Outdoor adventures, cosy eateries, cultural hotspots and dramatic scenery everywhere you turn – there’s little that the sprawling Peak District can’t provide for a holiday, says Tristan Parker
‘National park’ might be a familiar term these days, but the Peak District has the honour of being designated as the UK’s very first national park back in 1951.That alone should give some clue as to just how important and impressive its 550-plus square miles are. A total of five English counties house some of those square miles, though the majority lie within Derbyshire, with the remainder spread around Cheshire, Staffordshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.
With such a vast area to navigate, planning a visit can seem overwhelming, but rest assured that wherever you go, you will be blessed with showstopping countryside. This is largely thanks to the area’s fascinating and staggeringly varied landscape, a wild mix of moorland, valleys, lush green hillsides and unique geology that has given rise to incredible rock formations, cliffs and caverns, making it a paradise for climbers.
Among the diverse landscapes lies a treasure trove of attractions and activities, providing enough for both action-packed and slower-paced trips. For those who want to keep active, hiking, cycling, climbing, running, gliding and watersports are never far away, but for an altogether more relaxed holiday, there are historic homes, alfresco sculpture galleries and numerous enchanting villages and towns nestled within the natural beauty. Here are a few of our favourite highlights plucked from the heart of the Peak District and beyond.
Peak District must-dos
Heights of Abraham
For a unique bird’s-eye perspective of the Peak District landscape, head to this vast hilltop estate and hop in a cable car to the summit of Masson Hill. Cable car tickets also include guided tours of two nearby show caves (Masson and Rutland) and access to the Willow Sculpture Trail by local artist Caroline Gregson.
Set on the banks of the River Derwent, this magnificent stately home is quite a sight on its own, but being surrounded by gorgeous Peak District greenery makes it even more enticing. The estate dates back to the mid-16th century and was built by the Cavendish family who still own it today. It is filled with art from Roman sculpture to Rembrandt paintings – don’t miss the fresco-adorned Painted Hall. The gardens are similarly impressive and often host outdoor art exhibitions.
This craft brewery is located in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall, a grand stately home and gardens. Its story is a great one and you’ll learn about it on the Thornbridge Experience, a mix of tasting session and tour. The vast and sometimes wacky beer range means there’s certainly going to be something everyone can enjoy sampling.
Mam Tor Walk
This 517m hill (whose name translates as ‘Mother Hill’) is one of the most popular walks and viewpoints in the region, and it’s not hard to see why. At the summit you’ll be rewarded with sweeping vistas across the area, including Kinder Scout (the Peak District’s highest point), Edale Valley and even Manchester on a clear day. It’s an easy walk from the car park and a fairly gentle ascent to the summit, and you can extend the trail to a circular route if you’re keen to soak up more views and get some steps in.
Day trips further afield
It may not get the same attention as the likes of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, but Sheffield is a gem of a city. Vibrant, friendly and packed with things to do, it’s worth a day trip or longer stay. Highlights include the Winter Garden (a city centre temperate garden teeming with tropical plants), the Graves Gallery (housing work by Turner and Bridget Riley), the Showroom Cinema and Café Bar (set in a 1930s art deco car showroom), great pubs (try the Kelham Island Tavern for a traditional spot or the Sheffield Tap for the best railway station pub in the UK) and global restaurants on every corner.
You’ll soon fall in love with this pretty spa town, just as Mary Queen of Scots did when she spent her summers at what is now the Old Hall Hotel. Beneath the hotel, you’ll also find one of the town’s essential attractions, a spa featuring a thermal pool filled with Buxton’s famous mineral water, the site of Roman baths. After a dip, step outside to admire the Grade-I- listed Buxton Crescent Hotel of which it is a part, modelled on Bath’s Royal Crescent. Also worth a visit are the beautifully landscaped Pavilion Gardens, dating back to 1871. Take a trip on a rowing boat or pedalo if weather allows.
Yorkshire sculpture park
The 500 acres of West Yorkshire’s 18th-century Bretton Hall estate hold this artistic extravaganza featuring around 100 outdoor sculptures, plus indoor galleries. Works by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Damien Hirst and others are celebrated alongside modern works. Don’t worry too much about an itinerary, as the best way to experience YSP is simply to wander. Strolling through the grounds and discovering the selections is always a joy, and there’s a cafe to refuel in afterwards, and even a sleek, Scandi-styled restaurant (The Weston) for something special.
Three quintessential villages to visit
Being overlooked by the hills of Hope Valley gives already-beautiful Castleton a further aesthetic boost. If you’re feeling fit, climb the steep stone steps to the ruins of Peveril Castle, an early Norman fortress, before descending into Castleton’s famous show caves. Several (including well-known Treak Cliff) allow visitors to glimpse walls of shimmering Blue John, a rare gemstone unique to the area. After all that, rest up at one of Castleton’s many homely pubs.
Those interested in legend and literature will find a lot to enjoy in pretty Hathersage. The village churchyard holds a grave reputed to be that of Little John, Robin Hood’s right-hand man. And the village seems to have been featured in Jane Eyre, after Charlotte Brontë stayed here in 1845. No wonder it inspired her, as it’s a truly charming location, these days offering links to cycling, hiking and climbing if active pursuits are your thing.
This is the Peaks’ biggest town and birthplace of the Bakewell pudding, not to be confused with the Bakewell tart (a variation on the pudding). Learn how this now-famous pudding was created, and then head to the bustling food market, Medieval buildings and Monsal Trail, an 8.5-mile traffic- free route for walkers and cyclists that traces an old railway line.
Climate: Unsurprisingly, weather across the Peak District can vary wildly and flip with little notice. There’s always some sunshine in warmer months, but rain is also common throughout the year and winter can bring snow. Autumn is a good time to visit and avoids summer’s peak tourist season.
Getting there: The Peak District is known as one of the UK’s most accessible national parks, within easy reach of four big cities: Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham and Derby. Each has either rail or bus routes that take you into the park. Guides on activities for visitors with disabilities or limited mobility are readily available at the website below.
Getting around: A car will be useful for darting between various sights, but the area has a surprisingly extensive public transport network, with regular buses (and some trains) passing through the region’s most popular villages and other attractions.
For more details, visit visitpeakdistrict.com