Is the riverside path through the Dovedale valley the most popular easy walk in Britain? I cannot think of too many that attract more visitors than Dovedale outside of the mountains that pull in large numbers for challenges such as the Snowdon, Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis, or the Yorkshire three peaks maybe.
So, what is it that draws in the numbers? Well, some stunning scenery, accessibility for walkers of all abilities, and lots of caves to explore. Oh, and the stepping stones. Who does not want to cross a river via stepping stones?
I love a good gorge walk. They provide all the drama of a day in the mountains without the uphill slog and downhill joint bashing. They usually have a good effort to reward ratio which I am a big fan of and are always handy options when the weather is not so good. When icy winds are ripping across hill tops then a gorge walk may meet your bad weather walking needs.
Spain has lots of fabulous gorge walks and I have done some stunning treks in northern Spain and Catalunya. However, we are all about exploring what is on our own doorsteps at the moment and the UK has some handy gorge walks worth seeking out. How Stean Gorge in Yorkshire has a via ferrata route that I need to check out at some point soon, Aberglaslyn Pass near Beddgelert in Snowdonia looks stunning and Lydford Gorge in Devon is worth exploring if you are in the south west. However, top of my list of UK gorge walks is Dovedale in the Peak District.
Dovedale is located in the south end of the Peak District, a few miles from Ashbourne and immediately next to the pretty village of Ilam. The River Dove cuts through the limestone valley and charts the route of the path that runs beside it from the carpark (£3) at the south end to Milldale at the north end – you can also park at Milldale and start your walk from that end.
It can be popular; Dovedale attracts around 2 million visitors a year and when I visited on a sunny summer’s day earlier this year, I wondered whether all had turned up on that same day. However, its popularity should not put you off as there are plenty of places to find your own space and even on busy days the crowds drop off swiftly after the stepping stones and Lover’s Leap. There is good reason why Dovedale pulls in so many visitors; it is really accessible; the walking is straightforward and there are plenty of sights to seek out on the way. It is also a great option for families with children.
The first section of the valley is very open, Thorpe Cloud climbs steeply above you to the right and Bunster Hill’s sharp slopes hem you in to the left. A bridge takes you over to the uneven Thorpe-cloud-side path, but most people stay on the left side path for the easier route to the stepping stones. The river separates Staffordshire from Derbyshire so crossing the stepping stones allows you to traverse English counties. Kids love them, small dogs seem less sure, and although I am yet to see anyone go into the water, a dip into the drink would no more harm than getting your socks wet.
Overlooking the stepping stones is Thorpe Cloud, a limestone knoll like Parkhouse Hill and Chrome Hill in its geological make up, that guards over the gateway to the dale. It’s an optional steep climb on a path around the back of the hill that leads to its summit and puts some fire in your calves, but the effort is rewarded by the lovely views from the top. The stepping stones can be seen directly below, and the rest of the gorge stretches out in front of you. It’s a steep descent directly down to the stepping stones from here and you would not want to take a tumble from this point, however, the path behind you is more prosaic and takes you back down in 15 minutes or so.
On a sunny summer day, the grassy banks of this first section can be laden with picnickers and families playing in the sunshine. The gorge begins to narrow from this point on and the tree coverage means that you are in and out of the shade, or shelter depending on the weather, for much of the rest of the walk. The path is generally good and wide and accessible to most, and there are no real difficulties on the walk up to Milldale.
There is enough interest to make the linear there and back journey worth your while. The path winds a little which means new views are constantly presenting themselves. The network of limestone spires that rise high above you will inevitably catch your eye. On dry days you are likely to see rock climbers testing their grades on Ilam rock or Tissington Spires, whilst high above them circling buzzards will be surveying the scene.
One of the main attractions of a walk through Dovedale is to hunt out some of its many caves. Reynard’s cave just below Tissington Spires has a magnificent natural archway which leads through to two caves sat just behind it. The caves at Dove Holes are the most obvious that you will encounter as they are huge and sit just next to the path. They are often inhabited by spider-like rock climbers hanging improbably from the ceiling of the caves with all manner of rope work and climbing gear holding them in place.
The path to Milldale is just over 3 miles, it is largely flat with just a few small ups and downs and is simple to follow. Even at a gentle pace you can go all the way there and back in three hours with time for a brew and a pasty at Milldale. There are other variants away from the riverside path for the more adventurous. From Lover’s Leap there is a path which heads uphill towards ‘Moor Barn’ on the OS maps which will take you on a higher path above Tissington Spires and allow you to get a different perspective on the gorge. There are great views across the whole valley and back behind you to Thorpe Cloud. The land drops away quite sharply to the valley floor in places, but with a little care you can edge out onto one arms that overlook the pathway below and sit a while and watch the world go by.
This higher-level route eventually leads back to the main path at Dove Holes and from here you are only a 15-minute walk away to the pretty village of Milldale where you can get some refreshments from Polly’s Cottage. The choice from here is to amble back the way you came and enjoy the views in the opposite direction, or those who want a little bit more of a test can head up in the direction of Ravens Tor before reuniting with the main path via Hall Dale.
The river keeps you company all the way back and gives you an opportunity to test your fish spotting skills. I am no expert, but my more knowledgeable walking companions seemed to be mentioning trout a lot. I did however manage to successfully identify and the ducks bobbing away above them – David Attenborough eat your heart out.
Before long you are back at car park, maybe thankful for the toilets that are there after being accompanied by the sound of running water all the way back from Milldale. More than anything though, you will be reflecting on a lovely walking day out in Dovedale.