Derbyshire is a surprisingly wild county to visit in a very accessible central England location. 75% of the Derbyshire population live in just 25% of the land available, which gives a real opportunity to escape the crowds and connect with nature. The perfect place for a weekend of dramatic landscapes, outdoor activity and wildlife encounters. The Peak District largely lies within Derbyshire and was the first national park to be created back in 1951. The diverse geographical areas, with soft undulating limestone pasturelands in the South giving way to the mountainous gritstones of the North and vast tracts of isolated moorland offer visitors very contrasting experiences. There are iron age hillforts; as well as legacies of the Industrial Revolution; and pretty villages dotted throughout the county with great pubs, shops and crafts people too. It’s one of the top places in the country for a huge variety of outdoor activities from rock climbing and caving to slightly less challenging walking and cycling. Derbyshire born and bred, I could give you thousands of reasons to visit, but staying true to giving just enough information to encourage you to visit and make your own discoveries, here are 7 good reasons for visiting my favourite county. If you visit I know that you’ll find many more.
The landscapes of Derbyshire are diverse and rapidly changing- a bit like the weather- so it pays to be prepared.
Just one example is a seemingly flat road through dry stone wall lanes and pastureland which suddenly gives way to what is locally known as “the surprise view” as the land parts in a deep glacial cut to reveal Monsal Dale. The River Wye flows along the Dale, linking, via Cressbrook Mill, to the poetically named Water-cum-Jolly-Dale, home to dippers, kingfishers and an important site for water vole conservation.
Try to find a copy (now out of print) of Walt Unsworth’s “The Devil’s Mill” to really understand the reality of life in the working mill, which will put some context to the now stunning conversion to riverside apartments.
There is no better place than Derbyshire for green exercise. There are clearly marked footpaths throughout the county for novice and seasoned walkers, but especially in the dark peak it’s really important to make sure that you have the proper clothing as the weather can change very quickly.
Cyclists are also well catered for, with cycle paths around Carsington Water, the Tissington Trail and along the old railway track at Monsal Dale to name just a few. Canoes can also be hired at Carsington.
The county draws climbers from all over the world for gritstone faces such as Windgather Rocks, Stanage Edge and The Roaches which again offer a range of climbs for all abilities and stunning views of dramatic countryside. From first-hand experience these are not the faint hearted!
Cave systems only exist in limestone and as the largest area of limestone in the UK is in Derbyshire it’s not surprising that here are some of the best caves too. These can be experienced in a variety of ways, the easiest being to visit the famous Blue John Cavern in Castleton. However if you are an experienced caver and potholer, there are other more challenging ways to explore the complex underground systems, but it’s essential to be accompanied by an experienced guide.
The most likely place to find an old copy of “The Devil’s Mill” and the best way to while away the hours if the weather really is too bleak is the amazing Scarthin Books in Cromford, voted one of the top ten best bookshops in the world by Guardian Online.
Calling itself a “bookshop for the majority of minorities” it combines extraordinary antiquities with new best sellers and if they haven’t got what you want they’ll find it. You don’t even need to leave to eat as there’s a great little cafe where you can sit and read your book while enjoying a good coffee or light lunch.
There are many opportunities for wildlife encounters if you’re observant, quiet and patient. Just down the road from Scarthin at Whatstandwell on the Cromford Canal is a very happy colony of water voles. These fluffy but fierce little rodents have even been winners in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but they are at the bottom of the food chain and very cautious- a piece of apple, from my own experience, can help to tempt them out!
The dark peaks and moorland of the north are the best places to see hen harriers and other small raptors, although peregrine falcons regularly nest on the Arkwright cotton mill in Belper. Rare insects, amphibians and plant life can be found throughout the county and in recent years otters have begun to return, an important indication of the improvements that have been made in the health of the waterways.
Derbyshire is the home of many great houses- some like Chatsworth, Hardwick and Calke are really well known; others like Tissington and Eyam probably less so.
Red and fallow deer are easily seen in the beautiful parkland at Chatsworth, which is also home to special events throughout the year including exquisite Christmas decorations in December, a new RHS Show in June 2017and an annual Country Fair in September. Although it should be said that the house alone makes it worth a visit.
Haddon Hall down the road is older and less ornate but much more romantic .In rose season the understated beauty of the beautiful pink against the old Derbyshire stone is simply not to be missed.
Every county has their own traditions, steeped in history and often unchanged for hundreds of years. Unique to Derbyshire are the summer well dressings which it’s thought may have originated in Tissington in the 14th Century. It’s not clear if it was originally a pagan custom; a thanksgiving tradition following the Black Death or simply to give thanks for the plentiful and pure water in Derbyshire.
The dressings are made from a wooden frame covered in clay; a design is then sketched on to the clay which is often but not always a religious theme. The painstaking task then follows to fill the design with thousands of petals, beans, seeds and mosses to create an impressionist style work of art. It’s the voluntary effort of the entire local community, including school children, that makes the spectacle possible. At well dressing time villages often host other music, art and craft events and so it’s well worth checking local listings. Dates (weather permitting) can be found at http://welldressing.com/calendar.php
You’ll generally get a warm welcome, locally sourced food and good old fashioned hospitality in Derbyshire. There’s a good mix of contemporary and even Michelin starred places to eat but when you’ve been out in the Dales all day hearty food, log fires and a good pint, is in my opinion, what’s needed!
Particular favourites of mine are the Crispin at Great Longstone for a hearty lunch after a walk through Monsal Dale; the Devonshire Arms at Beeley which is also a great place to stay for exploring Chatsworth and I have it on great authority (mum and dad) that the roast lunch at The John Thompson in Ingleby is not to be missed. They also have rooms and close proximity to Calke Abbey and Melbourne Hall.