Buxton – Gateway to the Peak District

The beautiful spa town of Buxton nestles in the Derbyshire hills of the East Midlands and is considered the gateway to the Peak District National Park. Set in the Goyt Valley, it is also the UK’s most elevated town at more than 1000 feet above sea level.

History of Buxton

The earliest record of human occupation in the Buxton area can be traced all the way back to 5300 BC when local archaeological digs revealed a Mesolithic dwelling in the nearby Lismore Fields. Continued settlement of the area is also evidenced by stone circles, chambered tombs and a collection of large earthworks thought to be Iron Age hill forts.

At around 78 AD the Romans developed a settlement where Buxton now stands. Upon arrival they discovered a sacred site next to a thermal spring which they named Aquae Arnemetia (Waters of Arnemetia), in deference to the eponymous Celtic Queen.

Roman Baths

But it appears that the Romans were the first to harness the therapeutic properties of the spring. In 1695 a local by the name of Cornelius White found what appeared to be the remains of a cistern which suggests that the Roman’s built a bathhouse. Although little remains, it is thought that the baths were located near Buxton’s Crescent building.

Shrine to St Ann

As well as Celtic and Roman pilgrims, Buxton’s thermal springs continued to attract worshipers during medieval times. A shrine to St. Anne was built there before the Reformation along with a chapel.

Sadly the chapel was dissolved and the shrine’s idol, thought to be a statue of St Anne, destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII. But the perceived health-giving qualities of the local springs continued to attract.

Elizabethan Ode to Buxton

During the Elizabethan times an ailing Mary Queen of Scots, while under the care of Sir George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was allowed to pay a visit in an effort to improve her failing health.

While staying at the Old Hall Hotel, she scratched her famed couplet, ‘Farewell to Buxton’ on to a window pane with a diamond ring. It read, ‘Buxton, whose warm waters have made thy name famous, perchance I shall visit thee no more-Farewell’

In 1572, Dr John Jones wrote the first medical journal on Buxton’s waters, entitled ‘The Benefit of the Ancient Bathes of Buckstones’, in which he spoke of their divine healing properties. His work gave rise to countless other books extolling the curative qualities of the town’s thermal springs thus enhancing the town’s burgeoning reputation.

Reputation as a Spa Town

It was in the late 18th century that Buxton’s status as a fashionable spa resort was first established. The man chiefly responsible was William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who resolved to transform Buxton into a spa town to rival Bath.

To this end he used the proceeds from his copper mining enterprise to fund the construction of a series of stately buildings and venues. These included the Crescent, the cloistered square, the Devonshire Dome (previously the Devonshire Royal Hospital) and the Thermal Baths.

Matlock, The Peak District

Dr Erasmus Darwin and the Wedgwoods

Physician Dr. Erasmus Darwin was also instrumental in Buxton’s development, recommending the healing properties of its waters to industrialist Josiah Wedgwood (of Wedgwood pottery fame). He later wrote a book about his findings, ‘The Natural History of Buxton and Matlock Waters’.

Because Darwin mixed in the same social circles as the Wedgwoods and other influential families, Buxton’s repute also grew through word-of-mouth. The coming of the railways in the 1860s also brought with them a steady stream of visitors which gradually cemented Buxton’s reputation as one of England’s most popular spa resorts.

Present-Day Buxton

Although spas have lost much of their appeal today, mineral water bottling, quarrying and scientific research all contribute handsomely to the local economy. But it is tourism that has become the biggest industry, thanks to Buxton’s majestic architecture as well as the Peak District National Park.

More than a million people visit each year. The town also boasts a vibrant cultural scene thanks to an opera house, museum and annual festivals.

The Grand Buildings of Buxton

However, it’s the stately buildings that remain one of Buxton’s main selling points. Comprising a variety of architectural styles ranging from Georgian to Romanesque Revival, they showcase the grandeur of 18th century design as well as the town’ eventful past. Notae include the Crescent, the Natural Mineral Baths, the Devonshire Dome, the Old Hall Hotel and the Palace Hotel.

Buxton Visitor Attractions

Many of Buxton’s fine buildings are open to the general public although a few like the Crescent are currently undergoing renovation work. Read on for more information about each building as well as details of popular Buxton visitor attractions and outdoor activities.

The Crescent, Buxton

Buxton Crescent

The iconic Buxton Crescent was central to the Duke’s grand redevelopment project. Designed by John Carr, it was opened to the public in 1789 and originally comprised two hotels (The Crescent Hotel and St Ann’s Hotel), assembly rooms and water treatment baths.

The Crescent’s Hotels

The Crescent Hotel and St Ann’s Hotel were located in the East and West pavilions respectively and were separated by six lodging houses. However in the mid-19th century the lodging houses were sacrificed so that the hotels could be expanded.

After the Crescent Hotel closed in the early 20th century, it was utilised as an annex by the Devonshire Royal Hospital. In the 1970s the building was purchased by Derbyshire Count Council which used the space for offices and later a public library until its closure in 1992. St Ann’s Hotel remained in operation until 1987 when it too was closed.

Natural Mineral Baths

The natural baths occupy a space directly above Buxton’s natural mineral water source. The present facilities, which were designed by Henry Currey and built in 1854, feature a vaulted glass canopy – they were used as a public swimming pool until the 1970s. Plans are now afoot to redevelop the baths as part of the Crescent Renovation Project.

The Pump Room

Built in the late 19th century, the pump room remained in operation right up until the 1970s, after which time it served as a micrarium and as a temporary space for craft fair exhibitors. The building is presently a tourist information area.

St Ann's Well

St Ann’s Well

Beside the pump room is St Ann’s Well which was added in 1940 and still acts as a conduit for the thermal waters. Charged with nitrogen and carbon gas, they well up from the depths at a constant temperature of 28 degrees, just as they did during Roman Times.

Devonshire Dome

The Devonshire Dome was also designed by John Carr and built in 1790. Its slate dome, which has a diameter of 156ft, is one of the largest in the world.

Role as a Stable Block

The building was originally used as a stable block and could house up to 120 horses as well as the servants of guests boarding at the Crescent Hotel. However, by the mid 19th century the increasing popularity in railed travel meant that the building was no longer needed as much in this capacity.

Role as an Infirmary

As a result William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire agreed to set aside part of the building for use as a charity hospital. In 1859 two-thirds were duly converted into a hospital and based on a design by Henry Currey, the architect for London’s St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1881, Cavendish was persuaded to donate the entire building for use as an infirmary in exchange for the provision of new stables. Architect Robert Rippon-Duke was then commissioned to design a 300-bed hospital to rival the infirmaries at Bath and Harrogate.

His design incorporated what was at the time the world’s largest unsupported dome – the floor space alone covered some 1,535 square metres. Further alterations were made over the years including the addition of a clock tower and spa baths in 1913. In 1934, the building became known as the Devonshire Royal Hospital which it remained until its closure in 2000.

Devonshire Dome

Role as a University Building and Venue

In 2001 the disused hospital was acquired by the University of Derby and refurbished as part of a project financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It eventually re-opened in 2003 as a campus building and commercial venue.

Old Hall Hotel

The Old Hall Hotel is yet another historically significant building. The current edifice dates back to the 16th century and was built by the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot.

It has accommodated a host of famous guests over the many years of its existence including Mary Queen of Scots as well as a who’s who of Elizabethan nobility.

Today this impressive building still serves as a hotel and is considered to be the oldest in the UK.

The Palace Hotel

The Palace Hotel is another gem by Henry Currey that was completed in 1868 and constructed in the style of a Victorian country house. It’s the largest hotel in the Peak District and consists of 122 rooms. Intended to cater for the influx of visitors brought by the railways, the hotel still features prominently on the Buxton skyline.

The Pavilion Gardens

The centrally-appointed Pavilion Gardens were opened in 1871 and designed by eminent landscape gardener, Edward Milner. Created for the many visitors who’d started to visit Buxton by rail, they vividly showcase the town’s wonderful Victorian heritage and consist of lakes, immaculately-manicured lawns, numerous paths and of course a traditional Victorian bandstand.

The gardens are also home to an art gallery, a miniature railway, an adventure playground and the Grade II-listed Octagon Concert Hall which hosts an extensive programme of productions throughout the year performed by the Buxton Gardens Company.

Buxton Opera House

The 900-seat, Buxton Opera House is located in The Square and hosts comedy, dance, pantomimes and music concerts. This magnificent Edwardian opera house opened in 1903 and became a popular receiving theatre. After being used as both a theatre and cinema, it eventually fell into disrepair and was closed in 1976.

Following major restoration work from 1999 to 2001, including the addition of new seats and air conditioning, the theatre re-opened and has become a hugely popular venue with more than 400 performances held each year.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

Buxton Museum exhibits more than 1000 artefacts spanning 360 million years including limestone fossils, pre-historic tools and Roman Jewellery. There are also two art galleries displaying 19th century embroideries, watercolours as well as an extensive range of Ashford Black Marble objects such as vases, candlesticks and obelisks.

Poole's Cavern, Buxton

Poole’s Cavern and Buxton Country Park

The elaborate limestone cave system of Poole’s Cavern is about 6 miles from Buxton and is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Guided tours of the caves are available throughout the week offering fascinating insights into their 2 million year history.

The caves are set within the picturesque Buxton Country Park which was developed in the 19th century to conceal the extensive quarrying work that took place in the vicinity. The park includes the 100-acer Grin Low Wood and a series of marked trails that wend their way through an idyllic landscape of open pastures and wildflower glades.

The Victorian folly, Solomon’s Temple can be reached by some of these waymarked trails and affords some wonderful views of the Goyt Valley and beyond. Inside, a spiral staircase leads to the top allowing visitors to take in the beautiful surroundings.

Go Ape, Buxton

A Go Ape adventure park is also within a short distance of Buxton and offers an assortment of tree-top activities including high-ropes, Tarzan swings and zip-wires. The Buxton course is actually the largest Go Ape Park in the UK and is considered to be one of the most challenging.

Buxton Festivals

A collection of extremely popular festivals take place in Buxton throughout the year. Here are some of the highlights.

Buxton International Festival

This is one the UK’s largest arts festivals, offering up a feast of cultural events including opera, concerts, book readings, jazz performances and guided town walks. It’s held during July and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Buxton Festival Fringe

The Buxton Fringe operates in conjunction with Buxton’s acclaimed International Festival and features more 700 performances from artists in the fields of art, drama, dance, music and poetry. The fringe has garnered positive reviews as well as plenty of awards for its extensive programme of events and serves as an excellent counterpart to Buxton’s most popular festival.

Gilbert & Sullivan Festival

Each year during July, the Buxton Opera House plays host to a week of performances in the lead up to the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Harrogate.

The festival is currently in its 25th year and features productions from the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company and the Derby Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Companies.

Performances are usually accompanied by the National Festival Orchestra.

Numerous fringe events take place during the week in the Pavilion Gardens and Arts Centre such as film screenings, interviews and lectures. Previous productions have included the Pirates of Penzance, Ruddigore, Haddon Hall and the Mikado.

Read our Peak District Travel Guide for more information about this picturesque region.

Looking to take a short break holiday in the Peak District? Then have a look at our featured holiday properties in the region.

Dale Shelabarger

Dale is the owner and founder of Cottages to Rent which he launched back in 2005. As well as promoting holiday cottages, Dale blogs regularly about top UK holiday destinations, visitor attractions and places of historical interest.