This review of The Peacock at Rowsley in the Peak District is taken from our latest guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith: Hotel Collection – UK/Ireland Volume 2.
I can’t say I’m particularly well prepared for two days at a boutique hotel in the Peak District with a new boyfriend. Research-wise, I still blithely expect the ‘Peak’ bit to mean mountains – small English ones, perhaps, but considerable hillocks with distinct summits, at least. And, morally speaking, I score nul points: underneath the Miu Miu wedges and one or two optimistic summer dresses, my bags are crammed with OS Explorer Maps, wickable fabrics, and a Camelbak Hydration System, even though, as far as I am aware, my new beloved is to hillwalking what John Prescott is to favela funk.
Mr Smith has been informed that our stay at this stylish country-house hotel will involve getting amongst it outdoors, but I fear his idea of our real ale/fresh air ratio needs turning on its head. Still, I leaf through the Good Pub Guide obligingly as we purr up the M1 towards Rowsley and the best-kept boutique-hotel secret in Derbyshire. The Peacock is a country seat that’s perfect for urbanites: a handsome mini-stately on the A6 between Matlock and Buxton, with a smart black front door, a small army of young staff and its own bits of the rivers Wye and Derwent for fly-fishing if you’re serious about the country stuff.
There’s just enough formality among the smiles at check-in to reassure us that we’ll be properly looked after, and we follow our bags upstairs to find a room in the stately-for-two style we were hoping for. There’s a four-poster, antiques and enough room for me to unfold a few maps and tuck away our trekking equipment. It’s hung with old prints of Culloden and other 18th-century moments of note (the Peacock is among the properties of the Manners family, who own Haddon Hall, the thinking tourist’s stately home, down the road). The views aren’t expansive, but they’re leafy, and after 10 minutes among the creaky but covetable armoire and armchairs, we’re ready for a post-M1 stroll and a half of something local in a real, old-fashioned country pub. We head to a hamlet called Wardlow and a hotly recommended real pub called the Three Stags’ Heads. From the outside, it looks like a youth hostel, but inside… Dogs snooze by the fire in the tiny snug, and happy hikers clasp pints of eight per cent Brimstone ale. What a simple and satisfying place for an aperitif before we drive back to the Peacock for a somewhat more sophisticated dinner.
Eating here is a world away from the pub and its ruddy hikers. We read the menu over amuse-bouches in the low-lit, well-stocked bar, where there’s an open fire, gingham upholstery and old wooden tables. Only then are we brought through to the Peacock’s long, white-linened dining room. It’s another moment of formality that makes me glad I bothered to pack a dress and some not-for-walking shoes. But, though the service is smart, it’s not inhumanly polished; the atmosphere is relaxed and there’s a distinctly contemporary feel all round, from the wall-sized seaside photograph in the dining room to the unfusty textiles in the sitting room.
We’d have been satisfied with superior gastropub-type fare, but this is accomplished cooking: Mr Smith’s beef fillet is perfectly pink and unresisting, and comes with snails; my rack of lamb is just as refined. Elsewhere on the menu we see a mosaic of duck and a palette of ice-cream – if the Derbyshire demographic includes a sub-genre of foodie fly-fishermen, this place must make them very, very happy. It is one of those restaurants with rooms where we feel a bit sorry for the non-residents for having to leave.
In the morning, the tumblers of Laphroaig and Balvenie that seemed such a good idea late at night are more or less intact on the dressing table. Mr Smith wonders what the correct etiquette is for the maids; might we be saving our tipples for a post-trekking treat, in lieu of afternoon tea? But enough thoughts of teatime and bed; it’s a bank holiday Sunday, and there is a Peak to be tackled (I have, by now, established that the Peak bit is simply an old English word for ‘quite hilly, with escarpments and outcrops galore’). It is, ahem, raining a bit, but we Britishly chat amongst ourselves as we struggle up a very steep slope into the wind, along the gritstone cliff. Mr Smith is impressing me with his tough outdoorsiness, and green views of the Derwent Valley and thoughts of a hearty pub lunch keep us going until supper.
We go for it restrainedly with sausage and mash and a pint at the Chequers Inn, down at the foot of Froggatt Edge. The rest of the walk is a little kinder, giving us a bit more of a chance to hold hands – until interrupted by the occasional size-ist ‘squeeze stile’ – and taking us across up-and-down farmland where we barely see another soul. The sun comes out and, by the time we get back to the car, we feel rewarded.
We came, we hiked, we flaked out in the Peacock’s sitting room and laughed at the similarity between the average lonely-hearts ad and the for-sale classifieds in the Horse & Hound we picked up in the pub (‘stunningly pretty’, ‘flashy chap’…). In spite of fluffy cushions and green-velvet armchairs, the public spaces at the Peacock are almost grand. We felt very welcome to make ourselves at home and treat the sitting room and bar as our own. The same goes for the garden, which leads down to the hotel’s own stretch of the Derwent, site of said fly-fishing. There is a visitors’ book devoted to rod action by the front door and a group of men among our fellow guests who are here specifically for the trout-wrangling. We, however, are quite content to be landing scampi in lemonade batter, and roast beef; staying for another night at this boutique stately home is even more a treat than the first. And, bliss: the only steep slope we’ve got to climb before bed is the stairs.