First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The first primrose was out, tentative and only half unfurled, under a stone wall in the shelter of Halldale’s steep west-facing flank. I knelt in the remains of a snowdrift to catch a sniff of that delicate lemony hint of spring, but the little flower’s scent glands were still deep-frozen. Still, the brave little flare of colour in the still grey morning brought a smile as I slithered on down the vee of Halldale towards its parent cleft of Dovedale 300 feet below.
Of all the snaking, deep-cut river gorges in the pale limestone country of the White Peak, Dovedale is the classic. Downstream of where I was walking today is a famous tourist honeypot, where rainwater and weathering have shaped enormous rock pinnacles that rear above the River Dove. Romantics of the Victorian era named them extravagantly – the Twelve Apostles, Tissington Spires, Jacob’s Ladder, Lover’s Leap. In summer, walkers queue hereabouts to pass under the overhangs along the path. But few visitors take the time to venture upriver of Halldale in winter.
Under the mighty grey needle of Ilam Rock I crossed the Dove. The flash of a bird’s white breast drew my eyes to a stone standing clear of the water, where a dipper was bobbing mechanically down and up every few seconds. I lingered on the footbridge, watching the plump little bird and breathing the cold, fresh river air. Then it was on up the river bank below craggy limestone outcrops, to reach the huddle of houses and cross the narrow packhorse bridge at Milldale. Two centuries ago lead was smelted and ochre extracted from iron ore in this shadowy hollow in the hills. The Dove ran orange, mills clattered, chimneys smoked. Standing on the bridge and surveying the peaceful, silent settlement today, that all seems impossible.
Above Milldale the Dove twists and turns down the lonely cleft of Wolfscotedale. This was a favourite fishing spot in the mid 17th century, before industry fouled the river, for the spendthrift gambler Charles Cotton of nearby Beresford Hall and his unlikely chum, the gentle old London ironmonger Izaak Walton. ‘The finest river that ever I saw,’ Walton wrote of the Dove in his immortal fisherman’s handbook The Compleat Angler, ‘and the fullest of fish.’ This morning the trout were invisible in the turbid water, stained dark with floodwater from the uplands beyond the rim of the dale.
Under Wolfscote Hill the path crossed a footbridge, climbing from the river up through aptly-named Narrowdale and on over the fields. A stone-walled lane led me to the road, and the road led me to fire, food and Forshaws bitter in the George Inn at Alstonefield.
Start & finish: George Inn, Alstonefield, Staffs DE6 2FX (OS ref SK 131556)
Getting there: Alstonefield is signposted off A515 Ashbourne-Buxton road, 5 miles north of Ashbourne
Walk (8½ miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer OL24): From George Inn, follow field path and lane to Stanshope (128542). Left along lane for 100 yards; right on path (‘Dovedale, Halldale’ signs) down Halldale to Dovedale (141534). Right for ¼ mile to cross footbridge at Ilam Rock (142531); left up Dovedale to Milldale (139547). Follow road for ½ mile to Shining Tor; cross bridge (146551); up Wolfscotedale for 2¾ miles. Cross footbridge (131584); climb path through Narrowdale to reach a lane (129568); right to road (125565); left to Alstonefield.
Lunch: George Inn, Alstonefield (tel 01335-310205; www.thegeorgeatalstonefield.com)
More info: Ashbourne TIC (01335-343666); www.visitpeakdistrict.com