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The Best Free Things to Do With Kids in the Peak District

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The Peak District is a great day out, and easily accessible from much of the Midlands, including Stafford, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and the North of England including Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Cheshire. The weather tends to be hot in summer and cold in winter, and the area is especially popular with walkers, climbers, photographers, and cyclists. The landscape is hilly with plenty of caves, dales, gorges, and rivers to explore. 

Table of Contents

Paddling at Padley Gorge

Padley Gorge

What it is: This wooded ravine is part of Yarncliff Wood on the Longshaw Estate. Padley Gorge is located close to the A6187 road and lies right on the eastern edge of the National Park. It’s on the border between Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It’s a good idea to arrive early, especially in summer. 

Why we liked it: The water is clean and clear, and there’s plenty of shade nearby. The trees make fantastic shapes around the water, and it has a slightly other-worldly air. We really enjoyed spotting birds including wood warblers, pied flycatchers, and hawfinches. Depending on how energetic you’re all feeling, you can choose a four-and-a-half-mile walk from the gorge to Surprise View Walk, or there’s a Kids Walk that goes through the gorge itself and a “pram friendly” walk around the Longshaw Estate.

More information about Paddling at Padley Gorge 

Address: Padley Gorge Trail, Hope Valley S32 2HY 

Opening Hours: 24/7; dawn to dusk throughout the year. 

Lud’s Church

Lud’s Church

What it is: Don’t be misled – Lud’s Church isn’t a church in the usual sense with bell towers and stained glass windows although dissenters called Lollards worshipped here in the 1400s. A giant landslip caused this deep moss-covered chasm, which is 18 metres deep although only 100 metres long – stone steps lead down. It’s startlingly green and steeped in legend. You can get to the location via the Roaches, the nearest village, Gradbach, and the Back Forest. Good footwear is essential as it’s very rugged and usually quite slippery. It might be helpful to know that the nearest car parking is around a mile away. 

Why we liked it: You know those stories of Robin Hood and his merry band where they hide out in the forest while the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (sometimes accompanied by Guy of Gisborne) tries to catch them? Well, this is just the kind of place the outlaws might well have hung out, and in fact, there are legends about just that, along with tales of Gawain and the Green Knight of King Arthur fame, and many more. It’s naturally pretty well concealed, so half the fun is discovering its entrance – if you’re not too sure, close your eyes and follow the blast of cooler air from within the trees! 

More information about Lud’s Church 

Address: Lud’s Church, Buxton SK17 0SU

Opening Hours: 24/7 throughout the year; dawn to dusk

Blaze Farm

Blaze Farm

What it is: If you’re over towards the Cheshire side of the Peak District, this working farm in the delightfully named Wildboarclough has won awards and provides a small but lively tourist attraction. Visitors can meet the animals in the animal shed, feed the ducks (or the geese) by the lake, chat with the cows, or donkeys, or find out for themselves just how loudly pigs snore. In spring you can also visit the lambing shed (although there is a charge for that activity). Although there are picnic benches at the back overlooking the hills, next to the café, visitors are requested not to eat their own food there. 

Why we liked it: One of the two nature walks signposted on the land that surrounds Blaze Farm is only a kilometre long, and we also enjoyed the carved animals in the woodland as well as the den. There’s also a tunnel slide and plenty of car parking, including facilities for the disabled. Although we do have to confess that we gave in and tucked in to an ice cream made with the extremely local milk…

More information about Blaze Farm 

Address: Wildboarclough, Macclesfield SK11 0BL

Opening Hours: 10am to 5.30pm Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays (limited hours between Christmas and New Year)

National Stone Centre

The National Stone Centre

What it is: The National Stone Centre is just outside the southwest boundary of the Peak District National Park – look out for the entrance off the B5035. The centre was opened officially in October 1990 and is run by a group of volunteers. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the geology, covering 40 acres. There are various trails and a children’s play area. There is a charge for parking, and it might be helpful to know parts of this site aren’t suitable for prams. 

Why we liked it: The visitor exhibition shows how important stone has been in buildings and all kinds of other things you might not realise – like tyres, cosmetics, toothpaste, and even sugar. There’s a Millennium Wall that’s a permanent exhibition, with dry stone wall examples. You’ll often find smaller stones at the end to let younger family members have a go at building. The quarry trail outside the centre takes you back in time to when areas were the side of a reef or the bed of a lagoon. Bet you didn’t know that Derbyshire was once not only tropical but by the sea, either… 

More information about the National Stone Centre

Address: The National Stone Centre, Porter Lane, Middleton by Wirksworth, Derbyshire, DE4 4LS

Opening hours: 10am to 4pm in winter, 10am to 5pm in summer, open all year round (except Christmas Day). 

Pickford’s House Museum

Pickford’s House Museum

What it is: Small but perfectly formed, this Grade I listed building was the family home of Joseph Pickford, a local architect. The rooms are laid out to show you what ordinary (if wealthy!) family life was like from the 1700s to the 1900s, and there are plenty of well-preserved items including furniture, along with helpful information sheets. Check out the bedroom, dressing room, dining room, drawing room, and morning room, as well as servants’ areas including a bedroom, kitchen, laundry, and scullery, or take a trip to the basement to see what it would have been like to experience World War Two in an air raid shelter. There’s also a small garden, laid out in formal late 1700s style and exhibitions change regularly. 

Why we liked it:. It’s well maintained and the staff we encountered were super helpful and very knowledgeable. Exhibitions change regularly – when we visited it was all about men’s fashion from the 1960s including one of Elton John’s jackets. Previous exhibitions have covered nursing and Florence Nightingale. There’s some free parking at the house for visitors though you do have to be on the alert as it’s quite easy to miss the signs. An absolute favorite for us was the Toy Theatre Collection, and a slightly less expected highlight was the artwork in the Edwardian bathrooms… 

More information about Pickford’s House Museum

Address: 41 Friary Gate, Derby, DE1 1DA

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm (check website for opening hours at Christmas and on Bank Holidays). 

Markeaton Park

Markeaton Park

What it is: The very popular Markeaton Park offers an oasis of green, just outside Derby centre. The first park here was laid out in the Middle Ages, and over the next few centuries, it was used for farming, and turned into a formal enclosed 18th-century park, before being made into the public park we see today. There are all kinds of historic lost trackways and roads to discover, patterns in the fields from its arable past, buildings and the park from the 18th century, and even a Second World War army camp. (What’s left of it.) 

Why we liked it: Armed with a couple of old maps, we really enjoyed tracking the history from the 18th century right through to today. There’s a dedicated free play area for toddlers that had climbing equipment, a slide, and swings. Older kids are likely to enjoy the spider net, slides, and larger swings, and there is also an accessible play unit. You’ll find an area just outside the play areas that’s perfect for scooters, skateboards, and BMX bikes. 

More information about Markeaton Park

Address: Markeaton Park, Markeaton, Derby DE22 4AA

Opening hours: 10.30am to 4.30pm at weekends, Bank Holidays, and daily in school holidays (weather allowing)

Cross the Dovedale Stepping Stones

Dovedale Stepping Stones

What it is: Dovedale is often described as one of the most popular locations in the Peak District and gets extremely busy so advice is (you guessed it) to get there early if you can. There are 16 stones over the River, all capped with limestone, and they were put down by the Victorians. The limestone peaks along the gorge are thought to be incredibly old – 360 million years ago is the age we’ve heard bandied about. The River Dove is 45 miles long in total, though don’t worry, nobody expects you to walk it all, at least not at once! If driving, do take care on the approach as some of the roads are quite narrow and you need to keep your eyes peeled for suitable passing places in some bits. 

Why we liked it: It’s really easy to pretend you’re inside a magical landscape here, the River Dove itself is delightfully twisty and bendy and the gorge has beautifully spiky peaks of limestone overhead. To add to that other-worldly feel, you’ll often find little creatures called crinoids on the walls here, long since turned into fossils. It’s regularly used to shoot films and TV series, and the cottage nearby is where Isaac Walton wrote his famous fishing book, The Compleat Angler. 

More information about the Dovedale Stepping Stones 

Address: Dovedale, Derbyshire, DE6 2AY. 

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round; dusk to dawn

Princess Royal Class Locomotive Trust/West Shed Museum

West Shed Museum

What it is: This museum is the resting place for several historic locomotives from the age of steam. There are films, activities to keep little hands busy, displays in railway carriages, and even a live engineering workshop. You get the chance to follow the Maggie Moggy trail or sit on a miniature engine, and there are plenty of summer arts and craft activities. There are picnic areas as well as a country park and a playground area. The management makes every effort to make sure the coaches and locomotives are on display but they are sometimes hired out, so it’s always a good idea to check in advance. The walk from Swanwick station takes around five to ten minutes, with some uneven areas underfoot. 

Why we liked it: We did have to pay for train tickets as the museum is located at a railway junction, and difficult to access by road, but once there we enjoyed being able to play on the various vehicles. We visited on one of the days when we could use up rubbish to make a “junk model” train, and also really enjoyed watching the model railway whoosh round the track. Even the website is charmingly retro. 

More information about the West Shed Museum 

Address: The Princess Royal Class Locomotive Trust’s ‘West Shed Museum’, The Midland Railway-Butterley, Ripley, Derbyshire, DE5 3QZ

Opening hours: 11am to 4pm Monday to Sunday from mid-February to mid-November; last entry 30 minutes before closing time. 

Well Dressing

A Well Dressing in Buxton

What it is: It’s unique to Derbyshire, and takes place in around 80 villages and towns all over Derbyshire from May to September. It’s an “age-old” tradition, and it all starts with a large wooden frame, clay, and other natural materials, which take all kinds of forms – flower petals, moss, and leaves… The images can take up to a week to put together. An outline is drawn on the clay and it’s then “coloured in” – think of a kind of living painting by numbers. That distinctive appearance is created by slightly overlapping each row with the one below. If you’re wondering why that technique is used, it’s so rainwater can run off the picture without causing any (or much!) damage. In the end, the boards are put together to create a single design and it’s lifted into place over the well or other water feature. 

Why we liked it: It’s unique to Derbyshire, and if you get the timing right you might even be able to go along and help with the preparation. There’s usually a blessing or a party (or both!) once the picture is put in place, although well dressings typically last only about a week before the clay starts to crack as it dries out. 

More information about Well Dressing 

Address: Throughout Derbyshire – check the websites above

Opening hours: Varies – check websites above 

StarDisc Stone Circle/Wirksworth Stardisc

StarDisc Stone Circle

What it is: Derbyshire doesn’t lack stone circles and ancient monuments, but this one’s really quite different. It’s a twenty-first-century version, 40 feet in diameter (that’s 12 metres), with a star chart etched on to the black granite that lights up slightly at night (using the solar power stored from during the day). It’s right above Wirksworth Village and the Ecclesbourne Valley, and during the day the views over the nearby countryside are stunning. It was opened in the autumn of 2011 and is fairly close to Stoney Woods. It was the brainchild of Aidan Shingler, artist, activist, and writer. 

Why we liked it: We really were not expecting this, in the middle of the Derbyshire Hills. We love the fact it’s so different by day and by night. It’s been designated a “Go Stargazing” site due to the low levels of light pollution. There is free parking nearby (though be prepared for super-steep hills, even by Peak District standards. Alternatively, check if there is parking available in the village, there may be a charge. The site is often in use for community events, so check in advance to see what’s happening to see what the guidance is on visitors joining in.  

More information about the StarDisc Stone Circle

Address: Stoney Wood, Greenhill, Wirksworth, Matlock DE4 4EN

Opening hours: 24/7 all year round

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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