Nine top Peak District villages you should visit
PUBLISHED: 14:45 16 May 2014 | UPDATED: 15:35 09 January 2016
Roly Smith, sometimes known as 'Mr Peak District', has just had a new book published - his 40th on Derbyshire and the Peak District. These are some edited extracts from The AA Guide to the Peak District...
Ashford in the Water
Ashford in the Water is not the Peak District Venice its name perhaps makes it sound. Only when the River Wye – the ‘water’ that Ashford’s in – infrequently floods does it live up to that intriguing name.
But if you want to escape the crowds in Bakewell just two miles south on the A6, a quiet hour or two leaning over the ancient Sheepwash Bridge in Ashford, watching the trout glide effortlessly into the crystal-clear current, is highly recommended. You should spot both the native brown trout with its spotted flanks, made famous in Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton’s Compleat Angler, and the rainbow trout, an American import, able to tolerate warmer and more polluted water.
Ashford is one of the most attractive and interesting of Peak District villages, sited on a sweeping bend of the Wye, but thankfully bypassed by the busy A6 Buxton road. Many of the wonderful stone houses and cottages on the main triangle of lanes at the village centre date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and there was also once a corn mill, a candle-maker and several stocking mills.
In the middle of Ashford the green space known as Hall Orchard was once part of the grounds of Neville Hall, a medieval hunting lodge which stood on the eastern side. The space is now a playing field but there are some tall trees, notably limes, and around the rest of the village the eponymous ash trees to offer shelter and shade. A local saying is that ‘Oak won’t grow in Ashford’, and this has proved accurate in the lime-rich soil of the village over the years.
On Church Street, between Hall Orchard and the Wye, is a 17th century tithe barn (now a private house) and the beautiful parish church of the Holy Trinity. Most of the structure of the church is restored Victorian but just above the porch, in its original position, is a Norman tympanum. The Normans apparently were not as expert as the Saxons at carving animals, so there is some doubt about what the stone slab depicts. It may be a tree of life with a boar on one side and a lion on the other, or it may be meant to represent the ancient Royal Forest of the Peak, with a boar and a wolf.
On the former Portway packhorse trail is the attractive Sheepwash Bridge. It gets its name from the stone sheepfold on one side, which was where the sheep were held before being plunged into the river and made to swim across to get their fleeces clean.
This bustling little town grew up with coal dust on its face and Goyt water in its veins. Coal and textiles formerly provided the most gainful work – but both have now gone. These days there is hardly a whisper of past industry and employment is more varied, with many residents commuting to nearby Manchester or Stockport every day. Passing visitors call in on their way to the Goyt Valley or to visit the Peak Forest Canal.
In the centre of the town, the main buildings of interest are the early 19th century Jodrell Arms Hotel near the Railway Station, the Wesleyan Chapel (rebuilt in 1867) and the Methodist Sunday School of 1821. The canal basin in the town is an engaging spot, but the true glory of the waterway is at nearby Buxworth, half a mile (800m) to the east, where the canal and tramroad interchange has been restored.
Castles and caves seem to cast a potent spell, and Castleton, which has both, can sometimes suffer from a surfeit of tourists. But there is so much of interest in this busy little village at the head of the Hope Valley that it is impossible not to be drawn to it, or at least to use it as a base from which to explore this fascinating landscape at the boundary of the White and Dark Peaks.
The curtain of high hills which encloses the head of the valley rises to 1,695 feet (517m) at Mam Tor, two miles (3.2km) north west of the village. Unstable bands of shale and gritstone on the heavily-landslipped east face of the hill give it the local name of ‘the Shivering Mountain’. The name Mam Tor is very old, and probably means ‘mother mountain’.
Mining for lead ore was a major industry in the Castleton area for the best part of 2,000 years, and it has left its scars. Grassy mounds and tree-lined ditches hide old spoil-heaps and rakes or veins, and at Odin Mine, in the shadow of Mam Tor, is one of the oldest lead mines in the Peak. Across the now-closed road is a stone circle and wheel used to crush the ore.
Many of the spoil-heaps were reworked for other minerals, such as fluorspar and blende, and natural limestone caves were enlarged. The area west of Castleton up the winding road towards the Winnats Pass is known as Treak Cliff, and is famous for its Blue John, a rare deep purple to yellow semi-precious form of fluorspar. Castleton’s caverns – Treak Cliff, Speedwell, Peak and Blue John – are all open to the public, and offer exciting glimpses into the Peak’s underworld.
Castleton owes its name and very existence to Peveril Castle, perched on Castle Hill. Peveril was built by William de Peverel, the bastard son of William the Conqueror, in 1076. All mineral rights belonged to the King, who therefore had good reason to set a relative up with an overview of the lucrative lead-mining area. The castle was also in the heart of the Royal Forest of the Peak, which was prime hunting country for the King and his cohorts. The Normans evidently liked to mix profit with pleasure.
Winster is one of the Peak’s most complete 18th century villages, and like Bakewell and Hartington, it gives an urban impression much more like that of a small town. It was not granted the right to hold a market until around the turn of the 17th century, and the grand Old Market Hall dates from the end of that century. It became the first National Trust property in Derbyshire and the Peak District in 1906, and like Bakewell’s Market Hall, it orginally had an open ground floor with pointed arches, to which was later added a brick upper floor and gables. The arches are now all filled with brick, and the building serves as a National Trust information centre.
Pilastered Winster Hall, almost opposite, was the 18th century Georgian-style home of Llewellyn Jewitt, the distinguished late 19th century Derbyshire antiquarian, and was once an hotel. The inn sign used to show the famous Winster Morris Men, one of the oldest teams in the country, who have their own dance and tunes and who remain very popular at local festivities. The great folklorist Cecil Sharp came to Winster in 1908 just to hear and see the Winster Morrismen.
Another more recent Winster tradition is the Pancake Race, run annually down the main street on Shrove Tuesday. It began as light-hearted fun, organised by the local headmaster as a diversion during wartime for the children, but has now become a more serious – but still fun – affair, with secret race training and stringent rules about making the batter.
Hayfield, a now-peaceful former industrial village, is now probably best known as the western gateway to Kinder Scout, the highest hill in the Peak. Kinder exerts its unseen yet overpowering influence on almost everything about the place, and it was famously the starting point of the Mass Trespass on Kinder in 1932, which gave us the right to roam we enjoy today.
The picturesque name and rural setting belies Hayfield’s industrial past. The village once hummed and rattled to the sounds of cotton and paper mills, calico printing and dye works. Today Hayfield is a quiet village, catering for tourists of all kinds but particularly for those determined, booted and rucksacked experienced walkers heading for the heights of Kinder. The village is split into two by the A624 Buxton-Glossop road, and the western side is now largely made up of suburban houses for people working in nearby Manchester.
There are plenty of places to find something to eat. One of the most revealing places to while away a few minutes is by the bridge, next to the courtyard of the Royal Hotel, which looks out over the River Sett, from the war memorial to the jumble of cottages and sloping roofs at the back of Church Street.
Nearby the fine Georgian Parish Church of St Matthew gives a hint of the former prosperity of the village. Rebuilt in 1818 in the style popular at the time, the chancel was added in 1894. Inside, the gallery on three sides is supported by thin cast-iron columns and there are rows of box pews. The churchyard was the scene of two ‘resurrections’ within three years of each other during the 18th century. In 1745, several witnesses attested to seeing hundreds of bodies rise out of their graves and ascend into heaven. Three years later, there was a disastrous flood which ripped through the churchyard and disinterred many bodies which were swept away downstream.
Hayfield was the venue for two annual cattle and sheep fairs in the past, but all that remains now is the Hayfield Sheepdog Trials and Country Fair, held every September at Spray House Farm. Hayfield also holds a popular Jazz Festival.
An eye-catcher for miles around, John Smedley’s famous embattled Castle, built in 1862, is now a roofless shell, and recently it was estimated that the place had a life expectancy of only about 30 years. But even more recently, planning permission was granted to bring it to life again, with the creation of a number of apartments inside and outside its crumbling walls.
Although Smedley built his castle merely as a romantic talking-point for visitors to his Hydro in Matlock, after the death of his widow it became a preparatory school until 1929, when it was deserted, later to become a Government food store during the war and the home of the Riber Castle Wildlife Park, where rare and endangered species were kept and occasionally returned to the wild.
Although Riber Castle is always visible from Matlock, the small hilltop hamlet of Riber is quite difficult to get to, and has to be approached via Tansley or Cromford. East of the castle stand two charming 17th century mullioned and gabled houses, Riber Hall and Riber Manor House, which has a datestone of 1633.
The fate of little Longnor was sealed by the demise of the turnpikes and the lack of a railway link; its worthy ambition to be a proper market town withered away. It stands now on a ridge between the Manifold and the Dove, but at a pivotal point in the Peak District, in the very heart of the country. Around it lie strip fields dating back to medieval times; just to the north lies Derbyshire and the limestone country, while to the west are the darker gritstone hills of Staffordshire.
The Manifold at Longnor is no more than a babbling brook, but the valley is broad, with meadows and gritstone barns. Yellowhammers and whitethroats sing from the thorn bushes, and swallows swoop for insects over the reed-grass. Longnor presides over the long, straight road like a drowsy cat over a barn floor. The village is pretty and compact, with a little square and a Victorian market hall, now a craft centre and coffee shop. A wooden notice above the entrance still carries the tariff of ancient market tolls.
The name of Monyash means exactly what it (almost) says. The Old English name literally means ‘many ash trees’. But the village, standing high and dry on the White Peak limestone plateau, was founded because of the presence of its ‘meres’ – ponds which owe their existence to a bed of impervious clay which held the precious water. Only Fere Mere, on the road towards Buxton, now remains, and the site of Jack Mere has been converted to a car park.
This small, unpretentious village at the head of beautiful Lathkill Dale (part of the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve) was granted a charter to hold a weekly market as long ago as 1340. The stump of the ancient Market Cross remains on the spacious village green opposite the 17th century Bull’s Head public house, but the market went long ago.
Monyash has a pleasing collection of typical White Peak cottages, originally built for the lead-mining and farming community. As with many White Peak villages, lead mining was formerly a keystone of the local economy, and the village was the site of its own Barmote Court, which administered the industry. But the area now depends mainly on farming and tourism.
The parish church of St Leonard dates from the 12th century, and is one of the prettiest in the Peak. The elegant spire rises from a solid, battlemented and unbuttressed tower and the spacious interior has wide north and south transepts. Among its treasures is an enormous iron-bound Parish Chest, which may date as far back as the 13th century.
Bonsall is a charming former lead mining village clustering around its ball-topped 17th century cross, encircled by 13 gritstone steps, in the steeply sloping market square. Set in the dale beneath Masson Hill, Bonsall was famous as a lead mining centre, and many of the fields and meadows around are still littered with the remains of ‘t’owd man’s’ work.
Beside the cross stands The King’s Head Inn, which dates from 1677 and is said to be haunted. The names of other pubs in the village reflected the traditional occupations of its residents: the Barley Mow and the Pig of Lead (now a B&B). Above the village centre stands the battlemented Parish Church of St James, with its distinguished Perpendicular pinnacled tower and spire. Most of the church was built in the 13th century, and a beautiful clerestory lights the nave.
The AA Guide to the Peak District (AA Publications, £11.99, ISBN 978-0-7495-7599-1)