Dovedale Stepping Stones & The Nine Ladies

It’s August. By now, we should be deep into the UK motor racing season – which we kind of are, but Covid has meant that meetings at which one can actually spectate are few and far between. ‘Hooray! Thank heavens for MSV and the British GT Championship’ shrieks the ardent racefan inside me! And so, it was for said championship’s visit to Donington Park in Derbyshire, that I decided to take the opportunity to turn the trip (which can be done in a day from home) into a hedonistic weekend away – spending the Friday and Saturday before raceday exploring the nearby Peak District, and binge-ing on Bakewell tart. I found a super-cheap rate at the Novotel just off the M1 at Nottingham to be a perfect base for the weekend. Yeah, it’s a little juxtapose turning from tree-hugger to petrol-sniffer in the blink of an eye… but I am a girl of eclectic tastes! I made an early start on Friday morning and arrived in Derbyshire by lunchtime, so I would have the whole afternoon for my first foray of the weekend… direction Dovedale!

Dovedale & Ilam

The car park at Dovedale was busy. I can’t think why I thought it wouldn’t be busy on a sunny day in the middle of the school holidays, but it was, and had to queue to park! It cost three quid (this is the privately-owned car park – the NT one is about a mile away in Ilam) and the gatekeeper – for want of giving him a better title – was slightly grumpy that I held up the increasing line of cars behind me in order to count the change he had doled out – in shillings and tuppences, for goodness sake – from the fiver that I had given him. “It’s all there,” he chuntered, urging me to move on. But, really! He should’ve known better than to give shrapnel to a southerner like me. I was thankful, though, of then having a 20p, which gained me my entry to the on site bogs (very welcome after a 3-hour drive). All was well that ended well.

From the car park it was a gentle walk alongside the River Dove to reach the famous stepping stones (as pictured in the header above), where adventurers, young and old, waited for their turn to tip-toe their way across the stones to reach the other side of the river. I managed to cross without getting wet feet. Hooray!

From the stepping stones, I left behind the picnicking families that had set themselves up for an afternoon lazing on the grass beneath the limestone hill of Thorpe Cloud, and soon found myself quite alone on the path that followed the river north. The sides of the valley are pretty steep, and there are a few caves along the way, oozing mystery, beckoning to be explored.

After about 3km, I arrived at the impressive limestone pillar of Ilam Rock. Here, I crossed the river using a wooden footbridge of fairly recent construction, and then, for my unanticipated cardio workout of the day! The public footpath signposted to Ilam mentions a ‘steep ascent’ and by ‘eck, it is! The climb through Dovedale wood is beautiful but knackering. Worth the effort, though, for when you arrive at the ‘summit’, find a rock on which to sit and rest and sip (or, perhaps ‘glug’ would be more appropriate a word) some water, you have the Derbyshire dales stretching before you as far as the eye can see. It’s quite a vista.

Once refreshed, it was my intention to make for Ilam via the top of Bunster Hill and, on the way down, search out St. Bertram’s Well. However, I twice bumped into a pair of post A-Level students from the hostel nearby, needing directions, and the third time our paths crossed, we found ourselves facing off against a rather huge and ferocious-looking bull, doing that thing bulls do with their hooves, scratching at the ground, as if to say ”ave a go, if you’re ‘ard enough!’ Safety in numbers decreed that we traverse our bovine foe’s path, en masse – we legged it with alacrity – and before I knew it, I had by-passed my intended route.

Having parted company with my fellow livestock-evaders by the memorial at the entrance to Ilam village, I completed the 7.5km circular walk by heading back to the car park through a field of cows (not bulls – I checked before entering!).

Stanton Moor & The Nine Ladies

Cork Stone, Stanton Moor

The next stop on my adventure was to be Stanton Moor (travelling via Bakewell, to indulge myself in some of the local baked delights – this will be covered, in detail, under a separate post!!) This was a brilliant circular walk, just under 4km, and, oh my word… Stanton Moor is an incredible place, full of mysterious megaliths and a very special energy!

I parked in the village of Birchover (although there is parking adjacent to the Moor in lay-bys off the Birchover Road or there’s a small car park opposite the disused quarry), and walked maybe a kilometre before entering the moor via the entrance near the majestic Cork Stone.

This naturally-formed gritstone pillar, battered ino the shape of a cork by the elements, stands 5m high. The metal rings, that afford less injured folk than I (ahem!) the ability to climb to the top, were added in the 19th century.

There are a number of pathways across the moor; dusty tracks cut into the haze of purple heather. These were the original hollow-ways formed by the packhorse trains that carried goods across the moor up to the mid-18th century. I took the perimeter route – the ‘Duke’s Drive’ – that formed the boundary between the Stanton and Haddon estates. Apparently, this was a scenic tour that the estate’s guests used to take by horse and carriage to be shown the sights.

Stanton Moor had been inhabited well before this, though. Across the area, one can still see evidence of Bronze Age activity in the many cairns and barrows that have been excavated. These remarkable sites have survived because the area hasn’t been used for agriculture, or built upon – and therefore, the whole moor has been designated a Scheduled Monument to preserve its wealth of archaeological history.

Earl Grey Tower, Stanton Moor

My route brought me to the Earl Grey Tower. Nestling in the bracken, with a shroud of pine for cover, this square, gritstone tower was commissioned by the Thornhill family of Stanton Hall, to commemorate the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832, and named in honour of its instigator, the, then, Prime Minister, Earl Grey. It’s boarded up, but my imagination had me within those four walls, conjuring up a murder or two!

I continued north, and, in no time, came upon the reason for my visit… the stone circle known as ‘The Nine Ladies’.

As legend has it, these nine ladies were turned to stone as a punishment for dancing on the Sabbath. There is a tenth stone, some 40 metres away called the ‘King Stone’, who was the musician that accompanied their dance on his fiddle.

I have always been drawn to stone circles. I find them calming, but at the same time, incredibly powerful. I sat and pondered for a while. It’s that very energy – spiritual energy – that brought our Bronze Age ancestors to come together in such places. And whenever I visit a stone circle, I always seem to connect with a presence, and this was no different. I wanted to dance. I did dance. But not for long… just in case I was transformed into stone to become the tenth lady!

My journey back towards the Cork Stone took me along the spine of the moor and via it’s highest point at 323m – with not a soul but for a few sheep for company – and then back to Birchover. I have a feeling I will return to this place…