The Peak District landscape has been shaped by both natural and human influences. Typically much of the Peak District would have been wooded, but by clearing the land for farming, our ancestors created a rich historical landscape and a diversity of habitats.
The Peak District lies on three main rock types and it is the rocks underneath the surface that determine the type of landscape seen today.
The White Peak
A landscape of rolling farmland and steep-sided dales, the White Peak lies on a rock called limestone. This sedimentary rock was deposited around 350 million years ago when the land lay under a warm tropical sea. The fossilised remains of the millions of sea creatures that form the limestone, can be seen in the rocks of the drystone walls crossing the fields on the limestone plateau.
The steep-sided dales cutting the limestone plateau, contain ancient woodland and many wild flowers. Water dissolves the rock, forming underground streams and caves. Where streams still run on the surface, dippers and other water life can be seen.
Wheeldon Trees Farm lies at the northern end of the White Peak.
The Dark Peak
This is a landscape of contrast between the high gritstone moorland and the broad flat shale valleys. These are also sedimentary rocks and were formed from deposits of sand (gritstone) and mud (shale) as the Peak District area became the estuary of a vast river around 280 million years ago.
The moorland area is very high (over 300 metres above sea level) and much is covered by a thick layer of peat. The soil is acid and only a few plants grow (heather, bilberry, cottongrass). Much of the moor is managed for red grouse and for sheep farming. These two activities prevent woodland regeneration. However, areas of ancient oak woodland still survive below the edges and in steep sided cloughs.
The shale valleys have milder climates and contain the best farmland and many of the settlements and transport routes. Many of the valleys have also been used to form reservoirs.
Look out beyond Sheldon Cottage (weather permitting !) and beyond the limestone ‘peaks’ of Parkhouse and Chrome Hills you can see gritstone moorlands towards Axe Edge and beyond.
National Nature Reserves
The Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve consists of parts of five separate limestone valleys in the Peak District National Park – Lathkill, Cressbrook, Monk’s, Long and Hay Dale.
Lathkill Dale, the closest to Wheeldon Trees (about 4 miles away), is recommended for casual visitors; the other dales are for more seasoned walkers !
It’s a superb example of all the major wildlife habitats of the White Peak Natural Area, including :
- Flower-rich grasslands
- Abundant limestone plants such as common rock rose and salad burnet, up to 45 different species have been found in a square meter !
- Rarities include Jacob’s ladder, spring cinquefoil and Nottingham catchfly; visit in spring to see the thousands of early purple orchids and cowslips
- Insects are equally diverse, and south-facing and west-facing slopes are home to rarities such as the northern brown argus butterfly and cistus forester moth
- Internationally important woodlands, dominated by ash, with a rich shrub layer and ground flora including bird cherry, mezereon and alpine currant
- The River Lathkill itself has among the purest waters in the country – look out for dippers, wagtails and even kingfishers on the banks …
- Other unusual habitats such as species-rich scrub, limestone heaths, lead spoils, flushes, dewponds, screes, rock exposures and caves
The other locations…
Cressbrook Dale has steeper paths, leading you from ash woods to a turf landscape dotted with rockrose and alive with butterflies and moths, broken by rocky outcrops and screes.
Monk’s Dale is a wilder prospect, needing more effort to reach its inner sanctum, but well worth that exertion.
Hay Dale and Long Dale are both small and make a great trip for naturalists looking for limestone flowers and insects.
Here are some popular days out, visitor attractions and things to do outdoors: