Taste for the outdoors

Put a spring in the step of a lagging youngster with a pudding factory trip, says Helen Werin

My daughter Sophie doesn't "see the point" of country walks, doesn't "do" water sports and rarely has the enthusiasm to climb much more than a gentle slope.

So, what we were doing on a campsite at the gateway to the Peak District with all three activities right on our doorstep? I'll tell you; it was the lure of The Pudding Room dessert factory just yards from our pitch.

The possibility of being rewarded with some of Angie Cooper's Belgian chocolate truffle torte or lime zing pie was better than any nagging or other encouragement. Plus, it gave the rest of us more outdoorsy family members a rather tasteful chance at bribery to show Sophie what she might otherwise miss out.

This camp site at Carsington, 10 minutes from Ashbourne – the "gateway to Dovedale" – gave us a great start. Heading west, we could be climbing Thorpe Cloud, with its glorious views over Dovedale, in less than 15 minutes.

In the other direction, lay the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Derwent Valley Mills and the almost seaside-resort feel of Matlock Bath.

A short stroll, or cycle, away was Carsington Water reservoir. If we hadn't used up all our energy riding the nine miles or so right around it, we could have tried windsurfing or sailing at the watersports centre. We sat outside the visitors' centre, watching the boats and the seagulls circling for crusts, imagining that we were beside the sea. In reality, we were about as far away from the coast here as it is possible to be in England.

Many visitors to the Ashbourne area rarely venture much further than the stepping stones of Dovedale. And that's if they can tear themselves away from the myriad of antique shops, tearooms and chintzy boutiques in the market town itself.

We went much further up the well-trodden path beside the Dove, passing the masses lounging near the much-photographed stones. Here the sightseers petered out as we passed the rock formation they call Dovedale Castle to the cliff edge of Lovers Leap.

From here the valley became even more dramatic, with the limestone pinnacles of Jacob's Ladder, Tissington Spires and Ilam Rock. A steep scramble took us off the path under a stunning natural arch to a cave, one of several around this dale, the most impressive of which is the huge gaping mouth of Dove Holes.

Beyond the turning for the Dovedale car park, the road wound round to the tiny estate village of Ilam, across the border in Staffordshire, with its cluster of cottages straight from the pages of a story-book. In the tiered gardens of the Gothic-style pile of Ilam Hall, now a youth hostel, children were playing roly-poly down the slopes. Even the school had a gingerbread-cottage look about it.

The reason for this became clear when I learned that the old village nearer Ilam Hall was knocked down by the estate owner in the early 1800s and rebuilt in an Alpine style by the architect, George Gilbert Scott.

From the top of the lane above the pretty little school we took the footpath leading us into the shadows of Bunster Hill, where we watched paragliders soaring in the updrafts.

Another day, we enjoyed even quieter walks beside the Dove further upriver at Wolfescotedale and Milldale. Here it was an ice cream from the refreshments window at Polly's Cottage that was the bait.

We attempted to make up for all the calorific overload by getting on our bikes and on to part of the national cycle network from the back of the camping field. We soon joined the 13.5 mile long Tissington Trail, along the old railway track. The only other traffic we had to watch out for was fellow cyclists and walkers. We certainly could not have asked for better views of the gorgeous countryside.

At Tissington, approached by an avenue of limes, we found limestone cottages, a duck pond and the Norman church of St Mary. A stream runs the length of the road in front of the imposing Jacobean mansion of Tissington Hall. Curiously, no-one else was around. It felt like a place lost in time.

The Tissington Trail eventually meets the High Peak Trail. This, in turn, leads to Cromford Mill, birthplace of the modern factory system. This rather bleak, but nevertheless impressive, building is where, in the 18th century, water power was successfully harnessed for textile production. The mills stretching along the Derwent river valley a little further north to Matlock Bath and to Derby in the south are now part of the World Heritage Site. Some, we discovered, have museums or offer guided tours. The stunning red brick Masson Mill, at Matlock Bath, is regarded as the best preserved example of an Arkwright cotton spinning mill. It now houses a shopping complex.

It was the tall chimney of William Strutt's pioneering "fire-proof" cotton mill of 1804 which guided us back towards Belper. We parked in the shadow of the mill to enjoy the delightful River Gardens with their bandstand, fish ponds and floral displays.

Rowing boats lured us on to the Derwent to get a closer look at the enviable gardens of the cottages on the opposite bank.

On our last day, Sophie was first to scramble up the steep hill above Milldale from where we could see the river winding down the beautiful Dove valley that marks the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The only mountain she'd managed was one made of chocolate chip meringue and smothered in cream. As a taster for the delights of the Peak District, Ashbourne was a great starter.

YP MAG 22/1/11