When Michelle mentioned that she had never been to the Peak District before, I was keen to take her there and show her a few places that I know. I used to visit the Peaks quite regularly, mainly mountain biking but occasionally walking. During our first couple of visits we quickly discovered that there are two different sides to the Peaks, some hidden gems just off the beaten track, and some over crowded tourist traps.
At the southern end of the Peak District, just outside the town of Ashbourne, is the popular tourist destination of Dovedale. From the car park there is a 3 mile walk along the edge of the River Dove, to the picturesque village of Milldale.
If you arrive early in the morning, you can enjoy a relaxing stroll through the valley, crossing over the stepping stones at the base of Thorpe Cloud, a 287m hill that forms the edge of the valley, and then continuing beside the river towards Milldale, finding caves and rock pillars along the way.
As an introduction to the Peak District, Dovedale is just about perfect. It’s easily accessible from local towns, the trail is flat and well surfaced and the walk takes in a combination of peaks, rivers,valleys and villages that really showcase what the Peak District is all about.
Unfortunately, it’s those great features that create the very reason why you should avoid Dovedale on any day when the sky is blue.
Wikipedia states that Dovedale attracts around 1 million visitors a year. To put that in perspective, Alton Towers attracts around 2 million visitors a year. You go to a theme park fully prepared for crowds and queuing, you go to the Peak District prepared for relaxation and wilderness.
Michelle and I went early on a sunny Sunday morning, there were a few people around but it definitely wasn’t over crowded. We really took our time wandering down towards Milldale, we stopped on the stepping stones to take the obligatory Dovedale photo and spent a good amount of time looking in the caves and other points of interest along the way. When we reached Milldale we sat by the side of the river for a while, Michelle bought an ice cream and I bought a coffee from a tiny little building that served drinks and snacks through a little hatch.
It was while we were sat there by the river that we started to notice just how busy it was getting. There was a near constant stream of people walking into the tiny village from the trail. When we had arrived 30 minutes earlier there had only been about 15 people walking around the village or sat by the river, now there were more than a hundred and that number was growing by the second.
We began walking back towards the Dovedale car park and saw just how busy it was. Hundreds of people were enjoying their Sunday morning walk and the trail was now as busy as any city High Street on a Saturday afternoon. As we approached the stepping stones where we had crossed the river a couple of hours before, we saw that there was now an orderly queue of about 25 people on each side waiting to cross, one at a time.
As picturesque as Dovedale is, no Sunday morning walk in the great outdoors should involve queues like that.
A couple of weeks later we returned to the Peak District, this time to visit Chee Dale.
The Monsal Trail is a well known walking and cycling trail through the Peak District, near to the towns of Buxton and Bakewell. Built on a former railway line, the trail covers about 8 miles and the route also passes through several old railway tunnels. I have cycled the full length of the Monsal Trail on quite a few occasions but I had never heard of the nearby Chee Dale until we were told by a friend about it’s similarities to Dovedale but without the crowds.
‘Hidden Gem’ is an over-used phrase but after hearing about Chee Dale I did a Google search to find out a bit more about the place and more than one website used that description so we were definitely intrigued enough to go and see for ourselves.
Similarly to the Dovedale walk, the Chee Dale trail follows the edge of the river for the majority of the trail, with stepping stones along the way providing one of the main features.
Whereas the Dovedale walk cuts though a valley with views across the surrounding hills and dales, the Chee Dale walk runs through a deep river gorge with steep sides.
We followed the busy Monsal Trail for a little while until we spotted a small sign post directing us down some steep steps towards Chee Dale. We were immediately impressed by the deep gorge and picturesque setting. We followed the River Wye, often having to scramble over steep rocks or climb steep inclines. This was definitely not an easy, well surfaced, walk like Dovedale, but that was a good thing.
There was nobody else around, and the steep sides of the gorge created a feeling of seclusion.
It didn’t take long for us to realise that this really is a hidden gem, it has everything that Dovedale has, but without the crowds, queues and ice cream van.
If you like your Sunday morning walk to have a bit of tranquillity and adventure about it, forget about Dovedale and make Chee Dale your go to spot. Just don’t tell anyone else. We don’t want a crowd there.