Visitors arriving in Buxton for the first time from the bleak moorlands cannot be blamed for pinching themselves in some disbelief as they emerge into a town with fine parks and grand old buildings. At well over 1,000 feet above sea level Buxton is the highest town in England for its size. Close by is the highest village in England at Flash; the highest railway station at Dove Holes; the second highest public house, the Cat and Fiddle.
The market place is in Higher Buxton, the older part of the town that rests on a small limestone plateau. Lower Buxton, the newer part of the town, nestles in a river valley. The river, the Wye, does the disappearing trick, being culverted under the town centre before emerging on the far side. Essentially Buxton is a northern town at the southern end of the Pennine Chain, but county boundaries place it in the midlands.
The main reason why Buxton has grown to its present size is due to the thermal springs it stands on, from where the water rises at a constant temperature of 82 F (28 C). According to the findings of a British Geological survey the water that emerges fell as rain over five thousand years ago. On its way to the surface the water filters through a bed of ancient limestone finally reaching the light of day totally pure and crystal clear.
Given a more equable climate Buxton might well have rivalled Bath as the most prominent spa town in England. Even in these days when snow clearance is so much more sophisticated, we often hear of major roads leading to Buxton being blocked. It is not just during winter that the town has been in the news for falls of snow. On the 2 June 1975 snow prevented play in the county cricket match between Derbyshire and Lancashire at Buxton! But the harshness of the winter must not be over emphasised, as the climate is now getting milder. Whatever the problems created by the climate it has not stopped Buxton becoming one of the leading inland resorts in England, well worthy of a visit at any time of the year.
There is evidence of pre-historic settlers in the caves round Buxton, but it is the Romans who created the first real impact on the area. Precisely when they settled in Buxton is uncertain, but it was around AD78 when forts were established nearby at Navio and Melandra. Attracted by the warm springs they built a bath on about the same site on which St Ann’s Hotel now stands. The bath measured thirty by fifteen feet with a spring of warm water on the western side. Appropriately the Romans called the settlement Aquae Arnemetiae, which means the spa of the goddess of the grove.
That this was an important settlement is obvious, judging by the number of roads that radiate out of it in all directions. An old Roman milestone was discovered at Silverlands in 1862 and can be seen in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. It shows the mileage to Navio, the Roman fort at Brough. The Romans remained at Buxton in continuous occupation until early in the fifth century when they withdrew from Britain.
After the Romans left, little importance appears to have been placed on Buxton. A small shrine was built in about 1200 and dedicated to St Anne, the patron saint of cripples. People came in the hope that the waters would cure them, but Henry VIII put an end to such ‘idolatry and superstition’ and had the baths and wells locked up and sealed. They were re-opened in Elizabeth I’s reign and attracted royal patronage in the form of Mary, Queen of Scots.
On the re-opening of the wells the infirm resumed their pilgrimages and the captive Mary, Queen of Scots hoping to cure, or at least, alleviate the pain from her rheumatic ridden body managed to persuade Queen Elizabeth I to allow her to visit. She spent many months captive in the Peak under the watchful eye of the Earl of Shrewsbury and between 1570 and 1584 she was allowed to visit Buxton on several occasions for further treatment.
Elizabeth was always anxious when Mary was in Buxton, thinking she might be plotting to escape over the barren moors and raise forces to overthrow her. She sort reassurances from the Earl that strangers who could not be trusted were not allowed in her company. On the final occasion Mary visited the Old Hall at Buxton, now the Old Hall Hotel, she wrote on a pane of glass with a diamond the following words ‘Buxton, whose fame thy milkwarm waters tell, whom I perhaps shall see no more, farewell’. Her words turned out to be prophetic, as she became involved in a plot with Anthony Babington of Dethick to overthrow the Queen and to put her on the throne. The letters were intercepted and when Mary wrote approving the plan and the assassination of the Queen, she as good as signed her own death warrant and was executed in 1587. Shortly before this, Babington and his co-conspirators had been put to death.
It was in the 1780s that Buxton really came to prominence as a spa. The fifth Duke of Devonshire using the profits he had made from his copper mines at Ecton in the Manifold Valley, embarked on a costly campaign to attract and accommodate more visitors in what was then only a tiny Peakland village.
The Duke employed the eminent, northern architect, John Carr, to build the Crescent modelled on the Royal Crescent at Bath. It provided hotel accommodation, a house for the Duke, card and billiard rooms, and elegant Assembly Rooms approached by a distinctive curved staircase. The arcades were used for shopping.
On the northern side where the thermal baths were located, the seat used to lower people into the bath can still be seen. The Pump Room opposite the Crescent was where visitors used to sit drinking the waters. At the rear the drinking fountain is very popular and people can often be seen filling plastic containers to take away.
The Slopes, laid in a series of graded paths, were originally intended for exercise for those people coming to the spa for treatment. From the top they provide an excellent view of the Crescent and the buildings beyond that should not be missed.
The Great Stables, until recently the Devonshire Royal Hospital, are quite remarkable. Erected on slightly higher ground to the rear of the Crescent, they housed horses and their grooms. The two storey octagonal building was arranged round a circular exercise yard with the perimeter colonnaded to give a covered ride in bad weather. In 1859, it was converted into the Devonshire Royal Hospital; the central exercise yard was covered by what, at the time, was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The University of Derby now occupies the premises.
Buxton Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham in grand Edwardian style, was completed in 1905, but just over twenty years later it was converted into a cinema. Following a period when it had fallen into disuse, it was lovingly restored in 1979, and re-opened as an opera house. In the same year the Buxton International Festival of Music and Arts was born, which has developed into one of this country’s largest opera-based festivals. At the side of the Opera House is the Conservatory, housing native and tropical plants. The Pavilion was built and the Gardens laid out in 1871, along the banks of the River Wye where you can relax or even join the children on a ride on a miniature train. The river goes underground beneath the Crescent, and re-emerges in attractive Ashwood Dale Gardens at the far end of Spring Gardens.
The Midland Railway from Derby arrived in 1863 and the London and North Western Railway from Manchester one year later, both running side by side into identical stations. In order to help house the many additional tourists and would be patients seeking treatment, more hotels and guest houses were built, including the imposing Palace Hotel close by the railway station.
The town possesses a good selection of hotels and guesthouses and a wide range of café’s and restaurants; many of the shops are pleasingly individualistic in character. Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is a past winner of a best archaeological museum of the year award. Buxton holds a carnival during well dressing week in mid-July.
Poole’s Cavern on the southwestern outskirts of the town, open from March to the end of October, is a large natural cave once used by the Romans and pre-historic man. Above, is Grin Low Country Park, where rare species of wild plants, including field orchids can be found, which resulted in it being awarded a Site of Special Scientific Interest Status. At the top of the hill, Solomon’s Temple was built in 1896 by Solomon Mycock to give work to some of the unemployed in Buxton. The Victorian folly stands on the site of a Bronze Age burial mound.
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PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
Poole’s Cavern: (Tel. 01298 26978) guided tours are provided of the limestone cavern, famous for its stalactites and stalagmites.
Ancient remains show the Romans worshipped here. Large car park, toilets, shop and drinks facilities available. For further information website: www.poolescavern.co.uk
Buxton Museum and Art Gallery: (Tel. 01298 24658) award winning ‘Wonders of the Peak’ gallery. Programme of temporary exhibitions and displays. Well stocked shop. Open all year Tuesday to Saturday and Bank Holidays. Telephone for further information.
Buxton Opera House: (Tel. 0845 12 72190) designed by Frank Matcham in grand Edwardian style, was completed in 1905. Following a period when it had fallen into disuse, it was lovingly restored in 1979, and re-opened as an opera house. In the same year the Buxton International Festival of Music and Arts was born, which has developed into one of this country’s largest opera-based festivals
The Old Sun Inn (Tel. 01298 23452) is full of character and dates back to the 16th century, the lettering over the archway at the side of the pub proclaiming ‘good stabling’.
Guinness was once bottled here under licence and some of the original bottles still remain on view.
It is situated about 60 yards east of the market place in higher Buxton. Meals served lunchtime and evenings during the week and all day at the weekend.
Hargreaves China and Coffee Shop (Tel. 01298 23083) one of the longest established china shops in the country with an Edwardian style café on the first floor. Open Monday to Saturday every week.
DERBYSHIRE AND THE PEAK DISTRICT GUIDE
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From Buxton Country Park the walk soon climbs up to the moors and as Stanley Moor is approached there are good views over Axe Edge and from the best vantage points at the top of the climb Kinder Scout can be seen in the distance. Although you pass close to Stanley Moor Reservoir little can be seen of it other than the well grassed dam wall that surrounds it.
Man’s association with Grin Low goes back over five thousand years but it was lime burning and quarrying that scarred the landscape so grievously. Extensive reclamation work in recent years has transformed the area into attractive countryside once more and is now used for leisure pursuits. It has been designated as an area as Special Scientific Interest.
The effort in climbing up to Solomon’s Temple is well rewarded on a clear day with magnificent views over Buxton. Poole’s Cavern was awarded ‘First wonder of the Peak’ status by Charles Cotton in his book written in 1680. It is a natural cave and provided the home for a thief and robber named ‘Poole’ in the 1400’s. The source of the river Wye it is well worth a visit along with Buxton itself.
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