In 1951, the hills and dales of the Peak District, at the southern tip of the Pennine range, became Britain’s first national park. Wedged between Derby, Manchester and Sheffield, it is effectively the back garden for the fifteen million people who live within an hour’s drive of its boundaries, though somehow it accommodates the huge influx with minimum fuss.
Landscapes in the Peak District come in two forms. The brooding high moorland tops of Dark Peak, to the east of Manchester, take their name from the underlying gritstone, known as millstone grit for its former use – a function commemorated in the millstones demarcating the park boundary. Windswept, mist-shrouded and inhospitable, the flat tops of these peaks are nevertheless a firm favourite with walkers on the Pennine Way, which meanders north from the tiny village of Edale to the Scottish border. Altogether more forgiving, the southern limestone hills of the White Peak have been eroded into deep forested dales populated by small stone villages and often threaded by walking trails, some of which follow former rail routes. The limestone is riddled with complex cave systems around Castleton and on the periphery of Buxton, a charming former spa town lying just outside the park’s boundaries and at the end of an industrialized corridor that reaches out from Manchester. Elsewhere, one of the country’s most distinctive manorial piles, Chatsworth House, stands near Bakewell, a town famed locally not just for its cakes but also for its well-dressing, a possibly pagan ritual of thanksgiving for fresh water that takes place in about thirty local villages each summer. The well-dressing season starts in May and continues through to mid-September.
As for a base, Buxton is your best bet by a (fairly) long chalk, though if you’re after hiking and cycling you’ll probably prefer one of the area’s villages – Edale and Castleton will do nicely.