The town of Bakewell, Derbyshire

Mike Smith discovers the delights of one of Derbyshire's most attractive and visitor-friendly towns

Travellers approaching Bakewell along the A619 enjoy a delightful first view of the town. The road runs alongside broad meadows on the east bank of the River Wye, which is bordered on its west side by a long terrace of cottages with an irregular arrangement of gabled projections. After twisting sharply to the right, the road is brought into the old market town over a fourteenth-century bridge. Immediately beyond the flood plain, there is a steep hillside that is covered with ancient buildings and surmounted by a tall church with a fine octagonal spire.

Not surprisingly, Bakewell developed into a major tourist destination during the last century. As a result, its streets became increasingly congested, not least on cattle market days, when visitors’ cars were joined by farm vehicles converging on the town from all parts of the Peak District. In recent years, visitors have been encouraged to leave their cars in a large car park that has been provided on the east bank of the river and then walk into the town over a new pedestrian bridge. Cattle and sheep have also been banned from the centre and re-housed in a large new building, which stands behind the visitor car park and alongside an agricultural business centre and a caf� that serves hearty breakfasts for farmers.

The modern cattle market is topped by nine roof-pods that look like Arabian tents, but are actually acoustic devices to help reduce noise emanating from the livestock market. Although this odd building is an incongruous addition to the landscape, the re-positioning of the cattle market on the east bank has not only provided much better facilities for farmers, but has also allowed the centre of the town to be re-developed in a most attractive and sensitive way. The former cattle market area and several unsightly gaps in the streetscape have been replaced by new apartments and shops, all designed in a pretty good imitation of the ‘country classical’ style.

The pedestrian bridge provides superb views of the River Wye, which is spanned by the highly photogenic fourteenth-century road bridge, whose five gothic arches are separated by diamond-shaped breakwaters. After crossing the pedestrian bridge, visitors have the choice of taking a charming riverside walk or passing through a gap between two crescent-shaped new-builds and entering the maze of streets, alleyways and arcades that make up Bakewell’s lower town.

I began my own exploration at the old Market Hall, a seventeenth-century building that has been much altered over the centuries. At one stage, the building had open arches used for trading during the weekly stall market, which is still held in the centre of the town, but it has even served as a tax office and a wash house. One of the biggest changes came in 1970, when the interior was completely re-vamped as a new information centre. Jointly run by the Peak District National Park Authority and Derbyshire Dales District Council, the centre has knowledgeable staff and a wealth of information about the district.

I was particularly intrigued by thedisplay on the mezzanine floor, where visitors are invited to be ‘landscape detectives’ by investigating a three-dimensional model of the Peak District landscape that contains lots of clues about the lives of the people who have lived there throughout history. When I expressed surprise that no one else had climbed the side stairway to this exhibit, manager Don Symonds told me that plans are afoot to build a less concealed entrance to the upper display area.

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There is certainly no shortage of visitors to the upper floor of another of the lower town’s old buildings. The first-floor restaurant of the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop is one of the town’s most popular attractions, because its extensive menu includes a very special dessert that originated by accident almost 150 years ago. Legend has it that the cook at the Rutland Arms was asked to make a pudding by spreading jam over an egg mixture stirred into a pastry case. By mistake, she poured the egg mixture on top of the jam, inadvertently creating a dessert that went down surprisingly well with the guests.

The recipe was acquired by a Mrs Wilson, who began selling the pudding from her husband’s candle shop. When the Wilsons found that their customers were waxing more lyrically about puddings than candles, they converted their shop into an exclusive outlet for ‘Bakewell Puddings’. Jemma Pheasey, who has managed the shop for the past ten years, is pleased to carry on the tradition by serving Bakewell’s unique pudding to people from all over the world, including those who take postal delivery in response to internet orders.

A very different traditional British dish is the speciality of Bakewell Fish and Chips, which has been trading from its premises on Water Street since 1978 and has been managed by Roger Taylor for the last 20 years. Roger’s determination to buy the best ingredients and maintain the highest standards, together with the friendliness and frenetic efficiency of his long-serving staff, ensures that his fish and chip shop is forever busy, with queues often stretching down the street. The staff make battered Christmas puddings for charity and they will even produce battered Mars Bars on request.

There are other fish and chip shops and even other shops selling the famous pudding in Bakewell, but all the town’s shopkeepers are unfailingly positive about their fellow traders and seemingly free of competitive rancour. Given this spirit of cooperation and the range of excellent shops, eating places and pubs, which must be unrivalled in a town of Bakewell’s size, it seemed invidious to pick out particular outlets but, as a confirmed bibliophile and art-lover, I simply had to visit the town’s long-established bookshop and its much newer art gallery.

With so many independent bookshops closing in the face of competition from Amazon and supermarkets, it is gratifying to find one that continues to thrive. Established in 1977 by Keith and Sue How as an outlet for books on wildlife, the Bakewell Bookshop now has a collection of new books on every conceivable subject. Keith and Sue are living proof that there are exceptions to the rule that it is unwise for married couples to work together. Content in their work and in each other’s company, they are also held in high esteem by their customers. On the day of my visit, Keith was celebrating his sixtieth birthday. There was a celebration cake on the serving desk and regular customers were calling in with birthday cards. One well-wisher claimed that the bookshop was his main reason for moving to the town.

The Ridgeway Gallery was openedtwo years ago by Sarah Ridgeway, a former accountant with Rolls-Royce. With the closure of the Granby Gallery, which was well known as a showcase for Rex Preston’s paintings, Sarah saw ‘an opportunity to do something she had always wanted to do’. As well as featuring Rex’s highly regarded landscapes, she shows work by Mark and James, two other talented members of the Preston family, and paintings and ceramics by some of Derbyshire’s finest artists. The bright, white gallery space is contained within a building that was once a public house annexe to the Rutland Arms. Officially known as the Old Tavern, it is named on the deeds as the ‘Blood Tub’ because it had such an unsavoury reputation.

The Rutland Arms has always had a rather better reputation. It is not only known as the hotel where Bakewell Pudding was invented, but also as the place where Jane Austen stayed while writing Pride and Prejudice. Dismissing objections to the latter claim by the Austen Society, owner David Donegan points out that Bakewell features in the novel as ‘Lambton’ and that the hotel was an obvious base for anyone staying in the town in the coaching days. When I called in to speak with David, a colourful character and former solicitor, who has managed the 34-bedroom hotel for the last twelve years, he was playing host to a film crew from Channel Five’s The Hotel Inspector. He seemed totally unconcerned that the programme’s presenters have a brief to find fault and recommend much-needed improvements.

The Rutland Arms looks across the town’s main traffic intersection to Bath Gardens and the old Bath House, which are reminders of attempts in the early eighteenth century to make Bakewell into a spa to rival Buxton and Matlock. King Street, which rises steeply from the hotel to the parish church, has a wealth of buildings from that period, as well as some excellent specialist shops.

For almost four decades, large premises near the foot of the street were the home of Chappell’s Antiques Centre, a showcase for 30 professional dealers. When Jan Chappell retired in 2007, one of her best-known tenants, Brian Hill, took over much of the building for his own business, which trades as Bakewell Antiques and Works of Art, while sub-letting one space to Ian Thomson. Brian, who has been in the antiques trade for 37 years, spurns the use of the internet and relies on the support of clients who know that he has always sold the very best furniture, sculpture and paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that he will give good prices for anything that is authentic and worthwhile.

A triangular courtyard on the other side of the street is overlooked by the Old Town Hall, which was built in 1709 but looks much older. Since its replacement by a new administrative centre in the lower town, it has had many uses, including fire station, fishmonger’s shop and school. It is now the home of Orvis, a supplier of clothing and equipment for country pursuits. Manager Elli Dean told me that there was once a jail under the stairs to the first floor and she showed me a cabinet that covers what was once a secret entrance to the judges’ quarters in the adjacent almshouses. It came as no surprise to hear that Elli finds the premises ‘creepy after dark’.

Other beautiful old buildings, and especially the gabled Jacobean almshouses at the rear of the Old Town Hall, form a visual symphony that reaches a crescendo in the parish church, which looks down on the old town from a considerable height. Fortunately, early plans for twin west towers were not carried out, leaving the single octagonal spire, which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century, as the crowning glory of the town. The church is of ancient foundation, as evidenced by a large collection of assorted Saxon crosses, Norman carvings, early gravestones and assorted gargoyles stacked in the south porch.

The Vernon Chapel, in the south transept, has a varied collection of memorials to the Vernon and Manners families, which were merged when Dorothy Vernon eloped with John Manners from nearby Haddon Hall and fled to Leicestershire for a secret marriage. More of the town’s fascinating history can be traced in the Old House Museum, winner of the Renaissance Heritage Derbyshire Museum of the Year award in 2009. It is accommodated in the ten beamed rooms of a sixteenth-century yeoman’s house, located immediately beyond the church’s lych gate.

Our journey began with a magnificent view and would end with one. From the churchyard, there are extensive views across the town and the surrounding Derbyshire Dales. This wonderful composition in grey stone and green fields does have one discordant note in the form of those Arabian-like pods on the roof of the new cattle market, but it has to be remembered that the relocation of the cattle market to the far side of the river has enabled Bakewell’s lower town to be regenerated in the most harmonious fashion imaginable.


• Enjoy a riverside promenade – don’t forget to take your camera!

• Make the most of the superb shopping area, with specialist shops to suit every taste and interest.

• Sample Bakewell Pudding, a speciality created, like all the best inventions, by accident.

• Learn about the Peak District at the visitor centre in the seventeenth-century market hall.

• Visit the magnificent church and be sure to inspect the memorials in the Vernon Chapel and a collection of artefacts that makes the south porch look like an architectural antique shop.

• Research Bakewell’s history in the Old House Museum, accommodated in a sixteenth-century yeoman’s house.

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