It is about five miles south of Matlock and about four miles north of Belper. Whatstandwell railway station is located on the Derby-Matlock Derwent Valley Line, and the A6 trunk road crosses the River Derwent in the village.
On Burdett's Map of 1791 it is shown as "Hottstandell Bridge", probably a literal spelling of the local dialect. A mid nineteenth century Ordnance Survey map shows it as "Whatstandwell Bridge" which was the name given to the railway station. The name derives from Walter Stonewell, who "held of the convent" the house next to the bridge which John de Strepul built at his own expense, in 1393.
The Cromford Canal also passes through the village, which was an important transport route to and from Arkwright's Mill in the nineteenth century. The Friends Of Cromford Canal are currently seeking to reopen this navigation in full from Cromford to its junction with the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill. This area is part of the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site.
To the east of the village is the steep climb to Crich and the National Tramway Museum, while a short distance to the north is the former rope-worked incline of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. To the south, on the west bank of the Derwent, lie Shining Cliff Woods, which are a National Trust property — however there is no official access to this end of the woods.
Whatstandwell is mentioned in the D H Lawrence novel Sons and Lovers, published 1913, in a scene in which Paul Morel and Miriam go on a day's outing: "They went on, miles and miles, to Whatstandwell. All the food was eaten, everybody was hungry, and there was very little money to get home with. But they managed to procure a loaf and a currant-loaf, which they hacked to pieces with shut-knives, and ate sitting on the wall near the bridge, watching the bright Derwent rushing by, and the brakes from Matlock pulling up at the inn."
Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-world sailor, grew up in Whatstandwell.