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.
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.
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.
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.
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.