A short break in the Peak District

Deciding to spend 2 weeks on a road trip around some of the UK’s National Parks, none of which I’d spent any time in before, we kicked off our trip with 3 nights in the Peak District National Park.

To keep costs down, we had chose to stay in a chain budget hotel in the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, right on the edge of the park and no more than 40 minutes drive from any of the areas on our ‘to see’ list.

A stop by the river in Matlock

As we made our way to the hotel midweek in the middle of August, it was an uncomfortably hot day with thunderstorms predicted for the evening and rain forecast for the next 3 days. Not exactly the perfect weather for a visit to a place where we planned to spend the majority of our time outside walking! We briefly entered the Derbyshire Dales part of the park that afternoon with a stop in the town of Matlock.

Looking down from a viewpoint on a walk towards High Tor.

Having spent a week planning our trip, we had discussed the possibility of visiting Matlock Bath’s Heights of Abraham attraction, a cable car ride up a cliff side with panoramic views and a range of attractions on offer from the top but as it was our travel day, we were unsure on what time, or even if, we’d make it on time for a stop in the area and, of course, with Covid-restrictions in place, any activities had to be booked in advance. As we left that morning, ride slots were still available for that afternoon but, making good time, we checked again as we nearer the area to find they had now all sold out. We realised that spontaneity on visiting attractions this trip was out of the question and we were going to have to book well in advance for anything else like this we wanted to do on this trip.

Instead of the cable car ride, we spent some time wandering into Matlock town and through it’s pretty park then back along the river detouring up a steep path towards High Tor to a view point before wandering into the neighbouring Matlock Bath, where we found a very touristy High Street lined with arcades, fish and chip shops and random money-grabbing attractions. In an attempt to avoid the busy footpaths, we crossed over to Derwent Gardens, a riverside park, and took a stroll along the river before returning to our car and continuing our drive to our Chesterfield hotel which would be our base for the next 3 nights.

Officially entering the Peak District National Park

For our first full day in the Peak District, we had booked an early slot to visit the recently reopened Chatsworth House and gardens near Bakewell. As we drove into the park we spotted a millstone boundary marker and seeing as it is a bit of a tradition on our US National Park trips to get a photo with the park entrance signs, we decided to pull over and do the same here!

Chatsworth House and, below, inside the house

Organisation at Chatsworth House was well done. We were careful to arrive just before our ticketed time slot and after parking, we had our mobile tickets scanned and were shown to an area where sinks with hot running water had been installed and asked to go up in our social groups to thoroughly wash our hands then put our face coverings on before being allowed into the house.

Only a few tickets were available for each time slot to cut down the number of people in the house at one time and a one way system was in operation around the property and we were asked to distance from the other groups that we were not attending with. This mainly worked except for times when groups in front stopped for an extended period to look at something or ask questions of the staff. If the corridors or rooms we were in were narrow at this point, it meant you were unable to overtake and had to wait for the groups in front to move on before you could get any further causing some queues to advance to the next room.

After looking around the house, we went for a walk around the impressive gardens. On a nice day, it would be possible to spend the day just in the gardens at Chatsworth alone but although we hadn’t had the thunder and rain storms which had been forecast, there was the occasional drizzle and the threat of rain in the air so after wandering down to the fountains and through the rock garden we decided to call our visit a day and move on.

Bakewell Bridge and, below, some of the many Bakewell bakeries on offer in the town

Since it was only a few miles away, we decided to head to the town of Bakewell next. We found that the signposts to the car parks around the town would disappear before we actually found the car park we were aiming for and ended up at a large, but seemingly very out of town parking area in a field. After parking up and paying for a couple of hours’ stay, we found there we weren’t on the outskirts after all and there was actually a shortcut into the centre over a bridge across the river. While the town had attempted to encourage visitors to socially distance with roadside parking areas now being use as coned off pavement extensions, we still found the town to be way too busy for our liking. We visited the National Park Centre there to pick up some souvenirs but unfortunately, the few park exhibitions there were cordoned off due to Covid restrictions so the centre was operating as little more than a gift shop. From here we made our way to the famous Bakewell Pudding shop and glanced through the window at the baked goodies on offer. The puddings themselves didn’t look particularly appetising and the cakes on offer seemed alittle overpriced so we moved on to find another bakery eventually settling on the Bakewell tart shop where we got a very generous portion of Bakewell tart for a more reasonable price.

We finished our visit to the town with a walk along the river to see the historic Bakewell Bridge before returning to the car and driving on to the town of Buxton.

St Anne’s Well in Buxton

Buxton was much quieter. We parked at the Pavilion Gardens and walked past the Buxton Pavilion into the lower part of the town where we visited the old Pump Room which now doubles as a visitor centre. While mainly just a gift store now, part of the building has been left as it would have been in Victorian times and information boards give an insight into the spa town’s past. Just outside is the historic St Anne’s Well from which you can fill your water bottle with natural spring water.

Part of the original Pump Room at the Buxton Visitors Centre

We picked up a leaflet outlining the Buxton Heritage Trail from the visitor centre which contained a town map pointing out the highlights. Many of the places mentioned were around the visitor centre area so it didn’t take long to walk to some of these. We finished our visit with a walk through the beautiful Pavilion Gardens before driving to the nearby Buxton Country Park for a late afternoon walk up to Soloman’s Temple.

Hiking in the Peak District – walking to Soloman’s Temple and, below, Soloman’s Temple and the view from the top

Rather than using the main car park, we parked at a smaller car park at the back of the park from which it was an easy hike to the rotunda on top of a hill. It was possible to climb a few stairs to the top of the building from which there were 360 degree views across the Peak District. The country park was a really great place to walk and get out in the open after spending time in the busy towns.

With the weather forecast now showing sunny spells rather than the originally forecast rain, we decided to spend the next day cycling the Monsal Trail, a former rail line now converted into a space for walking and cycling stretching from Bakewell to Wye Valley. Bikes can be hired from either end so we drove to the old Hassop Station near Bakewell and parked up for the day, arriving around 10am so there’d still be plenty of bikes to rent.

Map of the Monsal Trail at Hassop Station
Cycling across Monsal Viaduct

Cycling towards Wye Valley, the track was at a very slight, almost unnoticeable incline. It was just under 8 miles to the end of the trail and we’d been provided with maps showing the villages lying just off the trail should we want to visit them as well as the position of the Monsal Viaduct and the four tunnels along the route (which were great fun cycling through!!) so we could track our progress along the way. We chose not to leave the trail to venture into these villages at any point but there was a cafe at the old Millers Dale station directly on the trail which we stopped at for a well lunch. Once at the end of the trail, we turned around and cycled back the other way.

Another view along the Monsal Trail

Instead of returning our bikes as soon as we got back to Hassop station, we continued on to Bakewell to ensure we had fully completed the trail. It was a short downhill ride from the old station at Bakewell into the town centre and we headed straight to a cafe we had seen the day before to get well-deserved ice creams. Exhausted, we wheeled our bikes back up the hill to Bakewell station again and picked the trail back up to ride the mile back in the other direction to Hassop and finally return our bikes.

Although it is possible to complete the whole trail in under 2 hours, we took our time on the outbound cycle, stopping regularly to enjoy the views and read the information signs dotted along the trail and managed to make a day out of the activity, not returning our bikes until 3.30pm – more than 5 hours after we hired them. A really fun day out!

The trail head for Mam Tor

The next day, we’d be leaving the Peak District National Park for our next stop in the Yorkshire Dales National Park but we had one more activity planned that morning before heading off. Having spent most of our time in the south of the park we drove a bit further north instead to the Hope Valley region where we planned to walk up Mam Tor, a large hill in the High Peak area of the park. It was a Saturday and as we drove to the National Trust owned car park, we found cars already parked all along the roads around the area wherever they could fit. It was only 10am but the site was extremely busy and the car park was very tight, made worse again by people parking where they shouldn’t and not just in the marked bays. Luckily as we struggled to manoeuvre our way out of one section of the car park, someone parked there left and we managed to grab their space. Our National Trust membership gave us free paring here.

Mam Tor now in the distance as we make our way back along the circular walking route

We followed the circular walking route from the National Trust’s website for our walk but many people were just walking to the peak of Mam Tor then returning back down the way they came. The instructions for the walk were easy to follow and the walk wasn’t too difficult at all with the steps up to the peak of Mam Tor not being too steep. The worst part was descending along a narrow, overgrown, sandy trail down the side of the hill towards the woods.

Evidence of a landslide walking back from Mam Tor

Once back down on the ground, the last part of the trail back up hill to the car park seemed to go on forever, especially as we seemed to complete the trail up to that point pretty quickly, but there were plenty of places to stop for a breather under the pretense of taking in the scenery!

And with that it was time to say goodbye to the Peak District. It had been a fun few days and we felt we had fit a lot in but as always, there was plenty more on our list of possible things to do which we hadn’t got around to such as walking in The Roaches near Leek or touring some of the many caverns in the area. I guess I’ll just have to go back someday!

Watch my vlog of my trip here:

Find out what I got up to at the next National Park on my road trip, the Yorkshire Dales, here.

A UK National Parks Staycation

Like many people, I had big trvel plans for this year, namely a 5-week mammoth USA road trip passing through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona visiting a variety of National Parks. Luckily, while our route was planned, we hadn’t got very far in the booking process with just our return flights to LA and our first 2 nights’ hotel accommodation booked by the time we went into lockdown. We put our planning on hold and thankfully, as it became more and more apparent that our trip had no chance of going ahead, our flights with Norwegian Airlines were cancelled and promptly fully refunded and we went ahead and cancelled our LA hotel reservation.

While travel to the USA was out of the question, as restrictions in the UK slowly began to be lifted, we started to wonder if a trip here would be a summer possibility. While I’ve extensively explored the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and a range of European cities, there is very little of my own country I have spent time seeing in anywhere near as much detail. Trips here for me mainly consist of city breaks to see a concert where more time is often spent travelling to and getting ready for our night out than sightseeing, or a few days somewhere on the Welsh coast walking my dog on the same 4 or 5 beaches each time. With our original trip being based on visiting USA National Parks, we wondered if we should maybe spend some time in the UK Parks.

So, still unsure if our trip would even become a possibility, we tentatively started doing some research.

With Wales and Scotland under separate rules and restrictions to here in England, we decided we should plan to stay away from the parks there in case we were still not allowed across the borders by the time August rolled around. That straight away cut down the possibilities to 10 English National Parks. The Norfolk Broads on the east coast, the Southern Downs, New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor in the south and the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District and Northumberland National Parks to the North. Living in the Midlands, any direction would suit me as nowhere is very far in comparison to the distances we’d have driven in the US.

After some research, we decided rather than being over ambitious and attempting a full 5-week road trip taking in all of the parks when local lockdowns were very likely to come into force and disrupt our plans, we would concentrate on the parks in one area of the country and aim to spend about 10-14 days on our trip. Having seen a number of reports on crowds rushing to the south of England, we eventually decided to head to the parks in the north and came up with a 14 day itinerary during which we would hopefully spend time in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Northumberland and then the North York Moors. We’d begin our adventure midweek to avoid weekend traffic and made sure the days spent in the Lake District, the park we expected to be busiest, were also midweek when it might be slightly quieter.

By the time that it looked as if lockdown would be relaxed enough for our ideas to possibly come to fruition, we found that with everyone being forced into staycations, accommodation options were either very limited or extremely expensive so rather than staying in the parks themselves, we opted for chain hotels in towns on the outskirts of the park – making sure we went for the fully cancellable room options of course, just in case!

Hotels booked, a basic plan of possible activities was next. Covid restrictions meant spontaneity was not as much a possibility as usual. Attractions including National Trust properties, farm parks, boat trips etc were all working on a time-slot booking system and spots were filling up quickly but we were pleased to see most places offering transferable or even refundable tickets in case circumstances changed and visitors couldn’t it.

We wanted to stick with outdoor activities for the main part anyway so were banking on the weather staying mainly dry at least so we could busy ourselves with a range of walks to see the parks’ highlights. In preparation, we found the postcodes for all the car parks we might use and collected together as much change as possible – which is more difficult than it sounds in a world where contactless card payments are preferred everywhere – in case any of the park machines were cash only.

With the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme running Mon-Wed throughout August, park attractions weren’t the only thing we couldn’t be spontaneous with. Most restaurants were also operating a book ahead only policy so we had to think ahead as to where to eat on our trip sometimes booking more than a week in advance. Staying in the towns on the outskirts of the parks at least gave us more choice with this and allowed us to vary our cuisine a bit more. The scheme helped us to keep the cost of the trip down a lot along with finding various online vouchers to use at chain restaurants for the remaining days of the week and we kept the cost of eating out down further still by carrying a box of cereal with us for breakfast, buying rolls to make our own lunch and even taking a flask of hot water with us each day to make our own tea!

As we set off for the Peak District, we were fully expecting to have to give up and head home from our trip before reaching the end either due to weather issues or local lockdowns suddenly coming in but surprisingly we made it to all 5 of the parks on our list without interruption. It was certainly very different from our experiences of visiting the National Parks of America in the past with the UK parks being large areas containing lived and worked in towns and villages rather than being actual parks like in the US with an entrance, exit and a route to follow through taking you past all the highlights. We discovered early on that it was best to mainly keep out of the villages and towns after we arrived in Bakewell to find crowded streets and very little social distancing going on and from that point forward we aimed for open spaces where we could hike out to beauty spots on easy to follow trails, keeping a distance from others.

It was great to see a bit more of our own country, to get out into the countryside and go hiking and to drive through such beautiful scenery and while not quite as exciting as the trip we had planned, it was an adventure we would probably never have planned or experienced in normal circumstances.

Keep checking back for my write up of what we got up to in each park starting with our visit to the Peak District!