In the heart of England lies the Peak District, a place where local lore, gnarled forests and expansive moorlands create an enchantingly beautiful setting. Scattered with picturesque, medieval market towns and dramatic geological features that score the landscape, it’s easy to see why the Peak District National Park was the first to be established in the United Kingdom.
With thousands of miles of footpaths – including a stretch of the famed Pennine Way – crisscrossing this bewitching landscape, and the certainty of a warm, northern welcome, there are many reasons to visit.
Follow in the footsteps of Mr Darcy at Chatsworth House
With over 2900 listed buildings, the Peak District isn’t short of impressive houses, but the jewel in its crown has to be the world-renowned Chatsworth House. It’s home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and you may recognize it as the filming location for Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s residence in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Bask in the splendor at one of its many spectacular events throughout the year, including the annual Regency Ball and Country Fair. On a budget? Pack a picnic and take a stroll through the parkland before choosing a spot down by the river to enjoy lunch with an unobstructed view of the house.
Explore the thermal spa town of Buxton
A holiday destination since Victorian times, the town of Buxton certainly hasn’t lost its charm. In 2020 its most famous Georgian landmark, the Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent, finally reopened as a five-star hotel after a refurbishment that took 17 years to complete. And the spa inside uses Buxton’s natural thermal waters, resurrecting the wellness traditions that originally put the town on the map. Also not to be missed is the beautifully preserved Buxton Opera House which runs tours and hosts an impressive lineup of comedy, dance, opera, music and theater acts including big-hitters such as Jimmy Carr, Jools Holland, Cara Dillon and Sir Ian McKellen.
It’s dangerously easy to lose an entire afternoon browsing the secondhand books and curling up in a hidden corner at Scrivener’s Books, and The Arches at Hogshaw Mill provides ample opportunity to pick up a gift or, if you time it right, to attend one of its gin tasting evenings. Be sure to call in at Buxton Brewery Tap House, which offers up a tempting array of local brews and delicious grub.
Hike to popular viewpoint and climbing spot, the Roaches
Granted, the Roaches doesn’t have the most appealing name, but you won’t be disappointed by this rugged gritstone ridge towering above Tittesworth Reservoir and the historic market town of Leek. With dramatic views of the surrounding countryside, these steep outcrops of rock attract avid walkers and climbers looking for adventure. Once you’ve finished hiking the trails or clambering over the boulders (safely!), be sure to refuel. Try the family-run Roaches Tea Rooms, which look out over the valley and reservoir, serving afternoon teas as well as local specialties such as Staffordshire oatcakes.
Be enchanted by the Peak District’s local myths and legends
From Lud’s Church, an 18m-deep (59ft) chasm drenched in moss and reputed to have been formed by the Devil’s fingernail, to the Winking Man, a natural rock formation that appears to wink as you drive by, get ready to marvel at all things magical as this area is steeped in local lore. Perhaps one of the most amazing tales is that of Mermaid’s Pool. According to legend, the reputedly bottomless Blake Mere Pool is home to a beautiful mermaid whose siren song can supposedly be heard on the wind at this desolate but eerily beautiful location.
Trace Derbyshire’s rail history by train or bike
In the 19th century, an extensive rail network carved through the Peak District’s limestone hills and wooded valleys, serving rural workers and connecting small towns and communities from Derby up to Manchester. From the 1960s, many unprofitable lines were dismantled but there’s still a nostalgic legacy running through the area. Heritage rail enthusiasts can take a jaunt – sometimes with afternoon tea – on the Peak Rail, which runs vintage steam and diesel trains on 6km (4 miles) of original 19th-century track between Matlock and Darley Dale. The Monsal Trail is another industrial relic, opened in 2011 to allow hikers and cyclists to travel the remains of a disused railway. Over 12km-long (7.5 miles), the track passes old lime kilns, ducks through five tunnels and takes in impressive Victorian feats of engineering such as the 25m-tall (82ft), five-arch Headstone Viaduct in Monsal Dale, over the pretty riverway.
Go wild swimming at Three Shires Head
Pay a visit to Three Shires Head and reap both the mental and physical benefits of a cold water swim. Located out on the moors at the juncture of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire, there are waterfalls, plunge pools, and several places along this stretch of the River Dane where you can enjoy a quick dip. Be prepared: it’s a bit of a walk and not easily accessible. For something a bit more practical but no less enjoyable, take a trip to another part of the river in Wincle. Not deep enough for swimming, the river here is perfect for paddling and whiling away some time with a good book on the grassy banks. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, make the short walk up the hill for some cracking food at The Ship Inn.
See quaint medieval villages and dramatic ruins
Driving through the Peak District you will chance upon countless picture-perfect towns and villages well-deserving of your time. One special place is the village of Castleton, lying in the shadow of Mam Tor or the “Shivering Mountain.” Rain or shine there’s something to do, whether it’s a visit to Blue John Cavern (the only place in the world where you can find the semi-precious stone Blue John), a trip to the dramatic limestone gorge of Winnats Pass, or a climb up to the Norman ruins of Peveril Castle.
Another of Derbyshire’s prettiest villages is Eyam (pronounced “eem”), though its idyllic patchwork of Peak District cottages around a country church belies its dark past. Nicknamed the “plague village,” Eyam secured its place in the history books after the Black Death of 1665–66, when the villagers sacrificed themselves by taking the decision to isolate during an outbreak of the plague. Much of the community was wiped out, and today Eyam has become a popular place for ghost walks. The history of this village of the damned, as it is also sometimes described, can be found in Eyam Museum.
Treat yourself to a Bakewell pudding in Bakewell
Bakewell is the largest town in the Peak District National Park, gateway to both Chatsworth House and nearby Haddon Hall, a stunning Tudor mansion. But its biggest claim to fame is that it’s the home of the Bakewell pudding, one of England’s most iconic desserts. Other versions include the Bakewell Tart and Cherry Bakewell, but the original is the puff-pastry pudding stuffed with jam and almond paste that was first created accidentally in the White Horse Inn (now Bakewell’s Rutland Arms) in the 1860s. Today the market town is crammed with bakeries, but you should head to the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop or Bloomers Bakery to try the original recipe. Not a fan of sweet treats? No problem, because there are plenty of other things to do in Bakewell. The town has many charms, including gorgeous honey-colored buildings, a medieval bridge over the river Wye, a particularly fantastic farmers market, and a craft brewery.
Cycle or walk the Manifold Valley
A favorite for the whole family, the Manifold Valley can easily be explored via the Manifold Track, a smooth and well-maintained path perfect for both walking and cycling. Bike hire is available from the villages of Waterhouses or Hulme End, and you can explore as much in a day as your legs can take. The most impressive site in the valley is Thor’s Cave, which can be viewed from the trail itself, but is definitely worth the hike should you have the energy. You won’t be short of choice when it comes to refreshments either: Wetton Mill Tea Room provides a much-needed ice-cream/cake/hot drink pit stop or, if you fancy something a little stronger to whet your whistle, The Manifold Inn is the perfect place to rest with a cold pint or a hearty meal.
Take a scenic cable car ride for the perfect family day out
Once nicknamed “Little Switzerland” by the notorious poet Lord Byron, it’s perhaps fitting that the pretty Peak District village of Matlock Bath has its own cable car ride. The scenic track runs from the riverside cottages of the Derwent Valley up to the hilltop Heights of Abraham, a 60-acre estate with adventure playgrounds, woodland trails and floodlit show caverns. There’s also a butterfly and nature trail and a willow sculpture walk, making this perfect for a family day out. In Matlock Bath itself, there’s a small theme park for younger kids called Gulliver’s Kingdom.