Helen Moat heads out on a spectacular and spiritual hike from Ilam to Hartington, taking in the plague village of Eyam as part of this specially designed route. Whether religious or not, this walk won’t fail to stir your emotions.

This pilgrimage ramble takes you along the first quarter of the 40-mile Peak Pilgrimage route – arguably the most beautiful stretch of walking between Ilam and the end point at Eyam.

As there’s no public transport, find friends or family to share the pilgrimage walk with you so that you can drop off a car at either end.

Alternatively, grab a taxi in Ashbourne to get to your start point and walk the entire 40 miles over four to six days.

This is a spiritual walk – one in which nature and peaceful churches, pretty pubs and cafés nourish body and soul.

The route was devised by the team at Eyam Church – and what a route it is. Collect stamps from each church along the way. The pocket-sized guidebook can be purchased from peakpilgrimage.org.uk.

Great British Life: Church of the Holy Cross, Ilam Photo: Getty ImagesChurch of the Holy Cross, Ilam Photo: Getty Images

1. Starting from the National Trust Ilam Car Park (charge for non-members), drop through the field to the Church of the Holy Cross to collect your first stamp.

With dramatic views of the sheer-sided Bunster Hill and Thorpe Cloud behind the stubby tower of the church and its unusual crown-shaped annex (a mausoleum to wealthy industrialist David Pike Watts and his family, creators of Ilam Hall), the outstanding view heralds the start of an exceptional walk.

Inside the church you’ll find the Chapel of St Bertram with its 13th century tombstone to the saint. Read the prayers on top of it and add your own, if you wish, for the journey ahead.

Bertram, Prince of Mercia, knew all about hardship, as the story goes. Having fallen in love with an Irish Princess, he brought her to England, only to find her and their newborn child mauled to death by wolves.

Thereafter, Bertram gave up his royal heritage to live a simple life in servitude to God.

Before leaving the church, take time to look at the pictorial Ilam Story, created by artist Sue Prince and the local community using egg tempera paint. It chronicles the area’s story from prehistoric times to the present day, including the life of St. Bertram.

2. Leaving Ilam Park, turn right into the village, passing the fairy-tale Swiss Cottages with their steeply pitched roofs, shingled walls, oriel windows and fluted bargeboards. At a triangle of roads, you’ll come to Ilam Cross, a memorial to the wife of Jesse Watts Russell (daughter of David Pike Watts). Can you spot the imp?

3. Veer left of the monument onto Thorpe Road, taking the steps on the lefthand side up through a field towards Dovedale.

You’ll pass the backend of the Izaac Walton Hotel, paying homage to the Compleat Angler author, the fisherman’s bible of the 17th century. Drop down steps to Dovedale Car Park and follow the lane to the famous steppingstones.

Great British Life: Stepping stones, Dovedale Photo: Getty ImagesStepping stones, Dovedale Photo: Getty Images

4. With the river on your left, you’ll enter the Peak District’s most popular dale. It’s not surprising: this is a landscape of sheer-sided woodland, great pinnacles of rocks and a tumbling river, home to dippers and ducks (and the odd cormorant).

Climb to Lovers Leap, traverse the boardwalk over the Dove in the squeeze of the gorge and marvel at the caves and towering rocks along the way: Twelve Apostles, Tissington Tower, Jacob’s Ladder, Pickering Tor and Ilam Rock.

Just under four miles later, you’ll reach the Viator’s Bridge, so narrow Izaac Walton wrote in the Compeat Angler, ‘Do you travel in wheelbarrows in this country? The bridge was made for nothing else – why a mouse can hardly get over it, ‘tis not two fingers broad.’

Milldale, along with the humpbacked bridge, is cuteness itself with its tumbling cottages and duck-filled river. Drop into the National Trust barn to gen up on the history of the area – both natural and manmade – and buy a drink and snack from the stable door of Polly’s Cottage.

5. Continue up Millway Lane to the diminutive Milldale Chapel and collect your second stamp.

The lane climbs steeply to Astonefield and St Peter’s Church with an opportunity to brew yourself a cuppa for a small church donation. You can also see another Sue Prince community-led egg tempera panel (print) chronicling the community here.

Collect your third stamp and head outside again to find Ann Green’s gravestone, the oldest (legible) gravestone known in the country.

Continue along the road to The George (closed Monday and Tuesday), fronted by its lovely green and spreading tree.

Fork left before the green, pass the post office and turn right towards the community hall (picnic benches provided if it’s lunch time).

Turn left onto the Hartington road, then almost immediately right onto a lane. Veer right again at another (mini) green and follow the farm track a short distance before heading right through fields to Gratton Lane. Cross over to another farm track and head downhill towards Dovedale again.

The last section down Gypsy Bank is very steep so take care. (If you don’t fancy it, retrace your steps to Milldale and take the flatter valley route).

6. Cross the bridge (huge sigh of relief) and continue up Dovedale into Wolfscote Dale with its gorgeous limestone cliffs.

Cross the floodplain (if flooded take the higher path) to the footbridge at the bottom of Beresford Dale, a Dovedale in miniature with its steep hillside woodlands, fern-covered pinnacle of rock and cascading weirs. At the end of the dale, the path rises and falls through fields to Hartington.

7. Turn left to go through the gate into the village, passing between the toilet block and Hartington Farm Shop and Café. There are plenty of eating places in this picturesque village with its quaint duckpond and Old Cheese Shop, selling delicious local Hartington Blues and Whites.

Having nourished your body, head for St Giles Church for your fourth stamp. Rest your weary pilgrimage feet and take in the peace and tranquillity of this ancient church, dating back to the Middle Ages.

From here, retrace your steps to your car in the village or climb up to one of England’s most beautiful youth hostels for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.

Great British Life: St Giles Church, Hartington Photo: Getty ImagesSt Giles Church, Hartington Photo: Getty Images


DISTANCE: 9 miles


MAP: OS Explorer Map OL24 White Peak

DIFFICULTY: Easy riverside walking apart from the steep descent off Gypsy Bank

REFRESHMENTS: National Trust café at Eyam Hall, Milldale kiosk, church refreshments at Alstonefield and cafes and pubs in Hartington.