Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

File:Ilamhall.jpg

Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.

12 comments

  1. krikitarts · October 21

    Just the name sounds like something out of some medieval romanticist’s wild imagination and the reality, seen through your eyes, lives up to that. The ash dieback is tragic and will change its character for quite some time, but it still seems to be (rather oppressively) popular. If I read between the lines correctly, this was a recent visit. I’m quite surprised that no one in your photos is wearing a mask. Don’t they know what’s going on?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 21

      Yes the crowds are oppressive, and worse than the photos suggest: Mrs P took most of the photos in this post, and she hates having people in her pictures!

      The rules here require the wearing of masks in shops and other enclosed spaces (though not in the workplace, bizarrely) but not outdoors. I suspect the crowds were making the most of their temporary release from mask-wearing. What really winds me up is the people who don’t wear a mask properly – we were out shopping this morning and counted maybe half a dozen other shoppers whose mask didn’t cover their nose, or who took it off when talking to someone! I mean, what’s the point eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ann Mackay · October 22

    That’s so sad about the ash trees. Hope the National Trust does a good job of replanting with other species.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 23

      Yes, it’s grim, awakening memories of the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease. All eyes on the National Trust.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · October 24

        Dutch Elm Disease was dreadful – I remember an elm in the woods behind our house in Scotland dying from it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. tanjabrittonwriter · October 23

    Thank you for providing an overview of the interesting history of the entire vicinity. I’m always astounded at some of these country estates and wonder if their previous owners could ever afford them. Downton Abbey and rich American heiresses come to mind.
    Dovedale looks as lovely as the name suggests, but I’m not sure I would have joined the crowds. Let’s hope that a selection of native trees will flourish and compensate for the loss of the ash trees.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 23

      We tend to focus our attention on the grand country estates / houses that have survived until the 21st century, but they are the minority. Most perished over the past 150 years, due to bad management, tax policies and a persistent shortage of rich American heiresses πŸ™‚. There’s a big history to be written here…my next Covid lockdown project?

      Like

  4. thelongview · October 27

    Thanks for the lovely tour! What a beautiful place it must be. Long, long ago, our local library has a book called ‘The Dales of Derbyshire’, with watercolors of the area. My sister and I loved that book and would repair borrow it to drool over the paintings. Your post took me back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 27

      As someone who was born and raised in a very ordinary area of London, I was stunned by the beauty of the Derbyshire Dales – and other parts of the county too – when I moved here. Very picturesque…and VERY popular with tourists!

      Like

  5. thelongview · October 27

    Sorry, many typos!

    Liked by 1 person

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