A Walk in The Upper Dove Valley – Crowdecote to Pilsbury Castle

3 or 4 miles – either very easy or easy plus some steep ascents.

Bus 442 Buxton-Ashbourne, operated by Bowers.

The upper Dove Valley has to be the most underrated and quietest parts of the Peak District; one glimpse of its scenic beauty will leave you asking the simple question: “Why?” The drive or bus ride, off the A515 to the start of this walk, in the hamlet of Crowdecote, is a spectacular experience in itself, as the broad vistas of the landscape open up below and the incredibly shaped hills of Parkhouse and Chrome point their jagged peaks skyward at the head of the valley.  If you are driving, however, keep your eyes on the road!  It bends ferociously like some alpine descent.

Around the last bend that takes you into the compact little hamlet, is the Packhorse Inn and this is where you might park, (provided you are going in for a drink or a meal, that is).  This is also the bus stop, so alight here.  If you are not patronising the Packhorse then you are best to park down the lane on your right, sharply off that last bend; this is the lane that leads to Earl Sterndale and Glutton Bridge.  There are usually some spaces opposite the “Castle Cottages”, (but don’t try any further as it is a very narrow single track road).

The walk starts just before the main bridge, below Crowdecote.  This is a toll bridge built in 1709 – you’ll see Toll Bar Cottage on your left as you walk down the hill, which is where the toll collector lived and worked until the road was “thrown open” in 1873.  As the name Packhorse Inn suggests, this was a very important packhorse route for many centuries, connecting the North West Midlands with the Peak District and beyond.  For a period in the eighteenth century, there were actually two inns in operation here, such was the volume of traffic.  It must have been a welcome oasis in the midst of some very wild country back in those days, with the Staffordshire Moorlands on one side of the valley and the high limestone plateau of Derbyshire on the other; the bridge spans the border between the two counties.

Between toll cottage and the bridge is the lane down which the walk gets into its stride.  The river Dove, fringed most of the way with alder trees,  is to be a constant companion on your right hand side.

After fifty yards or so, you’ll come to Bridge End Farm; the track continues on through here and you may have to open a gate or two and negotiate cows coming in for milking.  Before you do, take a mild diversion to your right, to the footbridge over the Dove; this was the site of the original packhorse bridge and before that, a ford.  There is not much to see of its history now, but it is a good place to have your first look at the Dove close-to; walk quietly, as it is often teeming with wildlife.  This author’s one and only encounter with a wild otter was on the far bank just thirty yards downstream from here; dippers and grey wagtails are an almost certainty too.

Back through the farm and things couldn’t be more simple or exhilarating, as the track and then path continues in a more-or-less straight line along the valley bottom; at first flanked by dry-stone walls and then enjoying the freedom of an open green valley, without a dwelling, road, cable, pylon or even, for the most part, another human being to interrupt the scene.  At the focus of that scene is the small hump of Pilsbury Castle; at first indistinct; just another green mound, but as you get closer, through gates and over stiles, it starts to look more interesting.

Though you are not yet in the open access area, this is the kind of country in which not to get too worried about sticking to the exact right of way.  In any case, the path itself is indistinct for much of the time.  So have the occasional veer to the river bank, especially at the point where, just before you meet some double walls, a footpath crosses the river on a set of old stepping stones; another idyllic spot and, again full of wild things; water forget-me-not; watercress; meadow sweet.  A fair few species of duck to be seen also; in winter, goosanders make an appearance, while both Mandarin and Mallard breed here, the timidity of both underlining just how undisturbed a place this is.

Back on the main path and Pilsbury Castle accelerates towards you  Through the little gate into the site and a helpful interpretation board from English Heritage gives you the low-down on its history.  (Confusingly, though, the artist’s impression is painted looking from the other direction).  Briefly, it was a motte and bailey construction put up in earth and wood by the Normans to control and tax the trade along the valley.  The impressive looking limestone spike with scenic ash tree, is a natural feature that was obviously incorporated into the defensive ring.  This is a quite superb place for a picnic – you can go down to the tinkling river, (watch out for the many badger and rabbit holes!) Or sit proudly on the castle top under the ash tree.

Depending on when you visit, you might not see another soul; just the ghosts of Norman soldiers and Saxon traders.  On the Staffordshire side of the valley, admire the stout medieval construction of Broadmeadow Hall, built in solid blocks of sandstone.  This is a border in more ways than one, as the Dove runs along the fault line between two major geological regions; limestone of the White Peak this side and sandstone of the Staffordshire Moorlands on the other.

It is the kind of place in which to completely chill-out, forget all cares and worries and abandon reasonably good intentions.  So no one will blame you for feeling very lazy after an hour or more lying in the long grass, when you sit up to look at the prospect of those steep slopes and decide to saunter back the way you came.  It was so easy and so pleasurable, after all.  If you want a different kind of thrill altogether, then this is what to do…

The path towards Pilsbury Grange continues on through the site and up a grassy track over the hill; but you don’t want this.  Just before that exit is a smaller, inconspicuous gate, often obscured by nettles.  This should have the “open access area” symbol on it, (a brown man standing on a brown hill).  Go through this and you are free.  All you have to do now is to start heading upwards, in any direction you want, as long as it is vaguely back in the direction of Crowdecote.  Best to start ascending as soon as possible, however, cutting a decent angle across those steep slopes.  Some enterprising sheep have been before you and worn some easier paths, so take advantage of these.

Geologists and geographers might want to pause and ponder some half-excavated gravel deposits washed into a former cave of limestone; (passing over the top of this is probably the best place way to begin the climb).  This was clearly once a mighty river at the end of the ice ages.

Though the slope is steep, the turf is short and springy and full of wild flowers and fungi.  Having reached the top, at whatever point, you will definitely want to take a breather and admire the view.  Sheen Hill is staring at you from the opposite bank and the Dove glinting in pools below.  Continue towards Crowdecote, following the dry stone wall on your right, or passing a little below it.  At one point you will have to dip down and up again, passing over a ladder-type stile, but after that, once again, keep high and you will eventually come to the road descending into the hamlet.  Follow the roadside wall down the hill a little way, to find the gate out of the access area.  (There are the odd few arrows on posts in the pasture to point you in the right direction, but these are liable to be demolished by cattle).  Down the road (and more magnificent views) to a well earned meal or drink at The Packhorse, pausing, perhaps, at Bank Pottery on your right, to admire the wares on offer.

The Packhorse does not open every lunch or even some evenings, so it is best to check opening times before you set off; but it does operate year-round and has a very good reputation for its food, while the selection of real and local ales is superb.