Arts in the Peak District

Festivals, concerts, theatre, comedy and more

With so much great art inspired by the surrounds of the Peak District, it’s only fitting that the National Park should be awash with arts festivals and notable venues.

Big Names in Buxton

The Buxton Festival is an annual summer festival of opera, music, along with the fairly recent addition of a literary series.

Although it didn’t officially begin until 1979, the Festival’s roots can be traced back to 1936, when a yearly drama festival was held (until 1942) in conjunction with the London-based Old Vic Theatre Company.

In the early 70s the festival was one of the country’s most renowned rock festivals, with big names such as Chuck Berry, Mott The Hoople, The Faces, Lindisfarne, Canned Heat, Nazareth, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and Roy Wood’s Wizzard all appearing.

Inspired by the restoration of the Buxton Opera House, Malcolm Fraser - then lecturing in opera at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music - spotted its potential as a venue for an opera festival. Fraser then proceeded to spend three years planning the inaugural event while restoration was underway.

The restored Buxton Opera House was the venue for the first Buxton Festival in 1979 and the event has since gone from strength to strength.

The 2012 renewal runs from July 7th-25th, as well as the Festival Fringe - which showcases artists and performers of all kinds in a variety of venues in the area.

It is now one of the only festivals in the country to specialise in producing seldom performed operas by major composers - each opera is staged exclusively for the Buxton audience and the intimate Opera House.

Buxton Opera House has also become a noted concert venue in its own right, with established names in rock, pop, folk and comedy - and Shakin’ Stevens - gracing the stage.

Acclaimed Comedians

The venue has attracted some of the very biggest names particularly in comedy, including Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ presenter Simon Amstell, impersonator Alistair McGowan, Aussie musical funny-man Tim Minchin, and comic jack-of-all-trades Rob Brydon. Stephen K Amos, Julian Clary and Rhod Gilbert have all appeared recently, along with Ardal O’Hanlon and Ross Noble.

On the eastern edge of the Peak District is a pair of venues, just a stones’ throw apart, forging growing reputations. The Winding Wheel and The Pomegranate Theatre, in Chesterfield, have seen an increasing number of household names stopping by on their nationwide tours as the town re-establishes itself as a tour date regular.

Ubiquitous stand-up Jimmy Carr was a recent visitor to a packed Winding Wheel, and shows by the critically-acclaimed folk trio Lau, TV favourite John Bishop and prog-rock legends Wishbone Ash all played to packed houses.

Although slightly more low-key and locally-focused, the Wirksworth Festival is no less essential. Since 1995 this flourishing visual arts festival has been pulling in punters in their thousands, doing wonders for the local economy.

It has grown from the humblest of beginnings, when local artists would welcome guests into their homes to admire their work.

Since 2008 the festival has been funded by the Arts Council England, which has given organisers the platform to further consolidate the event’s reputation as one of the country’s leading rural visual arts festivals.

Who Needs Glasto?

Held in nearby Pikehall, near Matlock, the acclaimed Y-Not Festival punches way above its weight and hosts some of the UK’s most vital indie bands.

This intimate boutique festival has come a long way since its inauspicious debut in 2006. Then held in a small Derbyshire quarry, the line-up comprised local and unsigned bands and attracted a crowd of just 500 people or so.

Having moved to a more suitable and picturesque venue a year later, the festival today pulls in around 4,000 punters who flock to Pikehall to see some of UK indie-rock’s most established acts.

Last year's headliners Maximo Park, Feeder and The Go! Team have all enjoyed chart success, while fellow critics’ favourites such as Turin Brakes, Noah & The Whale, Los Campesinos!, and The Young Knives have all appeared at Y-Not over the last couple of years.

Happily bereft of the usual corporate mega-sponsors and everything that comes with it (warm, pitiful lager and disgusting toilets, for example) Y-Not provides a unique experience which hasn’t escaped the attention of festival aficionados. In recent years it’s been nominated by the UK Festival Awards for best small festival, best line-up, and, most importantly I’m sure you’d agree, best toilets.

And, in 2011, the festival went one better and won both 'Best Grassroots Festival' and 'Best Toilets' at the UK Festival Awards.

The 2012 line-up has yet to be finalised although the first wave of bands have been announced, and they include The Pigeon Detectives, The Subways and The Wombats.


The Peak District’s landscapes and rich cultural heritage continues to provide inspiration to a wide range ofartists, writers and musicians. Having for many years been somewhat on the fringes of all things arty, the Peak District is once again an established arts and culture hotbed, with enough festivals, events, art galleries and concert venues to more than do justice to the region’s reputation as one of the most inspirational areas in the UK.

Sean Cummins

February 2012


Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015