Buxton in Derbyshire isn’t necessarily entirely what you’d expect. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect at all really when we went there on a weekend jaunt a few weeks ago to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. But then I can’t say I’d ever particularly explored the Peak District before, of which this charming old market and spa town sits at the heart.
In all honesty it’s probably a bit regionalist of me, but I’d always seen the area as a bit of a poor relation of the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District and even my own personal favourite – but probably least well-known of the lot – Northumberland. But shame on me.
It’s actually a fascinating place, packed full of quirky surprises, and cast in a truly lovely setting. Not so very dissimilar to the Yorkshire Dales, in fact, only somewhat less tourist-y. As a for instance, lots of the hills surrounding Buxton carry the word ‘low’ somewhere in their name, Arbor Low or Grin Low being cases in point. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaw’, it actually means ‘burial mound’ and the town is apparently surrounded by lots of such bronze age sites.
But just to add to its mystery, Buxton also boasts quite a few firsts. On the one hand, at 1,000 or so feet above sea level, it is said to be the highest market town in England – although Alston in Cumbria also lays claim to the title too.
On the other, the town’s oldest building, the Old Hall Hotel, is believed to be the UK’s first ever hotel. It was allegedly built to house Mary Queen of Scots who stayed there at sporadic intervals between 1548 and 1573, after being taken into custody by local dignitary, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. And it still does a mean pan-fried sea bream to this day, a fact to which I can personally attest after partaking of a lovely meal there with my family.
Mary was quite keen on the place too allegedly as the warm waters of the nearby natural thermal spring, which emerges from the ground at a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit, helped keep her rheumatism in check. And it is spring water, at least in bottled form, for which Buxton is probably most famous. You’d certainly be hard-pressed not to find the odd bottle or two in most supermarkets or motorway service stations in the UK these days anyway.
But to get back to the Earl of Shrewsbury for a moment. He just happened to be married to Elizabeth Talbot, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick, who by virtue of a few smart marriages scaled the heights of 16th century English society to become fabulously wealthy, helped along in such matters by her own shrewd business sense.
Bess of Hardwick’s legacy
Anyway, Bess built herself, among other things, nearby Chatsworth House, which must be among the most lavish and flamboyant stately homes that I’ve ever set eyes upon. In fact, as an emblem of its if truth-be-known somewhat vulgar over-the-top-ness, all of its window frames are even covered in gold paint. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its sumptuousness, the 126-room country pile has also starred in loads of films from “The Duchess” to “The Wolfman”.
Although I must confess that I wasn’t particularly taken with its interior, which I found a bit oppressive, what really did grab my fancy was the 105-acre gardens, landscaped in the 1760s by no less a personage than Lancelot “Capability” Brown himself. There’s a maze, kitchen garden, water garden, rose garden, gravity-fed Emperor Fountain and even a display greenhouse, divided into three climactic zones – Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. And there are, of course, also the breathtakingly elegant landscaped vistas for which Brown is so renowned and which still seem so quintessentially English 300 years after his birth.
Anyway, all of this is rather more pertinent to Buxton than it might appear at first glance. This is because Chatsworth just happens to be the official seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, who are in fact the progeny of Bess of Hardwick’s second marriage to courtier, Sir William Cavendish.
And it is this family, which made pots of money mining copper at Ecton Hill in Staffordshire that is responsible for shaping (lower) Buxton in all of its Georgian splendour to make it into the UK’s premier spa town of the seventeenth century. In fact, you’ll still see the Cavendish name all over town on everything from street names to buildings and even the odd shopping arcade.
But intriguingly, there’s also a Higher Buxton too should you happen to stumble up the steeper-than-it-looks Hall Bank. While you could easily miss it, it’s actually an independent village that formed the original settlement and which still houses the town hall and marketplace to this day. And as such, it’s rather more down-to-earth than its somewhat showier neighbour.
Because, perhaps surprisingly for a town of its size, (lower) Buxton boasts more than a few iconic buildings, created mainly out of the local area’s warm-coloured limestone. For instance, there’s the Grade I-listed Crescent, which was designed by the York architect John Carr in 1784 to rival the much more famous Royal Crescent in Bath. Including two hotels, apartments, shops, coffee and card rooms and an Assembly Room, it was funded by the 5th Duke of Devonshire to provide accommodation for spa-goers and any friends of his keen on a health-giving sojourn there.
Important British site
Even more intriguingly, the Crescent was actually built on the site of a Roman Baths. The Romans called their spa “Aquae Arnemetiae”, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess who lives in a sacred grove’. Arnemetia was a river goddess worshipped by the local Celtic Corieltauvi tribe and it was believed that drinking from her waters would cure you of sickness and wasting disease.
Moreover, as groves were where the Druids conducted their ceremonies, it gives you some idea of just how important a religious centre this place must have been. It was certainly significant enough for the Romans to apply the term “Aquae” to it anyway, an honour accorded to only one other British town – that of Bath, which was known as “Aquae Sulis”. Sulis was a local water goddess there too and the Romans equated her with Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and knowledge.
Anyway, redeveloped in the mid-1800s, the Roman Baths morphed into the so-called Natural Baths and it is they that will form the centrepiece of a new 79-bedroom five-star spa hotel due to be opened next year. This heritage regeneration project is expected to cost £70 million or so, but is intended to help revive the town’s fortunes and stimulate a new wave of tourism in its role as Peak District capital.
But there’s also the Devonshire Dome. Originally built in 1882 for the Royal Devonshire Hospital, it is now part of the University of Derby and dominates the town’s skyline. With a diameter of 46 metres, it is also the largest unsupported dome in Europe.
Or there’s the 23-acre Pavilion Gardens on the banks of the River Wye. Laid out by Edward Milner, a successful Victorian landscape architect and designer who has since vanished into obscurity, this lovely site also includes the UK’s first Winter Gardens. They were created in the image and likeness of London’s Crystal Palace, a development in which Milner played a key role too.
His goal with the Winter Gardens though was to craft an environment where the upper crust could promenade in all weathers, enjoying displays of exotic foliage and flowers while listening to the light orchestral pleasures of palm court music. And the idea spread like wildfire across the country from Margate to Sunderland.
Today, the building houses sundry shops and cafes as well as the Pavilion Arts Centre, which plays a key role in Buxton’s Festival Fringe each July. Running parallel with the Buxton arts Festival, which focuses on opera, music and books, lots of artistes interestingly use it as a test bed for that much more famous counterpart, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest such event in the world.
So say what you like about Buxton, but to me, it’s really rather a special place that just keeps on charming and surprising.