A mining town until the 1980s, Chesterfield’s industrial sites have been regenerated and the town is almost unrecognisable from just a generation ago.
The Medieval alleys and courtyards in the old centre are commanded by the postcard landmark, the crooked spire of the Parish Church.
At Chesterfield you’re on the east flank of the Peak District National Park, while Hardwick Hall, one of the England’s finest Elizabethan estates, is tantalisingly close.
The town’s most distinguished resident was the 19th-century civil engineer, George Stephenson, described as the “Father of Railways” and remembered with an inspiring exhibition at the Chesterfield Museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chesterfield:
1. Chesterfield Parish Church
The Church of St Mary and All Saints, also the Crooked Spire Church, is Chesterfield’s big landmark, famed for its twisting and leaning spire.
Even the local football team, Chesterfield FC, is nicknamed the Spirites.
That spire dates to 1362, and while the twist is intentional, and was common in Europe at the time, its tilt was caused by centuries and expansion and contraction in the lead tiles coating the structure.
Of course, there are local legends explaining the twist and the lean, one being that a local virgin married in the church, and the building was so surprised that it span around to see the bride.
On Fridays and Saturdays you can take a 45-minute tour of the tower, taking you part way up to take in the townscape and Derbyshire countryside.
2. Chesterfield Canal
When it was completed in 1777, this waterway connected Chesterfield with the River Trent at Stockwith, 46 miles away.
With the 2.6-kilometre Norwood Tunnel and some of the first staircase locks in the UK, Chesterfield Canal was a groundbreaking piece of engineering, exporting coal, limestone and lead, and bringing in timber, corn and fresh produce.
A partnership between Derbyshire County Council and the Chesterfield Canal Trust has fully restored the waterway between Chesterfield and Staveley Town Basin.
The green, peaceful towpath is named the Cuckoo Way can be cycled or walked.
There’s also visitor centre at Tapton Lock, and you can take narrowboat trips from Hollingwoodhub, both in striking distance of the town.
3. Hardwick Hall
The definition of an Elizabethan Prodigy House, Hardwick Hall pushed the boundaries of stately architecture in the late 16th century.
What will strike you right away is the size of the windows, giving rise to the saying “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall”. As a Prodigy House, Hardwick Hall was a statement of power and wealth for Bess of Hardwick, an irrepressible businesswoman who also increased her wealth with help of four shrewd marriages.
On the facade you can see Bess’s initials “ES” in openwork above six banqueting house pavilions that shape the hall’s silhouette.
On the inside there’s furniture and stunning tapestries which have been in the house’s inventory since Bess was here.
4. Hardwick Old Hall
In the grounds you’ll come across the vestiges of Hardwick Old Hall, looked after by English Heritage.
Like Bess’s new hall, this is a Grade I-listed monument and predates its neighbour by a few years, later becoming guest accommodation.
There’s an exhibition in the adjoining West Lodge, going into depth on Bess of Hardwick and the evolving architecture of Elizabethan England.
The ruins of the Old Hall are thrilling too, for the craftsmanship of the plasterwork over the fireplaces in the main rooms.
You can make your way up four floors of this roofless building for an all-encompassing panorama of the estate.
5. Stainsby Mill
Something else to see on the grounds of Hardwick Hall is this 19th-century flour mill, managed by the National Trust and in perfect working condition.
A mill has stood on this spot sine the 1200, but the present building composed of dressed sandstone dates from 1846. Go in to find how all the wheels, cogs and gears function, and follow the course of wheat from the field to the flour bag.
You can grind your own flour to take home, and the mill even hands out traditional recipes for bread.
Outside you can negotiate the Miller’s Shoe Walk next to the mill race and pond that feed the waterwheel.
6. Bolsover Castle
A day out not to turn down, Bolsover Castle is 15 minutes in the car from Chesterfield and is a resplendent Stuart mansion.
Designed as a statement of luxury rather than for defence, it was built at the start of the 17th-century by the Cavendish family, on top of an earlier castle dating back to the 1100s.
Most lavish is the Little Castle, ordered by the courtier and playboy Sir William Cavendish, and playing host to King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria in 1634, when Cavendish spent an incredible £15,000 to entertain them.
The Little Castle has been restored and has marble fireplaces and colourful frescoes on its walls and ceilings.
Don’t miss the wall walk on the faux battlements and the Terrace Range facing the Vale of Scarsdale.
7. Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery
This compelling, multifaceted museum is in the grand Stephenson Memorial Hall, built as a mechanics school in a neo-Gothic style in 1879 and occupied by the museum since 1994. No aspect of Chesterfield’s history is overlooked, whether it’s the Romans or the Industrial Revolution.
An attention-grabbing exhibit is the rare builder’s windlass, a Medieval wooden wheel used to lift stone material during the construction of the Parish Church.
One man who features repeatedly in the art gallery is Joseph Syddall (1864-1942), considered one of the most accomplished draughtsmen of the time and commissioned for the illustrations of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles in Graphic Magazine.
8. Queen’s Park
Chesterfield’s main park is best known as the home of Derbyshire County Cricket Club.
The ground has seating for 7,000 fans, and if you’re a cricket fan or curious about the sport you can watch first-class, one-day and T20 matches here throughout the summer.
T20 and one-day have more batting action if you’re new to the sport.
Queen’s Park is also a graceful Victorian urban park, inaugurated in 1893 and boasting an exquisite conservatory, bandstand and miniature railway.
Check the council website as there’s a calendar of brass band concerts at the bandstand, while the beautifully maintained miniature train runs all through the spring and summer.
9. Barrow Hill Roundhouse Railway Centre
There’s a charming piece of railway history at this former maintenance building for steam locomotives, dating to 1870. The Barrow Hill Roundhouse was where these engines were turned, restocked with coal and cleaned, and is a rare survivor as most roundhouses were pulled down when the steam age came to a close.
A museum since the 1990s, Barrow Hill Roundhouse has a functioning turntable and lifting gear, with steam, diesel and electric locomotives, as well as displays explaining a working day at the roundhouse.
Here you can browse black and white photos, signs and an array of hands-on stations related to engineering and science.
10. Revolution House
This modest-looking thatched house three miles north of the centre of Chesterfield has a big story to tell.
In the 17th century it was the Cock and Pynot alehouse, where in 1688 the Earl of Devonshire, Earl of Danby and a Mr John D’Arcy met to plan the Glorious Revolution, in which the English crown would be taken from King James II and given to his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange.
The house is now a free museum, with 17th-century furniture and a short film about the background to the Glorious Revolution.
A host of events take place here year-round, including carols singers at Christmas.
11. Poolsbrook Country Park
Like a couple of the public spaces around Chesterfield, Poolsbrook Country Park is on what used to be a colliery.
There’s a hint of what came before at the main entrance, which has a preserved pulley wheel.
The pits were filled in to become fishing lakes, and on their shores are woodland and meadows, woven with trails for walkers, cyclists and people on horseback.
If you’re up for a real hike, the park is on the long-distance Trans Pennine Trail.
On an easy ramble through the park you may catch sight of cormorants, yellow wagtails and great crested grebes and there’s a cafe next to the main lake.
12. Sutton Scarsdale Hall
In the village of the same name are the ruins of a Georgian late-Baroque country house, built from sandstone.
Sutton Scarsdale Hall went up in the 1720s and at the time had a splendour and scale that can be compared to the more famous Chatsworth House.
Its fireplaces, staircases, plasterwork and oak panelling were produced by some of the period’s most famous craftsmen, but after decades of neglect the house was asset stripped in 1919 when even the roof was removed.
The remaining skeleton, with pediment relief and Corinthian pilasters and columns was saved from demolition in the 1970s, and English Heritage has preserved fragments of the masterful stuccowork inside.
13. Holmebrook Valley Country Park
In Chesterfield’s western suburbs, the Holmebrook Valley Country Park is on what used to be an opencast coalmine.
These 130 acres of ponds, meadows, woodland and sports fields were reclaimed over several years and opened to the public in 1995. There’s a mountain bike course, a sculpture trail, a cafe, angling lake, outdoor gym, playground, sports pitches and a visitor centre explaining the park’s nature and the history of the site.
On walks keep your eyes peeled for woodpeckers and yellowhammers, while flowers like bluebells, red campions and orchids grow in the meadows and woodland.
In summer there’s also a programme of children’s activities organised by the park’s rangers.
14. Chesterfield Open Air Market
Off the High Street in the shadow of the 1857 Market Hall, Chesterfield’s Open Air Market is one of the largest in the country, with around 250 stalls.
Chesterfield received its market charter in 1204 and the general market trades on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays from 09:00 to 16:00. There you can go shopping for seasonal fresh produce, homewares, fashion, jewellery and handicrafts.
There’s also a flea market on Thursdays, as well as less frequent farmers’ and artisan markets.
The market hall was refurbished in 2013 and has more stalls selling clothing, food and fabrics, and is home to the sociable Market Plaza Cafe.
15. The Yards and The Shambles
Mixing historic houses with newer constructions, the Yards is a series of snug interconnecting alleys off Chesterfield’s main shopping area at South Street and Central Pavement.
Signs above the passageways read “Theatre Yard” and “Falcon Yard” beckoning you past former workshops and stables, now featuring a range of independent shops, confectioners, cafes and a gallery.
Across Central Pavement from the Yards there’s another picturesque grid of alleys dating back to Medieval times, at the Shambles.
At no. 1 you’ll find the 16th-century Royal Oak pub, the oldest pub in Chesterfield and one of the oldest in England.