Chesterfield: historic time out from modern motorway madness

by Jon Bigg

Driving from Devon to Newcastle with fidgety children could have been a fraught experience. An overnight stop at Chesterfield in the Peak District relieved the tedium and refreshed body and mind.

Curiosity killed the cat, and apparently it was the ruin of Chesterfield’s spire too. Long ago, so the story goes, the 13th century spire heard that a virgin was being married in the church and bent down to take a peek at this improbable event. Unable to straighten up, it remained forever twisted and has since become a cherished landmark and popular tourist attraction.

Other equally fanciful explanations abound but the most probable reason for the spire’s crookedness is that ‘green-timber’ used in its construction slowly dried out and warped under the weight of 32 tons of lead tiles. Two things are certain though: the long climb to the base of the spire is the perfect antidote to a long drive, and the panoramic views from its narrow ledge are as dizzying as they are stunning.

Breaking the journey

We had stopped the night before on the long drive from Devon to Newcastle. The Premier Inn (Chesterfield North) is just 10 minutes from junction 29 on the M1. It’s easy to find and our family room, which cost £49, was modern, quiet and comfortable.

The evening was dry and warm (a rare break in the middle of a wet English summer) so we took an evening stroll along the canal, which runs right beside the Inn. We headed away from town on a leisurely amble past restored locks and lazy meadows, through woodland and under ancient bridges. After a mile or so we reached the Brimington Road, where we stumbled upon The Mill (01246 273807), a very tempting watering hole!

Attached to the hotel is a fabulous Brewer’s Fayre pub-restaurant, the Lock Keeper (08701 977 060), which is also open to non-residents. Caught in traffic, we had pulled over for a production-line, service-station dinner earlier, but when we popped into the Lock Keeper for a drink, we wished we’d hung out for the delicious smelling meals they were serving!

When we ate breakfast there the following morning (adults £7.50, children free), our first impressions were confirmed. The Saturday morning staff were faultlessly polite, attentive and personable. The breakfast was excellent too with all-you-can-eat cereals and continental choices as well as eggs and bacon cooked to order. There’s an enclosed adventure playground outside and a soft-play inside too! What more could parents want?

Exploring Chesterfield

After breakfast, we left the car at the hotel and returned to the tow-path, this time heading south towards town. A delightful hour’s walk through mature woodland growing along the canal’s embankments brought us straight into the heart of town. Here we climbed the crooked spire and ambled through the historic shambles and marketplace.

But first, we wandered back through time at the town museum, which recounts Chesterfield’s history from the day the Romans marched up Ryknield Street from Derby to the arrival of railway pioneer George Stephenson, and the birth of modern Chesterfield.

Chesterfield has always been (and still is) a market town. The earliest record of a market there is an entry in the accounts of the Sheriff of Derbyshire dated 1165, although the market is thought to have originated in Saxon times. It survives as one of the largest open-air markets in the country with some 200 stalls packing the town square outside Market Hall three times each week.

The cluster of narrow, twisting streets known as the Shambles also dates from the 12th century and was originally an area of temporary butcher’s stalls which were gradually replaced by permanent buildings. A wide variety of traders keep shop there now, although you won’t find a butcher. It’s also home to one of Britain’s oldest pubs, Ye Royal Oak (01246 205508), which has been trading since 1722.  Before that, according to local legend, it was a resting place for the Knights Templar. It’s narrow, upper room has a very high, timbered ceiling and is a splendidly atmospheric place to stop off for a drink.

The Shambles has been stylishly restored; colourful blooms fill planters scattered through the cobbled streets and it’s hard to imagine a scene of medieval butchery with blood draining down open channels in the narrow lanes. It’s now a delightfully tranquil spot to browse shops, sip coffee at a pavement café, or just stroll about reading the plaques that record the quarter’s history.

Climbing the Crooked Spire

Tours of the church tower are usually conducted by the Verger (01246 206506) twice every day except Sundays from Easter until Christmas but it's worth phoning in advance to check. The parapet is reached through a series of medieval passageways and twisting, fairy-castle staircases. After ducking through a narrow door in the chancel, stone steps spiral steeply up to the ringing room then continue to the belfry where the ten enormous bells hang.

Beyond the bells, the staircase loses its handrail and becomes steeper and narrower. For young legs, it is an enchanting adventure as the stone slabs twist precipitously upwards; those who are older, taller or wider will experience the consequent challenges but the bird’s eye view of the town is its own breathtaking reward: Chesterfield is spread out at your feet, the gently rolling Dales stretch as far as the eye can see, and in the distance the symmetrical Elizabethan façade of Hardwick Hall stands as a timeless testament to the wealth and power of Bess of Hardwick.

Perfect Picnic

We finished our morning out with a visit to Gregg’s the bakers, eating our lunch on a bench in Queen’s Park. This expanse of green is reached by a footbridge over Markham Road and is just a stone’s throw from the town centre attractions. With a café, adventure play area, boating lake and miniature railway, it proved a real hit with our children. If you’re not so lucky with the weather, numerous coffee shops and small restaurants are scattered throughout the town centre.

As we rejoined the motorway later, we were soon warned that “Tiredness can kill – take a break”. But Chesterfield had recharged our batteries more effectively than any amount of service station coffee, and the kids were all set for a squabble free journey. It had been the perfect overnight stop on the long drive north. I might even stay two nights next time...

Other attractions

If you’re planning a longer trip, other attractions in Chesterfield include Revolution House (01246 345727), where, in 1688, three noblemen plotted their part in events which led to the overthrow of King James II; Barrow Hill Roundhouse Railway Centre (01246 472450), the last working roundhouse in Britain; Hardwick Hall 'more glass than wall' (01246 850430) is a magnificent tribute to the Elizabethan fascination with glass; and Bolsover Castle (01246 822844), a fairytale mansion overlooking the Vale of Scarsdale.

For more details about Chesterfield and the surrounding area, pop into the Tourist Information Centre in Rykneld Square.  You can contact them in advance by telephone (01246 345777/8) or email: and they also have an informative website: