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Buxton: Gateway to the Peaks

For centuries tourists have been enjoying the architectural and health-giving marvels of Buxton in the heart of the Peak District. Barry McLoughlin joined them

As we strolled through Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens with the freshly fallen leaves rustling beneath our feet, we could imagine Regency bucks in nankeen breeches accompanied by bonneted young women doing just the same two centuries earlier

In a captivating combination of greenery and town planning, the mellow-stoned Georgian and Victorian architecture is complemented by the acres of parkland between the buildings – and, of course, the Peak District panoramas all around.

Gateway to the Peaks, Buxton was hugely expanded during the reign of George III as the fifth Duke of Devonshire sought to create a fashionable spa town attracting thousands to sample the health-giving properties of its water. But tourists had been coming to the town since the 14th century and today it’s one of the most popular visitor destinations in the Peaks. It’s hard to beat as a base for the range of outdoor activities in the National Park. Within an hour’s drive of Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Stoke, it provides a vibrant backdrop to an array of art, music, theatre and festivals.

“One of Buxton’s biggest advantages, as we discovered, is its compactness, with virtually all its landmarks within walking distance”

There's also a wealth of independent and high street shopping, and a constantly expanding range of cafes, bars and restaurants, serving visitors and the 20,000-plus locals.

One of Buxton's biggest advantages, as we discovered, is its compactness, with virtually all its landmarks within walking distance.

Located on the River Wye, Buxton has an eventful history spanning well over a millennium and arguably stretching back 360 million years – from the Romans, Normans and Tudors to the Georgians, Victorians, and the two world wars.

At more than 1000ft above sea level, it is said to have the highest market-place in England.

The healing properties of its famous spa waters have been a major draw for visitors over the centuries, a trend that was further boosted by the arrival of the railway in 1863.

Janette Sykes, spokesperson for Marketing Peak District and Derbyshire, said the town was perfectly placed for access from major population centres in the North and Midlands.

Located near the heart of a Norman royal hunting forest, Buxton was once the playground of kings.

The historic Old Hall Hotel, where we ate, dates back to 1573 when the captive Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in the Tudor tower to ‘take the water cure’. In 1636, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes named the ‘Seven Wonders of the Peak’, two of which are in Buxton, St Ann’s Well and Poole’s Cavern – the town’s famous limestone ‘show cave’.

Buxton’s world-class architecture doesn’t just include the Grade I listed Crescent (later this year Choice will be reporting on its £70m restoration as a five-star hotel and spa complex). Europe’s largest unsupported dome – the Devonshire Dome, now part of the University of Derby – was added to the Great Stables in 1880 and the opulent Opera House was opened in 1903, the work of famous theatre designer Frank Matcham. One of the country’s finest provincial theatres, it presents an everchanging programme of music, drama, comedy and dance.

These and other places of interest are on the Heritage Trail in the free town guide, or visitors can take a guided tour on the Victorian-style ‘Wonder of the Peak’ tram. Guides in character lead the Discover Buxton tours.

The town’s swathes of green space include the ornamental Pavilion Gardens, Buxton Country Park and several other parks and woodlands.

Landscaped in 1871, the 23 acres of the Green Flag-awarded Pavilion Gardens make up a significant part of the Victorian splendour of Buxton.

The main Pavilion building is a natural base for tourists coming to the town and the Pavilion Gift Boutique incorporates the Tourist Information Centre and the Gallery in the Gardens, home of the High Peak Artists.

As well as extensive conference and exhibition facilities, there is a restaurant, café and Buxton Swimming and Fitness Centre.

The gardens were set out in 1871 by Edward Milner, a pupil of Sir Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame), and include lakes, flower beds and shaded walks. For the grandchildren, there’s an extensive play-park, adventure playground, outdoor gym equipment and a lovely miniature railway.

Getting arty...

Art, music and festivals feature throughout the year in Buxton.

The Buxton International Festival attracts stars from the worlds of music, opera and books every summer. This year it celebrates its 40th anniversary, running from July 5 to July 21. For the box office, tel: 01298 72190, website: (

Live music events also include the Buxton Military Tattoo at the Devonshire Dome and bands on the ornate bandstand in Pavilion Gardens.

Theatre and film are well represented at the Opera House and Pavilion Arts Centre, while the work of local artists is showcased at the Green Man Gallery. The 360-seat cinema at the Pavilion Arts Centre brings the latest blockbusters and arthouse films to Buxton at a fraction of the cost of the standard multiplex.

At the other end of the Pavilion complex from the Opera House, Buxton’s Octagon Hall – one of the High Peak’s most recognisable buildings – reopened in the autumn after a £3m upgrade as a versatile events venue.

High Peak Borough Council has invested in the Grade-II listed building to secure the future of the complex, which plays a central role in supporting economic development and regeneration in the area.

The hall had to be closed to the public when remote camera surveys showed major potential safety problems in the roof, partly caused by poor-quality repairs in the Fifties.

Since then the council has commissioned a wide-ranging programme of works, including significant structural repairs to the distinctive Octagon dome and replacement of the floor and the supporting sub-structure, as well as upgrades to the mechanical and electrical plant.

The project team has also returned the interior and exterior of the Pavilion Gardens complex to the original colour scheme, which was identified following painstaking research into paint chippings taken from fixtures and fittings.

Tony Kemp, executive councillor for regeneration and tourism, said: “This has been a major project to repair and invest in one of the High Peak’s most important heritage buildings and visitor attractions, and it hasn’t been without challenges.”

Another important part of the town’s heritage is the refurbished Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, which since 1928 has occupied part of the former Peak Hydropathic Hotel. It provides a modern and cleverly curated insight into the geology, archaeology, art and history of the Peak District over the past 360 million years.

Amazing architecture

An astonishing architectural achievement dominating the Buxton skyline, the Devonshire Dome is Europe’s largest unsupported dome. Its 145ft-diameter, 44-column colonnade holds up the 560-ton roof – bigger even than St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s and the Pantheon in Rome. I’ve visited all three, but entering the Derbyshire dome is an awe-inspiring experience.

"At more than 1000ft above sea level, it is said to have the highest market-place in England"

Beware, though, of indiscreet whispering: at a point in the dead-centre of the building – marked by a large star on the floor – its amazing acoustics mean you can hear every word of a private conversation reverberating around the dome.

Built in the late 18th century as the Great Stables by the fifth Duke of Devonshire, and now Grade II* listed, it provided facilities for up to 120 horses and accommodation for the servants and ostlers accompanying visitors who were staying in The Crescent.

Nearly a century after its construction, the building was converted to eventually become the Devonshire Royal Hospital. In 2001 Derby University acquired the building and the Dome is now a campus for both the university and Buxton College, but it’s open to visitors all year round. The award-winning Devonshire Spa offers a range of spa and beauty packages.

"The healing properties of its famous spa waters have been a major draw for visitors over the centuries, a trend that was further boosted by the arrival of the railway in 1863”

Nearby is the imposing Palace Hotel, completed in 1868, one of several grand hotels built for affluent visitors.

Buxton’s greatest architectural glory, the Grade I listed Crescent, which is due to reopen in the autumn, was built between 1779 and 1789, to the design of John Carr of York. It was the centrepiece of the Duke of Devonshire’s plans to challenge Bath as a spa of national importance.

Opposite The Crescent is the Pump Room, which is being refurbished as a visitor experience and information centre.

For a great view of the Crescent, walk up The Slopes, a hillside park dating from 1818, with the Town Hall of 1889 at the top.

You can visit St Ann’s Well near The Crescent to fill your bottle for free with the famous Buxton Water (it’s surprisingly warm).

Just off Bath Road is St Anne’s Church, dating from 1625, while St John’s Church was designed in 1811 in a neo-classical ‘Tuscan’ style.

Other sights worth seeing include the fantastic fan window at Buxton railway station – once one of a pair – and the still-in-use Victorian Penfold letterbox opposite the Opera House.

Shopping in Buxton

Independent and high street shopping is supplemented by a year-round programme of fairs and markets.

For speciality shopping, the Cavendish Arcade has more than 15 high-end independent retailers trading from the restored Grade II listed neo-classical former thermal baths, opened around 1820 and rebuilt in 1852/53.

The interior still has most of the original Minton tiling, and it’s topped off by a striking barrel-vaulted stained-glass ceiling designed in 1985 by the internationally renowned painter and artist Brian Clarke. At the time it was the largest single stained-glass window in the British Isles. (Try the marvellous scones and cakes in Upstairs at Charlotte’s, beneath the ceiling.)

The baths were closed in 1963 and fell into disrepair but in 1985 they were converted into the shopping arcade in a major refurbishment.

Still in place is the original device used to ‘dip’ more infirm visitors in the thermal pool – the primitive-looking equipment comprises a chair suspended somewhat precariously from a hoist.

Just up the hill, Higher Buxton provides a traditional shopping experience, with a market in the Square every Tuesday and Saturday. Independent retailers include a children’s shoe shop, specialist music stores, butchers and a deli.

For bibliophiles, Scrivener’s secondhand and antiquarian book shop and bookbinder’s in the High Street is a treasure trove of some 40,000 books spread over five floors. The armchairs situated on each floor provide welcome relief after trekking up the stairs of the Victorian building, and you can make your own cup of tea or coffee.

The cellar houses the old kitchen range and a tiny Victorian museum, and on the ground floor you can even watch the bookbinder at work restoring venerable volumes.

A few minutes’ drive out of town is another book emporium, the High Peak book store and café, which provides 5000 square feet of book-buying opportunities and an excellent coffee shop. It opened in 2000 in a former garage in Ashbourne Road, and it now serves light meals at lunchtime.

In the High Street is a traditional Victorian pharmacy, Clowes and Son Ltd, with an alchemical-looking array of pots and jars. Also worth visiting is Potters in Terrace Road, which combines the look of an old-fashioned Grace Brothers-style department store with a more modern feel.

A variety of markets and fairs takes place throughout the year, including antiques, collectors and book fairs, and there’s a farmers’ market every month in the Pavilion Gardens.

Bird's-eye view of Buxton

For the finest view of the town, head up Grin Low hill to Solomon’s Temple in Buxton Country Park, more than 1400ft above sea level, a Victorian folly built on the site of a Neolithic burial mound. Three walking routes converge on the viewing point.

The lime-burning industry once dominated this landscape but after years of natural recovery, aided by local farming practices and a county council reclamation scheme, it is now being managed as a country park. The 100-acre wood was planted by the sixth Duke of Devonshire around 1820 to hide the eyesore created by the lime-burning and quarrying.

Two new sculptures created by Sheffield artist Lorraine Botterill with help from pupils of Burbage Primary School celebrate the area’s industrial heritage.Nearby is Poole’s Cavern,the first ‘Wonder of the Peak’, Renowned as one of the of the finest show caves in England, it boasts weird and wondrous rock formations, sculpted by water over millions of years.

Visitors over the centuries – reputedly including Mary, Queen of Scots – have explored the great carboniferous limestone cavern, and people have been coming ever since. Visitor numbers have shown a substantial increase despite the national climate of austerity.

The vast stalactite and stalagmite formations are regarded as the finest in the Peak District.

"An Astonishing architectural achievement dominating the Buxton skyline, the Devonshire Dome is Europe's largest unsupported dome"

Evidence of prehistoric life from the Neolithic and early Bronze ages has been found. Romano-British finds also point to this area being farmed and populated, and the cavern seems to have been the centre for bronze work in the area.

The cavern has an ultra-modern LED lighting system highlighting the delicate crystal formations and creating a wonderful effect when the 300-metre main chamber is fully illuminated. The lights are turned off at the end of the tour so visitors can experience total darkness.

Its modern visitors’ centre and café are set at the foot of Buxton Country Park and Grin Low.

Poole’s Cavern, Green Lane, Buxton SK17 9DH, tel: 01298 26978, website: (

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