Dovedale, arguably the prettiest of the Derbyshire Dales and certainly the most popular Peak District location with an estimated two million visitors per year.

Already designated as a `Site of Special Scientific Interest‘ owing to it’s rich and delicately balanced biodiversity and protected as an `Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, Dovedale is entirely within the Peak District National Park and is owned mainly by the National Trust.

The National Trust acquired it’s first property in Derbyshire exactly 100 years ago when it was gifted the 17th century Market House in Winster in 1906, but Dovedale was not acquired until 1934, when mainly owing to the generosity of landowners Sir Robert and Lady MacDougall, Mr. F. Holmes, and I.C.I. it was gifted to the National Trust along with a proposal to make it Britain’s first ever National Park. It was eventually included within the Peak District National Park in 1951.

For those unfamiliar with the historical, geographical and topographical detail of Dovedale, which has its southern entrance at Thorpe Cloud a mile or so north of Ashbourne in Derbyshire’s White Peak, the dale follows the winding course of the River Dove, which rises on the high moorlands of Axe Edge west of Buxton before running southwards for forty five miles to join the River Trent.

For much of its length the Dove follows a meandering course through the gritstone and shale of the High Peak moorlands and forms the boundary between Derbyshire and neighbouring Staffordshire, before tumbling down past Longnor and Hartington and through the series of spectacular limestone gorges at Beresford Dale, Wolfscote Dale, Milldale and Dovedale to form arguably the Peak District’s most famous and most beautiful landscape at the southern end of the Dove Valley.

Flora & Fauna – and wildlife.

North of Hartington, the Dove marks the boundary of Staffordshire and Derbyshire and owing to the different strata – shale on the Staffordshire bank and limestone on the Derbyshire side – the ecological biodiversity means that entirely different species can be found on each side of the river.

On the shale north of Hartington, the Cuckoo Flower is common on the grassland, and provides food for the caterpillars of the orange-tip butterfly, whilst on the limestone of Wolfscote Dale, Mountain Pansy and rare Orchids are to be found, and the whole dale system of the Dove valley is now protected by its designation as a `Site of Special Scientific Interest’.

Indeed, Dovedale Wood is one of the best ashwoods in the country, and has much more wildlife value than any modern plantation.Rocks and screes which are the result of frost and ice on the high cliffs above the river have developed rare mosses, lichens and flowers, such as the abundant Herb Robert, and the best grassland has been maintained by sheep grazing. Herons often feed in the quiet northern stretches of the Dove, and trout, dippers, grey wagtail, moorhens and water-voles can also be frequently seen.

A Walker’s & Angler’s Paradise

The Dove Valley is a walker’s Paradise and the fabulous riverside walk meanders tantalisingly between unfolding steeply wooded ravines and hillsides to reveal white limestone rock formations carved into fantastic towers, caves and spires with names like Raven’s Tor, Lion’s Head Rock, Twelve Apostles, Reynard’s Cave, Lover’s Leap and Tissington Spires.

Human History

Caves in the Dove Valley have been used for human habitation since the hunter-gatherers of the last Ice Age, and early Bronze-Age farmers used Reynard’s Cave to bury their dead 5,000 years ago. Evidence shows that the caves were probably used by shepherds during the Roman occupation, and later place-name evidence at Thorpe reflects a Danish influence prior to the Norman Conquest. Pilsbury Castle, whose remains brood above the valley to the north of Hartington was probably built by William the Conqueror, and during Medieval times, pack-horses carrying goods across country followed a route which crossed the famous Viator’s Bridge in Milldale, made famous by its association with Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton of `The Complete Angler’ fame in the 17th century.

Charles Cotton was born and lived at Beresford Hall which overlooks the Dove in nearby Beresford Dale, and in 1676 he and Izaak Walton built the famous Fishing Temple which stands on private land in Beresford Dale. Beresford Hall is now in ruins, but the Fishing Temple can be seen in the dale today, still with their entwined initials carved above the entrance doorway!

Izaak Walton & Charles Cotton established the Dove’s reputation as the favourite haunt of anglers, particularly for trout fishing, and that continues to this day with most of the well-known hotels providing angling facilities for guests, and some of the fishing rights owned by the nearby Izaak Walton Hotel. Many of the weirs across the river were built to increase the feeding area for trout and grayling, and so improve the fishing, and the river also once powered several mills.

Dovedale also has numerous other literary associations; Dr. Johnson visited frequently when in Ashbourne, and Byron, Ruskin and Tennyson all praised its scenic beauty with great enthusiasm – as did Peak Distict Online’s resident writer, Tom Bates in the aforementioned BBC Documentary!

Dovedale Villages

Some of the Peak District’s most attractive villages, such as Longnor, Hartington, Alstonefield and Thorpe all lie close to Dovedale, and Ilam lies in the adjacent Manifold Valley.

The picturesque village of Tissington, long famed as the originator of the local well-dressing tradition lies a mile and a half to the east, and all can be easily and readily accessed from the main A515 Ashbourne to Buxton road.

The Beauty – and the Beast!

But Dovedale’s beauty makes it a victim of it’s own popularity, and the potent natural attractions of the dale are also the main causes of its potential destruction! Public access comes at tremendous cost to the delicately balanced eco-system of the dale, and over many centuries the pressures on the landscape of thousands of pairs of feet have caused serious problems of congestion and erosion.

Twenty years ago a survey of the two million visits made annually to the Dove Valley confirmed that 21% visited the area to walk, with the most popular and frequently trodden section being that along the river bank between the car parks at Dovedale and Milldale. A footpath count undertaken by the Peak National Park on a typical August Sunday in 1990 notched up over 8,000 walkers in the dale, most of whom had come by car causing serious congestion in the narrow lanes and surrounding villages, and overflowing the inadequate car parking facilities.

However, recently the administrative authorities have successfully concluded the Dove Valley Management Plan drawn up thirty years ago, which has attempted to solve the attendant problems by creating several new non-intrusive car parks and laying a new footpath along the riverside from the Stepping Stones beneath Thorpe Cloud to Hartington.

The main car park at Dovedale (205 spaces) has also been landscaped and an overflow car-park (190 spaces) has been provided at the foot of Bunster Hill, with a new car park at Milldale providing further space for sixty vehicles.

Now as in the past, youth hostels at Ilam and Hartington provide excellent facilities, whilst camping and caravan sites at Wetton and Alstonefield cater adequately for overnight visitors -but day visitors and the disabled also have cause for celebration with the installation of vastly improved toilet facilities close to all car parks.

Part of Natural England.

The new Dovedale National Nature Reserve will be managed by Natural England, the recent successor to English Nature, and it is envisaged that the protection afforded by these three major agencies will ensure the preservation of Dovedale’s natural beauty for another hundred years!