The Peak District

The Peak District is a beautiful upland area at the southern end of the Pennines stretching from Ashbourne in the south to the M62 in the north. The northern Dark Peak is an area of wild heather-clad moorland lined by gritstone edges and boulders that contrast with the limestone plateau and deep dales of the White Peak. Cut by sparkling rivers, populated with beautiful villages, a rich industrial heritage and home to Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, the UK’s first national park has photographic opportunities all year round.

Photographing The Peak District is a big and lavish guidebook, and documents the most comprehensive list of locations in the Peak to visit and photograph ever published, both the classics and unheard of locations, including some soon-to-be classics.

Whilst the Peak doesn’t have the high mountains of North Wales, the Lake District or Scotland, nor the coastline of the South West, its moorland and rural beauty provides viewpoints at every turn, some of which are the amongst the most famous in the UK. Mam Tor’s Great Ridge and its gate, the views from the gritstone edges of Curbar, Stanage and Higger Tor, Cave Dale and its castle, Winnats Pass looking down on the Hope Valley, the high perches of Kinder, the medieval splendour of Haddon Hall and the vast estate of Chatsworth, all are classic landscape locations proud enough to be on anyone’s list to visit and enjoy.

Below are some highlights from a year in Peak District Photography.

Winter – December, January, February

Winter arrives in the Peak District with a bit of a crash. Waves of wet stormy November weather blast away the remnants of autumn’s colours, although temperatures can hold up quite well in the run up to Christmas.

The first snows sprinkle the higher tops usually in early December but these rarely persist more than a couple of days. As the year closes out look for high pressure days, which even at this time of year can create temperature inversions over the Derwent Valley that create low lying mist on the valley floor. If the ambient temperatures are at or close to zero then there is an excellent chance that the misty inversions will coincide with spectacular air frosts that coat the trees and walls with ice.

After the turn of the year the temperatures in the High Peak drop and allow any snows to persist long enough to entertain the photographer. Wrap up warm and pack a hand warmer next to your spare battery to stop the cold draining power.

Late January and early February in particular are good times for snowfall. How accessible the landscape remains is at these times depends on just how much snow falls. At times of heavy snow the Highways Authority concentrate their resources on keeping the major routes as open as possible. The first roads to close in winter snows are the A537 Cat and Fiddle, the A53 Buxton to Leek road, A57 Snake Pass and the A628 Woodhead Pass. Heavier falls will close many of the other high level major A roads such as the A515 and the A623 very quickly so attention needs to be paid if you are planning to be out and about when the snow is actually falling.

In the White Peak strong winds can scour snow off the fields and dump it in between the dry stone walls that line the lanes, making them impassable for days. Once the snow has fallen and the major routes are open the snow plows turn their attention to other thoroughfares and the photographer can venture to more remote areas, even if it means a bit more walking than normally. Some of the very minor roads may remain impassable to all but 4×4‘s while low temperatures persist.

When the temperature remains below zero for prolonged periods – for example during a blocking winter high pressure area –  there is often a stage where the roads are cleared and we have good access to the magical snow-covered landscape, often for several days. The low winter light at this time can create some stunning visual experiences.

The high moorlands offer genuine winter mountaineering experiences for the more adventurous with the trek to Kinder Downfall while it is frozen, which will be after three consecutive days of sub-zero temperatures, being a particular favourite.

  • If there is a hard frost or it snows head to the accessible gritstone edges where a combination of burnished brown bracken, pale yellow and rust-coloured grasses, colourful sunsets and sunrises, can give spectacular photographic conditions.
  • After snow look out for high pressure after the roads have cleared and head out to the White Peak for photographs of snowy fields, barns, farmhouses and walls especially at sunset which at this time of year occurs late afternoon.
  • If you are into adventure, fell fit’ and experienced head to the Kinder Plateau and Bleaklow which can be arctic-like and your likely to encounter a mountain hare in its white winter coat.
  • Search out snowdrops in February

Spring – March, April, May

How quickly spring gets going depends on what sort of winter the Peak District has had, although the predominant altitude means that it arrives significantly later here than at lower altitudes. The snowdrops get everything going in February with celandine coming in quickly after this.

The Peak often gets a curious mild period in March that can create colourful, hazy high pressure mornings but these usually disappear to be replaced once more by cold air. The air mass over the hills warms slowly. Spring creeps into the lower reaches of the Derwent Valley long before it manifests itself in the High Peak, with the daffodils in Derby having long gone over before they even in bud in Castleton and Buxton.

It is usually well into May before it feels warm in the High Peak. Photographically the early part of spring is mostly about the rocky summits and tors of the high moorlands but there is plenty to be made of the lines of bare trees that punctuate the skylines of the White Peak. Once the flowers kick in, however, it is the bluebells, ramsons and orchids that inevitably draw the eye. Trees come into leaf quite slowly, with the purple haze of silver birch buds colouring the flanks below the Eastern Edges around Easter time. For landscape photography this green budding contrasts well with the moorland where the heather and bracken are still in their winter coat of dark earthy tones. Ash, which dominates the White Peak woodlands often doesn’t come into leaf until May.

The maples and oaks have an acid yellow with curious red quality, a colour that often lasts a week before creeping over into the more familiar green with blue quality of cholorphyll. On the moors the bilberry acquires a vivid lime colour that the evening light picks out brilliantly. A highlight is the slow tide of candyfloss hawthorn blossom washes its way up the valleys and hillsides, topping out often in early June although a cold winter will see the highest trees flowering only weakly. Frosty mornings can still coincide with the occasional inversion as it does in winter so it is worth keeping an eye on high pressure and predictions for humidity and temperature at this time of year.

  • Cold mornings produce impressive ‘valley mist’ temperature inversions.
  • As the trees and meadows start to burst into life, their mosaic of green hues contrasts with the earthy-tones of the still dormant bracken and heather on the moorlands.
  • It’s bluebell time in April and the first orchids start to flower in May.

Summer – June, July, August

Where spring ends and summer begins in the Peak District is open to debate – let’s say the beginning of June in the White Peak and the end of June in the Dark Peak.

The spring orchids can still be flowering strong in some of the damp, cool corners of the limestone dales while the first summer orchids are making an appearance in the warmer and drier places, such is the overlap.

Summer is characterised by pale blue harebells and purple-pink scabious in the fields, tractors turning grass to make silage and hay. Hazy late afternoons layer up the landscapes beautifully.

The rocks and tors of the higher moors can be visited late when the sun is low and still leave plenty of ambient light to make the walk out safe. If you are not inspired by the relative softness of the summer landscape then why not have a look at the many festivals and country shows that happen at this time.

Well dressings are plentiful and many villages have specific and very interesting fertility and religious festivals. Look out for open gardens events and the large country shows where character abounds in not only the animals that are shown at these events but also in the people who attend them. The long days mean that animals that would often only be out foraging at night show themselves in the early dawn and late evenings. Owls, hares and deer are all more likely to be see in the summer months than at other times of the year – just get up early.

In late summer the high moorlands turn spectacularly purple with the heather and there are some places that would at other times of year be quite uninteresting but when the heather arrives suddenly become utterly magical.

The bell heather appears first at the end of July with its pinkness followed by the ubiquitous common heather or ling with its rich purples appearing half-way through August and can stretch all the way through September.

  • Hazy sunsets over Win Hill and Kinder from Stanage take on a Japanese layering quality.
  • If you are traveling from afar for a visit, come at the back end of August when the heather is in full flower. You will never regret it.
  • Take a walk by a river or visit a waterfall.
  • Walk down a green lane to get compositions of flower-filled limestone meadows and field barns.

Autumn – September, October, November

As the days shorten and cool the Peak District colours morph subtly toward yellow and rust. From mid-September through to November get out with your camera when you can, this can be the best of times.

The heather fades from distinctly purple into an appealing russet colour that still photographs well when there is plenty of blue in the sky. Silver birch, oak and maple turn gradually to gold and the beeches in Padley Gorge go swiftly from orange to red as the frosts approach, providing a riot of colour.

Other excellent beech woodlands include Ox Low Rake near Peak Forest, Musden Wood near Ilam, the southern flanks of Eldon Hill and the hillsides around the Goyt Valley, particularly Long Hill above Chapel-en-le-frith. The predominant ash of the White Peak does not colour up well but instead yellows and then promptly drops with the first frost. This means that the White Peak, where the ash predominates, is better for colour in the middle of autumn when there are still plenty of leaves on the trees. The Roaches in particular are a superb place to work in autumn, with the russet of the late heather combining with the mixed woodland well. The moist airs can layer up superbly with the rocky pinnacles and the landscapes beyond them. The Back Forest to the west of the the Roaches is superb at this time of year. In the Dark Peak the millstones at High Neb re-emerge as the bracken fades to gold. Head directly to any waterfall areas such as Lumsdale or Padley Gorge at this time of year.

In autumn the waters of the Derwent catchment create cool hollows into which the early morning mists pour, making the vantage points ’round here very attractive.Photographers rush to Winnat’s Pass, Mam Tor, Bamford Edge and Curbar Edge where these events are presented very well.In the south west Tittesworth Reservoir does something similar for the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks. The Wye Valley also catches autumn mists in a similar way to the Derwent Valley but on a smaller and more intimate scale. Monsal Head is a good place to witness and record Wye Valley mists and some of the views available from Longstone Edge on such mornings are outstanding.

Autumn starts slowly but the changes are significant as the rest of the landscape is still in its summer coat. Peak autumn when the colour is at its height is hard to predict but is usually in October. As autumn progresses into early November don’t give up hope, what little remains on the trees is usually very colourful but very distinct.

  • Waterfalls and cascades are at their best in autumn as the water flow increases.
  • This is the main season for temperature inversions; both misty and foggy mornings are common at this time of year. Check the forecast for clear still nights after a warm day with dropping temperatures. The Hope Valley and Upper Derwent, from Ladybower to Chatsworth, will not let you down. For the energetic get high on Kinder.
  • The deer are rutting on Big Moor and at Chatsworth.

Text copyright: Chris Gilbert and Mick Ryan



Mick Ryan

Director of fotoVUE and Co-author of Photographing The Peak District
Mick Ryan is the founder and the director of fotoVUE. He is based in Calderdale having spent the last seven years in the Peak District. He also spends part of the year in Saratoga Springs, upstate New York. He is the founder of Rockfax guidebooks and introduced well-designed large-format photo-topo...