoeing trips in summer, and also for the illuminations in early autumn and the Boxing Day Raft Race. The town also hosts the Derwent Poetry Festival in October/November, a small showcase of poets published by the local Templar press, and the Grand Pavilion also hosts concerts and performances.
On my last visit, I decided to stay on terra firma and follow in the footsteps of the early tourists to Matlock Bath up to High Tor. Once, carriages took passengers up to High Tor but now the path is only navigable by foot, starting in Matlock Bath and ending in Matlock. The path is mostly shaded and, though steep, doable for anyone fairly fit. A word of caution for explorers and parents though; the path passes some sheer drops and old mine entrances, so it’s best to stay close to the path and keep an eye out for any signs – keep children and pets close.
The path rises through woodland, passing some incredible lookout points before the peak, from which both the edge of Matlock Bath and the grey quarry- and mill-workers’ cottages of Matlock town are visible. Then the path gently rolls down through meadows and woodland into Matlock town which, though less of an obvious tourist destination than its neighbour, is a treasure trove of antique shops. If all the exercise has left you a bit peckish, there are plenty of tea rooms, cafes and bakeries; The Derbyshire Larder has some great vegetarian and vegan options.
If you want the views of Matlock Bath and Matlock without so much work, you can take a cable car up to the Heights of Abraham, which are on the other side of the gorge to the High Tor path.
Bakewell: More than just tarts
Just 8.5 miles (14km) north of Matlock Bath, Bakewell offers more olde worlde charm than its famous neighbour. Its winding streets have the usual British town mix of thrift shops, high street chains and unique gems. Well worth a visit are the two independent bookshops; The Bakewell Bookshop on Matlock Street has just had a cosy cafe fitted and Book End, just before the bridge, has a good selection of second hand books. Bakewell is also the only place in the world where you can buy a real Bakewell Pudding. The puddings are only made in the Original Bakewell Pudding Shop, and the recipe is a closely guarded secret…and no, they are nothing like the Bakewell tarts!
Although it doesn’t boast scenery quite as dramatic as Matlock’s, Bakewell still draws visitors on sunny days to enjoy walking in its river gardens and outdoor markets. To really escape from the bustle of the town though, head up the hill to the Monsal Trail, a cycle path built on a disused railway line. A walk or ride along the trail is a relaxing way to take in the sight of the rolling Derbyshire hills, and about 30 minutes walk from Bakewell sits Hassops’ old train station, which has been converted into a popular cycle hire, bookshop and cafe, and serves generous portions of ice cream, the perfect excuse for a break! The full trail extends over 8 miles to Chee Dale, for those who really want to earn their Bakewell puddings and ice creams.
Chatsworth House: Grand, historic house in the peaks
Starring in films like The Duchess and Pride and Prejudice the beautiful house and grounds of Chatsworth are now no longer the preserve of the wealthy and titled. As a child my cousins and I would spend hours in the adventure playground and farmyard, and cool off in summer by paddling in the cascade, and I am still enchanted whenever I visit the garden now; there are oriental style rockeries, an elegant yew tree maze, greenhouses and a vast expanse of park and woodlands to explore. Chatsworth grows its own produce for its restaurants and farm shops, and in 2017 it will host the first RHS Chatsworth Flower Show.
Having once dragged my feet through tours of the house ( I saw it as a waste of valuable splashing and playing time!) I now find the house just as fascinating as its grounds, and anyone with an interest in history, architecture or art will too. As soon as visitors walk into Chatsworth, the elaborately painted ceiling sets the tone for the grand decorations inside the house. You may walk into an airy chapel or a dining room gleaming with silverware and candlesticks, and some of the rooms offer sweeping views over the grounds. Each room has enthusiastic guides to answer your questions, and cards with information in other languages. There’s always something new to see, too; recently, a large tapestry has been painstakingly restored and is on display again, and temporary exhibitions are put on regularly – at the moment a series of photographs by Cecil Beaton of the late Dowager Duchess and her friends.
Chatsworth is also a wonderful place to visit at Christmas, particularly with families, as the lower rooms are elaborately decorated each year and a Christmas market arrives with over 100 stalls offering gifts, festive food and drinks.
Off the beaten track
Of course, I have only mentioned the starting points here, and there is really so much more to explore in the area:
- Sampling locally-brewed ales in any one of the hundreds of pubs.
- Walking the hills and footpaths of the area (Carsington Water, Dovedale and the first part of the Pennine Way being the most famous, but there are hundreds more). Legend has it that the Medival author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight took their inspiration from Lud’s Church, a chasm in the rocks just over the Staffordshire border near Dovedale, and the area surrounding Hope Valley is popular with paragliders, and climbers, as well as walkers, so you can soar or scramble your way through the Peaks if walking or cycling is too tame.
- Photographers and artists also remain inspired by the area, as evidenced during the Wirksworth Festival which exhibits local and national artists in the towns’ churches, schools and even homes every September.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it in the Peak District.
Trains run frequently from London St Pancras to Derby, where you can change for trains to Matlock. The journey usually takes less than 2.5 hours. From Matlock station, various bus companies serve the area – Hulleys of Baslow, High Peak Buses and Trent Barton all operate services to Bakewell.