Over the years I’ve walked in Dovedale several times, but usually in the particularly busy bits. My daughter’s first hill bagging experience was up on Thorpe Cloud last summer, and I’d seen the stepping stones, Lover’s Leap and Dove Holes caves a few times on shorter strolls. Anywhere in Dovedale is special – and I really don’t mind crowds, it’s great to see people out in the countryside. However, I wanted to see some of the other areas around the dale I’d missed before. So, over the past couple of months I’ve had a couple of trips back to try and see some more of the place – and what a contrast they were!
My first trip was in pretty grim weather, with wind and rain for much of the day. Down in the dale itself the views were still pretty impressive. However, while bagging the summits of Bunster Hill and Baley Hill I could barely see my hand in front of my face at times! However, a couple of weeks ago the first real sunshine of Spring came out, so I headed back to prove what amazing views there are from those tops – with Bunster Hill giving particularly amazing views out over Dovedale and the surrounding countryside.
Walk 1 – Dovedale, Baley Hill and Bunster Hill – 7.5 miles
After parking in the pay and display at the entry to Dovedale (sadly the car park at the entrance to the dale was missing it’s usual grumpy attendant – never make the mistake of asking him about the National Trust!) I was quick out and into the dale, crossing the river at the bridge by the gauging station before marching over Lover’s Leap. There are some amazing limestone rock formations all along Dovedale – and if anyone in your party likes a bit of a scramble the steep slopes are perfect, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
At Dove Holes there was a team of climbers tackling the inside of the cave, then abseiling down from the roofs. They made it look easy work, but I’m not that nimble! Past the caves I was into new territory. As with the busier stretch before the dale is still easy walking with a solid path, but it widens out a touch, with Raven’s Tor looming in the murk to the left, and my target of Baley Hill out of sight up to the right. Viator’s Bridge at Mill Dale made a perfect lunch stop – the village really is as chocolate-box pretty as guidebooks make it sound, even on a gloomy day.
After lunch I took the route up the hill towards Baley Hill. All the way to the top it was pretty easy walking on clear paths, with a concessionary route connecting to the access land occupied by the summit. The ridge of Baley Hill forms a series of raised humps of limestone, which are fun to explore – which is just as well as the views were almost none existent! Working south from the summit is The Nabs, where the little humps of limestone expand and form small crags, which descend steeply down towards a side-dale. I followed the ridges straight down hill. For the most part this was fine but steep – however the last section before joining the path back to Dovedale itself was really a bit too steep, requiring me to hang onto the rock and trees to avoid slipping. It’s probably best to skirt along the top of The Nabs until reaching the top of the path near Hanson Grange. The path back down the side-dale is steep, and was very muddy – but being forested it provided something different to the more exposed nature of the rest of Dovedale.
Once back at the dale I turned left and headed for Ilam Bridge. My aim was to climb up out of the dale to towards Ilam Tops. The OS maps show a footpath apparently heading from besides Ilam Rock, so I tried to find this. A scramble up past the rock and I found what appeared to be a rough path, so followed it up the hill. It was very steep and direct, but always fairly obvious. At the top the path joins to a more well-worn and clearly planned path. I later found that this path (a newer path added as the old one was so steep?) actually appears in the dale slightly north of Ilam Rock, just before Hall Dale. Even this path is sign-posted as being very steep – but it’s probably the safest bet, especially as this initial part of the route I took required a small amount of very basic scrambling past Ilam Rock.
The path along from the Ilam Tops area towards Bunster is pretty clear, along with some ‘welcoming’ signs making it clear you mustn’t step foot off the approved line – which i’m not entirely sure is the ‘definitive’ line, but there you go. Bunster Hill itself is really just the southern end of Ilam Tops – it doesn’t even merit an addition on hill bagging sites as it’s prominence is so small. However, as with so much of the Peak District, the highest ground isn’t always where the walker wants to be aiming for (not least as Ilam Tops itself doesn’t have any ‘official’ public access – probably a problem considering the signage in the area!).
Like Baley Hill, Bunster is topped with small crests of limestone, which are great for exploring and give it a ‘dragon’s back’ appearance from Ilam (on a clearer day!). The actual summit is within a small copse of trees, but it’s barely any higher than any of the other bumps along the ridge. With no views on show today, I quickly took a fairly direct route down the steep flank of the hill, which is all Access Land. From there it was a short, but very muddy, walk past the Issac Walton Hotel and back to the car park.
Walk 2 – Ilam and Dovedale – 7 miles
And, then, with the sun shining! This walk really highlighted just how amazing the views from the hills surrounding Dovedale are – if you get the weather right! This time round I started from the National Trust car park at Ilam Hall, and once on the Access Land at the foot of Bunster Hill I left the footpaths and headed straight upwards. Bunster Hill has two ridges leading away from it’s summit. One heads south-west to Ilam, while one heads east. If the River Dove hadn’t ripped it’s way through the hill the dramatic peak of Thorpe Cloud would be no more than the end of the eastern spur.
After taking in the views across to Thorpe Cloud and across the lower Manifold Valley I descended down towards Dovedale itself. It’s steep, but never too steep, and a rough path helps guide the way down.
Heading over Lover’s Leap I started looking out for the path up to the natural arch and Reynard’s Cave. I’d always missed it, concentrating too hard on marching along the valley, so I wasn’t sure if I’d find it difficult to locate. But, just meters into a pretty distinct path (about halfway between Tissington Spires and Pickering Tor), the arch opens out in front of you, like a trick of the eye (think the invisible bridge in Raiders of the Lost Ark!).
To get back out of Dovedale I crossed Ilam Bridge – and passed the start of the ‘easier’ path up towards Ilam Tops (see above). Hall Dale looks to be a dry valley, and slopes fairly gently (by Dovedale standards) up towards Stanshope. There’s evidence of working of the limestone, which is confirmed by the remains of an old limekiln at the top of a concessionary footpath leading from the dale to Damgate.
From here it was a simple stroll through the rolling countryside of the lower reaches of the River Manifold’s valley. The views across to wooded hills are a contrast to those in Dovedale, with gentler slopes, more green (especially at this time of year) and more cows! As the Manifold falls into the Dove the walk ended back at Ilam Hall. And I can honestly say there’s no better place to have been walking on a fresh, sunny Spring day.