HISTORIC HOUSES AND CASTLES
If historic houses and stately homes are your thing, Staffordshire and neighbouring Derbyshire have some of the best in the country. Set in more than 100 acres of superb gardens landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Chatsworth House has more than 30 rooms and one of Europe’s most significant art collections to explore. Haddon Hall, built between the 12th and 17th centuries, sits in Elizabethan terraced gardens overlooking the River Wye and has been described as ‘the most perfect English House to survive from the Middle Ages’. And Renishaw Hall boasts Italian gardens with ornamental ponds and classical statues, its beautiful plant and flower displays changing with the seasons. Its Stable Block is also home to the fascinating Sitwell Museum.
The area also has a wealth of National Trust properties. Hardwick Hall reveals the story of ‘the lost queen’ Lady Arbella Stuart, for whom the stunning mansion seemed both palace and prison, and offers great activities for children. Starring in 2008 in the Keira Knightley movie The Duchess, Kedleston Hall is an exquisite example of the neo-classical work of architect Robert Adam, and houses a collection of Oriental objects collected by the Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century.
A survivor of a notorious plague village, the Jacobean Eyam Hall has fine tapestries, furniture and family portraits, and craft units where Derbyshire artisans make and sell their wares. Sudbury Hall is one the country’s finest Restoration mansions, its Great Staircase and Long Gallery featuring remarkable plasterwork, wood carvings and murals. Calke Abbey meanwhile feels frozen in time, with its peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards an atmospheric reminder of the fate that befell so many magnificent country houses last century.
Two English Heritage castles also stand close by. Seventeenth-century Bolsover Castle, half-ruined and half-intact, has a fairy-tale quality and commanding views across the Derbyshire countryside. Peveril Castle’s imposing ruins date back to 1176, and in their spectacular setting on a steep ridge feel on the point of being reclaimed by wild nature. A more modest gem is Izaak Walton’s thatched 16th-century cottage, a place of pilgrimage for anglers and a prized picnic spot for its herb and rose gardens.
Although popular with every level of hiker, the local area makes it easy to get away from the crowds and reconnect with untamed nature. Derbyshire and Staffordshire offer an unrivalled choice of routes, most notably in the UK’s Britain’s first national park, the Peak District. Here you will discover sparkling river valleys, rolling green fields and flourishing wildlife. Experienced walkers tackle the 268-mile Pennine Way National Trail, following the rugged backbone of England and scaling Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District at 2080 feet. The disused railway routes of the Monsal, Tissington and Longdendale Trails and High Peak offer much gentler routes.
In Staffordshire, discover the dramatic gritstone ridge of The Roaches, nature reserves, country parks, the peaceful canal of the secluded Churnet Valley and beautiful wooded walks between towering limestone crags through the picturesque Manifold Valley. If you don’t want to head off on your own then join a ranger-led guided walk and discover the countryside and its natural history, archaeology and folklore. Numerous walking groups meet regularly and organise Peak District walks.
Caving is highly popular and an exciting way to discover the Peak District’s inner beauty. The area is home to the deepest natural cavern in the UK, the 464ft Titan Cave near Castleton, discovered by local potholers in 2000. Several local activity centres offer caving training with qualified instructors and all equipment. Or for a less bracing encounter, visit one of the many safe and well-lit show caves where you can see fantastic underground formations.
The Peak District has some of the most challenging and popular rock-climbing routes in Europe including the important Stanage Edge near Hathersage and the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Many world-class climbers live in and around the area, sharpening their skills on its challenging cliffs, edges and boulders. Regardless of whether you are an enthusiastic beginner or world-class athlete, there are plenty of crags for you to discover.
The network of traffic-free trails and quiet lanes in this area offers opportunities for cycling unrivalled anywhere in the UK. With more than 300km of cycle ways to choose from, the area is ideal for riders of all ages and abilities, opening up rolling hills, rugged peaks, canal towpaths and gentle greenways. For a leisurely day out, opt for one of the fun, easy-going routes that follow old railway lines and waterways and border reservoirs on level, surfaced tracks. Or if you’re ready to hurtle down a steep, muddy track in amazing scenery, the Peak District has all the white-knuckle mountain bike routes you could wish for.
Cycling routes include the Monsal Trail with its tunnels and viaducts, Tissington and High Peak Trails which meet at Parsley Hay and the quieter Manifold Track running along the old Leek and Manifold light railway line. You can also explore the spectacular countryside of the Peak District by bike on nine journeys of discovery. These routes offer some of the best views, the most picturesque villages, the quietest lanes, and an abundance of cycle-friendly cafés and pubs for refreshment – download a leaflet with details, courtesy of visitpeakdistrict.com. And if you don’t have a bike with you, you can hire one at one of the Peak District’s cycle centres.
The Peak District has some of the best flying sites in the most beautiful settings for gliding, paragliding and hang-gliding. Mam Tor, which overlooks Castleton at the western end of the Hope Valley, is a major local centre for hang-gliding and paragliding and a great spot for watching the action.
If you’re ready to take to the air yourself, there are several BHPA (British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) Schools in the Peak District. Book a tandem flight for the scenery and sensation or sign up for a training course.
There are a number of trekking centres in the Peak District where you can ride out and see some amazing countryside from the bridlepaths. Tissington Trekking Centre in the picturesque village of Tissington has a good range of well-mannered horses suitable for all levels of experience.
Uttoxeter Racecourse is well worth a visit, with 24 meetings throughout the year. National Hunt racing takes place in the winter while there is summer jumping throughout the warmer months. The venue also hosts special events all year round, such as live music concerts, antique fairs and themed days and nights.
Antique lovers and fans of local artisanal produce will find plenty to browse in the local area. The nearby towns Ashbourne and Leek both bristle with independent antique shops, specialist art galleries and craft boutiques clustered around their market squares and on their high streets. And you can experience some authentic tastes of the Peak District and Staffordshire thanks to the growing array of farm shops and artisan breweries, where visitors can buy food and drink directly from local producers and suppliers.
The Peak District’s reservoirs – including Carsington, Rudyard, Combs, Ernwood, Doverstone and Torside – are home to many sailing and windsurfing clubs in beautiful surroundings. There are also opportunities for canoeing on rivers and canals including the River Derwent at Matlock and the Peak Forest Canal. Carsington Water near Ashbourne is perhaps the best all rounder, offering sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and powerboating.
The Peak District’s rivers are among the best fishing waters in Britain, and the Wye, Derwent and Dove are known for their rainbow trout, wild brown trout and grayling. Many of Derbyshire’s Peak District waters are controlled by the large estates of Haddon and Chatsworth and by clubs and associations, so much of the fishing is on a seasonal let, though day tickets can be obtained in some places.
Carsington Water near Ashbourne offers some of the best boat fly fishing in Derbyshire on 740 acres of open water. Throughout the season, the reservoir regularly stocks with rainbow and brown trout and has a fleet of boats available for hire.
LOCAL STREET AND FARMERS’ MARKETS
Ashbourne’s weekly market days are Thursday and Saturday.
The town has a market every Monday, and a farmers’ market at the Agricultural Business Centre on the last Saturday of the month except in December.
Every Tuesday is market day, while a weekly antique and collectors’ market is held on Saturdays at the Pavilion Gardens.
Weekly market day is Wednesday, and the historic cobbled Leek Market Place hosts a weekly outdoor antiques market every Saturday.
Markets take place every Tuesday and Friday.
The weekly Tuesday market in Market Place is a tradition that dates back to 1306.
THEATRE AND CONCERTS
Buxton Opera House
Buxton Opera House is one of Britain’s leading receiving theatres, presenting around 450 performances each year including dance, comedy, children’s shows, drama, musical concerts, pantomime and opera. The venue is also home to the nationally renowned Buxton Festival. Lovingly restored in 2001, its opulent interior is one of the country’s finest examples of theatre design by the illustrious Frank Matcham.
The New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
The New Vic delivers a programme of international-class work made with local audiences in mind. An in-the-round theatre, it presents around eight major productions each year and also hosts a vibrant music programme.
The Cinebowl entertainment centre in the nearby town of Uttoxeter screens popular current film releases, and has an ice rink and eight-lane tenpin bowling alley.
FAMILY DAYS OUT
The UK’s most popular theme park is based in the grounds of the magnificent ruins of Alton Towers themselves, a site with further history dating back to the Iron Age. Now operating for over 30 years, the park consists of 11 themed areas covering a vast 800 acres, and boasts famous thrill rides including Nemesis Sub-Terra, Oblivion, Air, Ripsaw and Rita.
Go Ape Buxton
In the heart of the beautiful Peak District National Park, Go Ape offers one of the UK’s most vertiginous adventures, featuring a high ropes course, aerial crossings and tunnels and a zip wire ride to finish.
In the Derbyshire town of Matlock Bath, theme park Gulliver’s Kingdom is tailored for children aged between two and 13, with a wide range of rides and attractions – from dinosaur discoveries to dress-up games to gentle thrill rides.
Matlock Farm Park
Six miles from Matlock Bath, Matlock Farm Park forms part of a 600-acre working farm that lets families get close to a range of animals. The usual petting-farm suspects are present and correct, including pigs, sheep, goats and donkeys but it’s also home to some more exotic creatures such as llamas, alpacas and a fully grown red deer stag. A pot of feed is included in the entry fee so close animal encounters are assured.
In the grounds of Staffordshire’s Trentham Estate, 140 Barbary macaque monkeys live free in beautiful woodlands and meadows in Monkey Forest. A winding forest path lets you walk among them, well-informed guides are on hand to answer any questions about the animals, and feeding time is the moment to catch their liveliest antics.
Peak Wildlife Park
Winkhill, close to Leek in Staffordshire is where you’ll find Peak Wildlife Park, a zoo with a strong conservation mission. Visitors can get up close with meerkats, lemurs, wallabies and a giant tortoise, and the main attraction is what is probably the largest penguin habitat in captivity, and a bid to help save the endangered Humboldt species.
The Heights Of Abraham
Take a cable car up from Matlock Bath to the hilltop park Heights of Abraham, an attraction first opened in 1780. Here you can explore a million years of geology, in dramatically lit ancient caverns and exhibitions such as the Fossil Factory and Tinker’s Shaft. Vantage points offer sweeping views of the Derwent Valley, and there are adventure playgrounds and giant slides for energetic youngsters.
Crich Tramway Village
Take a ride back in time near Matlock in Derbyshire at the award-winning museum Crich Tramway Museum. Kids are surprisingly engaged by the beautifully maintained vehicles’ bright colours, and a mile-long track takes visitors on a journey through the museum and restored period village complete with shops and pub to the Glory Mine. There’s also a woodland park and sculpture trail, and dogs are welcome too.