PUBLISHED: 20:46 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:16 20 February 2013
Ashley Franklin goes in search of things to do in and around Buxton
On the opening page of the new Buxton Guide & Souvenir by Lindsey Porter, Buxton is described as 'Gateway to the Peak District'. This title is usually attributed to Ashbourne but, when considered, the Peak District lies only to the north of Ashbourne whereas Buxton provides a gateway to the Peak District whichever road you take: to the north and west are the heights of Axe Edge, Bleaklow and Kinder Scout, while to the south and east lie the Dales.
However, before opening the gateway, we must look at Buxton itself, which has also been described as 'the Bath of the North'. Indeed, Buxton and Bath were the only Roman British towns to carry the name 'Aqua'. Finding warm springs here, the Romans built a fort and the settlement of Aqua Arnametiae, meaning 'The Waters of the Goddess of the Grove'. It's astounding to look on the drinking fountain at St Ann's Well opposite The Crescent and take in the fact that this water originally fell as rain long before the Romans arrived - some 5,000 years ago. There is an opportunity to see this and other wells dressed in Buxton from 6th-13th July (to coincide with Buxton Carnival), and you'll be able to catch many other annual well dressing weeks in the Peak District throughout this summer.
One must hope that the eventual Crescent development, which will hearteningly revive Buxton's Victorian spa culture, will also reinvigorate interest in its history as a spa town. In fact, as long as you come as a group of more than ten, you can book a Blue Badge Guide for a walking tour of the town (contact the Tourist Information Centre on 01298 25106). If so, you will surely be told how Henry VIII put a stop to the 'idolatry and superstition' of pilgrimages to the holy wells by locking them up (the wells, that is, not the pilgrims!), and how the Elizabethans embraced the waters with a passion, though Elizabeth I would not have been happy about the four visits made by Mary Queen of Scots who came seeking a cure for her rheumatism. Maybe she also found favour with what Christopher Hobhouse, author of the Shell Guide to Derbyshire, found in Buxton, namely 'the driest air in England'. On every visit, Mary stayed at the Old Hall Hotel, reputed to be the oldest hotel in the country. If you fancy feeling her presence, you can book yourself in to 'Mary's Bower', and you may also catch the living famous in the hotel environs, as the Old Hall is just a convenient few steps away from the Opera House.
When the film Duchess opens at the end of August, it will perhaps take just a little time away from Georgiana's escapades to reveal how her husband, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, really put Buxton on the map. It was he who commissioned John Carr to design The Crescent as well as the Devonshire Royal Hospital, and it's fitting that 'Carr of York' was responsible for two grandiose buildings that Roy Christian described as having 'no equal north of the Trent ... until you come to York'.
The hospital was originally The Crescent's Riding School and Stables - with stabling for over 100 horses and a circular courtyard for exercising them - and is now the home of the recently-created University of Derby in Buxton. However, you are free to wander in and behold the dome which, when it was built over the courtyard, was the largest unsupported dome in the world (and is only surpassed today by two in America). Its 150 feet diameter is bigger than both St Paul's Cathedral and St Peter's Basilica in Rome and, as with those two places, you have to watch what you say as the acoustics are frighteningly good. While there, you can take in the Dome Travel Shop, its Fine Dining Restaurant and Bistro 44 and, with 'Hairdressing, Beauty & Spa' offered as a course, you can offer yourself as a customer at the students' Hair, Beauty and Spa Therapies Salons.
There's spa therapy available in the natural mineral waters of Buxton's 25-metre swimming pool on the edge of the Pavilion Gardens, which itself had a beauty makeover in 2003. At a cost of 4.5 million, the whole infrastructure of the Park - lakes, bridges, paths and furniture - was restored to its former Victorian glory. There's regular music from the splendidly restored bandstand to go with all the fairs held in the Pavilion Garden buildings which have a glory and grandeur of their own, and which house a restaurant, a Promenade and Art Caf (with local artists exhibiting), and Food and Gift Shop. It's also the new home of the town's Tourist Information Centre until it's incorporated in The Crescent development.
There's more magnificence on the town edge of the Gardens: the elegant, enchanting Opera House, opened in 1903 and the work of renowned architect Frank Matcham who also designed the London Palladium. The building had its own major refurbishment at the turn of the millennium, a 2 million programme which included 4 miles of gleaming new gold leaf in the ceiling. Further refurbishment last year saw the conversion of the Gallery's bum-numbing padded concrete benches to proper tip-up theatre seats; and summer visitors will welcome the new air conditioning. All the improvements have been carefully administered so that the Opera House remains a traditional, romantic old theatre. Little wonder Ken Dodd is discumknockerated at returning here on 25th June (sorry, it was sold out before the programme was even printed in April), describing it as 'a beautiful theatre steeped in tradition which retains the vibrancy of a true palace of entertainment.'
As Manager Andrew Aughton once told me, audiences frequently come to Opera House shows already on in their own home town just to soak in the special atmosphere of the theatre. 'The other reasons they pay more and travel further,' adds Andrew, 'are that they've got a lovely drive over the hills, a town they feel safe in coming to, and ease of parking.' As well as the forthcoming Festival - the six operas forming just a part of over 120 events across 19 days - there's a rich diversity of entertainment on offer throughout the summer, including the 15th International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival and the 6th Puppet Festival.
As we move away from Buxton to consider other sites of interest, mention must first be made of a visitor attraction only a mile out of the town. In spite of her chronic rheumatism, Mary Queen of Scots was keen to view Poole's Cavern which has been named 'the first wonder of the Peak' virtually since the time Mary descended this two million year old, natural limestone cave to behold its incredible stalactites and stalagmites. As Ben Rose wrote in his Guide to Buxton in the late 19th century: 'for variety and beauty of decoration there is no cavern in the kingdom can compare with this subterranean temple.' The one-hour guided tours begin every 20 minutes and, once you're back on the surface, you can take in a new visitor centre, restaurant and exhibition. Poole's Cavern is just a part of Grin Low and Buxton Country Park which also houses a 100-acre wood and the delightful folly Solomon's Temple which affords panoramic views all around. And now, at the same site, in exhilarating contrast to your dark, fascinating exploration deep down in the Cavern, you can soar and swing through the airy, sunlit trees at Go Ape, described as 'a high wire forest adventure course of rope bridges, Tarzan swings and zip slides.' You will find yourself 40 feet above the forest floor but don't worry: you'll be safely strapped in to a climbing harness and given full instructions before your tree trek. A loin cloth and primate noises are optional.
If you're a rock rather than tree climber, you'll already know that the 500 square miles of the Peak offer innumerable high conquests. There are also walks from the gentle and level to the stiff and steep. I particularly recommend the climb to Win Hill above Ladybower Reservoir. It's a tough, testing walk but the view will take what's left of your breath away. In fact, whether you are a potholer, glider, rambler, mountaineer, canoeist or cyclist, you quickly come to understand why the High Peak is referred to as 'the outdoor capital of England'.
To explore all the possibilities of Buxton and the Peak District, I would recommend, along with Lindsey Porter's new Buxton Guide & Souvenir (1.50), the free High Peak Towns Mini Guide Great Days Out. As a resident of some 30 years in a village close to the fringes of the Peak, I was impressed with the fact that there are enough great days out in the High Peak to keep me occupied for another 30.
Did you know, for example, that New Mills has a Lantern Festival, Whaley Bridge a Water Weekend and Padfield a Plum Fair? Also, one can't mention the 23 acres of Buxton's Pavilion Gardens without also drawing your attention to the massive 50-acre Chestnut Centre on the edge of Chapel-en-le-Frith where you can see owls, otters and pine martens, and a meadow home to both Fallow and Manchurian Sika deer.
Nearby is Whaley Bridge, which is the 'gateway to the Goyt Valley', offering fine walks in wooded valleys. Just a walk away from Whaley Bridge is Buxworth Basin, the only complete example of a canal and tramway terminus in Britain and one of the largest inland ports ever created on the English canal network.
Hereabouts, too, is Castleton, which some claim to be the most attractive village in the High Peak. It's an attraction alone in being nestled between Mam Tor - the 'Shivering Mountain' - and Peveril Castle, long ago dubbed 'Castle Peak'. It's a very steep climb to the Castle but you can get a fine view of this once-impregnable fortress walking through Cavedale, a spectacular narrow limestone valley. Another good reason to visit Castleton is that it sits atop one of the finest, most fascinating cave systems in these islands. As well as Peak Cavern, there is the famous Blue John Cave and Treak Cliff - the only sources of Blue John stone on the planet. While a visit to Speedwell involves a boat journey to see a 'cathedral-like cavern' and an awe-inspiring subterranean lake.
All this, and I haven't yet addressed the gateway from Buxton that leads south and east: to Tideswell, for instance, where the church is so grand and imposing it's known as the Cathedral of the Peak; and Hartington, one of only three official homes of Stilton cheese and a route to Beresford Dale which itself leads on to Wolfscote Dale, Milldale and, eventually, Dovedale. Close to Hartington is Pilsbury Castle, a little known and intriguing Norman motte and bailey castle site.
Mention must also be made of both Bakewell and Chesterfield, not just as fine shopping towns with the two best markets in the county but also because they take you closer to our magnificent stately homes, notably Chatsworth House, and Haddon and Hardwick Halls, and then it's only a short hop to Matlock and the Derwent Valley and all those proud industrial heritage sites. There's much talk of the credit crunch causing families to forego foreign jaunts this summer. It seems to me that if you live in or are close to Derbyshire, a holiday at home will be a positive boon!