Peak District Experiences | Getting Under The Skin Of Our National Parks In New Ways

Daniel Wildey sets out to reconnect with the Peak District's landscape from down below and up above

I donned my overalls and helmet, switched on my head torch, and acquired my pick axe. I was about to descend into the depths of the Peak District National Park. Whilst they say ‘leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos’ there are a handful of magical exceptions, and I was hoping to leave with an ornamental memento, cut and polished to perfection.

I’d wanted to get under the skin of the Peak District. I hadn’t expected it to happen so literally. We’re all faced with somewhat shortened horizons this year but, as distant destinations become ever-more remote, the possibility of finding new ways to experience familiar places begins to take on a certain allure. Such as mining your own specimens of Blue John stone and turning them into jewellery and ornaments under the tutelage of master craftsmen.

“I’d wanted to get under the skin of the Peak District. I hadn’t expected it to happen so literally”

Timely then, that National Parks UK is offering dozens of hands-on, behind-the-curtain, experiences available through Combine these with your usual favourite hikes or bike routes through the finest English countryside, and you have all the ingredients for a real deep-dive holiday that can reveal some genuine insight into the places we think we know so well.

What better way to get intimate with a place than by scuttling around its very bedrock and coming up with a shiny piece. Treak Cliff Hill, just above Castleton and with sweeping views of the Hope Valley is the only place in the world where Blue John stone can be found. Treak Cliff Cavern has been owned and mined by the same two families for generations, and one of the Turner family is working a lathe when we arrive, delicately turning what was once a hefty chunk of stone into a translucent chalice.

Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey

In the mid-18th century Treak Cliff was mined for lead, and no records were kept of the amount of Blue John taken out. But it was no doubt discovered as a by-product of lead mining, and by the late-18th century was in high demand among the monied classes and pieces were even commissioned for royalty. Today, under various protective restrictions, only small pieces are mined, and largely for jewellery, but discoveries of new veins continue from time to time.

The entrance to the mine is a door within the gift shop dressed in a ‘Police Box’ façade, to emphasise the threshold of another world. My companion for the day was a Welsh friend, and I’m a proud Yorkshireman, so we carried the weight of mining heritage with us through that portal.

“We carried the weight of mining heritage with us through that portal”

Within minutes though I’d liberated the largest and purest specimen of the day while the representative of Wales scrabbled around in the purple chippings that cover the cave floor. For Yorkshire.

I doubt it was my heritage, but I did find the mining pleasantly easy. The idea that picks must be swung with the relentless effort of Sisyphus to make the merest dent in the rock does not apply to Blue John; delicate tapping results in obvious progress and the volume of blue-purple shards littering the floor is evidence of abundant success for others. And this is key to the whole experience – the satisfaction of coming away with a specimen is not in the least diminished by a lack of toil.

Credit: Daniel Wildey

But the real satisfaction comes from the next steps; getting to grips with various machinery, rock saws, sanding and polishing equipment and any conceivable way to reduce the rock in ever finer ways until the gnarly bit of ground that you have hewn from the earth becomes something as vibrant and luminous as a kaleidoscope and as smooth as marble.

In addition to your own specimen, you’re provided with a smaller piece, prepared in advance with pine resin, and ready to be shaped and polished into a pendant. Later that evening it hung around my girlfriend’s neck reflecting the fairylights in the beer garden of the Bull’s Head in Ashford-in-the-Water and I guarantee nobody in that genteel place had a clue I’d just crawled out of the pit.

“I guarantee nobody in that genteel place had a clue I’d just crawled out of the pit”

Ashford is quite possibly the prettiest village in the Peak District, and our rented cottage was another throwback to a time of shorter human stature. If I’d kept the mining helmet it would have seen more use in the tiny doll’s house accommodation. Whilst it might be a chore to live in such a pint-sized building, the short-term holiday charm is off the charts. As with all such places, the elevated levels of twee are perfectly acceptable (even down to the drinking glasses sporting pictures of bunnies eating doughnuts) when set alongside original features such as enormous stone lintels above the windows.

Ashford also provides close proximity to Bakewell without being caught up among the weekend hordes, which is perfect for an early morning call to pick up lunch before a day on the hill. The Lambton Larder is a forward-thinking deli among a sea of tea rooms, and serves the best coffee and pastries in the Peak as well as sandwich choices beyond the usual; ideal to set you up for a day in the most remote reaches of the National Park, among the stretches of peat on Bleaklow.

Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey

Paul Smith from My Guided Walks has devised several hike itineraries that take in an extensive, but little-known aspect of Peak District history; its many aeroplane crash sites. I met up with Paul at the summit of the famous Snake Pass section of the A57 between the equally barren-looking plateaux of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow – the Peak District’s two highest points.

“One of two aircraft to have documented the atom bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll – chances are any mushroom cloud footage you’ve seen was shot from this plane”

We’re heading north along a stretch of the Pennine Way to find the wreckage of a B-29 Superfortress known as ‘Overexposed’ which crashed on Bleaklow in 1948 killing all on board. The site is one of many in the Peak District, but is remarkable for several reasons, not least the sheer quantity of identifiable wreckage. Also, for the history of the aircraft itself; the development of the B-29 was the single most expensive military project of all time, and the technology resulted in various aeronautic advancements such as the pressurised cabin. But ‘Overexposed’ also carries infamy, being one of two aircraft to have documented the atom bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll – chances are any mushroom cloud footage you’ve seen was shot from this plane.

Credit: Daniel Wildey

The setting is entirely apt; despite being a beautiful cloudless day, the plateau does feel a lonely and desolate place. Along with Kinder it is famously difficult to navigate, especially when the frequent and unpredictable fog descends. Without modern positioning equipment, it’s all too easy to envisage how the pilot could have started his descent too soon, and simply flown into the hillside.

For budding investigators, there is fascinating evidence at the site, particularly in relation to the mechanics of the accident. The timeline of the impact can still be seen in the distribution of the parts, with tail fragments first to come to a halt, landing gear central, and the engines – the heaviest parts – thrown furthest forward, and still at rest in pairs; two from each wing.

Credit: Daniel Wildey

The site has seen a curious increase in popularity during lockdown, and an attendant increase in mountain rescue callouts (given the navigation challenges already mentioned). Maybe it’s the twisted aesthetics of the wreckage itself, or maybe it’s the sense of remoteness. We take our home mountains for granted – they are tamed by familiarity, and a reminder of their power is a humbling experience.

“We take our home mountains for granted – they are tamed by familiarity… a reminder of their power is a humbling experience”

Before we get too maudlin, a pair of giant ears and a twitching nose ambles unceremoniously across the scene. Paul’s company – My Guided Walks – offers two trips within the Experience collection and as they both take place on Bleaklow we had planned to combine them. However, Paul admitted he’d never seen them converge quite so directly.

Credit: Daniel Wildey

Mountain Hares – once widespread – now exist in only one part of England: Bleaklow (although normally not this close to the crash site). By coincidence it was Earth Day, and to spend it stalking and photographing one of our endangered mammals was an absolute honour.

Not that stalking seemed necessary to begin with. After the first hare showed itself, our eyes became attuned to many more, popping up and vanishing just as quickly, or scurrying away in the distance. Many seemed to be paired up, and there was a great variety of colours as some had transitioned to summer coats more completely than others.

“People think this area is barren… but it’s actually full of life”

They had succeeded entirely in drawing our attention away from the crash site and onto more vital matters, so we began a long hike over the summit of Bleaklow towards an intricate maze of meandering valleys among the peat; the hares’ more usual territory.

“People think this area is barren” said Paul “but it’s actually full of life” and as he pointed out Devil’s Matchstick fungus and varieties of Sphagnum moss along the walk, all punctuated with fleeting hare sightings and constant calls of meadow pipits, plovers, grouse, curlew and even a wheater, I realised ‘Bleaklow’ is not as apt a name as it first appears. In fact, the area is quite a success story for the Moors for the Future project which aims to restore the peatlands and their carbon-storage capacity. Reviewing old photos of the crash site – which show a scoured, blackened landscape – show just how much progress has been made in bringing life back here.

Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey

After a few miles hiking, stalking and creeping we were coming up short as far as hares were concerned. It’s not that we didn’t spot any, but that they seemed particularly on edge and we couldn’t get near them. Paul’s theory is that the recent dry weather had meant a lot of the population had moved further afield to find water, and that it had made the ground much noisier for us to tread on – therefore alerting the hares all the sooner.

“These are the things that make for more meaningful travel”

None of this diminished the fun of the chase and the fieldcraft; focussing on where to tread, moving slowly and following the contours to try and remain hidden, all contribute to revealing another layer of the landscape we think we know so well.

These are the things that make for more meaningful travel; deeper understanding, slower pace, a focus on what is unique to a destination. Demand for this hands-on approach was overtaking the passive, sightseeing tour even before the pandemic, but it seems even more appealing now. This offering from the National Parks is a great place to start your search.

Credit: Daniel Wildey
Credit: Daniel Wildey

Do It Yourself

Daniel was hosted by both Treak Cliff Caverns and My Guided Walks as part of the National Park Experiences.

The collection includes over 75 day and half-day experiences in 9 of England’s National Parks, all accessible through a single booking platform at

Other experiences include A Taste of Norfolk Sailing in the Broads, learning to sail a classic 100-year-old Norfolk Half Decker yacht; Bait to Plate Fly Fishing and Cold Smoking in the South Downs in which you’ll learn to catch, prepare and smoke your own trout; and a wide-ranging selection of other activities across England.

Daniel’s accommodation was provided by Peak Cottages at The Cotton Reel and meals were provided by The Lambton Larder, the Packhorse Inn and the Bulls Head.


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