Paul Ashford Harris

A Visit to the Peak District

If you are visiting London and have seen the House of Commons, shopped at Harrods, strolled in Hyde Park, and eaten at one of the famous and suitably expensive gastro pubs, it may be time to venture a bit further north. Two hours and a bit on a train from Euston will find you in Manchester. About 30 miles from Manchester you will then find the Peak District National Park, Britain’s oldest National Park. “Travelling north into the Park the road ascends to the limestone plateau where hedges and fields give way to dry-stone walls and deeply incised, verdant river valleys and dales. Continue to The Edges, high grit-stone moorland which sits in an arc across the top of the limestone. This is Dark Peak, a wild and barren landscape punctuated by weathered tors towering over heather moorland, a place of powerful stark beauty.” So the Guide book says, and quite right too.

If you are a devotee of Pride & Prejudice this will be your world. This is Jane Austen country. Further, if you are beguiled by English Country Houses you will not wish to miss Chatsworth House, the traditional home of sixteen generations of Devonshires. It is a truly magnificent structure, matched by a marvellous and expansive garden, and redolent of all the grandeur that the British Empire commanded at the peak of its power.

However, if perhaps you march to the beat of a different drum, you will not want to overlook the town of Bakewell, just a few miles down the road from Chatsworth and providing entertainment on altogether a different scale.

It was a fine Monday morning in May when we opened the curtains in our Bakewell hotel bedroom. The room happily commanded an excellent view of the town’s major roundabout, at that moment the subject of a pretty decent traffic jam. Fortunately the English behave with exemplary discipline when confronted by this sort of inconvenience and so the cars waited patiently until it was their turn to enter the circle. Hardly a horn was heard. But what was the fuss about? Why were so many people irresistibly drawn to the tiny town of Bakewell? Now Bakewell is of course the home of the Bakewell Tart , not some flirtatious northern floosie, but  a confection made of short crust pastry with a layer of jam and sponge filling with almonds and not at all to be confused with the larger and more robust Bakewell Pudding. Safe to say either of these confections will cause your average healthy food enthusiast to palpitate. But neither the lure of the Tart or the Pudding could have been enough on their own to have attracted this crowd.

It was as I said Monday, and Monday it soon transpired, is the day of the Bakewell Market, an event which, according to the guide, traces itself back to 1254. A market that has had over 750 years to evolve has to be worth a visit. We dressed quickly and breakfasted on grilled herrings accompanied by toast and marmalade with English breakfast tea. Once outside at the roundabout, it took only a moment to locate the town square and to find the famous market in full swing. There we found ourselves surrounded by stalls selling food of all kinds; jams, fruit, cakes, homemade wine, plus inexpensive clothing for the youngest and the oldest, all of whom were present; there were butchers, bakers and candle stick makers; the purveyors of all the needs of everyday life were crowded into the square.

Two sights were particularly arresting. The first was a three piece Nepalese Band sandwiched in a cordoned off street between the Fish and Chip shop and, the Bakewell Pudding Factory, or “Pudding Parlour and Shop” to be exact; “Pudding Parlour,” what an excellent concept. Standing in the lane, their jeans and denim shirts embellished with a few Nepalese bits and pieces, the Nepalese boys put their hearts into their combo of banjo, clarinet and tambourine. They leapt about singing whilst simultaneously strumming, blowing and rattling. A small crowd watched unmoved. I clapped enthusiastically and stood forward to put my pound in the Banjo case to see it was joining just a desultory few coins; so much enthusiasm and effort for such a little reward. Surely the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, the mysterious bazars of Kathmandu, held more appeal than this deflating battle to earn a crust.

Back in the main square I came across what appeared to be a young gypsy, tall and good looking with jet black hair swept back in the manor of Errol Flynn. He had set up strategically outside the ladies public toilet. All those who ventured in and then out would be bound to see and hear him. He was “miked up” and was enthusiastically sprucing his product, a mop. This was no ordinary mop. He had set up a bill board which boasted “Magic Mop-special offer. Only 5 pounds.” Underneath were listed its virtues; “Anti rotting, Nanometer Fibres, Water Absorbent, Super Powerful, Eurostatic Function.” The mops stood in a row, violet mop heads, silver handles sparkling in the sunshine, the latter stainless steel not plastic rubbish or so he assured us. Irresistible one would have thought. To add to the theatre his props included a bucket of water, a piece of marine ply flooring and one of the said mops. To demonstrate he threw a bucket of water on the flooring, waved the mops violet strands swiftly across it, absorbing the water in a trice, and then, with a flourish, pushed the squeezer down over the mop head to empty the water into his bucket. A smattering of applause encouraged him. All the time he kept up a stream of banter and information hardly pausing for breath. It was a bravura performance and many a lady and even a few gentlemen stopped to watch. Sadly though, not many stopped to buy and when I walked away he seemed to be negotiating a trade in with a hard faced old harridan who had brought along her tatty old mop for the “trade,” “ three quid,” I think I heard.

Perhaps he just suffered too much competition from the next stall, where an elderly gentleman in overalls seemed to be doing a steady stream of business in second hand walking sticks, zimmer frames and invalid chairs, clearly a product segment that was much more in demand in Bakewell Square on a Monday morning in spring.

If you happen to be in the area, particularly if you might be desirous of acquiring a zimmer frame or a mop, do visit Bakewell, the Peak District and Chatsworth House,  but make sure you don’t miss Bakewell.

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