A tranquil walk from the village made famous by its theme park.
Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Ascent/gradient 361ft (110m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Roads, gravel tracks and dirt trails
Landscape Forest and farmland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 259 Derby
Start/finish SK O72423
Dog friendliness Must be kept on lead near livestock
Parking Ample parking on Alton village roads
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 At the castle gate, head straight down the track to the right of St Peter's Church. At the main road, head right, down the hill to the river and the Alton Bridge Hotel. Head left along a metalled road, past the hotel, going straight ahead where the road goes round to the left, along the base of Toothill Wood. Just after the road goes round an obvious hairpin bend, follow a wide track into the woods on the left, signed 'Smelting Mill and Dimmings Dale'. After 400yds (366m) go right off the track down a less obvious trail which will bring you out at Dimmings Dale car park and the Rambler's Rest pub.
2 Go through the car park to the right of the pub and then continue straight on following signs for the Staffordshire Way. Pass the smelting mill and lake on your left, and continue straight on at the end of the lake, staying to the right of the impressive stone house.
3 When you climb up to a path coming in from the right, go briefly left. Where the path turns back on itself, carry straight on. At the top of the hill go right along the metalled road, over a cattle grid and follow this road all the way to a T-junction.
4 Go left at the junction and, after 400yds (366m), go left again just before Old Furnace House. When you get to a fork in the track, head right, close to the stream and past a series of pools, until you get to a picnic table and a causeway between two pools.
5 Continue to the left of the stream after the final pool, staying on the left at the first wooden footbridge. When you get to a dry-stone wall barring the way straight ahead, go right over a wooden footbridge and continue to follow the river left. This path will shortly bring you back to the smelting mill and the Rambler's Rest. From there head along the road back to the hotel and then retrace your steps back to St Peter's Church.
For its size, the village of Alton has more than its fair share of history, not to mention a name that's practically synonymous with stomach-churning, roller-coaster rides. The first recorded settlement in the area was an Iron-Age fort on Bunbury Hill - the site of the present day Alton Towers - built before 1000 bc. In the 8th century ad it became a fortress for the Saxon king Coelred and in the 12th century it was given to a soldier by the name of Bertram de Verdun, as a thanks for the part he played in the crusades.
In 1176 de Verdun built a castle high above the steep-sided Churnet Valley, on the opposite side to the original fort. The castle remains can be found at the start of the walk, although they're on the site of a children's centre, so it's only possible to glimpse the ruined tower and walls. A sheer cliff lies below the north side, and on the east and south sides is a deep ditch. The lower parts of a wall remain, as does most of a rectangular tower and the base of a round tower. The castle is thought to have been in a state of neglect at the time of Verdun's death, and subsequent centuries did little to stop the rot. It was held for King Charles in the Civil War but was later dismantled by Parliament to stop it being used by Royalists.
Opposite the castle is the present-day Catholic Youth Centre, begun in 1847 to a design by A W Pugin, who was partly responsible for the Houses of Parliament. Pugin was at the vanguard of the Gothic revival, when every landowner wanted a mock-castle on his land, hence the battlemented cornices. Originally a private home, it was used as a boarding school from 1919 until it closed in 1989; then in 1995 it was purchased by the Archdiocese of Birmingham and has been a youth centre ever since.
While Pugin was rebuilding the estate, successive generations of Talbots began to rebuild the landscape, especially the area of Dimmings Dale to the west of Alton. Ore smelting had flourished in the valley for 150 years but by 1850 the industry was gone. Hillsides had been stripped of trees to fire smelting furnaces, spoil heaps littered the valley and the stream had been dammed to provide water to operate the smelting mill. Today, thanks to the Talbot family, the forest has been restored and the spoil heaps are gone, but the lakes and the original mill still remain as part of a peaceful and enjoyable forest walk.
The Hawksmoor Nature Reserve has been in existence since 1927. It was originally the site of an iron-smelting furnace and at Gibridding you can still see the remains of an inclined plane which was once a tramway used for hauling coal from the extensive mines at Cheadle to the Froghall to Uttoxeter canal. The wood is a haven for insects and birds, including spotted fly-catchers in summer and occasional buzzards in the winter.
The Rambler's Rest is in a very secluded spot in the heart of the Churnet Valley, just a few minutes' walk from Dimmings Dale. The food, ranging from cakes and snacks right through to three-course meals, is invariably excellent and the location is second to none. If the weather's warm, you can take tea on the spacious patio, 10-6 daily.
The old smelting mill is now a private residence and it's hard to see any detail, but the original waterwheel is still there and you can't miss the necklace of pools that stretches up the valley. The mill was built in 1741 and was used for forging lead ore. After the decline of the smelting industry near the end of the century, it was converted to a corn mill, its 20ft (6m) wheel driving three pairs of grinding stones.