Ashbourne to Ilam – how to walk to the start of the Peak Pilgrimage
A few of our pilgrims have had trouble reaching Ilam by public transport. There are, however, bus services from various parts (Derby, Nottingham, Stoke, Matlock, Buxton etc) to the nearby delightful market town of Ashbourne. The walk from Ashbourne to Ilam is every bit as entertaining and beautiful as any stretch of the pilgrimage route itself so why not stretch your legs on an introductory five mile stroll before tackling the pilgrimage itself?
From Ashbourne bus station next to Sainsbury’s walk ahead in the direction of the one way traffic along King Edward Street. Walk on the right hand pavement and cross over Station Road at the T junction. Do not turn right on the pavement but carry straight on away from the road a few paces down a path to the course of the old railway, where you turn right across a bridge over the stream. This is the start of the Tissington Trail so watch out for cyclists. This immediately takes you into the cathedral style immensity of Ashbourne Tunnel from whence you emerge past the bike hire shop and a refreshment cabin.
At the top of the steep stretch occasioned by the demolition of the old high level railway bridge, just beyond the top gate, take the steps down on the left which quickly give way to a path up the field that leads to an extensive campsite. Keep straight on the path through the campsite deviating neither to the left nor to the right. Leaving the campsite by a gate into the top field of the broad ridge follow the path downwards until you see the village of Mapleton spread out before you. It doesn’t fill the whole of the glorious scene below for, frankly, there is very little of Mapleton to spread. Take the right hand path that cuts diagonally down the field in the welcome direction of the Okeover Arms but the gate you need is just beyond the pub and takes you straight into the churchyard of St Mary’s parish church.
St Mary’s is small but perfectly formed with a round-domed tower. I know the pilgrimage proper hasn’t started yet and you may be fearing just how many churches you’ll have to go into in the next few days. But the sign at the church entrance urges you to ‘Stay awhile. Pray awhile’, and so do I. Once you have done that you can move next door to the Okeover Arms and, with clear conscience, ‘Stay awhile. Imbibe awhile’. Or at least you can if it is past the hour of 12 noon.
Immediately opposite the pub is a footpath heading in the direction of Okeover Bridge. When you reach the road cross over and keep to the footpath this side of the river. I know it is impolite but ignore the bridge. This path is faithful to the River Dove all the way to Coldwall Bridge. Just keep the river on your left and you can’t go wrong. You may, however, need to pinch yourself that here you are in the middle of England and there is not a habitation to be seen, probably no other walkers to be met, no intrusive noises, nothing but the lush beauty of the valley, the bleating of the lambs and the gurgling of the river. Here time has stood still and you have found another country in which to lose yourself - and so perhaps to find yourself once again.
Talking of losing yourself, half way along this stretch I discovered a nearly full grown lamb that had found its way down to the river and was staring intently into the still shallows at the water’s edge. For minutes on end it barely moved, fully focussed on a mysterious something in the water. It seemed, yes it certainly seemed, to be contemplating its own reflection. Surely a sheep is not capable, like you, dear pilgrim, of personal discovery and wonderment? I looked round. The others were all doing what sheep do best. Munching grass. But was I looking at an Einstein among sheep? All I’m saying is, next time I’m munching roast minted lamb in a Derbyshire pub I’m going to feel a new pang of ethical doubt.
Eventually the lovely packhorse Coldwell Bridge will appear. Cross over it and turn 90 degrees right across a field immediately you come out of the walled-in section by a style. Almost immediately you will see a finger post to aim at. After the gate do not bend left with the farm track but head straight ahead following the line of finger posts until the path starts meandering downhill through woodland to the lush meadows by the river that lead to Ilam.
By the weir I met a family of wagtails. There are three sorts of wagtails in this country. The commonest is the pied wagtail, which is a smart multi-tone grey. Next there is the grey wagtail, which is yellow. Finally, there is the rare Yellow Wagtail, which is very yellow indeed. My new friends were grey wagtails, which means they were averagely yellow. I hope you meet them too. What did they communicate to me that felt so precious? Joyful innocence.
Continue to follow the river closely until you clamber up to the bridge at Ilam at the other side of which, if you are lucky like me, you will see an ice cream van. If your luck holds out, unlike mine, you will not spill raspberry sauce from your cornet on to your nice walking shorts.
The church, youth hostel and National Trust tea rooms are ahead then left.
Congratulations – you’ve made it to the starting line. But what an introduction! Surely the walking can’t get any better than this. Or can it? The only way to find out is to buy the Guide and become a pilgrim.