Dovedale is the most magical place in the Peak District, just outside the historical market town of Ashbourne. With stunning scenery and wildlife, crags, caves, spires and ravines, it is the most romantic place to visit with surprises around every turn. A dramatic limestone ravine, famous for its stepping stones, Dovedale is known affectionately as The Gateway To The Peaks and it certainly lives up to its name.

The limestone rock which forms the drastic sheer cliffs of Dovedale is actually the fossilised remains of sea creatures which lived 350 million years ago, in a shallow sea over the area during the Carboniferous period. The limestone was cut into craggy shapes known as reef limestone by the melting ice during two ice ages, which left behind dry caves with wonderful names such as Dove Holes and Reynard’s Cave.

These caves were used by hunters as the shelters and then by farmers using the caves as tombs. Reynard’s Cave has evidence of Bronze Age activity and artefacts are on display at Buxton Museum. In Roman times it is likely the caves were again used as shelters, but this time for shepherds. The caves are fantastic to explore and great for the children to make up their own adventures.

Dovedale is now one of the most visited natural tourist sites in Britain, and with the spectacular River Dove running through Dovedale, home to huge trout, it is not surprising. Providing the inspiration for Izaak Walton’s, The Compleat Angler, the stream meanders through the valley, flowing a distance of 8 miles through Beresford Dale, Wolvescote Dale, Milldale and then Dovedale  itself. Riverside path make the whole route accessible to walkers. The ‘shining silver ‘ of the River Dove flows through woodlands draping the steep slopes of the gorge, with gentle rolling hills of the valley and colourful wildflowers carpeting the sides. Hop over the Victorian steppingstones and discover Lovers Leap, complete with limestone carvings.

With rock pillars such as Ilam rock to explore, a high magnificent limestone pinnacle, Dovedale is a place of adventure and is very picturesque, drawing photographers for miles around to get the perfect shot. Thorpe Cloud closes in to the West and Bunster Hill rises to the East and the deep avenue of the valley floor meanders through stunning limestone outcrops above. Dovedale Castle is so called by the high limestone angled wall on the bend and further on the valley floor gets even narrower and takes the walker through some spectacular scenery on either side. Rising high is an impressive limestone feature called Tissington Spires and these impressive pillars are a favourite spot for rock climbing in the Peak District.

The Dove Holes cave is a place for families and children to explore inside but the most impressive of all is Thor’s Cave, with a symmetrical arch, measuring 30 feet high and 23 feet wide with the roof being supported by massive limestone columns deep in the interior. Steps have been built to help the walker up to the cave which is the most attractive of the entire Manifold Valley and may be reached from Ilam or from Wetton.

Following the River Dove upstream it reaches the quaint village of Milldale, with its ancient and narrow packhorse bridge which originally had no sides or walls to allow horses with panniers to clear the bridge. Izaak Walton who refers to himself as viator, which is Latin for’ traveller’ wrote about the bridge in his book.

‘What’s here, the sign of a bridge? Do you travel in wheelbarrows in this country? The bridge was made for nothing else-why a mouse can hardly go over it, tis not two fingers broad!’

This gave the name to the famous Viator’s Bridge, which has been in use since the mediaeval period and is listed as an ancient monument. To walk further is to head on up to Wolvescote Dale -but that is a tale for another day (and another page!)