Heading north through to the Midlands of England the best motorway exit for the southern reaches of the Peak District is junction 26, here you will bear north westwards on the A610 towards Ambergate then follow the valley of the River Derwent by turning right on the A6. As the hills begin to appear ahead of you and the valley narrows look towards the right at the remains of the old Cromford canal completed in 1794 and now sadly disused for the most part. You will follow both canal and river into the mill town of Cromford itself where you can make your first stop at Cromford Mill, part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. You are now looking at a mill constructed in 1771 as a factory to spin yarn after the development of the Water Frame by Richard Arkwright in 1769. This is the true birthplace of the factory system and a very important cradle of the Industrial Revolution, it is, historically speaking, the world's first modern factory. There is plenty of parking here and a chance to look around the mill. Since its restoration it has become a multi-use visitor centre with cafe, gift shop and local woodland walks.
Continue along the A6 and you will soon arrive at Matlock Bath, the Victorian Spa town which was a very fashionable place to 'see and be seen' in the 19th century. It was Victoria herself, as a young princess that boosted the town's popularity after a royal visit in 1832. As the valley is at one of its steepest and narrowest points here, the poet Byron referred to the area as "little Switzerland" and the area has played to that fine accolade ever since.
Cable cars whisk you up to the Heights of Abraham gardens with stunning views over the valley below. Children will love the theme park known as Gulliver's Kingdom, there is a large aquarium and the Peak District Mining Museum to visit. In some ways Matlock Bath resembles a seaside resort without the sea, yet it is filled with stalls selling sticks of rock, candy floss and fish and chips which sit side by side with amusement arcades and fortune tellers. A rather quirky and unique arrangement but one can find it a bit loud and busy in the holiday seasons and the summer months.
Move onwards through the larger town of Matlock into the Peak District National Park itself, at 1,440 square km (555 square miles) it was created in 1951 and was the first National Park in the UK. Its name is said to derive, not from mountain peaks, but a varient of the name of early tribes who populated the area, although this is open to debate.
You will continue on the A6 but are now following the valley of the River Wye and in a short while you'll see signs for Haddon Hall sending you off to the car park on the left. After parking you will cross the road to the other side to find the entrance and ticket office. If any building could claim to be "frozen in time" above any other, it is this one. Built in the 11th century and largely remodelled in the 16th century, the Earls of Rutland almost abandoned this house in the early 1700s, preferring to live elsewhere. Haddon Hall received just essential repairs and very little else. No modernisation, no building additions, so by the 1920s a returning Earl of Rutland had it restored without any major alterations. The rooms are as original as they can be. It is a beautiful building set in delightful grounds.
Moving onwards along the A6, it is time to stop and try the local confectionery in the town of Bakewell, namely the sweetly delicious Bakewell Pudding. The old railway station car park should be able to squeeze you in, then take a short walk over the River Wye into the town. Among the old stone houses and narrow streets there are plenty of tea rooms advertising "Bakewell Puddings" with signs in their windows or over their doors. It's a flaky pastry base topped with jam and almond paste. Try one with a cup of tea or, better still, have one smothered in hot custard.
Continue deeper into the Peak District along the A6 turning right at Ashford-in-the-Water onto the A6020. Its worth a look at this pretty village so once you've joined the A6020 turn immediately left into the village. There is limited parking but a few spaces down Fennel Street, just after Holy Trinity Church. Here you can walk over and photograph the ancient pack horse river crossing, known as Sheepwash Bridge. Leave the village the way you came in, then head back on to the A6020 turning left to Chatsworth House.
As you travel to Chatsworth the road becomes the B4048 then the B6012 as you approach Edensor, the estate village for the grand house itself, this will take you to the access road and along the drive up, over the river to the parking area and ticket office. Chatsworth House has been home to the Cavendish family, the Dukes of Devonshire, since 1549, over sixteen generations they have built up an impressive collection of art, featuring works by Rembrant and Gainsborough, and sculpture from the Egyptian and Roman periods. You can wander through 25 rooms and visit the amazing Painted Hall, state rooms and Sculpture Gallery. Plus the beautiful grounds and gardens designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown and the Emperor Fountain, created in 1844 by Joseph Paxton, who also designed the Crystal Palace in London. There are 105 acres of gardens to stroll around with delightful views, grottos, caves and water features.
You can leave the grounds of Chatsworth on a different route to the one you entered by heading north to the A619 then turn left and continue to Baslow, here join the A623 westwards until you approach a right hand turn and a sign for the B6521 to Eyam. This is the famous "plague village" where self sacrifice and isolation stopped the spread of disease and death to neighbouring areas when the plague arrived through contaminated clothes sent up from London in 1665. The village clergyman persuaded the community to stay within the village boundaries so as not to spead the disease. Its estimated that half the village died. Plague stones can still be seen at the edge of the village where outsiders left food and supplies in return for money washed in vinegar and left in grooves on the stone's surface. The impressive Eyam Hall in the centre of the village was built in 1671, after the plague, and it is worth a brief visit. The village itself is charming, despite its sad history.
Leaving Eyam westwards, past Eyam Hall, you can follow the road to Grinlow and at the junction with the B6049 turn left for Tideswell. This attractive village was once a centre for lead mining, which may have had its origins back in the late Bronze Age. Pay a visit to its 14th century church, St John the Baptist, known as the "Cathedral of the Peak". Tideswell is one of the National Park's highest villages and in common with many of the villages here, it is proud of the tradition of Well Dressing, an event undertaken across this region at various times of the year. Venerating wells and springs is a local tradition and goes back to Pagan times, generally from the 6th century. The present tradition, however, stems from an 18th century revival. Look out for well dressing in other Peak District villages especially Tissington which you will visit later.
Leave the village on the B6049 which heads steeply down to the former Miller's Dale railway station in the River Wye valley where there is a car park and toilets. The old platforms are still here and it was once part of a railway route that cut right through the National Park. The line ran from London to Manchester and the section that runs through the Peak District is the only part that closed down and therefore back in 1968 the trains stopped calling here. A nice round trip, either on foot or hired bicycle, is to head south along the trackbed for about 3 miles (5km) over viaducts and through tunnels to Monsal Dale where you can leave the old railway route and climb up to the head of the valley where you can enjoy superb views of the River Wye and the old Monsal Dale viaduct and surrounding hills. Walk back to Miller's Dale and take the B6049 southwards, out of the valley and turn right on the A6 to Buxton.
Buxton is England's highest market town and sometimes on chilly days it can definitely feel it. It sits 1,000 ft (300m) above sea level and its history as a thermal spa goes back 2,000 years to when the Romans were occupying this area. Back then it was known as Aquae Arnemetiae. It was the 5th Duke of Devonshire that revived the town's fortunes in the 1780s by extolling the virtues of the natural spring water here. He ordered the building of the Crescent, designed in 1784 by John Carr as a double set of hotels, along with the Great Stables which later boasted a huge impressive dome. At 144ft (44m) it was the largest unsupported dome in the world at the time. Although initially built as stables it became the Royal Devonshire Hospital until 2001 and is now part of the campus of the University of Derby.
Don't miss the serene Buxton Pavilion Gardens opened in 1871 with water features and cascades provided by the River Wye. Take a short hike up to the local folly, Solomon's Temple, a Neo-classsical tower on the top of Grin Low hill dating from 1896 or head into Poole's Cavern to see the various rock formations within its captivating chambers.
Leave Buxton and head south over the tops on the A515, a pleasant journey through the western side of the White Peak. The northern areas of the Peak District are referred to as Dark Peak as the limestone up there is covered with a layer of Millstone Grit, this is not the case in the southern areas where the lighter coloured limestone is exposed at the surface.
Just about a mile (1.5km) east of the A515 is the stone circle at Arbor Low along with Gib Hill Barrow, an ancient burial chamber. Look out for the brown tourist sign along with a sign for the villages of Youlgreave and Monyash. This will be pointing left along a road called The Rake. Once you are on this road take the first turn right on a road called Long Rake until you reach another brown tourist sign for Arbor Low pointing right up a farm track which says Upper Oldham. There will be a small area to park at the top.
Although almost all the stones here now lie flat, this Neolithic henge monument has very impressive earthworks with the ditch that surrounds the stones some 6.5 feet (2m) deep and 33ft (10m) wide. There are also two earthworks that provided entrances to the circle. There are about 40 to 50 stones but many are now broken. Incidentally the Neolithic period (or New Stone Age) dates from around 3,600BC to about 2,500BC and a "henge" monument is a stone circle that is surrounded by a ditch.
Dating from the Early Bronze Age, around 2000BC, is the nearby burial mound or barrow known as Gib Hill which is a short walk south west from the circle.
Continue east along Long Rake following signs for Youlgreave which will take you into a delightful village of stone cottages with the late 12th century church of All Saints sitting prominently in the centre. The East Window in the church is the work of Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and made by William Morris & Co.
Like many settlements in the Peak District this village grew up as a lead mining centre. The pretty stone miners cottages huddle around the church. One building, Thimble Hall, on Fountain Square claims to be the world's smallest detached house!
Leave Youlgreave along Bradford Road which runs south from the front of All Saints Church, alongside the churchyard and head towards Dale End and Elton. This narrow country lane gives you a chance to take an off the beaten track route through some of the charming back roads of the White Peak. At Elton turn right on Moor Lane and head down to the A5012 where you turn right for Newhaven. Here you will pick up the A515 again by branching left and heading southwards.
Eventually you will arrive at a crossroads with a sign pointing left to the village of Tissington, certainly one of the most beautiful villages in the Peak District and one not to be missed. The magnificent early 17th century Tissington Hall, home of the FitzHerbert family, stands at its northern edge and the delightful village green circles around a duck pond. A cluster of charming stone cottages form the centre of the village. Tissington will be at its busiest during the middle of May. On the eve of Ascension Day the six wells of the village will be highly decorated. Well Dressing in this village is known worldwide and up to 50,000 visitors are said to make the journey here to see these beautiful floral displays over the following few days or so. The flowers can last up to a week or more but the displays are sadly short lived.
Leave Tissington the same way you came in but this time cross over the A515 following the signs for Thorpe, Ilam and Dovedale along Washbourne Lane. Head through the village of Thorpe to the parking area at Dovedale. Here you can take one of the most beautiful walks, not only in the Peak District but in the entire country.
Dovedale is just a perfect little valley, although the walks can be busy in summer and quite muddy in winter. Following the River Dove upstream you'll encounter a variety of limestone formations such as the Ilam Rock and Lover's Leap. Plenty of photo opportunities on every step of the trail. It would be difficult to estimate a time for this walk because the route is such a delight you may linger in one of several beauty spots along the way!
From the car park retrace your steps to Thorpe and turn right down Spend Lane, rejoining the A515 to Ashbourne. This welcoming market town with its coaching inns and old main street is the southernmost town in the Peak District and a worthy final stop before leaving on the A515 southwards to pick up the A50 eastbound and the M1 motorway south.