The White Peak villages of Thorpe, Alstonefield and Hartington

PUBLISHED: 00:00 31 October 2017 | UPDATED: 20:27 06 November 2017

Digmore Lane in Thorpe

Digmore Lane in Thorpe

as supplied Mike Smith

Whether you’re planning a weekend escape or a day out, where better to head for than the White Peak villages of Thorpe, Alstonefield and Hartington? Mike Smith explores...

The Izaak Walton HotelThe Izaak Walton Hotel

The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, first published in 1653, with additions by Charles Cotton in subsequent editions, is said to be the most frequently re-printed book in the English language other than the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Thanks to Walton and Cotton’s classic book and the fulsome praise of other writers such as Samuel Johnson, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin and Lord Byron, Dovedale became one of the most celebrated river valleys in England, especially with regards to a beautiful five-mile stretch of the dale where the crystal-clear waters of the river flow through a ravine flanked by woods punctuated in spectacular fashion by caves and limestone pinnacles.

To cater for the many tourists who are attracted to the area, two country-house hotels occupy idyllic locations in the hills that lead to the famous dale. The Peveril of the Peak has 46 en-suite bedrooms and provides drying facilities and a boot room for walkers, and the nearby Izaak Walton Hotel has 38 en-suite bedrooms, an AA two-rosette restaurant and a bar and lounge where food is served every day between 8am and 9pm. As well as being a popular eating place, the hotel is a favourite venue for conferences and weddings, not least because marquees can be provided in beautiful grounds overlooked by Thorpe Cloud, the shapely hill that guards the southern entrance to Dovedale.

Apart from a short stretch of the Dove near the small hamlet of Milldale, where a road runs alongside the river for a few yards, the Dovedale gorge is accessible only to walkers. There are no other settlements on the banks of the river, but three of the Peak District’s most charming villages are located in the stunning countryside above the valley.

Walkers crossing the River Dove over the Viator's Bridge in MilldaleWalkers crossing the River Dove over the Viator's Bridge in Milldale

THORPE

In his description of Dovedale, Roy Christian wrote: ‘Perhaps the main secret of the Dove’s charms lies in its very secrecy. It unfolds its beauty gradually, tantalisingly, always urging you on to see what lies beyond the next fold.’ A similar description could be applied to the village of Thorpe, the bulk of which is located out of sight of the road that drops down from the hills towards the entrance to Dovedale. Approached along a quiet by-road, it too reveals its charms one by one.

The little parish church of St Leonard at the heart of the village is distinguished by its square Norman tower. Although this sturdy structure is rather squat, it is surmounted by battlements, and the former west door at the base of the tower has been replaced by a window designed in 1959 by AF Erridge. Other notable features of St Leonard’s include a font that is one of only three tub-shaped fonts in Derbyshire and a series of marks on the south doorway that are said to have been made by bowmen sharpening their arrows during frequent shooting practices.

The lane immediately beyond the churchyard is flanked by picturesque cottages, where sensitive modernisation and extensions have helped to maintain the character of the village. Digmire Lane, the ‘main street’ of the hamlet, includes a former school, now used as a village hall. The steeply-pitched roof of the hall and a succession of dormers on the adjacent cottages combine to form a striking roofline that bears some similarity to that of the famous Arlington Row in the Cotswolds.

The George Hotel, located alongside the village green in AlstonefieldThe George Hotel, located alongside the village green in Alstonefield

This fine street also contains a stately manor house and a little tower on a stable block that is topped by a weather vane in the shape of a running horse. A village pump at the end of the lane completes a delightful scene redolent of ‘Old England’.

ALSTONEFIELD

Another touch of Old England is found at Alstonefield, a village that is located on the Staffordshire side of the border with Derbyshire and sits on the watershed between the Dove and Manifold valleys. Despite its 700ft elevation, the village has the type of soft and picturesque appearance more normally associated with settlements in lowland England. It is also a very welcoming place.

A cottage that was formerly Alstonefield's post office and village storeA cottage that was formerly Alstonefield's post office and village store

Visitors to the parish church of St Peter’s, many of whom come to admire its Norman south door, 17th century box pews and double-decker pulpit, are always greeted with an offer of self-service refreshments. Customers at the village pub, The George, can either choose to drink and eat in a room with a roaring fire or at tables set on the perimeter of the village green.

Guests at Alstonefield Manor, a stunning country house owned by Rob and Jo Wood, are offered the option of B&B accommodation in the main house, in rooms described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘effortlessly chic’, or self-catering accommodation in the Estate Room or in the Gardener’s Cottage, both of which have been tastefully decorated in a modern country style by Jo, whose skills have been put to good use in other conversions in the village. When guests first arrive at the Manor, they are welcomed by a plate of Jo’s homemade scones and a cup of tea served on the lawn or by the fire in the elegant drawing room. As Jo says, ‘We like to make our guests feel instantly at home’.

People who are lucky enough to have their own home in the village are part of a community that is very vibrant. The village hall is a venue for a Zumba class, a friendship group, a parent and toddler group, a gardening club and a craft workshop called ‘Threads’. The hall also hosts parties, dances, meetings, talks, games evenings, indoor bowls, concerts, a bookshop and a part-time post office.

In common with most small villages, Alstonefield has lost its full-time post office, along with its general store and greengrocers. The buildings that housed these shops have been converted into a row of delightful cottages, made all the more charming, not only by their colourful displays of flowers in window boxes and hanging boxes, but also by their retention of the old shop signs. And the former Methodist Chapel has become a workshop and home for Michael and Dot Griffin. Michael specialises in furniture made from English oak, Douglas fir and other hardwoods.

Hartington village and churchHartington village and church

On the outskirts of the village is Notty Hornblower’s Hope House Costume Museum. Described as a ‘treasure trove for costume lovers’, it is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years Notty has helped to raise thousands of pounds for charity with vintage fashion shows, and attracts a steady stream of visitors to the fascinating museum set in a renovated stable block by her lovely 17th century home.

As this short survey demonstrates, Alstonefield is not only a wonderful village in which to live – and to work if you are lucky enough to do so – but is also the perfect place in which to take a break from the stresses of everyday life.

HARTINGTON

Hartington Hall Youth HostelHartington Hall Youth Hostel

The Peak District as a whole has long been a favoured place of escape. Hartington is a honeypot for many of the visitors who swarm to the region because it offers easy access to Dovedale, provides welcome refreshment at its charming tea shops and pubs, contains excellent accommodation and has a wide selection of gifts at the long-established Hart in the Country shop and at a number of newer outlets. Dauphin Antiques specialises in period oak furniture and the famous Old Cheese Shop has a wonderful range of cheeses, many of which are produced at the company’s own creamery.

Certification limits the production of Stilton, the king of English cheeses, to the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. A quarter of the world’s supply of Stilton was produced in Hartington until the Long Clawson Dairy closed in 2009. The long history of cheese-making in the village appeared to be at an end, but Garry and Claire Milner acquired the Old Cheese Shop and cheese-making re-commenced in the parish in 2012. The new Hartington Cheese and Wine Company that was formed received certification to add a creamy Blue Stilton to their range in 2014 and it was named ‘Local Producer of the Year’ in Derbyshire Life’s Food and Drink Awards in 2016.

For many people the cheese shop is a major reason for paying a visit to the village, but Hartington is also a favoured refreshment stop for many cyclists. On the day of my visit John Briddon and Martin Sims from Bakewell, Roger Cundy from Darley Dale and Andrew Dobinson, who lives in St Albans but was on a visit back to his roots in Bakewell, had cycled out to Hartington to have a hearty breakfast at the Beresford Tea Rooms. John said, ‘Our cycling trip into the Peak District hills is part of our training for our planned visit later in the year to Majorca, where there are much bigger hills.’

Parties of school children on activity holidays often use Hartington Hall Youth Hostel as a base, but the 17th century manor house where the hostel is located welcomes guests of all ages who are accommodated in en-suite bedrooms. The restaurant is a much used venue for wedding receptions.

Hartington has two 17th century pubs: the Devonshire Arms, a traditional country inn that offers good quality home-cooked food and fine ales, and the Charles Cotton, where new owner Deepak Singh advertises a food menu including Sunday roast, a steak and grill night, as well as ‘a touch of Italy,’ with pizza and pasta and more. The hotel has 17 beamed and tastefully decorated bedrooms and the bar and lounge areas have large wall paintings illustrating the fishing and writing partnership of Charles Cotton and Izaak Walton that first brought worldwide fame to Dovedale.

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