Derby WINNER; Travel; Well worth a punt.. and a pint.
LET'S be brutally honest, anyone compiling a list of the most attractive places to visit for a weekend away in the UK would not necessarily think of Derby.
But when a little bird told me it was laying claim to be the best place in the country for real ale and great pubs, I felt compelled to take a look.
And what a revelation it was.
Forget any preconceptions you may have about it being the poor relation to its bigger, brasher neighbour Nottingham.
It is one of the friendliest places I have ever visited, full of wonderful, pubs, walks, galleries and museums that are worth a trek from afar.
The warm welcome began a few miles outside the city, in the small and sleepy village of Dalbury Lees.
Here I spent two nights at The Cow, a fabulous boutique inn with 12 wonderfully appointed rooms and food to die for.
The delicious British tapas menu was quirky, different and impeccably cooked.
All of the rooms are individually styled with luxury furnishings, bedding and smart TVs.
As perfect for a business traveller as it is for those on a weekend break, The Cow is probably one of the best places of its kind in the UK and a perfect base from which to explore Derby or the nearby Peak District.
It was only a short taxi ride from The Cow to the heart of the city, where a walk up the 189 steps to the top of magnificent Derby Cathedral offered stunning views all round.
Then came the ale. And what a revelation.
First port of call was The Greyhound pub owned by the Derby Brewing Company.
We had lunch in the walled outdoor garden before heading down the road to see how beer is made first hand.
We were guests of the Dancing Duck Brewery, whose head brewer Rachel Matthews took us through the whole process before the main event - a tasting of her wares. They were sensational and set us up for a stroll around the city centre, including a visit to the fascinating Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
Packed full of great treasures, it includes the world's largest collection of Joseph Wright paintings, an Egyptian mummy, military artefacts, precious porcelain and archaeological curiosities.
Pickford's House is another free museum gem where you can explore a stunning Georgian townhouse and garden designed and lived in by the celebrated Derby architect Joseph Pickford.
The real heart of Derby is its cathedral quarter - Iron Gate and Sadler Gate - where the cobbled streets and grand architecture create a beautiful shopping environment.
Bennetts the department store dates back to 1734 and there are plenty of places to sample the local delicacy - the Derby pyclet, which is like a flattened crumpet.
The city can lay claim to being one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution. Parts of it lie within the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site, which takes in hundreds of listed buildings.
Our stay was rounded off with a visit to the Exeter Arms, one of the best pubs for beer drinkers in Britain, with food to match.
Here we had a fabulous welcome from the locals and were invited to join in the weekly pub quiz, where we performed creditably though just falling short of beating the impressive local experts.
Heading back south after a hearty final breakfast at The Cow, I reflected on a visit which exceeded all expectations.
Derby really is a hidden gem in the heart of Britain.
A Sunday night stay at The Cow between now and March 31 for two people - including a welcome drink and nibbles, breakfast and PS40 towards dinner - costs PS150. To book go to cowdalbury.com. For more information on Derby and the surrounding area go to the website visitderby.co.uk.
VISIT The Pyclet Parlour in the Victorian Market Hall. Here they have resurrected and reinvented one of Derbyshire's greatest food traditions.
THE Post House, housed in the one old Post Office, is a funky indoor street food market featuring eight independent bars and food stalls under one roof.
STOP by the multi-million pound arts centre, the QUAD.
It has three cinemas and an art gallery.
PERFECT: The Cow
A WRIGHT ONE: In Derby museum
OLD FAVE: Derby's cathedral quarter
EXPLORER: Our Dean on a trek