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Local Walk: The Churnet Valley

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 March 2017

The Ramblers Retreat

The Ramblers Retreat

as submitted

Sally Mosley discovers a switchback stroll in the Churnet Valley with back-to-back walks around Dimmingsdale and the village of Alton

Earls Rock House, flanked by wood and water Earls Rock House, flanked by wood and water

DISTANCE 3.5 + 3 miles

PARKING Free public car park beside Red Road next to the Ramblers Retreat S10 4BU. Grid Ref 063432

TERRAIN Eight stiles, two gates. Strenuous walk with some steep steps and ascents. ‘Rustic’ stepping stones and footbridge. Woodland paths with trip hazards. Close proximity to river and areas prone to mud. Roadway without pavement. Livestock grazing.

REFRESHMENTS Ramblers Retreat tearooms

TOILETS No public toilets on route

MAP O.S. Explorer 259 (Derby)

WALK HIGHLIGHT View of Alton Castle

DESCRIPTION This walk of two halves begins with a woodland wander deep into the tranquil depths of Dimmingsdale, a haven for birds and a treasure trove of tucked away homesteads. The second part is a discovery trail of historic Alton with its fairytale castle, imposing churches and quaint properties.

1 Exit the car park and follow the drive to the right of the Ramblers Retreat with footpath sign for ‘Smelting Mill’, which passes to the right of the mill dam. Look for black swans which are resident on the stretch of water here. This area of outstanding beauty, which is the habitat for all manner of flora and fauna, was a place of industry for hundreds of years. Charcoal was created here to power furnaces where iron ore and lead ore were smelted. However, all works ceased and were abandoned by the 19th century leaving behind a place where the power of nature has been given a helping hand by the Forestry Commission to create a glorious hidden valley.

2 Continue on the track immediately to the right of Earls Rock House, heading up past a barrier gate and then continue straight ahead ascending a woodland path in an area known as Ousal Dale. Look and listen for birds including the elusive jay with its flash of pink and blue wings.

3 At a crossroads of paths near the top of the wood continue straight along a section of the Moorlands Walk and Staffordshire Way, as indicated by a guide post. Emerging onto a Tarmac lane turn right. About 15 yards beyond the cattle grid notice an old boundary stone over the wall on the right by the side of an overgrown pond.

4 Continue ahead on the Tarmac road passing beneath overhead wires and then a beautiful mature sycamore tree. Notice how unusually large and round the stones are that have been used to build walls hereabouts, sometimes constructed of only one thickness so there are little gaps where daylight shines through. See also the rosy red sandstone used in old buildings such as the derelict field barn which will shortly appear on your right. Follow the road for almost half a mile to a T-junction.

5 Turn left and carefully descend the twisting and turning narrow lane to Old Furnace House beside a tributary of the River Churnet. Turn left and follow the footpath sign for Dimmingsdale.

6 After some rustic stepping stones when the river returns to the right, go past a barrier gate and continue along the riverside track until you get the chance to cross the water by means of a thick concrete ‘stone pipe bridge’ (there are several more official footpath crossing points downstream including a footbridge). Head up the opposite bank onto an old carriage road to see the white sign (Alton Abbey 2 miles). Turn left and follow Earl’s Drive, used by the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1800s as an approach route to his impressive home at nearby Alton Towers.

7 Arriving back at the Ramblers Retreat head up the woodland path to the rear of the public car park. On meeting a track continue ahead and notice through the trees your first glimpse of towering turrets. To your left on the skyline is the castellated Flag Tower and lodge to Alton Towers which stands on the site of an Iron Age fort. The ancient settlement made way for a Saxon fort built around 700AD and was followed by a Norman castle erected just after the Norman Conquest. However the large Gothic style derelict building that now dominates the site and forms the centre stage of the Alton Tower visitor attraction was built in the 19th century by the 15th and 16th Earls of Shrewsbury.

The fairytale castle in the distance ahead, reminiscent of a medieval Rhineland schloss, is Alton Castle which has been fortified since Saxon times. The current building stands on the edge of a rocky precipice and dates mainly from the mid 1800s. John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, from nearby Alton Towers commissioned the architect Augustus Pugin to create a masterpiece and this was the impressive result, reputedly his greatest work. It incorporated a hospital for the poor, a guildhall and a church which was dedicated to St John the Baptist. Alton Castle’s crowning glory is the chapel roof embellished with sparkling gilded tiles. The site is currently a Catholic Youth Retreat Centre generally closed to the public apart from occasional open days.

8 After descending through a hollowed out cutting edged by moss-covered rocks to pass an old characterful cottage, you will emerge back onto Red Road. Walk ahead to a National Trust sign for Toothill Wood. Head up the steep stepped path and beware of sheer drops to your left. Carefully follow the narrow path along the hillside and over two stiles. At a further NT sign turn right on a narrow walled path to the back of a wooden animal shelter, then turn left on a path leading into Alton following a fingerpost sign for the Staffordshire Way. The path drops down to a hollow where there is the entrance to an old stone well on your right before ascending and emerging in Alton by the side of the Royal Oak pub.

9 Cross over and head up Malthouse Road where there are many beautiful old houses and cottages. Notice Kirk House on the right was built on a bed of solid rock.

10 At the point of a right-hand bend go down the footpath by the lamp post and carefully cross over the main road. Continue ahead on the footpath which now climbs steeply up past allotments with the church dedicated to St Peter on your right.

11 After admiring Alton Castle on your left, turn right and walk along Castle Hill Road with the old churchyard on your right and then turn right to walk down Alton’s High Street.

12 Turn left on meeting the main road and walk up past the newsagents and village store to a small round building at the junction. Long ago this was the local lock-up for miscreants or vagrants.

13 Turn right down Knight Lane to return to the Royal Oak. Retrace your steps down past the well entrance and back along the track but instead of descending Toothill Wood follow the track around Toot Hill towards Battlesteads and the Cheadle Road.

14 Do not walk as far as Cheadle Road but instead, where two roadways become one, turn sharp right to descend Rakes Dale by means of a footpath crossing stiles in the bottom of this sheltered vale overlooked by large rocky gritstone outcrops.

15 Turn right after the dressage arena and walk down a lane to return to Red Road. End your walk by turning left to walk up past the quirky and quaint cottage again, along the woodland track used earlier, to avoid the narrow riverside road below. Be sure to turn right and descend the narrow path back to the car park.

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