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Derbyshire's Glorious Peaks

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 23, 2010 
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Visitors stroll down the pretty riverside walk from the Peak Cavern to the village of Castelton.
Visitors stroll down the pretty riverside walk from the Peak Cavern to the village of Castelton.

The secret of the Peak District's location is not the beauty of its landscapes

Even if you have never visited the Peak District, you have probably seen its dramatic landscape of soaring hills, idyllic villages and serene stately homes because they have been the backdrop for numerous films. Perhaps you remember Colin Firth emerging from a lake in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, or Keira Knightly pondering life from a windswept crag in the 2006 version. If so, you have seen the lake at Lyme Park and Stanage Edge, one of the Peak District's best climbing spots. If you watched Knightly sashaying through splendid rooms and lovely grounds in The Duchess, you have seen Chatsworth House and Kedleston Hall, where it was filmed. If you saw The Other Boleyn Girl, you have seen Haddon Hall's medieval rooms standing in for Henry VIII's palaces. Its courtyard and gardens were the venue for the swashbuckling The Princess Bride, and its castellated roof provided the scary heights from which Mrs. Rochester threw herself in the BBC's recent Jane Eyre.
The list of Peak District starring roles is so long that there's a "Peak District and Derbyshire Movie Map" available at tourist information centers. Those who follow it round will not only swoon at the lovely countryside, but marvel at the art collection and fountain at Chatsworth, the Adam interiors at Kedleston, the clocks and tapestries at Lyme and the medieval kitchens, Elizabethan gallery and terraced gardens of Haddon. And at some point, most people will ask: Why here? Why are so many of Britain's grandest houses clustered together here in the country rather than near its capital?
As with all real estate, the answer is location, location, location. The secret of the Peak District's location is not the beauty of its landscapes, great though that is, but what lies beneath its surface.
At this southern end of the Pennine chain, limestone butts against gritstone, underground caverns gape and rivers disappear, and most important, minerals form. Copper, iron, lead and coal produced the wealth that built the region's many treasure-filled mansions. Mining for lead and coal enabled the Elizabethan entrepreneur Bess of Hardwick to build Hardwick Hall. Her descendant, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, used the profits from his copper mines to develop the Crescent and spa buildings in Buxton. Iron and nails produced the fortune that the Sitwells invested in Renishaw Hall and its Italianate gardens.
Because the minerals of the region helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, the Peak District is ringed with cities such as Sheffield, Derby and Manchester. In the days when they were shrouded in smoke from thousands of chimneys, their residents made the Peak District a weekend playground, with energetic young people hiking and climbing its hills, while families came for walks and picnics in its dales. It's not surprising then that in 1951 this easily accessible region of Derbyshire, plus some neighboring parts of Cheshire and Staffordshire, was designated as England's first National Park. Today, old railway lines have been converted to become walking and cycling paths; many farmers have created pony trekking facilities, and, as ever, climbers claw their way up rocks, including the four-mile escarpment of Stanage Edge.

The mouth of Peak Cavern, Derbyshire's largest natural cave, in Castelton.
The mouth of Peak Cavern, Derbyshire's largest natural cave, in Castelton.

For many, however, the charm of the Peak District is its towns and villages. Buxton with its ancient spa reigns as queen. Most of its elegant buildings date from the 18th century, making Buxton look rather like Bath—an effect that is no accident. The fifth Duke of Devonshire, who owned much of the town, wanted it to rival England's premier spa, so he built the elegant Crescent of shops and lodgings for visitors and huge stables for their horses.
Buxton sits on a natural source of warm water. It rises at a constant temperature of 82 degrees and is piped to St. Anne's Well opposite the Crescent. The Romans were among its beneficiaries. Among those that followed were Mary Queen of Scots, who was taken there at the suggestion of Bess of Hardwick, then owner of Chatsworth and wife to Mary's jailer, the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Mary stayed on the site of the Old Hall Hotel, still a charming hostelry surrounded by buildings that witnessed Buxton's popularity with the Victorians and Edwardians. The largest of these is the Devonshire, created when a huge dome—once the largest in the world—was put atop the Duke of Devonshire's stables to convert it to a hospital in 1859. With its high elevation Buxton seemed the perfect place to cure pulmonary complaints, and later to heal the injured in the two world wars. Today it is a campus of the University of Derby, which welcomes visitors to take advantage of the students' work. Those training to be aestheticians operate a spa in the old hydrotherapy rooms, while the restaurateurs of the future offer gourmet lunches at very low prices in an elegant restaurant just under the dome.

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