Dovedale is one of the prime attractions of the Peak District National Park. It sits just inside the southern border of the Park and is a very popular spot with day-trippers.
Dovedale is the name given to the valley through which the river Dove flows. The name of the river derives from the Celtic word 'Dubh' meaning black, which is something of a slur on the river, because it really isn't black at all. Dirty in a few places it may well be, but black it is not.
It can be quite busy in the summer months, but you only need to walk a short distance from the car park to escape the crowds. Though if you travelled the full walk described in this entry it would take about and hour-and-a-half. And just as much again to return to your car, though if you took a different route back it could take as much as six hours.
Before Starting Out
As with any walk, it is important to be attired correctly. Wear sensible shoes. No part of the walk is particularly hard, but if you are wearing high heels, or just shoes you are not comfortable in, you could quickly learn to hate the experience. As for everything else, just be sensible. If it looks like it's going to rain, take some waterproofs; if it doesn't, suit yourself. And don't bank on phoning someone to help you out once you've arrived, as there is absolutely no mobile phone signal obtainable down in the valley.
The entrance to Dovedale is located just north of Ashbourne in Derbyshire and is best found by going through Ashbourne, as it is well signposted from the town1. In fact the traditional 'welcome to the town' sign declares that this town is 'The Gateway to Dovedale'. Leaving Ashbourne, follow the A515 north and, after a short distance, there is a left turn and a signpost for Dovedale pointing in that direction. This takes you down a long and winding country road that will eventually deliver you to the car park for Dovedale. Since the introduction of a small car park at Milldale, it is now feasible to complete this walk from the opposite direction. But the car park at Milldale really is very small, indeed, and there is no guarantee there would be enough space on the day of your walk.
Begin at the Beginning
Though the valley itself is owned by The National Trust, the car park is not. It stands on private land and flashing your National Trust card will hold no truck with the white-coated, grey-haired gentleman that sells the car park tickets. For many years the price stood at £1.50 per car and this was printed on the ticket; however, in 2003 the price rose to the dizzy heights of £2 per car, and the price is no longer printed on the ticket, which might suggest there is an intention to raise it again.
Adjacent to the car park is a kiosk, which has a fine line in ice cream and fizzy drinks. There are ladies' and gents' lavatories there also. This is a most important point: use the lavatory. You will not be seeing another one for quite some time.
Shortly after leaving the car park you come to a bridge and it is here you face the first choice in your walk. You could either cross the bridge and walk along the foot of Thorpe Cloud hill, or stay on the side of the river you're on already, and cross the stepping-stones further up. It is worth noting that the river forms a natural county border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. You start on the Staffordshire side, but the moment you cross the river you are in Derbyshire.
Around the Bend
Up to the stepping-stones the path2 runs in a north-easterly direction, but immediately following them it turns north-westerly up to Lover's Leap hill, after which it follows a more-or-less northerly direction.
Lover's Leap is not very high, nor is it an overly difficult hill to climb, but unless you are prepared it can come as something of a shock to the system this early into the walk, and most people need a good sit down after surmounting it. It's actually easier to climb from the other side, but you've got to go there to come back. The Ordnance Survey map of the area identifies something called the Twelve Apostles across the river from Lover's Leap, but whatever this may be is obscured by the large wood on the opposite bank, which is one of the few surviving ash woods in the country, and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The next major feature is the Tissington Spires, named after the village (and hall) over to the east, on the other side of the A515. These shafts of rock stand proud of the hillside behind them and, as walking past them shifts the perspective, they are very hard to count, but there seem to be around 12 or 13 of them. Reynard's Cave cuts into the hillside shortly after the Spires, a large cave with a freestanding natural arch in front of the entrance. In all honesty, this researcher has never been able to accurately identify which cave is Reynard's, but it is supposedly a feature of some note, and is mentioned for that reason. The path continues on with few outstanding features until the valley narrows to the point that duckboards have been built out into the river so that walkers don't have to get their feet wet. But then it opens up again as the path leads up to Ilam Rock.
The Last Leg
Ilam Rock protrudes out of the hillside in a similar way to the Tissington Spires, though it is only one lone shaft. It's a frequent haunt of rock climbers, and is accessible via the bridge that lies across the river at this point. That bridge is also the starting point for the footpath to Stanshope, though there is a rather gravelly hill on that path, which means it's far easier to come back from there than to go. Continuing alongside the river, the path, which until now has been undulating a fair bit, flattens out. It is far easier to walk the final mile and a quarter to Milldale than it was to walk the mile and three-quarters up to Ilam Rock.
Passing over Viator's Bridge onto the West side of the river, you enter Milldale3. The hamlet is named after the corn mill that was situated on the river at this point, and though it was demolished in the mid-19th Century, the millstone can still be seen in the river. The hamlet boasts the first set of public lavatories you've come across since the car park, a National Trust Information Barn, which details some of the history of Dovedale, a nice little kiosk which sells maps, chocolates, cakes, pasties, various drinks and a very nice cup of tea. There are a few benches by the river or, if they are already taken - and they usually are - a large grass bank, where you can sit, enjoy your lunch and decide where to walk next.
Will you go along the road to Dale Bottom, turn left to go to Stanshope and try the footpath from there to Ilam Rock? Or follow the road through Stanshope down to Ilam? Or carry on past Dale Bottom towards Hope? Or go back over Viator's Bridge, and take the footpath to Alsop-En-Le-Dale? Or just follow the river back to the car park, knowing that Lover's Leap really is easier to climb from this side?
The choice is yours, but you are guaranteed beautiful countryside whichever way you go.