Up hill, down dale

From prehistory to the present day, Paul Kirkwood and family discover the county’s attractions both outdoors and in.

Not that you’d know it, but where we are standing is wall to wall fossilised hyena poo. Welcome to Derbyshire and more specifically Creswell Crags, where our guide is describing the evidence that animals more usually associated with Africa once lived here. When Britain was connected to mainland Europe, the Crags were home to a diversity of fearsome wildlife that today in the UK you would only find in a safari park. Around 70,000 years ago there were bison, hyenas, rhinos, reindeer, wolves and bears and, in the previous epoch, lions and hippos too.

Opened three years ago as part of an impressive visitors centre, the museum at the Crags includes a fascinating range of artefacts including fish scales left over after a bear’s meal and the pitted shard of bison bone which had been partially digested by a hyena. You can also see the oldest colour drawing in Britain, dating back around 12,500 years and depicting a horse’s head, etched on bone.

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Congregating at the stuffed hyena (there’s no getting away from them here) for the excellent tour of Robin Hood Cave, our guide tells us about the original archaeology of the area and how the Victorians had a penchant for fanciful cave names. Mother Grundy’s Parlour, for instance, is named after a witch in Creswell village. He also explains how man chose to live in caves on the northern side of the gorge – now filled by a lake – because it was two degrees warmer than the opposite side.

The slogan of the crags is that they’ve been “inspiring visitors for over 50,000 years” and the following day we headed to a beauty spot in the Peak District that seemed to have attracted a similar number of visitors.

There was almost a need for traffic lights on the stepping stones at Dovedale polished by boots to a sheen over the centuries, but a walk through the area rewards with a succession of freakish geological wonders, from towering outcrops of rock to caves and an arch.

When we visited, the National Trust had displayed 24 reproductions of old pictures and lithographs at the points from which they were created together with lyrical verse and descriptions of the dale. One story told how in 1761 Dean Langton attempted to ride to the top of one of the slopes near Reynard’s Cave with a young lady seated behind him. Near the summit the horse slipped and rolled down, killing the dean and injuring his companion whose life was saved by being caught by her hair in a thorn bush. Sounds painful. The slope is, indeed, precipitous as my son and I discovered on a little sortie.

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We had a pitstop in the village then 
left the masses for a while to walk along Hill Dale to re-enter Dovedale via its north-western arm. I couldn’t resist scaling Thorp Cloud, a volcano-shaped hill.

On arrival back at our hotel, Breadsall Priory near Derby, a swim, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room session was most definitely in order. Once owned by the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the hotel is a modernised and extended 16th-century stone building constructed on the site of a 13th-century priory. Today it boasts a major golf course.

On a previous stay we swam with Ronnie O’Sullivan and family. Our brush with celebrity this time was limited to sharing the some of the facilities with Burnley FC who played at Derby the following day.

No match for us, instead we headed to Chatsworth. The Devonshires run their property with a commercial zeal, which I suppose they must, given the vast upkeep costs.

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However, there’s masses to see and 
do. We spent half-an-hour in the adventure playground but regretted 
it, purely because the gardens are a 
sort of adventure playground in themselves.

Everyone loves the cascade, which reminded us of Alnwick Garden in Northumberland. The children insisted on paddling up the steps in the water to the folly at the top then down again three times. The rock garden was the highlight of the visit for me and great fun to explore on winding paths.

You can only admire the imagination, ingenuity and industry of the gardens’ creator, Joseph Paxton, in the early 19th-century.

He also built a giant conservatory which was once heated by the burning of 300 tonnes of coal per winter supplied by rail and a tunnel. The foundation walls of the conservatory now frame a hedge maze – and so we switched again from a history lesson to good, old fashioned family fun, two features that had characterised all elements of our long weekend.

Getting there

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Creswell Crags museum and visitor centre is open daily, March to September, 10am-5pm; October to February, 10am-4pm; November to January, Saturday and Sundays only. www.creswell_crags.org.uk

Chatsworth farmyard reopens for half-term from February 16 to 24. The house and grounds will be reopen from March 10. 01246 565300, www.chatsworth.org

Breadsall Priory is part of the Marriott chain of hotels and to book visit www.marriott.co.uk

For more details about accommodation and events visit www.visitpeakdistrict.com