You can easily spend a full day at Carsington Water, a reservoir lying just outside the Peak District National Park near Ashbourne. Along with its Wildlife Centre there are four other bird hides, while the nearby Water Centre hires out bicycles and boats.


You can cycle the eight-mile perimeter of the reservoir or rent out paddleboards, rowing boats or sit-on-top kayaks for a lazy afternoon on the water.

Walking is the ultimate way to experience the reservoir’s wildlife. Carsington Water has hosted over 200 species of birds, along with butterflies, bees and insects. Explore the surrounding wildflower meadows, reedbeds, ponds and woodlands, taking on the role of wildlife detective with young ones. Hunt pondlife, spiders and minibeasts.

Boats on a lake
You can launch your own boat, hire a sailing dinghy or give the family a chance to try a taster session on a kayak, canoe, windsurfer or paddleboard and enjoy a day out on the water/Credit: Alamy

Things to do at Carsington Water

Spend the morning exploring the waterside attractions on the west side of the reservoir. From the main car park, follow the northbound path to the Wildlife Centre, a wooden structure with a grass-turfed roof, interactive information panels and viewing windows overlooking Horseshoe Island. On-site staff are happy to point out the prolific birdlife that gathers in the water channel and off-shore islet. Look out for curlews, cormorants, coots, great crested grebes, mallards, tufted ducks and terns before retracing your steps to the car park.

Here you’ll find the Visitor Centre. Inside, an interactive exhibition tells the story of water, from rainfall to tap. Upstairs, the bright and airy restaurant shows off ceiling-to-floor views of the reservoir and Stones Island. Explore the shops in the courtyard, ice-cream parlour and fascinating Kugel Stone – a one-tonne ball of granite that can be rotated on its thin film of water with just a finger.

Cycling on countryside road
Hire bikes and try the family-friendly three-mile cycling route/Credit: Alamy

Climb nearby Stones Island with its modern interpretation of the prehistoric stone circle. Great stone slabs line the spiralling path. Peep through the portholes that are bored at various heights on the stone sculptures, each one framing a different view of the reservoir and surrounding countryside – great fun for the young and young-at-heart. Back at the car park, the green is perfect for a leisurely picnic, and children can enjoy the adventure playground.

In the afternoon, walk across the dam head to Stones Shelter, a magical ramble along waterside and through woods to a fairy-tale cabin.

Carsington Water walk

4 miles / 6.4km | 2.5 hours | easy

1. Along the wall

From the south end of the main car park, head through trees, crossing the road by the marina to follow a wooded pathway out on to the head of the dam.

2. Woods and meadows

Pause at the viewing area just beyond the dam head, a large circular construction with great vistas to the attractive Valve Tower controlling the flow of water. From here the path continues south, then east to Millfields car park – with an opportunity for a toilet stop and a drink or a snack at the ice-cream van.

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A pathway between woodland and wildflower meadow wriggles along the rest of the south end of the reservoir before heading north, passing between Millfields Island and Hays Lane.

Look out for coots on the water/Credit: Getty

3. Fairy-tale cabin

Sticking as close to the banks of the reservoir as possible, you’ll soon reach Stones Shelter, a cabin filled with fantastical wooden furnishings that children will love. There’s a table, fireplace, picture frame with alpine scenes, armchair, piano, love-heart chair and decorative clock – all slightly wonky. It could be a scene from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Look up to see the bat box.

4. Severn heaven

Returning to just beyond the viewpoint, drop down off the dam head and cross the road to take the Severn Trent Water track through the wildflower meadow, looking out for butterflies. At the other end, cross the road again to the path at the end of the marina and retrace your steps back to the main car park.


Carsington Water map

Carsington Water walking route and map

Carsington Water walking route and map


Helen Moat
Helen MoatTravel and nature writer

Helen is the author of Slow Travel The Peak District, Bradt and A Time of Birds, Saraband, a memoir and travelogue describing her journey across Europe to Istanbul on her sit-up-and-beg bike.