In the Peak District, I saved the best of England’s scenery for last. This entire region, stretching up to the Yorkshire Dales through the very heart of England, is the greatest hits compilation: rolling farmland interspersed with quiet villages; huge desolate moors that seem to go on forever into nothingness; some of England’s most jaw-dropping estates; and of course, beautiful peaks and hills.
The Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District are totally distinct areas, separated by a large strip of industrial development where you’ll find Leeds and Manchester. But I think of them as extensions of one another. I can’t say for sure that this isn’t a gross generalization and mischaracterization, but geologically, they are very similar and the atmosphere is indistinguishable at times. Because of time and scheduling, I spent very little time in the Dales and much more time in the Peak District, but I think much of my descriptions apply to both and I equally enjoyed both areas. If you had a week in this part of England, it would be worth dividing your time between both, as they are far enough apart that you can’t really do both in one brief go of it. So I’m writing about them basically as one, but this is my disclaimer to acknowledge that they are in fact separate things. And if you’re looking for a place to stay in the Dales, Stow House outside Aysgarth is the way to go.
Peak District National Park and Yorkshire Dales National Park
Glen Coe—Aysgarth—Bakewell, 377 miles
Of the two, the Dales are flatter and more austere. Between the towns will be mile after mile of gentle hills broken up only by the mosaic of dark green scrub and vibrant purple heather. The wind is so strong and so constant that even the bushy unshorn sheep look ruffled at times. Obviously not true of the two in the photo above, who are clearly not too worried about predators.
As the name suggest, the Peak District is more peak-y but only just. The geology here is a bit more interesting, with rocky limestone cliffs scattered here and there, and a series of caves that are full of amber deposits, though similar limestone caves also exist up north in the Dales.
The Peak District is also England’s answer to the Loire Valley. Every time you turn around you bump into another stately home or an earl’s house or something. There are tons of these all over the region. Then there’s Chatsworth House, stretching the term “house” to its absolute limit.
Chatsworth is practically a state of mind more than it is a house or a larger farm estate with a small town, which it also is. The entire estate sits on 35,000 acres in Derbyshire and is owned by Cavendish family, who holds the title of Duke of Devonshire and has lived here since 1549 (!). Walking around the grounds of the house, you can’t help but stand up a little straighter and walk around a little more regally. You come correct to Chatsworth or you don’t come at all.
You may have seen Chatsworth before. It’s one of the most, if not the most, famous state home in all of England and was featured in what is I think one of the best shots of a house any movie, as Pemberley in the most recent Pride and Prejudice.
Many homes like this are set on enormous tracts of land so they often look small, or at least more modestly sized, because they’re dwarfed by their surroundings. Even in its enormous expanse, Chatsworth dominates. It commands your attention. The design is actually very well done in that it makes what is an obscenely large house feel much smaller. Every side masks the rest of the house, so any one facade doesn’t fully show the grandeur of the entire thing.
There’s no way in a photo to get a sense of just how stately it feels. And how big it is. This problem is only compounded by its current state. The entire backside of the house is completely obscured behind scaffolding, hence the many coy camera angles. It took some doing to crop it out. And that iconic shot looking down the pond from Pride and Prejudice? This is the current view.
It tells you something about Chatsworth that this is only the very narrowest side of the entire building and it’s the one they used in the film. With the long reflecting pool, it is probably the most dramatic view of the whole house, but it does significantly downplay its size.
The inside is a bit disappointing, or at least not totally to my taste. While the outside manages to be both enormous, but also maintain a sense of lightness and fragility, the inside is all dark wood paneling, small windows, huge chandeliers, golden embossed everything, thick carpets, and heavy marble accents. It’s objectively beautiful but so baroque and totally loses the delicacy of the exterior.
Oddly, the room with the gift shop is one of the best in the house, with high vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows along a wall facing the gardens on the backside of the house. It’s always hard to get a sense of the views in houses like this because they close the windows to protect the antique furniture and tapestries, but most of the house, at least the historic rooms open to the public, face an inner courtyard with a strange display of modern art. Chatsworth is many times the size of the area open to the public, so perhaps the duke has wisely taken the better wings for himself.
For the most part, this is a commercial operation. They’re far more organized and efficient at moving people through than any other estate house that I saw in England, but then there will be odd little reminders that people live here. On the side of the house from the Pride and Prejudice shot, there’s a terrace facing the pool and the lawn. This entire area is blocked off and on the patio is a haphazard collection of lawn furniture, albeit very nice teak pieces, and a two wine glasses were resting on a glass-topped wicker coffee table. I’m sure some docent discovered this with horror at some point, but it was a pleasant surprise to see something so mundane in a place that seems so removed from everyday life.
If the house wasn’t great enough, then there’s the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop. This is one of those grocery stores where you feel a little stupid shopping there, but you absolutely love it. Everything has a clipboard next to it with a map of the area showing what part of the estate, or the Peak District at large, the product comes from. Produce is sold in ridiculously impractical containers, like the bundle of red currents in a tiny wooden milk crate with no top, suitable for transport out of the store only if you have a butler to convey them personally in hand back to the kitchen. Needless to say, I bought two. The shopping carts are woven wooden baskets and the employees are dressed like Anne of Green Gables, but it’s impossible not to love shopping here. It’s also not outrageously expensive. Cheaper than the Whole Foods in London.
If you’re on a Pride and Prejudice grand tour, Stanage Edge is the next stop. This sandstone cliff is one of the most famous in the Peak District and very popular among rock climbers and photographers. There are a lot of “edges” in the Peak District but this is the most famous and the most scenic from what I saw.
The weather here is a truly fickle bitch. I came back three times in one day to try to get a shot in sunlight and during the 10-minute walk from the car up to the ledge, the weather would cycle through four seasons.
Down the hill is North Lees Hall, the house that is said to have inspired Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester’s fictional estate in Jane Eyre, and about an hour north of here is Lyme Park, featured in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. I know for many people this is considered the real Pride and Prejudice rather than the 2005 Matthew MacFadyen edition. To which I say I would I agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong. Lyme Park was closed the day I was in the area, but you can imagine what you’re going to get.
Another popular estate in the area is Haddon Hall, which was featured in, can you believe it, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Others argue that Haddon is, in fact, the real life inspiration for Thornfield Hall. The entire Peak District essentially serves to blur the line between 19th century fiction and reality. Best of all though, Haddon served as the set for Prince Humperdinck’s castle in The Princess Bride. I’d like to point out that Word just autocorrected to the correct spelling of “Humperdinck.”
Anyway, this is the complete antithesis to Chatsworth. It’s empty for one thing and understated in every way, or at least as understated as a giant, old English manor house can be. Though Haddon Hall and Chatsworth are almost exact contemporaries, Chatsworth has taken on a very Baroque style on the outside over the years, while Haddon Hall has maintained its medieval look.
Like in the Cotswolds, the towns scattered over the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales are all variations on a theme. Some are better and a bit livelier than others, and you can tell immediately when you arrive what you’re dealing with, but more or less, it’s the same charming assortment of bakeries and teashops and crafts stores and the like.
For one of the better located Peak District towns, Castleton is the way to go. Nearby are three peaks that make up one of the best hikes in the area with views that, on a sunny day, would be hard to top in all of England.
This area has a series of caverns in the various hillsides and you can find amber souvenirs everywhere as a result. I didn’t go in because they seemed to be pretty crowded and on a nice day, I couldn’t bring myself to go inside even for a minute. But it’s part of what makes this region unique, so something to consider.
Atop one of the more popular caverns is Mam Tor, a particularly prominent peak that forms a ridge through Hope Valley along with Back Tor and Lose Hill. At all of 1,600 feet, Mam Tor is about as easy a hike as you can get, so you won’t have the place to yourself. Regardless, the view from the top shows the Peak District at its finest.
It’s easy to see why this landscape has been the source of so much literary inspiration over the years. As a result, there’s definitely a bit of self-mythologizing that goes on, but it lives up to it. All the movies and books set and filmed here have certainly given it a certain sheen that might not exist otherwise, but there’s a reason people came here and created paeans to it in the first place.
Bakewell—Oxford, 130 miles
Welcome to England’s most popular tourist destination. Probably not by the numbers, but it certainly feels like it.
So, it’s summer and of course Oxford is going to draw a large crowd of people who are not there for any academic reasons. But I was pretty shocked by just how bad it was. It can often be difficult to tell where the university ends and the city of Oxford begins, so it’s surprisingly easy to accidentally wander into portions of the campus that are not open to the public. The flipside of this is Oxford town doesn’t feel like a town at all, and more like a campus extension. This is true of every university town to a certain extent, but it was particularly striking and more pronounced at Oxford, in large part probably because of the university’s enormous fame and appeal to casual tourists.
If Oxford reminded me most of another city, it was, rather strangely, Bologna. Bologna is also a university town, with one of only two extant universities in the world that predates Oxford, and it is definitely not a tourist trap, but both places have a similar vibe, with crooked narrow streets and low-lying buildings broken up with bell towers here and there.
Several of the colleges are open to the public to walk around, at least in the summer, and they do a brisk business here with ticket booths at every doorway. I sort of felt like I was being nickeled and dimed at every turn, but they display a level of professionalism I’ve never seen on any American campus, with informational pamphlets and formal ticket offices and gift shops that look like what you might find at a world-class art museum, not the usual sweatshirt emporiums and bookstores.
Christ Church is the most popular college among tourists, having been used for Harry Potter filming, and it is the biggest old boys’ club in a university that is the quintessence of academic aristocracy. Thirteen prime ministers have graduated from Christ Church alone, one of Oxford’s 38 colleges. Aesthetically, I found it unremarkable in comparison to the other colleges I saw. Every college at Oxford is beautiful, so there’s not much incentive to fight through the crowds at Christ Church.
No one would accuse Oxford of not being a beautiful campus, as it most certainly is. But it doesn’t feel that different from other campuses of a similar ilk. Much as it cuts me to my core to say this, the University of Chicago campus has out-Oxforded Oxford with its design, and practically any other American university that predates the 20th century has this same aesthetic. Oxford, founded in 1096, of course predates them all by centuries, but many universities have since matched them in campus beauty.
By some weird trick of time, I’ve arrived at my (sort of) final destination. There’s a bit of a circuitous homecoming route to follow, but it is fitting that I saved God’s country for the end. Next and last stop: Ireland.