The tubby black Labrador gamely struts along, his furiously wagging tail shaking his overfed body. He takes a look behind him, realises the leash is off and enthusiastically bounds into the river with a total absence of grace and decorum. The genial harmlessness of his lollop is befitting the surroundings. The hills bulging up around the valley are tuftily grassed and mothering, any harsh edges cuddled out by a soppy higher force. The river Dove itself bubbles along with dainty gaiety and grey-haired ramblers revert to childish skipping across the stepping stones.
There’s an unthreatening Englishness about Dovedale. The sound of the trickling river should be harnessed for relaxation tapes, the rounded hills cartoonised for the setting of a TV programme designed to pacify three-year-olds.
People may come to the Peak District to get away from it all, but very few come to chill out. It’s the antithesis of swaying hammocks, geared almost entirely to restless souls who get fidgety after five minutes on a sun-lounger. It’s a place of mud-caked boots purposefully marching along squelchy farm paths, cyclists’ lycra-clad thighs pumping up and down like industrial pistons, hang-gliders heroically charging off escarpments and rock monkeys nimbly adjusting karabinas as they shimmy up inland cliffs.
Drive around the region and you may have to stop occasionally while a calf stops to suckle its mother in the middle of a country lane. But it’s the blizzard of temporary signs and banners at the road’s edge that capture the Peak District’s busy-body energy. They proclaim the delights of the Froggatt Show, or the Longshaw sheepdog trials, or Proms In The Peak, or the Hope Valley Beer Festival. Every village has to have something going on, and while all may be small-scale to the outsider, these objectively trifling events are leapt into with full-hearted, free-time devouring gusto.
It is these villages, rather than the sheep-flecked hillsides, that define the Peak District’s character. They refuse to rest on the back of photogenic stone buildings or old world charm — and being described as ‘sleepy’ would probably be taken as a grotesque insult.
Among the sprawling yet meticulously mown lawns of Tissington, another bombardment of signs demonstrates the disinclination to rest. Every handsome, centuries-old cottage or converted stable is home to someone beavering away. The B&Bs, tearooms, old-fashioned sweet shops, candle-carving workshops, nurseries specialising in rare plants, home-made jams and chutneys, show there’s barely a second for slumping down in front of the TV.
Tissington is best known for its annual well-dressings, a peculiarly Peak District practice which sees villagers put up decorations around their wells, ostensibly as a token of thanks for the constant water supply. In Youlgreave, the dressings have been taking place since at least 1829, when a constant water supply was hooked up to the Fountain Well in the centre of the village, but the ritual is thought to have pagan origins. Anne Croasdell, who leads the team dressing one of Youlgreave’s five wells, says: “Until the turn of the century, it was usual for the dressing to have a religious picture,” she explains. “But since the turn of the century, this has been less the case.”
It’s the level of effort that goes into the dressings that elevates them above the level of common or garden bunting. The first step is to put wooden boards into the river three weeks beforehand, in order to soak and expand the wood. Then comes the paddling, in which villagers and visitors alike don wellies to trample soaked clay into the boards.
The boards are then stored in garages and barns, and the dressings are created with natural materials. Thousands of flower petals, leaves, twigs and strands of black wool are applied, although different dressers use different techniques and approaches. There’s a refreshing lack of parochialism and insularity about it, though, and visitors are welcome to help out in the creative process.
“Sometimes we get coachloads of tourists going round the garages, putting a few petals on,” says Croasdell. “And there’s one couple that comes up from Welywn Garden City, taking a week’s holiday to help out.”
The Eyam story
Of all the Peak District wells, however, a small one on the road out of Eyam has the most extraordinary story behind it. In 1666, what is now known as Mompesson’s Well became the village boundary, as Eyam sealed itself off from the world.
Under the guidance of vicar William Mompesson, the villagers agreed to quarantine themselves as the bubonic plague raced through Eyam. Outsiders would leave food and supplies by the well for collection. Two hundred and sixty villagers died out of a population of around 650, and the names are listed in the parish church near a commemorative stained-glass window. The same surnames come up repeatedly, a gruesome indicator of how lucky the survivors really were. They may have lived, but they lost almost everyone dear to them.
Modern day families still live in the cottages, and the individual tales of those past are told inside the Eyam Museum. But the most heartbreaking site is out to the east of the village, where a horse plods obliviously around a field. Within it is a near-circular stone wall that protects six gravestones and a tomb.
The Riley Graves, as they’re known, offer a horrifying reminder of what happened to Elizabeth Hancock. Within the space of eight days, she lost her husband and six children. She had to drag their bodies through the streets to be buried far enough away for them not to be contagious. Unable to cope with the grief, she became one of the few villagers to run away.
At the time, many of Eyam’s residents would have worked as lead miners, an industry that ran from Roman times to its 18th-century high point. It’s often ignored in favour of pub-to-pub rambling and other such pleasantness, but the Peak District has always had a strong industrial heritage. It’s equal parts green and pleasant land and dark satanic mills.
Cromford, just outside the National Park boundary, holds a special place in the history of the Industrial Revolution. In 1771, Richard Arkwright constructed the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill there. This was a quantum leap for the cotton industry, which had until that point made steady advances in technology. Arkwright combined the power of the giant wheels with the efficiency of the mechanised spinning frames he had patented. In doing so, he shifted the emphasis from man to machine forever — and Cromford became home to the world’s first factory.
Years of neglect and unfortunate accidents have left the original Cromford Mills in a somewhat dilapidated state. Many of the original buildings still stand, although the first mill has been reduced from five storeys to three by fire and the water wheels are long gone. The Arkwright Society, which manages the World Heritage-listed site, is attempting to restore everything to its original glory, but it’s a process that could take decades.
Arguably the greatest legacy is found in the village of Cromford itself. Many of the houses — and the Greyhound hotel — were built by Arkwright for his workers. On the back of the world’s first factory, he also conceived the world’s first industrial housing.
Even Castleton, the most photogenic of the villages has its roots in back-breaking hard work. Among the pie-and-pint country pubs, ubiquitous outdoor gear shops and besieged ice-cream peddlers are shops selling great hunks of Blue John stone. Found only in the hills around Castleton, this semi-precious stone gets its name from its blue and yellow streaks. Literal-minded early French customers called it ‘bleu et jaune’, which got mistranslated.
Blue John is still mined today in Treak Cliff Cavern, one of four caves around the village that are popular with day-trippers. Of these, the Peak Cavern has been visited since Victorian days, when it was billed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Peak — it was essentially a domestic warm-up act for the European Grand Tour.
It’s fair to say that 21st-century visitors get a better deal than their moneyed-up and clueless 19th-century counterparts. They would have encountered a gruff community of ropemakers and the appalling stench of tallow used to coat the ropes. These days, a demonstration of how the ropes were made kicks off the cave tour; back then, it would have been a haggle over the price of candles and scarcely concealed contempt.
The ropemakers made disreputable tour guides. Visitors would be shoved through the cave in what were effectively tin baths, their heads rubbing against the roof. Then once inside, the candles would be blown out as the ropemakers’ children — who had sneaked in via an alternative route — unleashed blood-curdling screams. Tourists would then be forced to hand over way more cash than they’d bargained for in order to escape the pitch-black horror scene.
Modern tours are fairly tame walk-through affairs. For something altogether more claustrophobic, Speedwell Cavern is a flooded lead mining tunnel used to create one of the world’s weirdest boat trips. Hard hats are required to prevent heads from banging on the roof as the rudimentary craft inches its way towards the cavern at the end of the line. Miners would have been trapped down here trying to dodge explosive blasts, knowing their bosses valued the equipment far more than their lives.
Speedwell Cavern lies at the bottom of Winnat’s Pass, which drops down dramatically into Castleton through towering hills. It’s one of the roads that consistently comes up when people are asked to name their favourite Peak District drive — a subject that attracts vociferous arguments.
The correct answer, of course, is the Ringinglow Road. No other Peak District route captures such a glorious sense of transition. Starting in the remaining well-to-do pocket of south-western Sheffield where Nick Clegg isn’t regarded with utter contempt, the view soon morphs into farmland. Horses shake off haughtily next to stone farmhouse buildings. Then comes the stone circle marking the Peak District National Park, the Derbyshire border post and a sign saying, ‘Caution lambs!’ Suddenly, it’s a world of wild moorland, glazed in the purple of empire-building, untamed heather.
And then it crosses into the rolling hills, descending past a flurry of public footpath signs and blasé rams refusing to move from their perch on the precipitous grass verge.
The road crosses Stanage Edge, which greedily hogs both the Peak District’s rock climbing community and some of the most dramatic geology in the country. From the Hollin Bank car park just outside Hathersage, the walk up to the forbidding gritstone ledge passes through thick bracken and rocky outcrops that look like gravestones.
The top of Stanage is blustery and thrillingly exposed. Dry stone walls are half-crumbled like a series of ruined funerary cairns. The top of the plateau is boggy, uncompromising moor, yet directly below, the familiar curves and sheep dominate the valley. It’s the geological dividing line between the limestone jollity of the White Peak and the savage shale of the Dark Peak. There is no more apt visual representation of Britain’s fabled north-south divide.
The Dark Peak is everything that Dovedale isn’t. It oozes a scowling menace and would sooner claw you than embrace you. Across it runs Snake Pass, another of those much yabbered-about Peak District Roads, although it’s both feared and loved in equal measure. The Snake is so brutally exposed you can be sunbathing at either end while a howling blizzard renders the road a motoring torture chamber.
In the car park outside the Snake Pass Inn, a musty pub that will seem eerily familiar to anyone who has watched The Shining, the softly-spoken, gorge-walking guide from Lost Earth Adventures hands out wetsuits. “We’re going into the parts of the Peak where you don’t tend to see anyone else,” he says.
Across from the pub is a brook coming down from Kinder Scout, the highest point in the National Park. There’s a feebly apologetic path running broadly alongside it, but that would be cheating. It’s far more fun to make the ascent through the icy waters of the brook, scrambling up progressively larger waterfalls on the way.
What starts as glorified paddling slowly morphs into an adventure. The difference between sure footings on mossy rocks and cruelly slippery ones on black rocks that merely look mossy is quickly learned. Footholds are sought gingerly inside the dousing cascades; hands tug warily on grass, hoping it’ll hold strong for just long enough to assist the upward scramble; deeper pools are used as an excuse for child-like bombing from on high.
Ropes are used for the final ascent, loosely tied around the waist to prevent falling backwards as the brook pours gallons into climbers’ faces. And then, after two hours of making a trek far more difficult than it needs to be, the reward comes. Soaked bodies turn to look back from whence they came. The scene down the gorge is wild, shapely and totally uninhabited. The inhibition-free delight of the portly Labrador suddenly springs to mind. Oh, for a tail to wag.
Getting there and around
There’s no single, obvious hub for the Peak District. Bus services to parts of it leave from Buxton, Sheffield, Chesterfield and Derby. The tourist board website — peakdistrict.gov.uk — has a handy list of services, while several villages are served by the Northern Rail Hope Valley Line between Sheffield and Manchester. It’s easiest to travel by car but, with careful planning, it’s possible to reach most key spots by public transport.
When to go
Given the focus on outdoor activities, the Peak District’s charms are approximately a zillion times more apparent when the sun is out. This means crowded car parks in the summer months. If you’ve the flexibility to keep an eye on the weather and nip there at short notice, however, sunny spring and autumn days are perfect, with temperatures around 15C.
Where to stay
YHA Eyam. Hawkhill Road, Eyam. Private rooms from £39, dorm beds from £16.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. How Lane, Castleton. Doubles from £70.
Cavendish Hotel. Baslow, Bakewell. Doubles from £195.
50 Walks In The Peak District. RRP: £13.99 (Automobile Association)
The AA Guide to the Peak District by Roly Smith. RRP: £11.99 (Automobile Association)
CAMRA’s Peak District Pub Walks by Bob Steel. RRP: £9.99.
Peveril of the Peak by Walter Scott. RRP: £7.79 (Aegypan)
How to do it
Peak Tours offers four-day walking holiday packages beginning and ending in Matlock, with B&B, from £275.
The Peacock at Rowsley offers two-night packages, with three-course dinners, plus complimentary entrance to Haddon Hall and Chatsworth House, from £450.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)