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The Peak District

History and Highlights

The Peak District has the honour of having been designated Britain’s very first national park, back in April 1951. It covers 555 square miles of Derbyshire (along with bits of Yorkshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire), and is home to 38,000 people. There are more than 100 conservation areas within its expanse, and almost 3,000 listed buildings.

Peak District National Park stone marker
A Peak District National Park stone marker, Buxton
©visionbuxton 2006
This is a national park of two halves: a sparsely populated northern sector known as the Dark Peak, where the soils are a mixture of shale and sandstone, and a more populous, limestone-based southern part called White Peak. Livestock farming is the predominant commercial activity (after tourism), with sheep grazing on the northern moorland and cattle in the south. Mining of various kinds was a key factor in the district’s economy in bygone days, with lead, copper and even silver being extracted, as well as rich seams of coal.

At 2,088ft, Kinder Scout is the highest of the peaks. It was famously the scene of a mass trespass in 1932 by militant ramblers demanding public access to open spaces for walking. Although four of the leaders of the protest were imprisoned following the violent confrontations, the law was duly changed as a result.

Milldale, Dovedale
Milldale, Dovedale
© TopFoto.co.uk/Spectrum / HIP
Dovedale and Wyedale are the region’s major valleys.

An ancient natural network of caves lies at the heart of the district. Four show caverns, open to public visits, lie just to the west of Castleton. These are Blue John, Treak Cliff, Speedwell and Peak, the last more evocatively known locally as the Devil’s Arse. It was in the Peak Cavern that a young caver, Oxford University student Neil Moss, lost his life in a notorious accident in March 1959. He died after becoming trapped and his family requested that his body was allowed to remain there. The fissure was sealed and an inscription was affixed close to it. The small access area is now known as Moss Chamber.


The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop
The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop
© Courtesy of the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop
Within the national park itself, Bakewell is the largest community. Mentioned in the Domesday Book (read more about the Domesday Book here), it was then known as Badequella (which means “bath well”, and denotes the presence of warm springs in the vicinity). Bakewell retained its medieval character right up until the dawn of the Victorian era, when the cotton trade, which arrived in the town in the form of a mill built by Richard Arkwright in 1777, brought industrial prosperity in its train. A distinguished survivor of the medieval era is the stone bridge with its pointed arches, originally built around 1300 (though widened later), which spans the river Wye.

Standing proud in the town square is the Rutland Arms, a coaching-inn built in 1804, featured by Jane Austen in an episode of Pride And Prejudice, where the author had stayed in 1811.) Read more about Pride And Prejudice here). 1859, a chef turned a culinary blunder into a happy accident, when he transformed a jam-covered pastry case topped with an almond-based filling into what would become known as Bakewell Pudding. (Pudding, please note. There are no tarts in Bakewell.)


Georgian Crescent, Buxton
Georgian Crescent, Buxton
© visionbuxton 2006
The town of Buxton lies within a loop formed by the western boundary of the District. It is a spa town built on the site of an old Roman fort. Like England’s other spa towns, Buxton has always had a reputation for the tonic properties of its waters at sites such as St Ann’s Well, which was frequented by Mary Queen of Scots during her captivity by the Earl of Shrewsbury at nearby Chatsworth. Buxton became the Bath of the north, not least for its elegant architecture (the 5th Duke of Devonshire had a sweeping Crescent constructed in the late 18th century).

By the 1850s, a new building housing thermal baths ensured that Buxton rose to its full municipal magnificence. The long, stately decline of the town during the 20th century was brought to a juddering halt in the 1980s, when a period of cultural renaissance began. Buxton now has an annual opera festival, and there are plans to renovate the spa.


The village of Eyam is famous for its poignant history during the plague year of 1665-6. Read our feature telling the story here. 


Among the District’s most venerable communities is Tideswell, a market town since 1251. Its majestic 14th-century church of St John the Baptist, “the cathedral of the Peak”, boasts a fine chancel in the architectural style known as Decorated. Nestling in its little valley, Tideswell’s fortunes were built on lead-mining, which sustained it from the Middle Ages through to Victorian times, and indeed helped to pay for that church.


Another former lead-mining centre with a church worth seeing is Youlgrave (or Youlgreave, as the road atlases tend to call it). Its nave and north aisle are Norman, dating back to the mid-12th century, while the attractive east window was designed by the pre-Raphaelite, Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

In the centre of the village, in the old marketplace, is a round stone tank – the Conduit Head – that once supplied the community with its water.

Snake Pass

The stretch of the A57 that cuts across the Peak District, linking Sheffield and Manchester, and built by Thomas Telford in 1820, is one of the most strikingly beautiful roadways in the country. It meanders among bleak, steep valley sides for miles, with scarcely any evidence of human settlement for much of the way. Vertiginous drops to one side are common and, in winter, it is quite usual for the road to become impassable because of snowfalls.

It is named not for its serpentine twistiness, but after a pub called the Snake Inn, which is one of the few buildings along its highest stretch (well over 1600ft above sea level).