What and where is the Peak District?
The Peak District is the original (and best!) national park in the UK. It was the first such park ever created here, back in 1951, and is now one of fifteen spread across the country.
The Peak District covers 555 square miles of England and its boundary extends into five counties, encompassing some of the most beautiful parts of Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. Part of its beauty comes from its accessibility; it’s an area of peace and tranquility sandwiched between the cities of Sheffield, Manchester and Derby, and more than 20 million people live within an hour’s journey of its wild landscapes.
Back in post-war Britain, the Peak District was originally conceived to provide a protected place of fresh air and open space for those who lived and worked in the choked, smoky cities of the industrial north and midlands, the very epitome of what is meant by a ‘national park’. It still serves that function perfectly today.
Despite the name, the Peak District is not actually very ‘peaky’. In fact it has only two hills high enough to be classified as mountains (Kinder Scout at 636m/2,087 feet and Bleaklow at 633m/2,077 feet) and both are more plateaux than distinct peaks. The name actually comes from the word ‘Pecsaetan’, an Anglo-Saxon tribe who settled in the area from the 6th Century.
The Peak District is fantastically diverse. As you’d expect from its status as a national park, it’s a largely rural area, with swathes of idyllic, unpopulated countryside. The landscape is broadly split into two distinct parts. The Dark Peak to the north is wild and rugged, characterised by heather-clad moorland and dark, brooding, gritstone edges, while the White Peak to the south is composed of gentle slopes of lush pastureland, criss-crossed by ancient limestone walls. They’re each wonderful in their own way. And this great variation means that during only a fairly short walk or drive you can feel like you’re in two entirely different worlds.
Just pick the Peak to suit your mood!
Picture-Perfect Villages (And Only One Town)
Dotted throughout the rolling hills of the Peak District are hundreds of picture-perfect little villages.
There are far too many to list, but one of my favourites is bustling Castleton, slap bang on the border of the White Peak and the Dark Peak. It’s rightly famed for its stunning show caverns, the towering limestone crags of Winnats Pass, and the romantic hilltop ruins of Peveril Castle, of the earliest Norman fortresses in England.
For quintessential English charm it’s hard to beat Ashford-in-the-Water, of course, with its idyllic setting on the River Wye, complete with a medieval sheepwash bridge and beautiful stone cottages.
But for quiet, unassuming Peak District peace, I love the little-known backwater of Parwich. Visiting here is like stepping back in time; it has a village green, a duckpond, a pretty church, a great country pub and narrow twisty lanes lined with historic buildings. Only a few years ago it was voted one of the Best Places to Live in England by The Sunday Times, yet even most Peak District residents have never explored it.
Perhaps surprisingly there’s only one town in the Peak District National Park – charming Bakewell, probably more famous for its puddings now than for its historic market (held weekly since the 13th Century) or its cobbled streets of old stone buildings. There are many towns on the edges, mind you, all worthy of visiting, including Matlock, Ashbourne, Leek, Chesterfield and the graceful spa town of Buxton. The latter was rather perversely left out of the national park when the boundary was drawn, the line jutting inwards very deliberately so as to omit Buxton completely.
An Ancient Landscape
The Peak District is a place of ancient history, with more than 450 scheduled historic monuments. Throughout the national park you’ll find evidence of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements, with mysterious stone circles, standing stones, cairns and cave dwellings.
One of my favourite places to visit is the awe-inspiring Thor’s Cave in the stunning Manifold Valley in Staffordshire. It was used for human habitation in the Stone Age and excavations have found stone tools, pottery and amber items within the cave, as well as the bones of bears and the graves of at least seven people.
Another favourite spot of mine is the stone circle of the Nine Ladies, on Stanton Moor near Birchover in Derbyshire. This large henge actually comprises ten standing stones, nine in a rough ring configuration and the tenth some 40m away from the circle. It gets its name from a legend that nine ladies were turned to stone as a punishment for dancing on the Sabbath, with the tenth stone, or King Stone, being the fiddler.
And then there’s Minninglow, just off the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire. It’s a hill crowned with a very distinctive double ring of trees, visible for miles around, and is home to a number of chambered tombs dating back to Early Neolithic times, around 3400BC, some of the best preserved examples in England.
Why I Love It
Where on earth to start?!
Maybe with the lush valleys, the quiet country lanes, the windblown moors, the limestone ravines dotted with caves, the tiny streams or the raging rivers?
Maybe with the bluebells that cover the paths in Spring, the heather that blooms all over the moors in Summer, the mist that swarms along the rivers on Autumn mornings, or the wild winds of Winter, covering the edges with snow and highlighting every contour of every rock?
Maybe with the stags that roar on the hillsides, silhouetted on horizons, usually heard way before they’re seen, or the curlews that dip and swirl over the moors, their distinctive call an instant pick-me-up that’s guaranteed to make me smile?
Maybe with the villages where the locals all know everybody’s business and (mostly) care for each other, where stone cottages with smoking chimneys still line the twisting lanes just as they did 400 years ago, and where the village pub is also the village shop and the Post Office and a café, and is probably owned by the people that drink there?
Or maybe with those wide open views that change so much according to the weather or the time of day or the season, that you’ll never see the same scene twice, even if you walk the paths for your whole lifetime?
All of those things and more.