The Mysteries of Dove Dale
The valleys and dales of England's Peak District offer many choices for a relaxing ramble with most of us content to just take in the scenery as we go. These river gorges also hold a wealth of folklore and old tales from the past, and Dove Dale is our focus today.
A walk through Dove Dale is as simple as it gets – just follow the river Dove for as long as you like then turn around – with many walkers stopping at the tiny village of Milldale before heading back, but there are places of interest along the way that veer off the beaten track a little. The famous stepping stones are first, if you're lucky it's quiet here but a Sunday afternoon is akin to a city centre on a Saturday night! The stones feature briefly in the cult horror film The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, among other Peak District locations, and the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood has scenes shot here too.
“Lover's leap” is a phrase we've all heard with many places laying claim to the name. The Peak District has an age-old argument still going on today over where exactly the “real” Lover's Leap is, was, or took place, with the village of Stoney Middleton vying for the likely spot against Dove Dale. The village has a sign purporting to mark the spot and tell the tale of a local lass named Hannah Baddeley who, having been rejected outright by the man of her dreams, decided to end it all by leaping off the cliffs that overlook the main street. However, it is said that when she stepped off the precipice her skirts and petticoats billowed up around her to such an extent that they acted like a parachute, slowing her descent so much that she landed with barely any injury!
The Lover's Leap tearoom stands at the spot where this event is alleged to have happened but poor Hannah is said to have leapt from a few different locations, including at Dove Dale. A slightly raised mound marks the spot – again going by the Lover's Leap name – and she would have plunged into the Dove river below. There are great stone steps leading up and down again either side of this Leap site, and an elderly gentleman who was there informed me that they had been hewn out of the solid rock by Italian prisoners of war.
Further along the river and the enormous natural edifice of Reynard's Cave rises above the trees up on the hillside. One simply has to see it to appreciate it! Like a massive natural stone fortress, the great high arch greets brave souls clambering up and under it, before the skull-like cave entrance yawns above. The name is said to have come from a bandit who made the caves his lair along with his gang, perhaps it was the foxy nickname of this wily and cunning character? In any case, the main cave does indeed resemble a huge skull, while off to the side is a larger cave known as Reynard's Kitchen, and it was here that a hoard of coins dating from every single historical era was found in 2014. A strange mix and one has to wonder if it was anything to do with Reynard the bandit?
It is said that a local Irish priest was riding one day with a lady friend as his passenger when they attempted to ride up into the cave. A foolhardy thing to do as they found out the hard way, with all three falling back and crashing back down the boulder strewn slope. The dean died as a result of his injuries, along with the horse, and he lies at peace in nearby Ashbourne. Perhaps old Reynard had placed a hex on the place against mounted soldiers attempting to raid his lair?
A little further along and we come to the dramatic stone stack of Ilam Rock. A limestone pinnacle left behind after prehistoric erosion, another stack stands on the opposite side of the bank and together they have the look of the gate of Argonath on the River Anduin from the Lord of the Rings. A dramatic natural feature and one of many such stacks along the Dove Dale.
Next along the trail is the massive cave openings of Dove Holes, not to be confused with the village of the same name. Again, prehistoric water erosion was the culprit here, forming a set of open caves that would be fit for a stone age family to live in. Peak District folklore often associates caves like this with the “Hob”, a goblin-like creature that lives quietly in remote cave systems, creeping out at night to pilfer milk and butter from farms.
Finally we arrive at the hamlet of Milldale. It would be difficult to conjure up a more quaint village than this, consisting of just a few houses as it does. A cup of tea and a scone from the shop/cafe that operates out of one of the dwellings is a fine way to refresh oneself while sitting by the Dove. The way into Milldale off the trail is over the remarkable Viator Bridge, a medieval structure still in good condition. It's ramparts are very low in order to accommodate the panniers of packhorses crossing over in centuries long gone by, and one does feel as if one is stepping back in time while traversing the old structure.
So all that is left is to simply walk back the way we came, taking the opportunity for second looks at all the features we have passed. If one has the energy left then a trot to the summit of Thorpe Cloud is essential, the site of the mysterious “double sunset”. From a certain vantage point, and on or around the summer Solstice, the sun will set then briefly rise again, before setting once more, a unique phenomena in England.
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The approach to the dreaded Reynard's Cave
Sunset from the summit of Thorpe Cloud
Reynard's Cave draws nearer
Ilam stepping stones
The yawning skull of Reynard's Cave
The caves of Dove Holes
View of the Dove from inside Dove Holes
The Dove in autumn
Ilam Rock and it's opposite sister
The medieval Viator Bridge, leading into Milldale