The nearest city to the geographical heart of England, Derby is making a virtue of being at the centre of things as it strives to emerge from the shadows of its larger neighbours, Nottingham and Sheffield. Clusters of cranes swing lazily over the city centre, but one of the beauties of this industrious place is how quickly the conurbation gives way to the countryside, with the southern end of the wild, unspoilt Peak District almost on its doorstep.
Derby owes its location to the Romans, who formed a settlement on a bend of the River Derwent. It got its name from the Danes, who captured it in 854 and made "Deoraby" one of the five administrative hubs of their far-western outpost. The Saxons restored order in 917, building a church soon afterwards on the site of the present-day cathedral, which dominates the old quarter of town, which is connected to the modern centre by a cluster of narrow, atmospheric streets and the Market Place, where everything and everyone converges. Circumscribed by an inner ring road that keeps most of the traffic at arm's length, the compact centre is best explored on foot.
The most obvious sign of Derby's ambitious reconstruction programme is the gleaming white giant half a mile south of the Cathedral Quarter. The Westfield mall has attracted nearly 20 million visitors in its first 10 months, and the city is upgrading its cultural, entertainment and recreational facilities to offer these new incomers more than shopping. The river which first attracted the Romans, but has been neglected for decades, is being opened up for recreation, water sports and fashionable living. Next month sees the completion of a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, connecting the Cathedral Quarter with new apartments and offices on the opposite bank.
There are numerous festivals dotted about the calendar: real ale in January and July, jazz in March, visual arts in September. Further information and booking facilities are available at the Tourist Information Centre in the Assembly Rooms on the north side of Market Place (01332 255802; www.visitderby.co.uk). It opens Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm; Sat 9.30am-5pm; Sun 10.30am-2.30pm.
Despite all the commercial and construction activity, your eyes are constantly drawn back to the four-pinnacled tower which has presided over Derby's fluctuating fortunes since the 16th century. The medieval church became a dangerous eyesore and was pulled down, and its replacement dates from the early 1700s. Enlarged over time, it became a cathedral in 1927. Large, plain windows flood the interior with daylight, and there are enough features of interest to fill a thick pamphlet: the ornate tomb of Bess of Hardwick, the second most celebrated female of the Elizabethan era; the modern, white and gold baldacchino suspended over the altar; two abstract stained glass windows added in the last century.
Keep your ears open too – the tower contains the oldest peal of 10 bells in the world, as well as an electric carillon that plays a different tune every day at 9am, noon and 6pm. There are 189 steps to the rooftop, but the reward is exceptional views of the city and the green, hilly surrounds. Tours can be arranged at £2 per head. Ring 01332 341201 or visit www.derbycathedral. org. Opening hours for other visitors are every day between 8am-6pm.
A stone tablet on one of the cathedral walls commemorates the historic event that ensures the city a special place in the hearts of patriotic Scots. In December 1745 Derby was as far as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Highland army penetrated into England on their ill-fated mission to depose the monarchy. Charles Edward Stuart attended a church service before being persuaded to call off the invasion because of dwindling popular support. His comeuppance came at Culloden the following year, but not before he'd created such panic in London that there was nearly a run on the Bank of England.
Look out for the statue of the Young Pretender on horseback outside on Cathedral Green, and visit the Bonnie Prince Charlie Room at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery on The Strand (01332 716659; www.derby.gov.uk/museums) to hear the man himself (well, a lifesize model of him) telling the story of the Jacobite uprising. Also housed there is the largest collection of paintings by local man Joseph Wright, the 18th-century artist who captured the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution. There's free admission to the museum: Mon 11am-5pm; Tue-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 1-4pm.
The mid-18th century was Derby's golden age, as it stole a march on England's other industrial centres by producing quality silk and other textiles at a string of mills along a 15-mile stretch of the Derwent. The first of these appeared in Derby around 1720, and are generally regarded as the first modern factories in England. A few remnants are still visible around the Museum of Industry and History on the riverbank at Full Street (01332 255308; www.derby. gov.uk/museums), which celebrates the city's proud tradition of manufacturing and, later, engineering. By the late 18th century, the ground-breaking Royal Crown Derby works was turning out fine china and porcelain, and the arrival of the Rolls-Royce plant in 1908 placed Derby at the forefront of British engineering. The museum, which is free to enter, opens Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 1-4pm. The relics of other mills along the lovely Derwent Valley, as the river snakes into the moors, are preserved as one of the country's lesser-known World Heritage sites (www.derwentvalleymills.org).
The Westfield Centre, with its plain, windowless façade, is no thing of beauty, but consumers are drawn by amenities and labels, not looks, and by filling the city with new visitors it could benefit local traders in the long run. For traditional shopping, head for the Victorian Market Hall at Osnabruck Square or the narrow lanes and passages that lead off the central streets. The city's best restaurants are on Friar Gate. For the shopping-averse, Westfield is still worth a visit, if only to see its vast, American-owned multiplex cinema on the third floor. Two of the screens, known as Director's Halls, have their own entrance and bar (serving hot meals).
Most of the cinema seats are arranged in pairs, set at a discreet distance from their neighbours, with individual tray tables for food and drink. Admission (£12) is nearly double the standard price for the 10 other screens, but this complex could point the way towards cinema-going in the future.
One traditional facet of Derby life unaffected by the new arrivals is its remarkable collection of pubs. As many as 120 specialise in locally-brewed real ale. A good way of sampling the best of them is to join an organised beer trail, which includes tasting visits to micro-breweries and pubs, where up to five varieties are served, often in conjunction with a plateful of local cheeses. Prices start at £62 for two.
Other themed breaks include ghost tours and football weekends. Derby County were relegated from the Premiership last season, but interest from their fans remains high. For £95, a Rams weekend package includes overnight accommodation for two, a tour of Pride Park Stadium, a pre-match lunch and tickets to the game. To make a reservation for any themed break, contact the tourist office.
For more information on city breaks and where to stay go to enjoyengland.com
Derby's latest architectural newcomer is QUAD, which will become one of Midlands' major arts and media centres when it opens on 26 September. A large modern art gallery will be the centrepiece of this striking, coloured-glass building on the edge of Market Place, but QUAD will be a multi-purpose venue, with two screens for art-house movies and other spaces and studios for workshops and live performances. Coinciding with the launch, a three-day international festival of arts – the Derby Festé – will fill the streets over the weekend of 26-28 September. QUAD (01332 285444; www.derbyquad.co.uk) will open every day between 11am-8pm.