The country’s oldest national park is also one of its most diverse. The Peak District crams plenty into its 555 square miles, serving up adventure for everyone from outdoor nuts and birdwatchers to school groups and history-lovers. We sampled five of its highlights. Which ones take your fancy?
The charms of Dovedale are no secret: towering valleys, rolling ash woods and a chuckling river as clear as a vodka tonic. Even when we visited – on a weekday outside of the school holidays – both banks were busy with ambling pleasure-seekers. But the joy of Dovedale is that the longer you walk, the quieter it gets. And the quieter it gets, the more wildlife you spot. We found a gloriously serene riverside perch near Sharplow Dale, dangled our feet in the water and waited.
First came a pair of mallards, then a brood of six ducklings with a fussing mum. In the alder trees that shaded the river we saw a chaffinch and a fidgety coal tit, while at ground level a grey wagtail came bob-bobbing along the bank. In the river itself were trout and grayling, the latter so well camouflaged that they seemed to vanish in an eye-blink. But the real treat came courtesy of a little brown bird pelting silently upriver, wings beating just above the surface – and an unmistakable white plumage on its breast.
Dippers are Dovedale’s signature birds, but they’re not always easy to sight. We followed upriver and after ten minutes we saw it again, busying itself on the far bank – flitting here, darting there and at one point submerging itself completely. Dovedale might have its detractors – but if you give it enough time, the rewards are tangible.
There are ten YHAs in the Peak District, all of which hold their own on-the-doorstep treats for walkers. We used the most northerly hostel in the park, YHA Edale, as a base for a handsome yomp up onto the edge of Kinder Scout. The plateau – famed among hikers for its role in the right-to-roam movement – is notoriously hard to navigate, but this walk stuck to the fringes of the moorland. With a map, and the basic skills needed to read it, getting lost was as unlikely a prospect as running out of Jelly Babies (we were well stocked).
Our route took us from the hostel across to Edale itself, before wriggling up the long and enjoyably rocky incline of Grindsbrook Clough. Once on the plateau, we skirted around Grindslow Knoll and continued heading west along the well-marked trail (the key navigation tip: keep the steep downhill bit on your left). A couple of miles of scenic rim walking followed – not to mention plenty of those crazed giant rock formations that seem to have bubbled out of the moor for no good reason – before we converged with the Pennine Way, which descended down Jacob’s Ladder and snaked slowly back towards Edale. A top-notch walk. Allow yourself four or five hours.
Here’s the main thing you need to know about Bakewell tarts. You don’t call them tarts; they’re puddings. And they don’t look much like the Mr Kipling variety. The market town of Bakewell – to many minds the “capital” of the Peak District – has been famous for its puddings ever since the 1860s, when a flustered cook tried to make a strawberry tart and mistakenly poured the egg mixture over the fruit. Today there are two bakeries claiming to be the “original” outlet. In the name of research, we sampled both. So which one to choose? We tried Bloomers first (“we have the original recipe,” the server told us, “the other place has the original premises”) before moving onto the much busier Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. And the verdict? We love an underdog, but as much as we were hoping Bloomers would take the honours, the OOBPS triumphed: better texture, flakier pastry, a fresher taste and a fuller flavour. More please!
A ten-minute drive from YHA Youlgreave, tucked away on high farmland in the White Peak, you’ll find one of Britain’s least vaunted prehistoric highlights. Arbor Low is a stone circle which has been described as the “Stonehenge of the North”, and it’s estimated at around 4,500 years old. We arrived early in the morning (bring a pound to stick into a tin for access through the farmyard) and, with the exception of two other visitors who soon departed, had the place to ourselves.
The stones themselves are laid flat rather than standing – the theory is that they were pushed over by early Christians who found their pagan symbolism a bit too much – but it’s a deeply atmospheric site regardless. The hefty earth banks of the henge afford yawning views over the hills, while the limestone slabs themselves tell silent tales of civilisations past. As we wandered, we noticed an offering of fruit, flowers and feathers on the central stone. Not many visitors make time for Arbor Low, but those that do remember it.
The Peak District is full of impressive stately homes (several of them, such as YHA Hartington Hall and YHA Castleton Losehill Hall, are now hostels) but very few can match the beauty, scale and grandeur of Chatsworth, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Devonshire. The grounds alone – sprawling acres of lawns and lakes – are enough to get you swooning, but in addition to the setting and the history, it’s family-friendly too.
On our visit, we didn’t know whether to prioritise exploring the house or sticking to the garden and grounds. Outdoors won. There’s a Little Explorers’ garden trail (taking in everything from a human sundial to a good old-fashioned hedge maze), a working farmyard (complete with donkeys, sheep and even milking demos) and a woodland adventure playground (there may or may not be trampolines, diggers and zipwires involved). Let’s just say that kids are unlikely to head home with energy left to burn.