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  • iainthow


Updated: Mar 8

If there's such a thing as the quintessential Peak District river then the Dove is it. Rising up on the high gritstone moors of Axe Edge, flowing past dramatic individual summits such as Chrome Hill then slicing a gorge through the rumpled limestone hills of the southern edge, it samples and helps to shape most of the area's environments. Unlike the Wye and the Derwent it doesn't pass through any major settlement until it leaves the Peak, and there are no quarries or railway lines to emphasise the hand of man. It is still a man-made landscape though, like pretty much everywhere in Britain, but many would agree that the stone walls and cottages have added to the beauty rather than marred it. It has a cared-for look, but with enough wildness poking through to be revitalising.

Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill, Dovedale

Chrome and Parkhouse Hills from Crowdecote

It's possible to walk the whole dale in one go, only 30km but it feels much longer than that (Classic Walks suggests 7-8 hours but that's good going). There's more up and down than you might expect from a walk that's basically downhill. It's better split into two, three or even four segments, which also allows you to do it in loops. The valley naturally falls into three parts, each with a different feel; the v-shaped upper dale, the broad open central basin and the narrow gorges between Hartington and Thorpe. Each makes a good day in itself. The intricate network of rights of way gives lots of options, so however many times you do roughly the same walk you can always find new corners.

Hollins Hill, Upper Dovedale

Hollins Hill from below Brand End

For the Upper Dove loop I usually start on the high road that goes past Buxton Raceway, either below High Edge or further west below Thirkelow Rocks. At High Edge the marginally higher south summit is barred off by a wall and fence. It is access land but the only method of gettting there without climbing a wall involves crossing a non-access field. Since it was included in the CPRE's "Ethels" list the barriers have been reinforced by lots of barbed wire and a keep out notice. Presumably the farmer turned a blind eye to the occasional maverick hill bagger trespassing but now that numbers have radically increased they object. Sadly the promotional success of the Ethels has had this effect in quite a few places ☹️. If starting with Thirkelow Rocks then the summit isn't access land but a right of way follows the lower edge of the pasture and including it involves only a minor detour with no obstacles. If doing the loop the other way round you can even get a minor scramble out of a rib on the southern edge. It's a pleasant lumpy summit with a good view, well worth visiting.

Hollins Hill from the south, Upper Dovedale

Hollins Hill from below Chrome Hill

The two routes join at Booth Farm, then there's a very steep pull up to the top of Hollins Hill. This is a great viewpoint, Chrome Hill looking particularly good from here. It has a permissive path along its scarp which curves back round to scrubby woodland alongside the Dove near Hollinsclough. Once across the river a choice of paths contour along Moor Side to arrive at Six Ways Bridge.

Six Ways packhorse bridge, upper Dovedale

Six Ways Bridge

This mediaeval packhorse bridge is the focus of the tracks in the area and whatever version of the upper Dove loop you take you almost inevitably come through here. It's a lovely place, spanning the mouth of a well-wooded gorge, with an air of 'lost world' about it. As you would expect from the name you have several options from here, with either an unobvious steep path up the side of the gorge or an easier lane slanting round the side taking you up to Colshaw. From there you can take a very up and down direct route over Brand Top to the Thirkelow start, or a variety of higher but more gentle loops via Dove Head, or even go up onto the high ridge of Axe Edge proper if you're feeling keen. My favourite way back from Six Ways Bridge though is to go up the main trail northwards to the first bend then take a small grassy path which gradually slants up above the gorge to the abandoned farm buildings at Howe Green, then cut round to rejoin the Thirkelow track.

Chrome Hill, Dovedale

Chrome Hill from Hollins Hill

When it comes to the central section of the Dove I think an end to end walk works better than loops, as the hills on the east bank all line up nicely and any return down the west side is markedly inferior (although my opinion on this might be warped because the only time I did it as a loop it chucked it down all the way back ☹️). High Edge makes a good start, but instead of heading for Hollins Hill take the permissive path past Tor Rock to Chrome Hill. It loses much more height than you want and gets very slippery after rain but gets you onto Chrome Hill's splendid north-west ridge.

Chrome Hill, Dovedale

Chrome Hill north-west ridge

One of the few actual peaks in the Peak District (the name comes from its early mediaeval inhabitants the Pecsaetan, the "hill people"), Chrome Hill is evocatively known as the Dragon's Back because of its impressive spines. The scrambling is easy, but under snow it can feel like real mountaineering, and indeed graded winter climbs have been done on it, up a rocky spur on the south-west side and a grassy buttress on the north-east. I've done the latter, excellent fun on well-frozen turf at about Grade II.

Parkhouse Hill, Dovedale

Parkhouse Hill from below Chrome Hill

A well-used trail descends the east ridge to a minor road, with the even sharper spike of Parkhouse Hill in front of you. This was the scene of access problems in the past but the Peak Park did a good job here and it's now access land. At its west end is a pinnacle which can be reached from the notch behind it by an exposed and tricky scramble, short but at least Grade 2. The notch is best reached from the grassy north side as the path up from the south is very eroded these days.

Parkhouse Pinnacle, Dovedale

The pinnacle, Parkhouse Hill

Beyond the notch is a narrow ridge, mostly grassy but with some Grade I scrambling, leading to a delightfully sharp summit. Again it's mountaineering under snow and people have been known to climb steep turfy variations on the north side (Guilty m'lud 😁). A steep gully directly below the summit is particularly good. The descent eastwards is much easier, although again very slippery when muddy.

Parkhouse Hill, Dovedale

Parkhouse Hill summit

From the road field paths lead via Earl Sterndale (with its infamous beheaded "Quiet Woman" pub sign) to Underhill. It's possible to short cut steeply over Hitter Hill without crossing any walls. In the next notch is the old quarry of Aldery Cliff, now a popular climbing ground owned by the BMC. It's the only place in the Peak where you can climb slab-angled limestone, with good routes at around VS.

Aldery Cliff, Earl Sterndale

Aldery Cliff, Broken Toe Groove (VS) and Central Arete ("VD")

The next summit, High Wheeldon, has a good path going round its north side and it's easy enough to cut up to the summit. From there it's possible to follow the scarp southwards along the top of the access land to reach the ancient cairn on top of Pilsbury Castle Hill. Near the end you can slant down to the mounds that are all that remains of Pilsbury Castle. Surprisingly little seems to be known about this. It was built by the De Ferrers family, either after William the Conqueror's "Harrying of the North" or during the wars of Matilda and Stephen 70-odd years later, then destroyed or abandoned in either the mid 12th or mid 13th centuries. It seems an odd place to choose given today's geography but lead mines may have been the draw. From either hill or castle good paths lead all the way to Hartington, a perfect place to finish a walk, with the excellent Devonshire Arms and a couple of nice cafes. It's about 16-18km from High Edge, so a fair sized day if you're planning to return on foot.

The Celestial Twins, Wolfscote Dale, Dovedale

The Celestial Twins, Wolfscote Dale

The southern section of the valley is the bit that people generally mean when they say "Dovedale", and it deserves its fame. The river has cut a 150m deep slot through a set of limestone reef knolls, and spires and pinnacles decorate its length. A good path follows the river and the combination of drama and ease of access has made it hugely popular. It used to be thought that the gorge was a collapsed cavern but current thinking is that the river was simply powerful enough to maintain its course as the land rose around it about 60 million years ago. This part of Dovedale has been a tourist attraction for as long as tourists have existed and names such as Reynard's Cave go back to Victorian times or even earlier. The first ascent of the spectacular spike of Ilam Rock by Samuel Turner in 1903 made headlines. He went hand over hand up a rope thrown over the top but conventional rock climbs soon followed.

Ilam Rock, Dovedale

Ilam Rock

The climbs scattered along the gorge here have never been as popular as the Matlock crags or Stoney Middleton so are now much less polished, and arguably the best is the wonderfully-named Ten Craters of Wisdom. It's graded VS 5a so you know it has a hard move and tend to assume it's at the large overhang. When you find this easy and pull over onto a slab covered in giant 'elephant footprints' you think "I'm going well" and that it's all over bar the shouting. Then you discover how far apart the last two pockets are 😯. By the time you can reach the final 'footprint' you're undercutting the top of the previous one at about shin level – it's a memorable move!

Climbing the Campanile, Dovedale

Pram Singh on Campanile. Pic taken by Nick Wall

Quite a few of the routes finish on independent pinnacles, which definitely adds excitement. An evening trip up Campanile (severe) once involved two of us abseiling down in the dark onto ground we hadn't seen before and nearly falling over several minor craglets on the way down. Even getting to the foot of some crags involves wading the river so there's definitely an air of adventure about the place.

Dovedale Church

Dovedale Church, only reachable by wading the river

The end to end walk from Hartington to Thorpe is the classic trip (buses link the two), but loops are also possible from either end, returning via the old railway of the Tissington Trail to the east, or by field paths to the west. Slightly surprisingly there are hardly any places where paths follow the top edge of the gorge. There's a permissive path over the lovely summit of Baley Hill near Milldale, a short section near Ilamtops Low and a bit of ridge on Bunster Hill and that's about it. I did once try linking the last two after noticing a small path heading off in the right direction from the summit of Bunster Hill. It was a disaster! The path soon degenerated into animal tracks through dense scrub, finishing with a section of 'Tarzan tactics' - literally swinging from tree to tree on a 40 degree slope to stay above the tangled brambles. It's only half a kilometre but it took nearly an hour.

Dovedale from Thorpe Cloud

Dovedale from Thorpe Cloud

One of the best things about Dovedale is that it finishes with such a great full stop. Thorpe Cloud is the perfect mini mountain, a steep sided triangle with a sharp summit ridge. In common with lots of Midlanders it was one of my first ever hills and its charm still holds. The sharpness makes it look far bigger than it really is, (a mere 80m above the village) and the drop to the river still feels impressive. It's ideal for kids, as the reward arrives before they get a chance to get discouraged and the airiness of the summit has real impact. Like Dovedale as a whole it's popular but much too inspiring to ever be described as hackneyed.

Thorpe Cloud, Dovedale

Thorpe Cloud from the Stepping Stones

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