Dovedale is one of the most famous areas of the Peak District, offering unrivalled scenic attractions in a valley which is both easy to walk along and very accessible from the Midlands. This means that while the area offers some excellent outings it is also very popular and can therefore be very crowded on a Sunday afternoon, even in winter.
This walk makes a circuit around the lower section of Dovedale, taking in all its most famous features as well as giving some unexpected views of the dale and a return route which should be considerably quieter than the main valley. The description starts from Alstonefield, but the walk could equally well be done from the Ilam car park at the foot of Dovedale, and a shortened version is also possible from that starting point.
From Alstonefield village green walk along the road towards the church and turn left down the track which passes in front of the church. About 200 metres down the track, which leads to Milldale, a path branches off across the fields to the right and takes a more direct line to Milldale. Take this path, which crosses several fields and then descends a steep grassy bank leading into the hamlet of Milldale. On the way it gives a fine view across this section of the Dove valley.
At Milldale cross Viator's bridge to take the wide path which goes down the left (Derbyshire) bank of the river. It's very easy walking amid fine scenery with the river and the steep-sided valley, lined with occasional crags such as Raven's Tor.
After about a kilometre the valley becomes wooded and begins to narrow. Another kilometre further and you pass the Dove Holes, a pair of rather gloomy caves at a point where the valley is now very narrow indeed. Below here the valley widens again, but not for long - a few hundred metres further you reach Ilam Rock and from here to the stepping stones below Thorpe Cloud the valley is always narrow and sometimes rocky.
Ilam Rock is a spectacular sight and the next section of the valley holds several other natural wonders. After passing through a section of the valley which is so narrow that the path goes on duckboards over the river you see Reynard's Cave up on your left, with a remarkable natural arch of rock standing guard in front of the cave itself. A little further downstream the valley widens slightly in front of Tissington Spires - a collection of rock towers which come out of the valley side like fins - while opposite is the weirdly-shaped tor known as Dovedale Church.
The valley here is heavily wooded, but it's perhaps worth noting that this is a relatively recent phenomenon - roughly from the last 50 years or so. Until then the valley side was heavily grazed by sheep and the tree cover was sparse, but the removal of the sheep has allowed the vegetation to grow into dense woods. Around Tissington Spires the National Trust (who own Dovedale and much of the sruuounding area) has felled many trees, which allows visitors to see the crags and restores the area to its original state.
Below Tissington Spires the path climbs above the river to pass above Lovers' Leap - a large crag at the river edge - and if you look carefully through the trees you can see more crags on the opposite bank - the Twelve Apostles and Dovedale Castle, before the woods end and you arrive at the most famous landmark - the stepping stones opposite the foot of Lin Dale.
Dovedale Stepping Stones
This is a popular spot all year round and so is the next section which marks the end of the Dove gorge as the river rounds Thorpe Cloud to emerge from the hills and take a more leisurely course towards the Trent. Continue on either side of the river down to the Ilam car park and then cross to the west bank to find a footpath which starts opposite the car park entrance and leads across the fields to Ilam village.
The path crosses two fields to reach the rear of the Izaak Walton Hotel, where it crosses two stiles in quick succession before branching. Follow the right branch which takes a diagonal line across the field, heading for a small nick in the skyline just to the left of Bunster Hill. Continue across a second field in the same direction and then climb up to reach this gap.
From here you have a choice of routes. The footpath contours around the hillside to the next wall before turning uphill and crossing another field to reach a barn surrounded by trees on the crest of the ridge behind Bunster Hill. However, Bunster Hill is far too good a viewpoint to miss - in fact it's at least as good as Thorpe Cloud - so a better option would be to climb the steep ridge from the gap to the top of the Hill and enjoy the view before following the ridge behind to rejoin the footpath at the barn.
From the barn a farm track leads north to the entrance to Ilam Tops Farm. At the farm entrance turn right along another track which leads to Air Cottage, which is perched in a spectacular position above Dovedale. The path enters the grounds of the cottage in via the front gate and then out over a stile to the right of the wooden garage before passing right around the cottage. When you get on the Dovedale side of the cottage, pause to admire the view - you are looking straight down onto Tissington Spires - and if you turn to the left and look that way, you look straight down into Reynard's Cave - it's very impressive.
Turn left and contour along the edge of the wood for some distance - several hundred metres - before the path enters Dovedale wood near its top edge. The path continues in an undulating fashion through the wood for another 500 metres until it eventually descends to the valley. This descent is long and quite steep, slippery in places, so care is required. Eventually you emerge at the river side just upstream of the footbridge which stands alongside Ilam Rock.
If you started from the Ilam car park then you can walk down to the bridge and return along the valley, giving an exciting circuit of a mere 7 kilometres or so. However, our route back to Alstonefield turns left and continues upstream on the west bank of the river for about 400 metres, to the point where Hall Dale joins Dovedale. This large dry valley has a path which gives easy walking up the gradually-widening dale to its top end where the path then crosses a couple of fields to come out on a farm track just outside the hamlet of Stanshope.
The most notable feature of Stanshope is its hall, a fine 18th century farmhouse, now a guest house. To the right of the hall a farm track heads off northwards - follow this to the upper part of the Milldale valley, where you cross the road and take a path which follows the edge of the wood almost opposite. This leads directly back to Alstonefield.