If you’re itching for a weekend break in the countryside, dreaming of long wintery walks and curling up by a roaring fire, the Queen of romantic comedy Wendy Holden has just the place for you.
‘DERBYSHIRE, where I live, is Britain’s cosiest county. It’s cosily located right in the middle of England, the furthest point from chilly seas, safely tucked up in the middle of lots of other shires. Yorkshire to the North, Leicestershire to the South, Lincolnshire to the East and Cheshire to the West keep it nice and warm and protect it from nasty cold blasts. Its topography is cosy as well, lots of nice little green hills and snugglesome valleys; plenty of broad, sheltering trees and lush fields thickly edged with fluffy bushes.
So if cosy is what you’re looking for – and who isn’t at this time of year – you could do worse than spend a weekend in this wonderful spot. Derbyshire is just the place to beat the winter blues and jolt you out of your January grump. Those snugglesome valleys I just mentioned contain some adorable little grey villages; picturesque scatterings of cottages and farmhouses, gardens and greens. All have their own little ancient grey church with its solid stone tower or graceful stone spire and the stained-glass windows which, at dusk, glow like jewels between the tracery. And there’s the pub, of course.
Always the pub. Derbyshire’s pubs are some of the best you’ll find anywhere, as is the beer. We’ve got craft ales coming out of our ears up here, some with amazing names (Hairy Helmet, anyone?). If, like me, you’re not a beer person, you can get a decent glass of wine and, more importantly, a decent bowl of chips at establishments such as The Barley Mow in Bonsall (the world centre of, ahem, hen racing) and the Robin Hood Inn, Baslow.
In my new comic novel, Honeymoon Suite, my heroine Nell leaves London after being stood up at the altar and flees north to the welcoming arms of a county a lot like Derbyshire. As the eponymous honeymoon suite has been booked by the absconding not-quite-husband, Nell is persuaded by her feisty friend that she may as well stay in it. It’s paid for, it’s luxurious and it’s in the most delicious location imaginable, the recently-refurbished gastropub of a village on the borders of a vast and beautiful aristocratic estate.
There are many gastropubs in Derbyshire, some of them quite near me. The village of Barlow, near Chesterfield, is bookended by two splendid examples of this marvellous breed. And as The Peacock and The White Horse belong to the same family, Barlow is fast becoming a landlocked northern version of Padstein.
On the aristocratic estate front, Derbyshire’s no slouch either. Halls Kedleston and Hardwick are famous and fabulous, but the tourist lodestar is unquestionably Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire, which offers a number of ultra-cosy places to stay. The estate has a couple of boutique-y pubs, both called, somewhat inevitably, The Devonshire Arms. They do nice wine by the glass, food in big white dishes and have trendy en suite bedrooms, some done up by the Duchess.
There’s also the Hunting Tower, located in the woods above Chatsworth House. This intensely picturesque sixteenth-century lodge was where Bess of Hardwick caught her breath between deer chases; it is now the most romantic holiday cottage imaginable. Its garden offers (from a seat on one of Nelson’s old cannon, no less) a sweeping view over the valley with the silver river snaking through it. Prince William once stayed there and if it’s good enough for him..
Having sweepingly viewed this valley and others like it, you’ll feel the irresistible urge to walk around them. The key to cosy hiking is not straying too far from your cosy pub. Chatsworth has lovely gardens and some mildly exerting parkland; there’s also a great walk from the Robin Hood Inn (op cit) up to the Three Ships rocks. Cosiness demands you must wrap up warm. But, reader, not in motheaten Thinsulate!
A much more stylish solution awaits the weekend visitor. Derbyshire is home to John Smedley, whose cashmere pullovers, sea-island-cotton jerseys and fine-wool hats, socks and scarves are widely available at considerable expense in London’s smartest emporia. Happily, they can also be bought irresistibly discounted at the factory shop in Lea, near Cromford. Open from 10-4 daily, the John Smedley shop is heaven for the hiking and non-hiking hipster alike. Cosy has never looked so chic.’
Wendy Holden returns with a wonderfully warm and witty tale Honeymoon Suite, out in paperback on January 26th
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