Exped Adventurer 2020 trip report: Journey to the source of the River Dove

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With recent travel restrictions meaning that most of us have had to seek out adventure closer to home, Exped Adventurer 2020 winner Laura Jacklin set off on a multi-day hiking trip to the source of the River Dove near her home in the Peak District…

There’s something very romantic about the idea of a long-distance hike. It’s the ultimate freedom; going on an epic journey purely powered by your own body, challenging yourself to carry everything you need on your back, and the chance to get back to basics out in the wilderness.        

Like many hikers, it’s one of my dreams to do a long-distance trail one day. The thought of the Pacific Crest Trail makes my palms tingle; the Kungsleden makes my stomach do an excited flip. But also like many hikers, the past year has forced me look a little closer to home for inspiration. Having moved back in with my parents to where I grew up in Staffordshire at the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to look at what I could do from my own front door during the relative freedom of the summer of 2020. It was while out on an evening walk on a warm summer evening that the idea came to me. I crossed a bridge over the nearby River Dove and stopped to watch it lazily drift downstream when I realised the answer was staring me right in the face – I could follow it all the way to its source.

Laura walking out of Hartington in the White Peak

The River Dove rises out of the rust-coloured moorland of Axe Edge and meanders through the limestone valleys of the south-western Peak District before eventually joining with the River Trent, where it continues its long journey to the North Sea. It marks much of the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire, and is about 42 miles from source to mouth. It was the perfect pandemic adventure – a thru-hike from my
front door!

I could have set off there and then, but first of all I had to plan a route. That evening I looked for footpaths that skirted the edges of the snaking blue line of the river on my map and drew a route that looked like it would follow it the most closely. I spent the next couple of evenings after work trying to pack my backpack with the bare minimum and buying food supplies. I checked that the campsites I was heading to would be open, and booked a day off work. That’s all there was to it; in the space of just a few days I had a whole adventure planned. Now I just had to walk it!

Cow trouble
And so, early that Saturday morning, I set off from my front door. The sky was cloudless, and the Dove glinted as it flowed next to me under the watchful eye of the medieval ruins of Tutbury Castle.The first few miles were smooth, mostly over flat fields and following a few roads. I couldn’t believe how lucky I had got with the weather, and I was making good progress. Then, I came across my first obstacle. I strode into a field where I was met by a very angry-looking bull, flanked by some equally angry-looking cows and calves. I spent several minutes weighing up whether to risk it or not. I’ve walked through many cow-filled fields before, but these were looking particularly unfriendly and so I finally decided to take a slight detour into Uttoxeter.

As I walked through a boggy field and sank up to my ankles in silage, I spotted a massive hill up ahead and started to feel annoyed with myself for not being brave enough to go through the field with the bull. But just then, I turned a corner to see a fox sunbathing in the midday sun. Seeing her sitting there looking so happy made any lingering annoyance about the cows evaporate instantly. I stood for a while watching her, not wanting to scare her off. Eventually I took a few tentative steps forward before she saw me and darted off into the woods, probably thinking how rude I was for disturbing her midday sunbathing session. I looked at my watch and decided it was time for me to dart off too, and so I pressed onwards.

After about eight miles of walking, the Weaver Hills came into view in the distance, which is where I would be spending my first night. The sight of them spurred me on, and soon I was pushing on through Uttoxeter, past the golf course (where some friendly golfers clapped when they saw the size of my backpack) and out towards the roaring A50. Cars roared past above as I crossed under a graffiti-strewn bridge, and I breathed a sigh of relief as their sound receded with every step I took along on my route. Things would be getting more rural now, and I was excited to be out in the open countryside.

That illusion didn’t last long, as I was soon walking straight through the middle of a shooting range on what seemed to be the busiest day of the year for clay pigeon shooting. Slightly terrifying signs warning me about wayward gunshots marked my path, and even though my legs were starting to ache I tried to hotfoot it through. There were a few things I’d been slightly worried about on this adventure, but being shot hadn’t been one of them.

The earthworks of Pilsbury Castle

At that point, my parents came in to view, riding on their tandem towards me and waving. I’d only left them a few hours before but seeing them again was the cheeriest sight (the cup of tea and slice of cake may have had something to do with it too). After a quick chat they set off on their cycle home and I carried on to the next village where I picked up a sandwich for next day’s lunch. I trudged the last few miles to my campsite, nestled in the trees in the shadow of the Weaver Hills and set up camp. I was pleased to discover that the campsite allowed campfires, and as I got one going and sat eating the food I’d cooked on my stove, I felt like a proper adventurer.

I’d been feeling pretty nervous about camping out on my own for the first time, even though I knew most of my fears were completely irrational. When darkness falls and the rustles in the trees get louder, the mind can conjure up some terrifying scenarios.  From the near impossible (a bear attack – that one was pretty easy to dismiss) to the highly unlikely (murderers on the loose), and peppered with scenes worthy of the scariest of horror films, I was expecting my mind to race. At first it did and I wondered how I was going to get any sleep at all. But after letting my eyes adjust to the darkness and watching the bats fly in and out of the trees, the hooting owls and flickering embers of my campfire made for a pretty soothing atmosphere, and I soon drifted off into a deep sleep (walking 20 miles with a massive pack probably helped too!).

Dove of freedom
The next morning I was woken by the sun peeking through the trees. I got up and had some breakfast, feeling pretty proud of myself for making it through the night and actually managing to have a good rest. It was a glorious morning – the sun was rising high in the sky, the birds were singing and I was excited for the day ahead. I soon met the Dove again, and stopped to chat with several women I passed who were out for Sunday strolls. They were all interested in what I was doing, and as I was telling them the tales of my adventure so far, I realised how much I was enjoying myself.

On I went, skirting around the edges of Ashbourne and then crossing into the Peak District National Park. This also marked the point where I was going to be walking right by the Dove for the rest of the day, and so I knew from now on I could safely put my map in my bag. After a good few miles of not seeing anyone, I arrived at perhaps the most famous stretch of the Dove – Dovedale.

Following the River Dove through Wolfscote Dale

Dovedale is a valley that sits in the southern Peak District, and a whopping one million visitors visit it and its iconic stepping stones every year. It was absolutely rammed when I got there, with hoards of cars and crowds of people enjoying a much-needed day in the outdoors after a summer of lockdown restrictions. There are a lot of complex issues surrounding the pressure that huge numbers of people put on National Parks and beauty spots, but today I just saw lots of families spending time together in a beautiful setting.

Where there are people, there are refreshments, and I joined the queue for the kiosk at the entrance to the valley. To my delight, they sold fresh baguettes and I wasted no time in snapping one up.
Sandwich aside, Dovedale also presented another excitement in that I was hoping to meet my friends Rosie and Katie there. We’d provisionally arranged to meet around lunchtime, but with no signal it was in the hands of the gods to whether we would actually cross paths. The gods were clearly in a good mood, as I saw two familiar Rosie and Katie-shaped figures cross the stepping stones and bearing gifts of strawberry laces and chocolate. We walked together for the next couple of hours, and I barely noticed the miles we were racking up.

After they left to go back home, I continued on to Milldale. For some reason, I’d planned my route on the side of the river with a much more rarely-used path, which made for more difficult walking, but also meant I didn’t pass anyone else and so didn’t have to worry about doing the Corona-dance (definition: when you are coming up to pass someone during a pandemic and you have the indecisive stand off of who is going to step to which side to form the nice and spacious 2m distance). I briefly passed through Milldale, got to use a real loo and filled up on some water before pressing on through Wolfscotedale, where I took my time to I look back and admire the glowing limestone monoliths as they caught the afternoon sun.

It was getting towards the end of the day and, after coming up to the 16-mile mark, I was feeling quite weary. I pushed up one final hill out of the valley to reach my next campsite for the night, where apart from a few caravans I found myself to be the only camper that night. I made some watery pasta and ate it while watching the moon rise over the hills. I started to feel the adventure magic again as stars began to dot the night sky, new clusters appearing each time I looked up. A slight niggle in the back of my mind told me that such a clear evening would also mean a very cold night, but the peace of the night air blanketed me in an overwhelming sense of calm and contentment. This past year has certainly been a weird one, and this hadn’t been part of my plan, but right then I was exactly where I was meant to be. Darkness fell, and I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, making sure to pull everything a little tighter as the temperature began to drop.

Below zero
Something was wrong with my face. I reached my hand out of my sleeping bag and grabbed hold of something stuck onto my face, before realising it was my nose which had gone completely numb.  I looked at my watch. 4am. It was absolutely freezing, and I had to force myself out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag to put on some extra layers, and lay there trying to warm up my nose. The first signs of daylight had begun to appear and, having resigned myself to not getting any more sleep, I decided to make the most of it by watching the sun come up.    

There was more resistance than usual as I tried to open my tent, and then I realised that I was also unzipping a thick layer of frost. After a long hot summer, waking up to this icing-sugar dusted world was quite disorientating. I started to contemplate the fact I would have to readjust to this colder weather being the norm for the next few months. I feel like the cold is something we are taught to resist – it’s unpleasant, dangerous and lifeless. Of course, it can be all of those things, but it can also be a place of extraordinary beauty. As I watched the darkness of the night slip away and the world slowly start come alive, I felt a sort of excitement for the colder days ahead.

Musings aside, I got up to start the day. I’d saved a £1 coin from the night before to treat myself to being able to wash my face with hot water in the campsite toilets, only to find the machine wouldn’t accept my coin. Gritting my teeth as I splashed my face with icy water, I started to focus on the day ahead, but I couldn’t think much further than my one aim for that morning – to get to Hartington for a hot drink and a pie. I left the campsite and headed straight upstream, passing an early morning dog walker and a trailrunner. The flat ground made for some nice and fast walking, though this was a rare moment when I would have welcomed a hill to help me warm up. Mist carpeted the valley floor and the sheep blended into the frosty ground around them.

Waking up to an icing sugar-dusted world on a frosty morning

Hartington lies in the centre of the White Peak area of the Peak District. It has an amazing village shop, which I stopped at to get a hot coffee, pasty for lunch and a Bakewell pudding. That cold, hungry feeling had taken over so I also got two slices of cheese from the cheese shop. I guessed that I must have burnt a lot of calories by now and the porridge I’d had for breakfast on the first morning felt like a very long time ago. Loaded up with all the good stuff, I went on my way out of Hartington and up a steep bank. I passed gorse bushes – their yellow flowers of summer now replaced by frosty cobwebs – and watched the mist that still hung low in the valley. Patches of blue were peeking through the mackerel sky above.

I pressed onwards, dodging cows and falling in bogs before I arrived at my next goal – Pilsbury Castle. I sat and looked over the earthworks and the Dove Valley while munching on some nuts, thinking about the many people that must have sat in this exact spot over the centuries. I looked up the valley, punctuated by Parkhouse Hill and the sleeping dragon’s back of Chrome Hill. The brown moorland of Axe Edge that I was heading towards was visible on the horizon. I hiked on upstream, briefly considered climbing to the top of Chrome Hill (my heart said ‘yes’, my legs said ‘absolutely not’) and became completely absorbed in the last afternoon of my journey.

I took a wrong turn and came face-to-face with yet another angry-looking cow, so had to retrace my steps and descend a very steep slope to the river again. The Dove was looking a lot more like a stream now, shallow and babbling. I crossed over a bridge and walked upwards on what seemed to be a really old cobbled path, narrow and overgrown. I was climbing higher now, and the bucolic scenes of villages and dry stone walls gave way to  harsher, moorland landscapes dotted with weather-beaten farmhouses and windswept trees. The afternoon sun was warm and the miles were beginning to catch up with me. I was so close to the end of my journey now.

I looked to my right as I continued trudging upwards, watching the rusty waters of the Dove trickling down the moor. Even though it was now the lightest it had been during my trip, my pack felt like it was trying to pull me backwards, as if it was urging me to stop and make the most of the last few moments of my adventure. Something white flashed in front of me, and I realised that all of my huffing and puffing had startled an enormous grey heron. It gracefully beat its wings and flew further upstream, before landing on a rock next to the river. I caught up and it did the same, again landing a few metres up ahead before taking off when I got there. I continued the ‘heron relay’ up the side of the moor, before suddenly realising that the Dove had disappeared. I looked at my map and realised I was nearly at the source. The rumble of lorries on the A53 confirmed the fact I was almost at my journey’s end.
Back to the source
The boggy ground underfoot was the only clue that this is where the Dove began its journey. The bog which would become the rusty trickle. The rusty trickle that would become the babbling stream. The babbling stream which would become the river which goes on to travel for many miles, flowing through and shaping the dales downstream, and a home to a whole host of freshwater life.

I dodged the lorries on the A53 and on the other side found a quiet patch of moor to sit on as I waited for my parents to pick me up. Axe Edge was now to my back and the whole route I’d walked stretched out in front of me. I’d seen the landscape change from flat farmland and rolling hills, to limestone valleys and now wild moorland. I genuinely felt so proud at how far I had come, and how I’d been able to appreciate familiar places in a whole new way. I felt as though the map of the area had been etched into my brain, now knowing how to navigate to these places purely by human power as well as by car.

Above all, I felt like I’d found what I’d been looking for – a real adventure. It might have been from my front door and it might have been through places I’d been to before, but all of the ingredients for adventure had been there. It had excited me and challenged me. I’d done something out of my ordinary. I’d felt a deep-rooted connection to the natural world. Those key ingredients for adventure are the same wherever you go. The long-distance trails will always be there, but I’d realised that you don’t have to look far to find your very own adventure.

Exped Adventurer 2021 Competition

Laura Jacklin, the author of this article, was the winner of our inaugural Exped Adventurer competition which kicked off last summer. We challenged readers to come up with a cool idea for a backpacking adventure that they could write about, and in return we’d give them £1000 of Exped backpacking gear to make the trip possible. We’ll be running the competition again this summer, so if you’re a budding adventure writer then look out for our Jul/Aug issue which will be on sale the first week in July. In the meantime, check out Laura’s outdoor adventures on Instagram @explaura_hikes, and for a taste of what might be on offer in this year’s competition, head to www.exped.com  





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