Manchester - The peak district

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Head north from Manchester Airport (Qatar Airways now flies twice daily from Doha) and you soon reach the bright lights of the big city, with its many metropolitan attractions – but head southeast instead and you’ll discover a very different world of stunning countryside, pretty villages, and grand stately homes.


Millstones at Stanage Edge

Manchester is famous for many things (including football, industrial heritage – it was the birthplace of the Rolls-Royce in 1904 – and nightlife), but it’s fair to say that scenic splendour probably isn’t one of them. Yet right on the fringes of the city sits the Peak District National Park, the oldest national park in Britain, the most visited, and arguably the most beautiful.


The sheer natural diversity of the park is astonishing. Its 555 square miles of countryside encompasses a huge range of landscapes, from wild upland moors and spectacular rocky outcrops to gentle green valleys and tinkling streams. Walkers are spoilt for choice, whether they fancy an easy afternoon stroll or a strenuous long-distance hike – there are hundreds of miles of paths and trails, with breathtaking views, ancient monuments, and picture-postcard villages dotted liberally throughout.


Even underground, the Peak District is something special. “All this country is hollow,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his short story The Terror of Blue John Gap. “There are gaps everywhere amid the rocks, and when you pass through them you find yourself in great caverns, which wind down into the bowels of the earth.” Castleton is the place to head for caves, with four of the best clustered round the village. Treak Cliff and Blue John Cavern are home to Britain’s rarest mineral, Blue John Stone, an ornamental form of fluorspar that’s unique to the area. Peak Cavern houses the remains of an ancient village where a community of rope-makers lived and worked for more than 400 years, and at Speedwell Cavern, an 18th-century lead mine, you step into boats to glide through flooded tunnels to the Bottomless Pit, a huge subterranean lake.


Three Shires Head

Castleton is also home to the ruins of 12th-century Peveril Castle, founded by one of William the Conqueror’s favourite knights and location for Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Peveril of the Peak. Perched high above the village, it’s a steep climb to the top but make the effort and your reward is panoramic views of the Hope Valley and Mam Tor, known as the Shivering Mountain thanks to its constantly crumbling east face. The castle is just one of almost 3,000 listed buildings dotted around the Peak District. Most impressive of them all is Chatsworth, one of the finest stately homes in the UK, set in 1,000 acres of beautiful parkland, landscaped by Capability Brown in the 1760s. The house itself has magnificent interiors and artworks (look out for Jan van der Vaart’s extraordinarily lifelike painting of a violin hanging on a door), while the gardens are filled with hidden nooks and crannies, and quirky water features, including the ‘squirting’ willow tree that much amused a young Queen Victoria.


Chatsworth makes an excellent base for exploring the Peak District, with a number of appealing accommodation options within the estate. There are cottages, converted barns, and even an Elizabethan hunting tower to rent or, if boutique hotels are more your style, try one of the Devonshire Arms. Confusingly, there are two (one in Pilsley, one in Beeley), but both deliver chic, cosy rooms and great restaurants that make good use of excellent local farm produce.


Another desirable place to stay, in nearby Rowsley, is the 17th-century Peacock Inn, with rooms that were stylishly refurbished by interior designer India Mahdavi, and a chef who’s come fresh from working with Tom Aikens in London to win the hotel its third AA rosette for food. If you pop in for lunch in the bar, look down at the legs of your chair and you may find a little hand-carved wooden mouse running up them – the signature of Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson, a famous arts and crafts furniture-maker of the 1930s.


Chatsworth

From here, it’s a pleasant stroll to Haddon Hall, described as ‘the most perfect English house to survive from the Middle Ages’. If you can, join a guided tour to make sure you don’t miss any of the highlights – such as the rare 15th-century paintings on the chapel walls, uncovered during the 1920s when the plaster covering them was chipped away inch by painstaking inch, using dentists’ tools.


Many of the Peak District’s villages are not only pretty but have interesting tales to tell, none more so than Eyam. In 1665, the Great Plague was carried here in a box of cloth from London and to prevent the disease spreading, Eyam cut itself off from neighbouring villages – a tactic that worked, but saw 260 people die within the space of 14 months. If you can read Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders before you visit, so much the better – a fictionalised recreation of the plague months, it brings them vividly to life.


It’s not the only literary link you’ll find in the Peaks. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre after a visit to Hathersage, using North Lees Hall as her inspiration for Thornfield, home of Mr. Rochester. Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, one of the most reprinted books in the English language, is a celebration of the fishing on the River Dove; the market town of Ashbourne (frequently visited by Dr. Johnson) was transformed by George Eliot into Oakbourne in her novel Adam Bede, and in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen used Chatsworth as her model for Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, and based fictional Lambton on real-life Bakewell.


For foodies, there’s another compelling reason to visit Bakewell. Not only does it host the second largest farmers’ market in the UK (usually on the last Saturday of the month), it’s also the place to sample the Peak District’s most famous dish, Bakewell pudding. There’s great debate about its origins but all are agreed you can’t leave without trying one: a rather ungainly confection of flaky pastry filled with a layer of strawberry jam and topped with a rich egg and almond mixture, it’s a lot more delicious than it looks.



Manchester, England
Distance: 5,409 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 30 mins
Frequency: 10 flights a week

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