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Through Monsal Dale, the Valley of the Gods

Following the ever-changing River Wye from Ashford-in-the-Water through lovely Monsal Dale.

Distance 5.6 miles (9km)

Minimum time 3hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 656ft (200m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Well-defined paths and tracks throughout, lots of stiles

Landscape Limestone dales and high pasture

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 24 White Peak

Start/finish SK 194696

Dog friendliness Livestock in Monsal Dale, dogs should be on leads

Parking Ashford-in-the-Water car park

Public toilets At car park

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1 From the car park turn right up Court Lane, then right again along Vicarage Lane. A footpath on the left, signposted 'To Monsal Dale', doubles back left, then swings sharp right to continue along a ginnel behind a row of houses. Beyond a stile the path enters a field.

2 Head for a stile in the top left corner, then veer slightly right to locate a stile allowing the route onto Pennyunk Lane. This walled stony track winds among high pastures. At its end a footpath signpost directs you left along a field edge. In 400yds (366m) it joins another track, heading north towards the rim of Monsal Dale. The path runs along the top edge of the deep wooded dale to reach the car park at Monsal Head.

3 Take the path marked Monsal Trail here - this way you get to walk across the viaduct. On the other side go through a gate on the left. Ignore the path climbing west up the hillside, but descend south west on a grassy path raking through scrub woods down into the valley. This shouldn't be confused with the steep eroded path plummeting straight down to the foot of the viaduct.

4 Now you walk down the pleasant valley. The right of way is well away from the river at first but most walkers trace the riverbank to emerge at Lees Bottom and a roadside stile.

5 Cross the A6 with care and go through the White Lodge car park on the other side to a stile, where the path back to Ashford begins. The paths are numbered here - this route uses number three. Beyond another stile there's a path junction. Take the left fork, which veers left across rough fields. Ignore the next path into Deepdale and swing left (south) into Great Shacklow Wood.

6 The path now climbs through the trees and stony ground to another footpath sign. Turn left here, following the path signposted to Ashford and Sheldon. 200yds (183m) later the Sheldon path climbs right, but you go straight ahead, following a fine ledge path along the steep wooded slopes. Eventually the path comes down to the river, before joining a minor road at the bottom of Kirkdale.

7 Turn left along the road, down to the A6 and turn right towards Ashford. Leave the road to cross Sheepwash Bridge. Turn right along Church Street, then left along Court Lane to the car park.

The Wye is a chameleon among rivers. Rising as a peaty stream from Axe Edge, it rushes downhill, only to be confined by the concrete and tarmac of Buxton and the quarries to the east. Beyond Chee Dale it gets renewed vigour and cuts a deep gorge through beds of limestone, finally to calm down again among the gentle fields and hillslopes of Bakewell.

The finest stretch of the river valley must be around Monsal Head, and the best approach is that from Ashford-in-the-Water, one of Derbyshire's prettiest villages situated just off the busy A6.

After passing through Ashford's streets the route climbs to high pastures that give no clue as to the whereabouts of Monsal Dale. But suddenly you reach the last wall and the ground falls away into a deep wooded gorge. John Ruskin was so taken with this beauty that he likened it to the Vale of Tempe; '?you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening - Apollo and the sweet Muses of light - walking in fair procession on the lawns of it and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags'.

It's just a short walk along the rim to reach one of Derbyshire's best-known viewpoints, where the Monsal Viaduct spans the gorge. Built in 1867 as part of the Midland Railway's line to Buxton, the five-arched, stone-built viaduct is nearly 80ft (25m) high. But the building of this railway angered Ruskin. He continued, 'you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone and the Gods with it?'

The line closed in 1968 and the rails were ripped out, leaving only the trackbed and the bridges. Ironically, today's conservationists believe that those are worth saving and have slapped a conservation order on the viaduct. The trackbed is used as a recreational route for walkers and cyclists - the Monsal Trail. The walk continues over the viaduct, giving birds-eye views of the river and the lawn-like surrounding pastures. It then descends to the riverbank, following it westwards beneath the prominent peak of Fin Cop. The valley curves like a sickle, while the path weaves in and out of thickets, and by wetlands where tall bulrushes and irises grow. After crossing the A6 the route takes you into the mouth of Deep Dale then the shade of Great Shacklow Wood. Just past some pools filled with trout there's an entrance to the Magpie Mine Sough. The tunnel was built in 1873 to drain the Magpie Lead Mines at nearby Sheldon. Magpie was worked intermittently for over 300 years before finally closing in the 1960s. It's believed to be haunted by the ghosts of miners from the neighbouring Redsoil Mine who died underground in a dispute with the Magpie men.

Looking back on the beauty of day's walk it's hard to believe that the Gods haven't returned, or at least given the place a second look.

What to look for

Ashford's much-photographed 17th-century Sheepwash Bridge over the River Wye was built on the original site of the ford that gave the village its name. On the far side of the bridge are the enclosures where the sheep were gathered for washing. The square-towered Norman Church of Holy Trinity has an interesting 'black marble' tympanium over the door. The marble is an impure local limestone, which becomes shiny and black when polished.

While you're there

Bakewell, next door to Ashford, is well worth a visit. The spired church of All Saints looks down on this bustling town, which is built round a fine 14th-century bridge over the River Wye. The 13th-century church was refurbished in Victorian times but many interesting monuments, including one in the Vernon Chapel dedicated to Sir George Vernon, 'King of the Peak'. In the churchyard are two Saxon preaching crosses. The famous Bakewell Pudding Shop is also a popular venue for those who want to taste the real thing.

Where to eat and drink

The Monsal Head Hotel serves a wide variety of bar meals. So does the popular Bulls Head in Ashford, which is a Robinsons House. The chef of the Bulls Head doesn't cook chips with the meals.

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