Country life for city folk

Hannah Stephenson tries the pleasures of the Peak District without getting her boots dirty

For a townie attracted to the prospect of a bit of fresh air with something slightly more sophisticated, the Peak District may be the place to go. Its 555 square miles are within easy access of many major cities and make it the most visited national park in Britain, with more than 10 million coming here each year.

But aren’t they all intrepid walkers with muddy boots who like to pile into musty B&Bs to discuss their latest hikes? Apparently not. Such images paled into oblivion the moment we stepped into the Peak Edge Hotel, a new luxury boutique stopover featuring all the mod cons of city life, including stylish suites, underfloor heating, rain showers, designer fixtures and fittings, free wi-fi and cuisine that wouldn’t look out of place in any Michelin-starred restaurant.

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It’s the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Damian and Jo Dugdale and it’s attached to the successful Red Lion pub and bistro, which has proved a magnet for celebrities. Keira Knightly was a regular when she was filming Pride And Prejudice and The Duchess, a costume drama about Lady Georgiana Spencer, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, at nearby Chatsworth House.

Sir Michael Parkinson pops in from time to time and the Emmerdale cast have the occasional meal. The menu is imaginative and features seasonal and local produce, including Baslow lamb, Packington pork belly, fish from Anglesey, game from local shoots and, of course, scrumptious Bakewell tart.

If you’re a restless soul, the hotel can set up any number of activities for you. We chose cycling and were given the number of a bike hire company to ferry you and your bike back from anywhere if you tire on your journey – perfect for arriving back early for appetising aperitifs.

Cycling through the stunning landscape of Beeley Moor, famed for its grouse-shooting, the purple autumn heather forming a prickly carpet either side of us, the only other residents were the grazing sheep, apart from the odd passing car.

The seven-mile cycle ride through this beautiful part of Derbyshire took us on a journey awash with rolling hills and unspoilt countryside, along the banks of the River Derwent to Chatsworth House. The jewel in the crown of the area, the magnificent country house was recently named Large Visitor Attraction of the Year by Enjoy England.

Chatsworth is the fourth most visited historic property after the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament and Stonehenge. You can understand why. Dating back to Tudor times, it was built by Bess of Hardwick and her second of four husbands, William Cavendish. It has been in the same family for five centuries and is now home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Sadly, however, the house was never appreciated by the people it was built to impress. The first Duke went to a huge amount of effort preparing his home for a visit from William III and Queen Mary. Alas, they never went to Chatsworth so were unable to admire the towering 12ft high doorways and majestic Painted Hall, into which they would have been welcomed on their way to the State Apartment.

While the house is filled with priceless art and treasures, it also has some quirky additions that will attract visitors who prefer more contemporary styles. There’s an unusual Damian Hirst sculpture in the chapel, Allen Jones’s Carefree Man tips his hat to welcome visitors on the Great Stairs Landing and an eye-catching digital portrait of the Duke’s daughter-in-law, Laura, constantly changes colour so it never looks the same twice.

After cycling to Chatsworth, where we also took in an annual horse show, we were whisked back by car to the hotel.

The next day, our group of city slickers received an introduction to archery – one of a number of pastimes the hotel can organise, including fishing (the Dugdales owns a stretch of river nearby that’s ideal for fly fishing), duck herding, abseiling, quad biking, orienteering and clay pigeon shooting, all perfect for a team-building corporate treat. The ladies may prefer one of the many beauty treatments available in their hotel room.

Also within reach are Hardwick Hall, Bolsover Castle, Gullivers Kingdom and the Heights of Abraham in Matlock, where you can take a cable car to give you spectacular views of the Derwent Valley and surrounding Peak District. We ventured to Bakewell, 10 miles away, a quaint medieval market town, home to one of the UK’s most important agricultural markets and famous for Bakewell puddings (flaky pastry base, moist almond and jam filling, said to be the lucky result of an 18th century kitchen maid’s baking mistake). No townie should return home without one.

Leaving the Peak District, I was sure of one thing – the countryside can be a haven for urbanites with not a muddy boot in sight.

Getting there

Hannah Stephenson was a guest of The Peak Edge Hotel, near Chesterfield, where superior rooms start at £150 (two sharing), including full English or continental breakfast. Luxury suites from £300.

Reservations 01246 566 142, www.peakedgehotel.co.uk. Peak District Tourist Board 01629 816 558 or email [email protected]