Derbyshire is a huge county. It stretches from the wild Dark Peak in the north near Sheffield, through the limestone caves and lush valleys of the White Peak, to the meandering banks of the River Trent on the borders of Leicestershire and Staffordshire. The M1 runs up its eastern flank, and many people zoom straight along it, without stopping off to explore.

But between the motorway and the moors lie the manor houses and market towns which were once the domain of a remarkable Tudor woman, Bess of Hardwick.

A contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, Bess was a powerful woman. Her four marriages brought her wealth and status — and started a dynasty. Her passion was for building. She indulged it at her childhood home of Hardwick (where you can stay at our holiday cottage) and the Chatsworth estate. You can visit five places owned by Bess and her descendants in the county today, and this weekend guide will help you explore her story.

Into the Peaks

Mentioned in the Domesday survey, Peveril Castle is one of England’s earliest Norman fortresses. It was founded by the same William Peveril as Bolsover Castle, and has a similarly commanding position — albeit over more rugged terrain. It’s about an hour’s drive away, standing high above the pretty village of Castleton in the heart of the Peak District.

Further south, the White Peak around Bakewell has a few really ancient sites to visit which have outlasted the rise and fall of local dynasties. Hob Hurst’s House near Chatsworth is a square prehistoric burial mound with an earthwork ditch and outer bank, named after a local goblin. Nine Ladies Stone Circle, closer to Stanton Moor, is a small early Bronze Age stone circle of (actually) ten stones. They’re believed to be nine ladies turned to stone as a penalty for dancing on Sunday. And further west, south of Monyash, Arbor Low Stone Circle is the region’s most important prehistoric site. Arbor Low is a Neolithic henge monument atmospherically set in high moorland, with a circle of 50 or so white limestone slabs within an earthen bank and ditch.

Haddon Hall

Often referred to as one of the ‘finest houses to survive the Middle Ages’, Haddon Hall has charm in abundance and the story of the elopement of John Manners and Dorothy Vernon from the Hall is one of the Peak’s most romantic tales. Founded in the 12th century, the Hall was expanded and remodelled throughout medieval times and attractive features include a splendid Long Gallery and terraced gardens. Keep in mind that to travel to Haddon Hall or anywhere else in Derbyshire you can book a ride with a chauffeur service. When visiting historical spots of interest in England there’s nothing more British than being chauffeured about.

It is believed that Dorothy Vernon, daughter of Haddon’s owner Sir George Vernon, eloped with John Manners, son of the 1st Earl of Rutland, in 1563. Sir George allegedly disapproved of the match — so according to legend, the young Dorothy ran away with her lover during a party at the Hall. Haddon has also been the backdrop for numerous romantic blockbusters on television and film — including adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.

Bolsover Castle and Surroundings

About seven miles north of Hardwick Old Hall is Bolsover Castle. Built after the Norman Conquest by William Peveril, by the 1600s its ruins became the foundation of a retreat for Bess’s grandson. Sir Charles Cavendish began work on the Little Castle — which then became the party palace of his son William — a playboy, poet courtier and cavalier.

With his great-grandmother’s aplomb, William Cavendish added the vast and stately Terrace Range and entertained Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria in 1634. He finished off the sumptuous interiors of the Little Castle, including the wall paintings of the intimate Heaven and Elysium Closets. But horses, not buildings, were his greatest interest. You can watch demonstrations of authentic cavalier horsemanship over the summer in William’s riding school.

Over the Vale of Scarsdale from Bolsover stands the shell of Sutton Scarsdale Hall. For generations the site was owned by the Leake family (distant relations of Bess of Hardwick’s mother) but building the grand Georgian mansion bankrupted the last Earl of Scarsdale, Nicholas Leake. The property was sold and, eventually, all its assets stripped and shipped to America.

The Manifold Valley

Boasting some of the county’s finest scenery, the Manifold Valley is renowned for its pretty villages and quiet lanes. For a romantic walk or bike ride, the Manifold Track follows the old route of the disused Leek and Manifold Light Railway. It stretches for just over eight and a half miles from Waterhouses to Hulme End, and all but two miles are traffic-free and shared by walkers, cyclists and pony-trekkers.

There are many paths and bridleways linking the Manifold Track to the surrounding limestone plateau where visitors can explore the rugged landscape and picturesque villages. Highlights include Thor’s Cave ‐ approximately 250 feet up from the Track, where a steep walk is rewarded by spectacular views — plus the pretty villages of Alstonefield, Warslow and the charming village of Ilam with its Swiss chalet-style houses. If you’re more into comfort than adventure, consider hiring a chauffeur service to get you to and from Derbyshire.

Hardwick and Chatsworth

Bess bought her childhood home from her brother’s estate in 1583, and she started to enlarge and adapt the medieval manor into a new property — which is now Hardwick Old Hall — between 1585 and 1590. After she was widowed for the fourth and last time in November 1590, she started a new project — the first house planned from scratch. Hardwick Hall is now in the care of the National Trust, but the old and new halls were designed to complement each other. Today you can get a combined ticket to visit both properties, and a view of each from staying in the East Lodge holiday cottage.

Another of Bess’s major building projects was at Chatsworth ‐ an estate which she bought with her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. It’s less than twenty miles from Hardwick, and about 45 minutes’ drive. Although it’s very different from in Bess’s day, the estate is still privately owned by the family — and probably one of the most famous stately homes in England.

You might also want to organise a visit to the palatial medieval manor house Wingfield Manor. It was one of the places where Bess’s fourth husband the Earl of Shrewsbury imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. It’s now part of a working farm, so entrance is by pre-booked guided tour only.