Escape to Derbyshire - a visit to the Derbyshire Dales
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 March 2019
A view of the county from outside by London-based Adam Jacot de Boinod who writes about his visit to the Derbyshire Dales
Being the very first national park the Peak District truly fits the bill as a tract of countryside of outstandingly attractive scenery specially protected against adverse change and reserved for public enjoyment. And it successfully fulfils its roles in terms of its aesthetic appeal just as much as its functional safeguarding of the landscape.
‘The hills are shadows, and they flow / From form to form, and nothing stands; /They melt like mist, the solid lands, /Like clouds they shape themselves and go’, and to nowhere are these lines from ‘In Memoriam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson more apposite than the southern Peak District, in the Derbyshire Dales, where the limestone peaks take on such dramatic and contrasting shapes when seen from different angles.
The landscape has a distinctive network of dry-stone walls in varying states of good health and disrepair. Aesthetically pleasing and as a real signature of the area, they blend harmoniously with the natural surroundings offset against the many lush, pastoral shades of green.
Each walk I chose was very different with its dips and troughs, with dales of sheep and trails following the old railway lines that connected Derby with its northern neighbours. I climbed the ancient ‘squeeze stiles’ to tackle the vast expansive scenery. The plants of the grasslands have wonderful names like ‘red rattle’ and ‘eyebrights’, ‘sneezeworts’ and ‘devil’s-bit scabious’. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,/ O let them be left, wildness and wet;/ Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’
Beginning my walk at The George, the quaint pub beside the 12th-century church in Alstonefield, I strolled down to Milldale to trek over the Viator bridge and along the Dovedale valley where the rock formations dramatically punctuate its course. It’s a delightful and easy level walk through peaceful ash woodlands and past towering limestone pillars. Each feature has a name such as Lover’s Leap and Reynard’s Arch along with biblical references to Jacob’s Ladder, the Twelve Apostles and the Heights of Abraham. It reminded me of Exmoor’s Watersmeet though the valley is craggier and the water calmer.
The next morning I went riding, and to go from two legs to four I descended into Tissington, near Ashbourne, to find the wonderful Trekking Centre run by Suzy Torr for 20 years. She had a choice of 20 horses for my escorted ride, starting in the arena used at other times for dressage. Her treks are for all ages and all abilities and can last between half an hour and 90 minutes.
Next, to give my legs a rest I jumped in my car. In spring the weather is capricious with rain and snow and sun alternating even on quite short drives. I met gambolling lambs, seeking succour beneath their bleating mothers and warming themselves on the tarmac defiantly as though protesting at my intervention. What could I do with such seeming innocence? I had to get past to turn back! My car horn and lights had no effect and only a strong clap of hands eventually persuaded them to shift.
I felt strongly the nurturing simplicity of the landscape with its Methodist chapels and old post offices, pubs with names like The Old Dog and The Cat and Fiddle, old petrol pumps and candle workshops, small butchers and tearooms, in part for tourists, in part for locals. A style of living that seemed refreshingly unspoilt.
With an interest in regional languages, I was sad to find that inevitably the dialect of the Derbyshire villages is disappearing. Some of my favourite local onomatopoeic words are: blorting for the noise made by cattle when distressed from hunger or when in heat; hummering for the very particular sound sheep make just before they give birth; flinkering for the breezeless drifting down of light snow and gloppened for being lost for words.
I enjoyed seeing the evidence of centuries-old local customs that are still maintained. Such is the reliance on water supply that in a number of villages wells are granted an annual thanksgiving service. At Tissington the great drought of 1615 has ever after caused villagers to dress their wells with floral decorations and panels. And the individual stamp of each village is also shaped by the highly varied contours of the landscape.
I descended into magical fords past houses varying from the humble cottage to the grand estate. One church, as at Thorpe, can have a truncated tower that in turn can become a domestic feature as at the Old Hall at Fenny Bentley, one of the memorable names for a village along with Belper, Water-cum-Jolly Dale and Alsop-en-le-Dale.
I stayed at Peveril of the Peak, a house added to with extensive wings to become a guesthouse owned by HF Holidays, a company devoted to ramblers. For young and old, for groups and single people, their system is highly organised with packed lunches requested the night before and very much an early-to-bed, early-to-rise philosophy. The hearty hot dinners were a perfect end to my days of exertion before crashing out in my room with its inviting white duvets and towels.
The hotel is perfectly positioned beneath the flat-topped Thorpe Cloud, which legend has it was trampled on by a giant, and near tree-sprinkled Bunster Hill and the Stepping Stones, the final destination for many that walk beside the River Dove. And it’s right next to the village of Ilam which outdoes even the Hay Festival with the stunning setting for its own Dovedale Arts Festival. The beauty of the landscape and lifestyle of the Peak District left me truly ‘gloppened’!
Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author having written three books about unusual words with Penguin Press.