Buxton lies just outside the National Park boundaries, but is the most important town for most of the western and central Peak. The town is situated in a natural bowl on the boundary between the gritstone and limestone areas and the River Wye has had to carve a gorge through the limestone to find an exit to the South East. At 300m above sea level the town is the highest town of its size in England.
The site has been occupied continuously since at least Roman times, when a fort and settlement called Aquae Arnemetiae was established here, probably on the high ground between the market place and the bluff which overlooks the river by the police station. As well as its strategic situation, the Romans were attracted to the site by the warm springs which emerge near the River Wye with a constant temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. They built baths here and for the following centuries these springs have been a major source of importance and income for Buxton.
The spring at St Ann’s well was probably a place of pilgrimage as early as the Middle Ages, but certainly by Tudor times it was fairly well established as a spa and in Elizabeth I’s time it was visited for this purpose by The Earl of Leicester, Lord Burghley and no less than Mary Queen of Scots, who was being held captive by the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick at nearby Chatsworth (We’ve already covered this on other pages).
The great period of Buxton as a spa began when the 5th Duke of Devonshire started the construction of the Crescent in 1780. This magnificent building took ten years to build and was constructed over the river alongside the site of St Ann’s well. It cost the huge sum of £38,000. From this time until the early 20th century a series of fine buildings were constructed in Buxton, starting with the Duke’s stables in 1785 – this was converted to a hospital in the 1880s and a huge dome erected over the exercise area in the centre. In 1851-3 a new set of thermal baths were built, but in 1863 the railway arrived in Buxton to usher in its golden age.
The town boomed now that access was easy. Large hotels were built, (of which only The Palace now survives), the Opera House (definitely worth a visit) was constructed as was the Pavilion Gardens. Fashionable town houses sprang up and the town expanded to almost its present limits.
At the same time limestone quarrying became a major industry in the immediate area and the stone and associated lime products were easily transported by railway from Buxton across the country. Quarrying continues to be a major local industry.
After the First World War, the spa industry went into a gradual decline and by the 1950s Buxton was a backwater. Recovery began in the 1980s with the reopening of the Opera House and the establishment of the annual Opera Festival. More recently the University of Derby (my eldest daughter attended here) moved into the former Devonshire Royal Hospital building and an ambitious project begun to reopen the spa and The Crescent.
The town has a full range of shops, centred around a shopping arcade built over the culverted River Wye, just off Spring Gardens. If you like shopping the market is well worth a visit.
Other things to see in Buxton include the Museum and Poole’s Cavern and Grin Low Country Park. Buxton has a well-dressing and carnival which starts on the second Sunday in July, with the annual festival in late July.
Incidentally, you can cycle here from the High Peak Trail, it’s a fair trek from Middleton Top, and from the end of the trail, it’s all down hill (by road), getting back obviously is the reverse, but the stop over in the park for ice cream is a dream.