Great escape: Peak District
Derbyshire’s Peak District has some of the country’s most spectacular scenery and fascinating history, too. Our Claudia admires the views
‘En route to Castleton, the road is high, but easily navigable, with gorgeous views across the Dales’
Crossing the cattle grid by the Speedwell Cavern, you are left breathless by the sight of the steep, narrow road, winding through what looks rather like a giant, interlocking, craggy, green zipper. Winnats Pass, in Derbyshire’s High Peak District, is listed on a website of the world’s most dangerous roads, and I certainly wasn’t going to tackle it with a caravan in tow. I put my hands up to being a bit of a wimp when it comes to driving along steep, narrow roads with few laybys, so I was very pleased when colleague Simon said he would join me for a couple of days on my tour of this beautiful area. However, I needn’t have worried, because the Ford Galaxy I was driving on this tour took all the ascents and descents with ease. The route to Castleton Caravan and Motorhome Club Site, where I was to make my base, took me along the A6187, which went a long way to preparing me for the visual treats that lay ahead. The road is high, but easily navigable, with gorgeous views across the Dales as you pass the aptly named Surprise View car park on your right and start your descent into Hathersage. This road goes along the wonderfully named Hope Valley – such a positive aspiration – past Laneside Caravan Park, the village of Hope and the imposing cement works. Perhaps this is not the most beautiful construction to have in the middle of a National Park, but it does provide local employment. The Club site is on the right; do try not to miss it, otherwise you have to negotiate a pair of challenging right angles on the road into Castleton, which should be taken with care. That said, there is a large car park next to the visitor centre, so it is easy to turn around.
Not so football crazy
It’s just a half-mile walk from the site into Castleton, so once the Bailey Unicorn Cabrera was settled on a pitch, I strolled into the village for a look around and an early dinner. Everywhere was busy: there was football on the TV, England were playing, and it seemed every pub had a huge television screen, which Simon would enjoy when he joined me the next day. It was the same in Ye Olde Nags Head, which had one table free behind a pillar, with no view of the TV. This suited me, but I enjoyed the lively atmosphere as I tucked into my fish pie. Then I walked back to the tranquillity of the well-ordered campsite, where TVS glowed like fireflies in the gathering dusk. Castleton is an attractive place, built of limestone taken from the surrounding hills. The steep-sided valley of Winnats Pass – much loved by cyclists (are they mad?) – and the local area were carved by the action of a glacier that, apparently, covered the whole of the Peak District during the Ice Age. It was
the meltwater passing through the limestone and the action of boulders carried in subterranean rivers that carved huge caverns underground and caused the formation of one of the world’s rarest semiprecious stones, Blue John. Several shops in Castleton sell jewellery and other artifacts made from the purpley-blue and yellow stone. I was keen to buy something, but even the smallest earstuds seemed quite expensive – later I came to understand its scarcity value.
An elevator would be handy
Perched on a hill overlooking Castleton is Peveril Castle. You can see the keep from the town, and the hill really didn’t look that high, so to discover a little more about the area’s history, I decided to visit. “It takes 15 minutes, maybe more, depending on how many times you pause to take in the view,” the woman in the ticket office told me. I’m not sure how long it took me, but I did a lot of pausing and puffing and muttering if one of the strategically positioned rest benches was occupied. I made it to the top, and once my heartbeat had returned to normal, I was able to take in the fantastic distant views over Hope Valley. Military-wise, you might think this was once a great defensive fortress, but not so. It was built in the late 11th century and used as an administrative centre by William Peverel, a favourite of William the Conqueror, who was granted Lordship over the Peak District. It then became a Crown property and was used as a centre for the Forest of the High Peak. But however the place was used, it was a wonder to me how they accessed it on a daily basis; medieval folk and their horses must have been very fit. Today, the building’s remains are looked after by English Heritage. Deep below Peveril Castle is one of the four caverns around Castleton that can be visited. The Peak Cavern is said to have the largest cave entrance in Britain; so large that concerts are held there. Lead mining was the industry here: lead has been mined in the Peak District since Roman times, with its zenith as an industry in the 17th and 18th centuries, when there were 25,000 mineshafts, according to the Peak District Mines Historical Society.
Journey down under
You can buy a joint ticket for both Peak and Speedwell Caverns, which I should have visited, because much of the tour is by boat. But having seen photos on the internet, I think claustrophobia might have set in. Instead, I opted to visit the Blue John Cavern. By this time, Simon had joined me, although he decided against going underground. Here, we are talking steps: steep, sometimes wet steps, a couple of hundred of them going down and then coming back up. It’s a challenge, so if you have weak knees, stiff hips or a dicky heart, you might want
‘Peveril Castle is perched high on a hill overlooking Castleton, with fantastic views across Hope Valley’
‘Blue John, a rare type of fluorspar, is only found in Treak Cliff, and there are only two mines producing it’
to content yourself with viewing the treasures from the mining activity in the gift shop. It was miners in search of lead in the 18th century who came across seams of purpley-blue and yellow fluorspar. French craftsmen were brought in, more experienced at dealing with gemstones and, according to some, it is their description of the fluorspar as ‘bleu-jaune’ that gave the stone its name. The first cavern has some examples of the mining equipment used, but it’s the access route that the miners had to take down the shafts that amazes. Blue John is only found in this hill, Treak Cliff, and there are just two mines producing it. This particular mine bears eight of the 14 seams. The caverns are only open to the public in the summer months; in winter, our guide is a miner and he told us they extract half a tonne of the stone a year. He forecasted that the seams would run out in 20 years.
In one cavern, our guide pointed out a curtain stalactite, which looked pretty insignificant from where we were standing, but was about six feet long – it helped to get a measure of the size of the cavern. In another, he played his torchlight over a huge rock that was being held in position at just three points. Thank goodness the area is not prone to earthquakes! It was a relief to get out into the daylight. Opposite the cavern entrance is Mam Tor, which is popular with walkers. The far-reaching views from here are breathtaking, so do bring your hiking boots. While I had been underground, Simon had been exploring the collapsed A625 road above ground, caused by the unstable east side of the Tor, apparently also known as the Shivering Mountain. We climbed into the Ford and drove down past Barber Booth and Edale, ending in Hope Village, where we stopped for a snack in the Old Hall Restaurant. For our evening meal, we decided to try a different pub in Castleton – one not showing football. A walk down Castle Street revealed a charming triangular Market Place, comprising a small green with a large tree and a war memorial, plus a shop that sells just about everything. On Castle Street, we found The George pub, where we both chose the home-made steak and ale pie – it was pretty good!
Low water and low flying
The birds rise early in these parts and therefore I did, too. Today we were exploring a different part of the area’s history, at the trio of reservoirs nearby. Howden, Derwent and the Y-shaped Ladybower Reservoirs in the Derwent Valley are famous for providing the practice runs for the WWII Dambuster raids on the dams of Germany – last year marked the 75th anniversary. There are a couple of parking spots along the road and a Visitor Centre, which has a pay and display car park.
Park here and walk to the Derwent Dam with its two towers, where you can read about how the dam was used by the RAF pilots to practise low flying. The Derwent Reservoir took 12 years to build and the Ladybower Reservoir, built in the 1930s and ’40s, took two years to fill. We were surprised by how low the level of water was in the dams, but there was no sign of the villages lost to the flooding. The reservoirs were constructed to supply the cities of the East Midlands, and today are great for birdwatching.
Bakewell for the pudding
We wanted to visit the towns of Buxton and Bakewell, and decided to drive a circular route that would take in first Bakewell and then Buxton. In Bakewell, we parked at the showground on Agricultural Way. I crossed the bridge and strolled by the River Wye, picking up a beautiful bunch of sweetpeas being sold from someone’s back garden. Then I went in search of the famous Bakewell Pudding shop and bought a slice of Bakewell tart. The recipe for the pudding is apparently a secret, but there are many variations on the internet. Bakewell’s Parish Church stands on a hill above the town. It’s worth a visit for the beautifully carved fragments of 1000-year-old Anglo-saxon stone stored in the porch and the crosses in the churchyard. Inside, I loved the 14th-century carving of Godfrey and Avena Foljambe (Godfrey was Lord of the Manor of Bakewell and later, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland).
Buxton for the waters
In Buxton, we parked at first in the Sylvan Car Park on Bakewell Road, but then relocated to Water Street, where we found a spot next to the Opera House that allowed a four-hour stay. The Opera House, designed by theatre architect Frank Matcham, was built in 1903 and is beautiful, with gorgeous stained glass. In the 1920s, it hosted Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova on its stage. Next to the Opera House is the Pavilion, a very impressive domed glasshouse that houses an exotic tropical garden, an art centre and a café. Buxton, a beautiful town of Georgian and Victorian architecture, has served as a spa since Roman times. The town is built on the site of the Shrine of St Anne and thermal springs, and was a place of pilgrimage in medieval times. The spa experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries, but became popular again in the late 18th century, when the Crescent was built as accommodation and assembly rooms to promote Buxton as a spa town to rival Bath. I do like Georgian architecture, but sadly the Crescent was undergoing extensive renovation and was scaffolded and boarded up during our visit, destined to become a five-star hotel and spa. We stopped at the Buxton Pudding Emporium, just across from the Opera House, for a bite to eat. What, I hear you ask, is the difference between a Bakewell and a Buxton pudding? The short answer is almonds; but again, there are lots of recipes on the internet. Simon was returning to London, but I opted for one more evening at the Castleton site. I wanted to drive home in daylight, in this spectacular landscape; and I knew for sure that one day I would return.
Parked up to admire the view at Winnats Pass, in Derbyshire’s High Peak District. The pass is on the list of the world’s most dangerous roads, so is not to be tackled while towing a caravan!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Castleton has fine limestone architecture. Peveril Castle is well worth the walk up the hill. Claudia ventures into the Blue John Cavern. Views from Peveril Castle are breathtaking
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Claudia at Derwent Reservoir. Buxton bus tour. Strolling in the Pavilion gardens. Shopping for Bakewell pudding. Beside the River Wye. Tempting displays at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop