A fresh-baked Victoria sponge welcomes us to our cosy cottage on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. We’ve had a bracing drive from south Manchester, rising over wild sun-flooded peaks then descending through cloud cover into Buxton, where Poole’s Cavern – limestone caves full of stalagmites and stalactites, home in turn to Stone Age dwellers, Romans, and medieval outlaws – provided an interesting diversion. From there, travelling across a ghostly moonlit, fog-swathed landscape, we followed ever-tinier country lanes to what seems like the middle of nowhere.
"In the woodland adventure playground, a water, sand-play and digger area had the boys busy for hours creating a complicated system of moats (when I wasn’t enlisted to help, I spent my time fantasising about the roast chestnuts and churros and hot chocolate I’d seen on offer at the Christmas market)."
A former dairy farm, Manifold as been converted into five cottages with their own gardens and a communal games room. Comfortable but not so posh that you feel on edge lest your kids do some mischief (well, this is muddy-boots hiking terrain, and lots of people bring dogs), they’re the perfect setting for a winter break – or indeed a break at any time of year.
Britain’s stately home par excellence, Chatsworth House fell into decline in the early 20th century but was saved after coming under the protection of a charitable trust in 1981. While remaining the seat and family home of the Devonshires, it was transformed into one of the UK’s biggest visitor attractions – largely through the efforts of the formidable 11th Duchess, Deborah Mitford, who was mother to the current Duke. It was Deborah who added the maze, kitchen, cottage gardens and famous farm shop, began commissioning modern sculpture, and wrote books about various aspects of the estate.
Chatsworth makes for a great family day out, especially if you time your visit to chime with one of the many special events, which includes a huge country fair in September. Our day at Chatsworth happened to coincide with one of the estate’s popular Christmas markets and with a special festive display within the house itself, but my sons could easily have spent the whole time in the woodland adventure playground, where a water, sand-play and digger area had them busy for hours creating a complicated system of moats (when I wasn’t enlisted to help, I spent my time fantasising about the roast chestnuts and churros and hot chocolate I’d seen on offer at the Christmas market)
Indeed, we spent so much time in the woods that we had little time for the grounds themselves, with their sculptures, fountains, maze and wilder hidden corners. It’s worth noting that the playground and adjoining farmyard can be visited separately to the house and grounds on a reduced-price ticket.
While many of the numerous Peak District family attractions – most noticeably those in the quirky ‘resort’ of Matlock Bath, which I remember fondly from my own childhood – were closed for the winter, we also investigated Carsington Water, a reservoir six kilometres from the cottage offering watersports, bike hire, good playgrounds, a visitor centre with an RSPB shop and an interesting, child-friendly exhibition on the role of water in our daily lives, and the remarkable Kugel Stone, a one-tonne ball of granite that my the boys were fascinated to find they could move with the mere touch of a hand (it revolves on a thin film of water under pressure). Another must-do while in the Peaks is a meal in a traditional country pub – the child-friendly Royal Oak at Hurdlow fitted the bill perfectly.
If you can’t stretch to exotic climes, a winter break within easy reach of your home can blow the cobwebs away. Manifold Farm provided a wonderful refuge from the cold as well as a great base for exploring, with water from a private spring and a warming wood-burning stove, but also the modern conveniences, including a dishwasher and a washer-drier, without which any family holiday would turn into an ordeal.
But there’s only so much cold you can take, so at the end of our weekend we were very happy to pack the car and drive a short distance over the border into Staffordshire, where tropical warmth did indeed beckon in the form of the Caribbean-themed Alton Towers Waterpark, with slides and water features galore. A few rides on the Master Blaster water rollercoaster with my eight-year-old son soon banished all memories of frozen toes and drove the chill from my bones…
Read more about the Peak District and Derbyshire with kids.