Curbar Edge with Baslow Edge in the background

Peakwalking .. the original online guide to walking in England's Peak District

Introducing the Peak District

Where is It?

The Peak District National Park consists of around 550 square miles of countryside and small towns at the southern end of the Pennines, the ridge of hills which runs up the centre of the northern part of England. Most of the park is in Derbyshire, with parts also in Staffordshire and Cheshire.

Monsal Dale, looking towards Cressbrook

It's the second most visited national park in the world, with around 30 million visits each year. This is hardly surprising when you consider that around 17 million people - almost 30% of the population of the UK - can get to the park in an hour from their homes. This also means that the vast majority of those 30 million visits are day-trips. The park itself is thinly populated, with only about 38,000 inhabitants scattered throughout those 550 square miles.

For convenience, the National Park is often thought of as being divided into two areas, called the White Peak and Dark Peak. The division between these isn't fixed but basically the White Peak covers the gentle, rolling limestone countryside in the south and west of the area while the Dark Peak comprises the high gritstone uplands and moors to the north. Each of these areas has its own unique beauty and distinct characteristics.

Britain is lucky in being very well-mapped, with detailed maps being available of the whole country. The Ordnance Survey cover the Peak District with two maps in their Explorer series - number OL 1 (Dark Peak) and OL 24 (White Peak). These are the maps I recommend to accompany the walks on this site. They can be bought from most good bookshops or can be obtained directly from Ordnance Survey by following the link above. For more information on maps and equipment, click here.

The White Peak

The White Peak is an area of deep water-carved limestone valleys such as Dovedale, Bradford Dale and Lathkill Dale ('dale' simply means 'valley'). The rivers running in these are usually gentle, clear streams and the valley slopes are broad-leaved woodland or sheep-cropped grass. The valleys are surrounded and connected by rolling farmland separated into fields by hundreds of miles of ancient drystone walls. A spiders-web of footpaths, brideleways and lanes criss-crosses the area, providing both long, easy walks or short interesting strolls.

The area has a good range of wildlife with some of the valleys and rivers being particularly good bird habitats. The delightfully named Water-cum-Jolly Dale near Cressbrook is an important area for water birds and the woods in places like Lathkill Dale and Wofscote Dale also support a varied bird population. The picture shows a heron feeding in Dovedale.

A heron feeds in Dovedale

Rabbits are common and hares, foxes, badgers and the increasingly-rare water vole may be glimpsed, particularly early in the morning or late on summer evenings. There are even rumours that the elusive otter has made a return to these parts after a long absence, though like most walkers I've never spotted one.

The unpolluted water of the rivers makes them ideal for trout and many are managed for this purpose. A feature of rivers such as the Lathkill and Dove is that they have a succession of low weirs. These are mainly Victorian in origin and were built to create a series of pools, which favour the trout. The sport of angling can be said to have been invented here by Izaak Walton, author of 'The Compleat Angler' (first published in 1653), and his friend Charles Cotton.

Although a beautiful green landscape, this area has a surprisingly industrial past. Man has extracted stone and minerals from these hills for thousands of years. Limestone quarrying still goes on in many parts of the National Park, sometimes to the dismay of those of us who like the place the way it is.

At one time, though, it was the lead mines which made the area famous. Derbyshire lead was exported around the world from Roman times and some of the hills are riddled with mine shafts and levels. One reminder of the past which has survived are the remains of Magpie Mine near Sheldon. This looks oddly out of place as the buildings resemble those of a Cornish tin mine (not surprisingly, it was designed by a Cornishman!). Nature is a great healer, though, and the scars of the activity have largely healed elsewhere. All that remain are abandoned shafts and old soughs (drains) which still provide water for some of the rivers, such as the Lathkill.

The area was also the hub of the Industrial revolution, with water-powered mills such as those at Litton and Cressbrook contributing to the growth of the textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Railways once criss-crossed the area but many are now sadly abandoned. The routes of some of these have now been converted into footpaths and cycle tracks such as the Tissington, High Peak and Monsal trails. Some of the walks on this site, such as Wolfscote Dale and the Tissington Trail make use of stretches of these trails.

The short-sighted nature of the railway closures is demonstrated by the fact that, having been closed in 1968, there are now moves to resurrect the Matlock to Buxton section of the direct line from Manchester to Derby, part of which is now the Monsal Trail. This would reinstate an important public transport link and help reduce road congestion, as well as providing one of the most spectacular railway journeys in England.

White Peak Towns and Villages

There are no large towns inside the White Peak, with Ashbourne, Matlock and Buxton all being just outside the National Park boundary. Nevertheless, the area contains lots of places which are worthy of a visit.

Bakewell is the largest town inside the National Park and is probably the most famous, known throughout the world for 'Bakewell Pudding'. The delicacy of almonds and jam in a pastry case is sold in several shops in the town, there being a dispute as to which is the 'original' outlet! Bakewell is worth a visit for the scenery, too - the church is nice and there are two ancient bridges over the Wye, with a nice riverbank walk between them.


The town centre has recently been redeveloped but this seems as though it will blend in well with the rest once the newness has been softened by the weather. The same cannot be said of the new cattle market across the river, where a huge and stunningly ugly building has been erected to serve the largely agricultural economy.

There are over 2,500 farms in the Peak District, mostly small family-run or tenanted concerns. These are now recovering from the uncertainty caused by the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001, which the Peak District mercifully largely escaped though the months of animal movement bans took their toll. The unique character of the area depends on these small farms, for without them the area would quickly become over-run by scrub and woodland.

Other places worth a stop-off include Tideswell, Hartington (home of a fine Stilton cheese), Tissington, Alstonefield and Baslow. There are good walks from all of these places - for example, Hartington is the start of the Three Dales around Hartington walk, while the Froggatt and White Edges walk starts from Baslow. The latter is particularly interesting because it goes along one the gritstone edges which form the boundary with the limestone areas.

For those seeking history, Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall are nearby while the hall at Eyam provides a less well-known destination. Incidentally, all these places are only open at certain times of the year and on certain days.

The Dark Peak

The Dark Peak is a much more rugged and harsh area. Generally higher than the White Peak, and based on hard gritstone, it contains the wild heather moors of Bleaklow and Kinder Scout. Here, the rivers are more turbulent than their White Peak brethren and except in the valleys the ground is mostly tussocky sheep-pasture, conifer woodland and moorland. Walks in this area are often, though not always, physically demanding. Certainly, walking the peat hags on the high moors is an altogether wilder experience than is available in the White Peak, care and careful navigation being necessary.

Froggat Edge

The wildlife of the area is naturally suited to its upland nature. On the moors grouse may be seen as, in winter, may white hares. Heather, ling, bilberry and cotton grass predominate on the uplands, while in the valleys there are occasional patches of woodland much of it, particularly near the area's reservoirs, managed conifer plantations. There's also farmland, of course, mainly used for sheep and cattle. There's little arable farming, as the terrain doesn't lend itself to this activity. The fast-flowing nature and relatively acidic water of the rivers makes them less suitable for fish than the clear, leisurely streams of the White Peak.

Men have left their mark on the landscape here, too. There's less quarrying than in the limestone areas but the upper Derwent valley between Bamford and Glossop is reservoir land. Huge dams have been thrown across the steep-sided valleys to make three distinct reservoirs - Derwent, Howden and Ladybower. These supply water to the Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby areas. The road leading to the first two of these is soon to become a toll-road, the first stage of a plan to charge for vehicular access to some of the best parts of the National Park. For the moment, access on foot will still be free but how long this will remain the case is anyone's guess!

The areas around the reservoirs are forested and mainly open to public access. It has to be admitted that there are some good views of the reservoirs from the surrounding hilltops, especially when water levels are high. Sadly, the dam of Ladybower reservoir has recently been strengthened, the stone for this being taken from an ugly new quarry which will forever scar the slopes of Win Hill.

Dark Peak Towns and Villages

The Dark Peak is wild and fairly remote, there being no large towns. Hathersage is pretty, if busy. The churchyard there contains a grave reputed to be that of Little John (of Robin Hood fame). The little village of Edale is a popular starting-point for walks onto Kinder Scout or the ridge taking in Rushup Edge and Mam Tor. The Pennine Way long-distance footpath starts in the village. Hathersage and Edale both have the advantage of being accessible by train from Manchester and Sheffield.

Castleton (just 'over the border' in the limestone area) is commercialised but still worth a visit. Apart from the ruined castle from which it derives its name, it has a number of underground caverns and caves which are open to the public. These are the source of the famous 'blue john', a mineral found only here.

If you must find shops, a drive over the Snake Pass from Bamford will get you to Glossop but will also take you past some of the best walking country in the area.

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