The Peak District is a somewhat odd and contradictory area: a landscape that manages to be both wild and urban, rural and industrial, old and new. Parts of what seem at first glance to be bijou rural villages remain smoke-blackened from Victorian industry while, in other areas, nature has re-asserted its grip upon the landscape and much of it is in a transitional post-industrial state with the traces of factories, mills, quarries and railways slowly falling into ruin and being gently re-absorbed. Railway tracks have become footpaths, mills have been turned into museums and apartments and, little by little, the evidence of the heavy industries that once flourished here is vanishing.
This seems both surprising and pleasing – surprising because these industries threw up such huge and, one might think, enduring monuments and pleasing because the environmental havoc that they wreaked seems to have had relatively little long-term impact upon the countryside. Satisfying though this certainly is, it also contains an unsettling intimation of mortality: the largest of our edifices have not lasted more than a few generations: our ancestors have ultimately left few lasting marks to acknowledge their enterprise or commemorate lives of hard, dangerous labour frequently in terrible conditions.
But this is only a part of the story: the District is traditionally divided into the White Peak and the Dark Peak. The softer and (usually) more gentle countryside of the White Peak is the true post-industrial and increasingly rural landscape whereas the Dark Peak speaks of moor and wild uplands that never became industrial in the first place. It is a harsher and more isolated area altogether, very much part of the Pennines – indeed this is where the Pennine Way footpath begins its journey to the Scottish borderlands. The two areas differ in their geology too with the harsh moors of the Dark Peak being made of tough gritstone while the gentler landscapes of the White Peak being mainly of softer limestone into which rivers often disappear abruptly and run underground for a distance before re-emerging into their wonted courses.
We have visited and been delighted by the White Peak several times, particularly around the valleys of the rivers Dove and Manifold which, between them, have created a countryside of gentle but often quite spectacular aspect: a comfortable countryside that contrasts with the ominous but grimly alluring aspect of the looming Dark Peak. With a few notable exceptions, the towns and villages of the White Peak have avoided the worst problems of second homes and gentrification that have bedevilled so many areas and retain a tangible warmth and charm. In the Dark Peak, this was never likely to become an issue: a landscape in which a muddy four-wheel drive is a virtual necessity rather than a bimbo’s shiny toy of choice hardly lends itself to this kind of development so the area is, thankfully, largely left to be itself and, in so doing, to be one of the increasingly few parts of the country in which the depredations of man and his endeavours are barely detectable.