Dovedale 7 mile walk
Step up to the stepping stones!
Dovedale, now a National Nature Reserve, is the most popular dale of them all, but it is wise to choose the time of your visit carefully if you wish to avoid the summertime queues at the newly capped Stepping Stones...
The Dramas of Dovedale
That ‘Compleat Angler’ Izaak Walton named the Dove “the Princess of rivers”, with its soaring pinnacles, caves, and natural arches springing from cool ash woodlands. No wonder that Dovedale, now a National Nature Reserve, is the most popular dale of them all, but it is wise to choose the time of your visit carefully if you wish to avoid the summertime queues at the Stepping Stones.
The upstanding pinnacles and rock formations of Dovedale were formed from the same reef limestone which forms the sharply pointed hills of Chrome and Parkhouse at its head. The river, which today seems incapable of the creation of such monumental rock architecture, carved out this canyon-like gorge when it was swelled by the powerful erosive meltwaters of Ice Age glaciers. These icy waters cut down through fissures and faults in the rock like a knife through butter, leaving the harder limestones standing isolated. Bunster Hill and Thorpe Cloud, the twin sentinels which guard the entrance to the Dovedale gorge, were even harder to wear down and now stand as proud portals to the drama beyond.
Leave the car park and turn right past the water company’s flow meter and walk up the road which follows the west bank beneath Bunster Hill to the famous Stepping Stones.
The Stepping Stones
This is one of the most popular places in the entire Peak District. The series of square-cut stones which cross the river here are not particularly ancient; they were erected in Victorian times when there were donkeys stationed here for hire to take you further into the dale. Polished by millions of pairs of boots and shoes, the Stepping Stones now have a fine patina which shows up the crinoid fossils beautifully as you watch where you are putting your feet.
Once across the river, the path passes through a squeezer stile and winds up on natural rock steps to the first major viewpoint in the dale, Lover’s Leap.
Lover’s Leap viewpoint
This is a fine place to study the lower portion of the dale. Opposite, rising out of the ashwoods, are the rock pinnacles known as the Twelve Apostles. Downstream, the bulk of Bunster Hill partly blocks the view of Thorpe Cloud. The thickly wooded nature of this part of the dale often obscures the views of the natural rocks – a relatively recent phenomenon since grazing has been reduced in the dales. Turn of the century photographs show much more of the rock formations, which is another reason why a winter or spring visit to Dovedale can often be much more rewarding.
Steps lead down through the trees from Lover’s Leap past the barely visble, yew-clad needles of Tissington Spires (right). A few steps further on, and away to the right will be seen the natural arch of Reynard’s Cave (the actual cave is beyond the natural arch). The more adventurous will want to scramble up the steep slope to reach it, but it is slippery and badly eroded, so take care.
Now the dale walls crowd in on either side to the section known as The Straits. Here the footpath has been raised above the level of the river, which is often subject to flooding at this point. The path passes under the Lion’s Head Rock and then the dale opens out slightly where a footbridge crosses to Ilam Rock.
Ilam Rock and Pickering Tor
These delicate fingers of rock either side of the Dove are one of the scenic highlights of the dale. Amazingly, the 25m/82ft high leaning finger of Ilam Rock has several rock clmbing routes up its precipitous sides, while Pickering Tor has a gaping cave at its foot.
The path now swings east opposite Hall Dale to pass the impressively yawning water-worn cavities known as Dove Holes. Beyond here, the riverside path passes a number of weirs before running under the impressive cliff of Raven’s Tor. A gentle meadowland path now takes you to the hamlet of Milldale, which is reached by crossing the narrow Viator’s Bridge.
Milldale and Viator’s Bridge
The former packhorse bridge now known as Viator’s gets its name from a passage in Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. “Do you use to Travel with wheelbarrows in this country?” asks Viator of his companion, Piscator, when they come across it. “..why a mouse can hardly go over it; ‘Tis not two fingers broad.” The water mill which gave Milldale its name is long gone, and most of the traffic in this remote little spot now consists of walkers. A small barn near the bridge serves as a National Trust information point, telling the story of their Dovedale estate.
Walk up the road from the bridge, turning left up a narrow lane to reach the stile at the top. This leads across the fields through more stiles to reach the lane leading to Stanshope Pasture on the left. Turn left after a few steps, and descend to the head of Hall Dale which is crossed by a stile. Keep straight ahead alongside a wall to a ladder stile and follow a series to stiles to reach the metalled Ilam Moor Lane, where you turn left.
Ilam Moor Lane is followed for about half a mile, and takes you over the high point of the walk (304m/995ft). This ridgetop lane enjoys extensive views across the Lower Manifold Valley to the right towards Throwley with Mere Hill prominent. To the left, Dovedale is hidden by the rounded hills of Ilam Tops, with their summit tumulus of Ilam Tops Low.
The unfenced road to Ilam Tops soon appears on the left, and you cross a cattle grid and then branch immediately right, keeping above an old quarry, dropping down to a stile at the eastern end of Moor Plantation.
The path now traverses the lower slopes of Bunster Hill, which is prominent to the left, and crosses an area of strip lynchets and ridge and furrow, indicative of medieval cultivation systems. The estate village of Ilam appears below ahead and to the right, but you continue to contour around the slopes of Bunster Hill to a saddle, where you descend to a stile.
Two more stiles lead around the back of the Izaak Walton Hotel, from where you bear left to emerge at a stile opposite your starting point at the Dovedale car park.
Start/finish: Dovedale car park (toilets), near Thorpe
Distance: 11km/7 miles
Approximate time: Allow 4-5 hours
Highest point: Ilam Moor Lane, 304m/995ft
Map: OS Explorer Sheet 24, The White Peak
Refreshments: At the Dovedale car park and Milldale
Terrain: Easy dale walking on an engineered path, then some field and lane walking
These walks have been adapted from Roly Smith’s Rambler’s Guide to the Peak District, published by HarperCollins in 2000.
Copyright Let's Stay Peak District 2010
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015