On the edge of the Peak District National Park, elegant Buxton is one of Britain’s best-known spa towns. Part-Georgian, part-Victorian, the handsome architecture offers an impressive backdrop to this vibrant town, today buzzing with an eclectic arts scene and events calendar.
You can easily spend a day or two here, exploring its ornamental gardens, elegant opera house and magnificent terraces, while the surrounding landscape of open moorland and deep dales offer plenty of interesting day trips. Here’s what not to miss on a short break in Buxton.
Buxton’s best bits
Buxton Opera House
An ideal place to start an exploration of the town is at Buxton Opera House beside the Pavilion Gardens. Inside and out, it has the feel of an opulent Victorian theatre. The opera house is actually Edwardian, built in 1903 to the design of renowned theatre architect, Frank Matcham (who also designed the London Coliseum and Palladium). The highest opera house in Britain, it makes an impression from the start with its handsome stone exterior and twin leaded domes.
The interior, from the white marble foyer to the detailed Baroque plasterwork by De Jong and exquisitely painted panels, was meticulously restored to its original glory in 1979, with further restoration across the new millennium.
The Pavilion Gardens
This Victorian landscaped park was created in 1871 at the bequest of the seventh Duke of Devonshire. The riverside setting across 23 acres, along with its miniature train, playgrounds, bandstand, waterways, including boating on the southwest lake, bridges and rockeries, draws families, couples and everyone else in between.
Next to the gardens is The Pavilion with its elegant domed Octagon Hall, its eight sides encased in glass and wood. Linking the Pavilion and Opera House is the long narrow Winter Gardens conservatory, another slice of Victoriana filled with palms and exotic plants.
St Anne’s Well
With the lawned Slopes just behind it, it’s hard to miss St Anne’s Well. Anglo-Saxons believed the well to have healing properties, emerging deep from the earth at a temperature of 27oC.
The water piped from a geothermal spring deep under the ground is the same water bottled and sold by Buxton Mineral Water Company, but here you can fill your bottles up for free.
Next to the well is the Neoclassical Pump Room, its interior now fully restored, with marble pillars, plaster roundels, tiled floors, Art Nouveau stained-glass windows and water fountain. It’s a wonderful location for the new Buxton Visitor Centre, its souvenir shop and events hub.
Inspired by Bath’s Royal Crescent, this beautiful, Grade I-listed building was constructed for the fifth Duke of Devonshire in the 1780s, a fitting statement of grandeur for a man of position. At the heart of the complex is the original thermal pool (fed by mineral water from St Anne’s Well).
For the well-heeled visitor, the five-star hotel at The Crescent offers pampering treatments, an indoor/outdoor pool with water features, a sauna, steam and ice rooms, fitness studio and beauty salon. Along with the 79 luxury bedrooms and suites, the 18th-century ballroom – known as the Assembly Room – has been fully restored to its former grandeur.
Just north of the centre up the hill is the Devonshire Dome. An impressive space, it laid claim to the largest unsupported dome in Europe at one time. The building began its life as the fifth Duke of Devonshire’s stables in 1779, became a hospital and is currently part of the University of Derby.
Apart from the restaurant and café, you can take advantage of a commercial spa offering beauty treatments, a hydrotherapy pool, sauna and steam rooms.
Wonder of the Peak
From Water Street below the Opera House, an electric vehicle in the style of an open-top Victorian tram named the Wonder of the Peak does hourly tours of the town between March and October, including Higher Buxton and Poole’s Tavern. The converted milk float is the optimal ‘Slow’ experience with a top speed of 12 miles per hour.
The same company, Buxton Tours, offer history-themed walking tours with costumed guides from Mary Queen of Scots to Vera Brittain.
On the edge of town
On the southwest edge of the town, Poole’s Cavern is well worth a detour. The cavern is relatively accessible, although there are a couple of places with ten or so steps. The rest of the cave is well surfaced, flat and even, with handrails for support.
Poole’s main selling point is its long chambers lined with stalactites. Particularly impressive are the delicate ‘straw’ stalactites and the unusual stalagmites coloured rusty orange by the seeping of water through iron ore dumped on the site of Grin Low Woods above.
Buxton Country Park
For a brief reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the town centre, head to the country park. From the car park, steps snake their way up through woodland to Solomon’s Temple, a rather overblown name for this squat, slightly skew-whiff two-storey Victorian folly.
Solomon is not a biblical reference, but refers to Solomon Mycock, who had the building erected in the 1800s to keep the local unemployed busy. The 20ft-high structure, alternatively named Grinlow Tower, sits on top of the 1,400ft Grin Low hill with sweeping views across to Buxton and the surrounding countryside.
Shopping in Buxton
If nothing else, take time to visit Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding – not so much a secondhand bookshop as an experience. ‘Be warned, if you go in there,’ a passer-by said to me, ‘you won’t come out for hours.’
Shelves of books, ornaments and curios are crammed in over five floors, including the attic and cellar. In the last, along with a kitchen range and stone sink, a makeshift display in one corner pays homage to the Higher Buxton archaeologist Micah Salt.
Just off The Crescent is Cavendish Arcade, the site of the original Thermal Baths.
It still retains the character of the old baths with its embossed decorative tiles and revamped stained-glass barrel roof. The arcade is made up of boutiques, vintage clothing stores and craft shops – a far cry from the main shopping thoroughfare off Terrace Road, which is filled with chain stores and thrift shops.
Where to stay and eat in Buxton
The Old Hall Hotel
The Old Hall is said to be the oldest hotels in England and has had its share of famous guests. Daniel Defoe stayed here and the odd duke, but most famous of all, was Mary, Queen of Scots who was imprisoned in one of the suites (ask for the Queen Mary’s Bower).
All of the rooms are individually furnished and the décor is in keeping with the historical building. The hotel has lovely views over the Pavilion Gardens and is very handy for the Opera House (you can save your dessert for after the show). Good value for money.
53 Degrees North
This stylish bar and restaurant serves beautifully presented and, perhaps more importantly, locally sourced food. It’s also located close to the town’s central attractions.
Start planning your trip to the Peak District with our comprehensive guide: