After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria’s favoured couture was Leek raven black lace. Such patronage ensured that lace making, established in the 1650s, thrived in this ancient market town as loyal subjects strove to emulate the monarch.
A necklace of imposing mills, some now antiques shops, circle the flanks of the sandstone hilltop, crowned by Leek’s homely marketplace and medieval St Edward’s Church, with its Saxon crosses. Curiously, if you visit the churchyard around midsummer’s eve, due to a peculiar lie of the land, the sun seems to set twice behind distant Bosley Cloud hill.
Wednesday is the best day to explore this enticing little town; stalls spill from the market cobbles into side streets and the Buttermarket hums with activity. The town centre is a remarkable suite of Victorian Gothic architecture, the work of William and Larner Sugden. Derby Street and the steep St Edward Street are a particularly intoxicating mix of half-timbered gables, ornate Staffordshire brick and neo-Georgian touches, many now antique shops. Much of the handsome town dates from the mid-Industrial Revolution; earlier buildings include Brindley Mill, a corn mill built by renowned canal engineer James Brindley in 1752.
Ginnels and byways snake across the town’s heart; follow Russell Street to its foot to discover the tiny Oatcake Shop, rare survivor of this once ubiquitous local early takeaway. Nearby, on Compton, the Grade I-listed high-Victorian All Saints Church has stained glass produced by William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who spent time in Leek studying printing and dyeing. Guided walks explore the town’s engaging heritage, or you can simply follow the self-guided William Morris Town Trail.
HAZY PURPLE MOORS
Just south of Leek is the secluded Churnet Valley, a glorious wooded chasm with canal, a steam railway and the unique, twin-wheeled watermill at Cheddleton. Waymarked walks thread here from the town centre and also to pretty Rudyard Lake, a peaceful retreat north-west of Leek. Rippling across the near horizons are hazy purple moors, flanked to the north by the phenomenal crags at The Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks; home, possibly, to a few Tasmanian wallabies, which were released from a local zoo in the 1930s. Dappling these heights are five of England’s eight highest pubs, interlinked by well-marked footpaths through dramatic gritstone scenery. Leek and the surrounding countryside will charm you on many levels; just allow ample time to let its atmosphere, setting and legacy soak in.
10 Sheepmarket, Leek ST13 5HW
A compact Pandora’s Box, crammed with wonderful fodder, with a few perching stools and outdoor tables. Try the homemade pies.
Paddock Farm, Upper Hulme, Leek ST13 8TY
Magical views of the Roaches, crags and edges, with mouth-watering scran and the best local produce.
Peak Weavers Hotel
King Street, Leek ST13 5NW
This is a pleasantly secluded town centre base, with great accommodation and an award-winning restaurant. B&B from £35 per person per night.
Churnet Valley Railway
Station Road, Cheddleton, Leek ST13 7EE
Steam trains thread between country pubs in the secluded, heritage-rich Churnet Valley.