It's amazing how quickly things change in England. Yesterday I couldn't believe how boring the walking was, but today's walk started out with some incredible views over Dovedale, continued into one of the most wonderfully English river scenes you can imagine, and managed to stay beautiful right up to the end. My feet might have ached like hell from yesterday's long hike and my blisters might have been their usual irritating selves, but when the countryside is this good you quickly forget the pain; at last, the walking is getting more rewarding.
It's getting harder though. Air Cottage is in an incredible location, right on the very top of Dovedale with breathtaking views down into the valley, and yesterday's climb was long and hard. Dovedale is a long, steep-sided valley that the River Dove has carved into the limestone plateau of the Peak District, and last night I spent a pleasant hour sitting outside the cottage, watching the sun dip slowly behind me as Dovedale gradually filled up with shadows. This morning the same scene played out in reverse, and as I pulled back my curtains at 7am to see the grassy slopes of the dale lit up by the sun in a cloudless blue sky, I could see exactly why this part of the world is a National Park. I couldn't wait to get going.
The trail down the side of the dale to the river was steep and slippery, but if anything the view from inside the dale is more impressive than from above. At this time in the morning Dovedale is all but deserted and the path that winds along the eastern bank of the river is peaceful. It's a world away from the tourist trap it becomes in the summer, for Dovedale has been understandably tamed by this high quality path, and quite right too, as it's a stunning place to walk through and deserves to be enjoyed by everyone. The sides of the valley start off almost sheer at the southern end of the dale, and as I walked north I couldn't help staring up at the cliffs and getting totally disorientated by the height; it was a good job it was deserted or I'd have been bumping into people left, right and centre.
The odd walker aside, my only companions along the track were the surprisingly tame sheep, who ignored me in a most un-sheep-like manner, and the ducks, who squabbled and quacked on the banks like naughty schoolchildren. Apart from a short road section through the hamlet of Milldale, the track sticks to the river all the way to the northern end of the dale, where it bursts out into rolling countryside and crowds of schoolchildren and ramblers heading into the dale for the day. I was lucky enough to experience Dovedale without the distractions of the crowds; I can't recommend that experience enough.
The Peak District Experience
The walk along Dovedale is a classic and it's no surprise to find that Hartington, the small village at the northern end of the dale, is sensibly cashing in on the resulting tourist trade. The tea rooms and shops selling potted plants are squarely aimed at the mature tourists who pack the coaches that block up the village centre, and it was pleasant for a change not to be the only person hobbling and using walking sticks.
What is less pleasant is the way the local personalities seem to have switched off their charm. Back in Staffordshire I was amazed by just how friendly complete strangers were, and everyone from farmers to pub drinkers reacted to my inane smiles with smiles of their own. Hartington, though, freaked me out, because people seemed not only to ignore my smiles, but in doing so they managed to make me feel utterly unwelcome. I tried smiling at the old people who shuffled around town and they looked right through me; I smiled at the woman selling potted plants next to the grocers and she met my gaze but steadfastly refused to smile back; I even smiled at people as they rushed through town in their cars, but I didn't receive one smile back.
Perhaps it's a different way of doing things – who knows, it's possible that up here a grimace means the same as a smile down south – but instead of feeling as if I was sharing the companionship of God's own country, I felt dismissed. I sincerely hope that Hartington is a one-off; I suppose the hordes of tourists who turn up in the summer may have hardened up the locals to some extent, but if there's one thing I can't stand it's people who don't return a smile. Not only does it make me feel bad for smiling in the first place, but it makes people look miserable, rude and downright ugly.
It won't stop me smiling, but it might stop me coming back.
Permit me to quote something from my guidebook, Andrew McCloy's The Land's End to John o'Groats Walk. Just after talking about Hartington he says:
It's worth taking a five-minute detour down the Youlgreave turning to visit Arbor Low, a Neolithic stone circle possibly as much as 5000 years old. Sometimes referred to as 'the Stonehenge of the North', the huge, surrounding grassy banks enclose around 50 fallen stones, but the original purpose of the enigmatic hilltop site remains a mystery.
Sounds good, eh? Who wouldn't take a five-minute detour to take in the Stonehenge of the North, especially on a walk this long? And so I turned off the Youlgreave road and prepared to be taken back in time.
Arbor Low is one of those fascinating places where so little is known that you're forced to use your imagination. Building work started between 3000 and 2500 BC, and although we don't know what it was used for, we do know it was very important to the local people and that it was constructed using only the simplest of tools, such as antler picks or animals' shoulder blades. Back in Neolithic times a circular earth mound surrounded a stone circle of upright stones made from locally quarried limestone, so the strange rituals that were performed inside the circle would have been invisible from the outside. The chances are that Arbor Low was used as a meeting point for celebrations and for gatherings of tribespeople, but the great thing is that nobody really knows. All we're left with is the evidence in stone: the Stonehenge of the North.
I love places like this, and even though on the map it looked a bit further than five minutes from the road, I was thoroughly looking forward to seeing the Stonehenge I'd read so much about. Five minutes down the road, I was excited. Ten minutes down the road I was still excited, but wondering what had happened to the five-minute detour. After 15 minutes I wondered if I'd missed the turning, but the map confirmed I still had a while to go. 20 minutes later I arrived at the farm whose land you need to cross to access the henge, and I dutifully put the 50p fee into the honesty box. And finally, after enjoying 25 minutes of this 'five-minute detour', I heaved my pack over the earth mound and there was Arbor Low, laid out in front of me.
Unfortunately, Arbor Low turned out to be rather less impressive than the name 'Stonehenge of the North' might imply. Stonehenge is an incredible place that palpably resounds with druidic mystery and ancient history, but Arbor Low is, to the untrained eye, little more than a few lumps of worn limestone in a circle. OK, it's still a genuine Neolithic site that will thrill ancient historians and those for whom stone circles are a lifestyle choice, but for the layman popping in for a quick visit, I'm not sure it's worth a 25-minute detour, a 50p fee and a 25-minute return journey... which is a pity, really.
Meanwhile, I have learned an important lesson. Andrew McCloy's book might be invaluable, but like most guidebooks it's not to be trusted blindly. I've now found one serious measurement error and one serious time dilation, and although this might not sound like a big deal, it's absolutely essential to get this sort of thing right when you're writing for walkers. I doubt the author genuinely has seven-league boots and a time machine, but sometimes it feels like he has.
From Arbor Low I hit the trail through the pretty village of Monyash (where I didn't stop at the Old Smithy Café, mainly because the book said to make sure I did) and joined the Limestone Way all the way to the Waterloo Inn, my stop for the night; yet again I tried to book into the hostel recommended in the route and yet again it was full of schoolchildren, but the Waterloo Inn was a handy alternative.
By the latter stages of the day my feet were killing me. Last night my heel blisters managed to pop and dry out, and today I gained two new blisters inside the dead skin of the previous ones; such is life when you have feet like mine. On top of this my Achilles tendons have started aching like hell, no doubt suffering from yesterday's long haul, and despite the constantly engaging views over the White Peak (named after the local limestone), by the end of the day I couldn't wait for a bath, a pint and a good feed.
Sometimes – in fact, a lot of the time – I look forward to the end of the day more than the day itself. Dovedale might have been delightful, but there's little to beat looking back on the day from the comfort of a long, hot bath. It's possible that this is the reason I walk in the first place; recently I've been thinking more and more about reaching John o'Groats and throwing my walking boots into the bin, and as for that Scottish pint at the end of the trail... ooh, don't get me started.