The Peak District: the scenic White Peak by car

The southern area of the Peak District, the White Peak is filled with green valleys and picturesque mill towns making it the perfect place to tour by car.

White Peak vs Dark Peak sounds almost like a science fiction novel, but what truly divides and shapes the two halves of the Peak District is geology. The northern Dark Peak has stunning gritstone ridges whereas the well-worn limestone in the southern White Peak creates dramatic caves, sculptures, and scenic river valleys.

Our car tour starts just east of the Peak District border in Matlock Bath, which has a seaside feel due to its riverside location. Bikers often gather here, and it’s traditional to have fish and chips by the water. If you have children with you, Gulliver’s Kingdom is a theme park within the town or little daredevils will love the views from the cable cars at the Heights of Abraham.

Image credit: Penny Alexander

Onwards into the Peaks proper and to Robin Hood’s Stride, a popular climbing and bouldering spot, and the perfect place for a picnic, stretch of the legs or scramble on the rocks. From here stop at Haddon Hall, probably the finest example of a fortified medieval manor house in existence and also featured in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre films.

Image credit: Eirian Evans/Creative Commons

You’re close to Bakewell now, you must buy a traditional Bakewell pudding – a delicious handmade pastry, oozing with almond custard and hot jam. Bakewell’s perfect for a look around the shops, and if you love a bargain I recommend the Sunday car boot and the charity shops.

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Following the winding drive and catching your first glimpse of wild and opulent Chatsworth, you could imagine yourself as Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen supposedly wrote the novel in Bakewell, so Chatsworth rightly features as Mr. Darcy’s Pemberly in the 2005 film.

Head across to Buxton on the A6 – perhaps stopping in Tideswell to see the Cathedral of the Peak or Millers Dale on the route. Spa town Buxton is undergoing a much-deserved revival and refurbishment. Its majestic Pavilion often hosts book, antique and craft fairs while the park is beautiful for a stroll or for kids to let off steam. You can also taste Buxton’s geothermal spring water at St Anne’s Well on the Grade 1 listed Crescent.

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From Buxton, like a classic Choose Your Own Adventure book, you have options…

Take the A537 ‘Cat and Fiddle’ road. Motorists and motorcyclists come to enjoy the scenery and twisting roads from Buxton to Macclesfield. It’s a challenging driving route which often closes in snowy weather, so take care.

Alternatively, take the A53 towards Leek to admire The Roaches, Hen Cloud and Ramshaw Rocks, a huge outcrop of gritstone rocks weathered into mystical shapes. The area offers awe-inspiring panoramas and one of the Peak District’s most rewarding hikes and climbs. Parking is available in Gradbach. Discover atmospheric Lud’s Church, a 1000m chasm in the rocks which legend has it is the Green Chapel of Arthurian legend. Swim, only for the very brave, in Doxey Pool, a bottomless lake haunted by murderous mermaid Jenny Greenteeth. Keep an eye out for wallabies too, released in World War II from a private zoo, occasionally people claim sightings.

Refuel your energy at The Roaches Tea Room, or browse the antique shops in Leek. For extra adrenalin, you could add Alton Towers theme park to your tour.

Excavations suggest Thor’s cave was occupied in the Stone Age. It’s accessible by cycle track from Waterhouses on the A523 where you can hire bikes at Brown End Farm, or walk here from the cozy Royal Oak pub in Wetton. Wetton Mill tea room on the river is a perfect paddling spot in warmer weather.

Image credit: Dennis Thorley/Creative Commons

Now spiral into the heart of the White Peak, from the A523 take the turn for Ilam, signposted by a giant Peak District millstone. Moors give way to iconic White Peak scenery of rolling hills, river valleys, stepping stones, caves, and dramatic limestone statues. Navigate the iconic Dovedale stepping stones and clamber up Bunster Hill or Thorpe Cloud to catch the views.

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Ilam (pronounced “Eye-lam”) is a gothic chocolate box village nestled in hills where you’d be forgiven for thinking you had landed in Switzerland. Ilam Hall is now a Youth Hostel and Ilam Park has a National Trust tea room and grounds with climbing trees, pooh stick bridges and tree stump trails through the mud making it perfect for kids.

Image credit: Penny Alexander

Dive further into Peak District village life with a meal at The George at Alstonefield or head to pretty Hartington to buy cheese, Tissington is often called the prettiest village in England and has a secret vintage sweet shop. Head into market town Ashbourne to stock up at the delis, or enjoy cafes, gift and antique shops or perhaps come to stay at Mayfield Hideaway.