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.
Head back to the B6521 and travel north to Grindleford. Turn left and join the B6001 to Hathersage before continuing left on the A6187 Hope Valley route. You are now travelling along a broad valley in the higher reaches of the River Derwent, the river you had followed upstream earlier in the journey. Passing the large cement works in the town of Hope you will approach the historic former lead mining town of Castleton. There is a considerable amount of parking at the tourist information centre on the right hand side as you get to the centre of the town, also some of the pubs provide all day parking at a cost, a cost often refunded if you use the pub for a meal!
Castleton is also well known for its caverns, some natural, some with man-made extensions and the semi-precious mineral called Blue John. Peak Cavern in the centre of the town is the largest and most visited. Lying outside the town and in the direction of your journey along the A6187 is Speedwell Cavern. This is also the start of the steeply graded Winnats Pass. Park in the car park opposite the cave entrance then put on your safety hat and board a boat for a journey along deep tunnels that open up into illuminated caverns. Its quite claustrophobic but exciting nevertheless. The other cave system nearby is Treak Cliff Cavern, just off the Old Mam Tor Road where blue john is mined. This cave is accessed via the right hand fork in the road just before the ascent to Speedwell Cavern. Further up the A6187 you can bear right to Blue John Cavern, where, not surprisingly, blue john is also extracted and a parking area for those that wish to climb to the summit of Mam Tor, the name means ''Mother Hill', and because of various landslips in the area its nickname is the Shimmering Mountain. One such landslip in 1979 caused the closing of the main road from where the Blue John Cavern entrance is today all the way via the Treak Cliff Cavern entrance. Most of this section of road is now under rubble.
The road to Mam Tor and the National Trust car park is at such a high elevation that it's only a short walk to the summit at 517 m (1700ft), although you'll will just be walking the very last bit of the path to the top. Amazing views over the entire National Park can be enjoyed from up here. Return back to the A6187 and follow the spectacular Winnats Pass across the top of the Peak District down to the little village of Sparrowpit.
At Sparrowpit take a left turn on the A623 heading eastwards towards Tideswell. After a short distance branch off right on Manchester Road which will take you via Holdsworth on to Tideswell itself. This attractive village was also a former lead mining town and the 14th church of St John the Baptist is known as the "Cathedral of the Peak". Tideswell is one of the National Park's highest villages and like many in the region, is famous for Well Dressing, usually during the Spring months. Venerating wells and springs is a local tradition and goes back to the pagan times of the 6th century, however the revival of decorating wells with flowers is an 18th century revival. It isn't just this village that decorates its wells, you'll find it all over the National Park.
Leave the village on the B6049 and take the road steeply down to Millers Dale and park in the old station car park. This old railway route cut right through the middle of the Peak District linking London to Manchester. The section through the National Park is the only part that has closed and back in 1968 the trains stopped running through here. The station building provides a cafe and toilets and there is also bicycle hire available. A nice round trip, either on foot or by bike, is to head southwards for about 3 miles (5 km), following the course of the old railway, through tunnels and over viaducts to Monsal Dale where you can climb up from the old railway to the head of the valley for breathtaking views of the railway viaduct and surrounding countryside. Then journey back the same way to Millers Dale. Continue your journey on the B6049. Drive up the hill out of the valley, reaching the A6 then take a right turn to Buxton.
Buxton is the highest market town in England at 1,000ft (300m) above sea level. Its history as a spa town goes back to Roman times when it was known as Aquae Arnemetiae. In many ways the 5th Duke of Devonshire revived the town's fortunes in the 1780s by promoting and generating new interest in the town as a place to take the healing waters. Amongst many impressive buildings that date from this time are the architect John Carr's residential Crescent and the Great Stables with its incredible Great Dome. At 144ft (44m) across it was for many years the world's largest unsupported dome, bigger than the Pantheon in Rome or St Paul's cathedral in London. Although initially built as stables it was turned into the Royal Devonshire Hospital until the millennium and is now part of the campus of the University of Derby.
Buxton Pavilion Gardens are a delight to visit and were created in 1871 with water features, lakes, bridges and the River Wye meandering through. The Pavilion Gardens parking area is the most convenient and centrally located place to park your vehicle.
Leave Buxton and head south over the tops on the A515, a pleasant journey through 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.
When one sees the Newton House Hotel on your left you can bear right down a single track narrow country lane towards Thorpe. This is a gated farm road with cattle grids and is quite isolated. If you prefer a wider road then continue on the A515 to Tissington Gates and take a right following the signs for Thorpe, Ilam and Dovedale. Head through 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.
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 A52 towards Derby and the M1 motorway south.