Walk Ilam Park to the Stepping Stones in Dovedale
Discover the limestone countryside of the southern Peak District, famed for its wildlife and geology.
Plenty to explore from start to finish
Starting at the tranquil Victorian landscape and woodland of Ilam Park, this easy walk takes you into Dovedale, an iconic and spectacular gorge carved out by the river Dove.
Ilam Park, grid ref: SK132507
Start at Ilam Park and take the footpath towards Ilam church. Look out for the shafts of two 1,000-year-old Saxon crosses in the churchyard. Continue on the path into the village.
Designed in the 19th century as an idyllic setting for Ilam Hall, the Manifold and Hamps rivers re-emerge here after several miles flowing underground. The places where they rise are known as boil holes, as the water appears to bubble and boil at the surface. A Tudor mansion once stood in Ilam Park, but in the 1820s local industrialist, Jesse Watts-Russell, built the current Ilam Hall. The hall fell into ruin in the 1930s and two-thirds of it was demolished before Sir Robert McDougall, a member of the flour-milling family, bought what remained for us. It's now run by the YHA as a youth hostel.
Follow the path past the Church into Ilam village. Here you'll find alpine-style houses and a school, provided for locals by Jesse Watts-Russell. Continue until you reach the Mary Watts-Russell Memorial Cross, built in 1840 in memory of Jesse Watts-Russell's wife. Carry on along the road passing the postbox until you leave the village.
The historic estate village of Ilam was mostly demolished and replaced by these unusual alpine-style cottages in the 1830s. They were almost certainly designed by George Gilbert Scott, who is most famous for his imposing Gothic cathedrals and workhouses, plus the Midlands Grand Hotel at St Pancras Railway Station.
On leaving Ilam village at a lay-by, cross the road, go through a wooden gate and up a short steep slope to the footpath. Turn right onto the track and go through a stone squeeze stile into the fields, where there are wonderful views of the Manifold Valley. There may be cows and sheep in these fields.
Follow the paths across the fields behind the Izaak Walton Hotel, named after the author of a book called The Compleat Angler. He fished the River Dove in the mid-17th century. Bunster hill is on your left and Thorpe Cloud is ahead of you, with the flat top.
Thorpe Cloud and Bunster Hill
Rising up on either side of the River Dove, these hills are both reef knoll - immense piles of calcareous material, or underwater lifeforms, which accumulated on an ancient sea floor over 350 million years ago. Thorpe Cloud's slopes are covered with loose stones, called scree - rock that has been weathered by freezing and thawing. It's a short but challenging walk to the top. Despite greeting more than a million visitors a year, the 3-mile (4.8km) Dovedale gorge supports a vast range of rare habitats and wildlife. For this reason, it became a National Nature Reserve in 2006.
Cross a stile and follow the footpath downhill to join a road. Turn left and walk along this path, with the River Dove on your right, to enter Dovedale. The name is derived from the old Norse word 'dubo', meaning dark. Look out for dippers, ducks and heron by the river.
Congratulations, you've reached the Stepping Stones - take a minute to absorb the fantastic scenery. Put in place in the middle of the 19th century, the stones have long been a magnet for visitors to the area. Spot the fossils in the stones as you cross them. You can cross the stones and continue your walk along the valley on the path, or return to Ilam Park.
The Stepping Stones
The Stepping Stones at Dovedale were first set down for Victorian tourists to cross the river. If you're still feeling energetic when you get here, the footpath continues for 2.5 miles (4km) to Milldale at the north end of the gorge and a set of steps climb to a limestone promontory called Lover's Leap. The original steps were built by Italian prisoners of war captured in the Second World War.
Dovedale Stepping Stones, grid ref: SK152514
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