The chocolate-and-cream coloured 1948 Bedford bus pulled up at 11.30am sharp close to Chesterfield marketplace. We climbed in and settled into the red plush seats. The conductor issued each of us with a ticket, punching them out from his silver machine with a pleasing "ting". The sun-roof was open. Passers-by, seeing the vintage vehicle, did double-takes. This was no ordinary excursion.
The Cosy Coach service shuttles between Chesterfield, Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle every summer Sunday and Bank Holiday. Not so long ago this part of Derbyshire was heavily industrialised, something that's hard to imagine now, looking at the lush, green landscape. As we trundled up its gentle hills at a maximum of 10mph, the conductor, Glyn, and the driver, Tom, pointed out some of the remnants of that earlier era: a chimney at Pleasley Colliery; a former railway turned into a walking trail; the ruins of a church. "And see there? That's all that's left of Williamsthorpe pit, just a bit of a fishing pond," said Glyn. One village, Ault Hucknall, has only three dwellings alongside the church, but a large graveyard on both sides of the road: like Eyam, this was a plague village.
Our first stop was Hardwick Hall, where we ambled around the gardens until opening time and were rewarded with a good view of this monogrammed mansion: the initials ES carved on top of each tower ostentatiously proclaim the importance of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick, and in her time the richest woman in England after Elizabeth I.
In the herb garden there was a social gathering. One woman had seated herself near a bank of lavender, while her husband sat on the stone seat. They'd struck up a conversation with another group of visitors and, having established that they both came here most weekends, were swapping stories. The father of one of them had once met the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (who lived here until the Fifties) in these gardens.
After a tour of the house and "pottage" at the restaurant in the hall kitchen, we were back on the bus and off to the next stop, The Hardwick Inn, where a party of five were off-loaded.
Another smaller group, hearing that the bus would be going back to Hardwick Hall (albeit by way of Bolsover Castle) decided to climb aboard and join us.
We had an hour to spend at Bolsover, although it was not quite long enough to do justice to the atmospheric audio tour. It did, however, give us plenty of time to savour the 17th-century Little Castle with its gilded panelling and erotic paintings: William Cavendish, Bess of Hardwick's grandson who completed this building, was a sybarite.
From the adjacent terrace, we gazed out over the Vale of Scarsdale and the neat rows of terraced houses in New Bolsover: this was once a pit village but is now looking ripe for the inevitable gentrification that is taking place in towns all over the north.
On our way back to Chesterfield, Tom pointed out a barn with a skeleton of timbers for a roof, which was recently bought for redevelopment for more than £80,000: another sign of changing times.
Tom and Glyn admit to being on a mission, albeit a rather passive one. They like restoring the buses – the Bedford is soon to be joined by a 1961 Bristol – but they also want to encourage tourists to leave their cars at home. Glyn was telling Tom about a car driver who had followed the bus on different parts of the route to take pictures. Glyn had asked him why, if he liked the bus so much, he wasn't travelling on it. Much more convenient to have the car, the man had said. I can't believe that was the case – and this was a great deal more fun.
Back in Chesterfield, we dismounted by the bridge with the coat of arms (its motto: Aspire) and went to read the Sunday papers in the peaceful shade of the crooked spire. Not so peaceful after all, as we coincided with bell-ringing practice, but that seemed a fitting conclusion to a day out from another age.
Day return, from Chesterfield railway station, to Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle, £5. Passengers entitled to half-price entry at attractions. Cosy Coach tours: 0114 2489139, www.cosycoach.co.uk; timetable from Chesterfield Tourist Office. 01246 345777
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