Magnificent woods clothe the banks of the River Churnet and its canyon-like valley in North Staffordshire.
Between Leek and the picturesque little town of Alton, the watercourse wriggles its way through this secluded, arboreal landscape. It surges through the occasional village amid a beguiling countryside brimming with heritage, far from that madding crowd.
At Dimmingsdale (Dimmings Dale) near Alton, set between woodland-fringed ponds and nearby Lord’s Bridge across the Churnet, stands the Ramblers’ Retreat tearoom, a long-established favourite with walkers and cyclists. It’s an architectural flight-of-fancy that was formerly a towered lodge house on the vast Alton Abbey Estate owned by the Earls of Shrewsbury. A trace of the old Abbey, later renamed Alton Towers, is now at the heart of the famous theme park.
Tasty treats at the warm, welcoming, eclectically furnished Retreat include redoubtable Staffordshire oatcakes crammed with cheese and bacon, irresistible puddings and heavenly cakes. Specialist teas, luscious lattes and memorable milkshakes enrich the experience. Canine companions are welcome too, and will love the delightful, landscaped water gardens and quirky pavilions that surround the tearooms.
1. Over the bridge
But, why not defer your Epicurean treats awhile? Head across Lord’s Bridge, then the old railway, and bear right up the track to seek out the curious chained oak tree. In 1821, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury had the branches chained to prevent them falling and thus ward off a beggar’s curse – just one of the unexpected sites to be found in this sublime valley.
2. Up stream
Now head upstream on the converted former railway alongside reedy ponds – remnants of the Uttoxeter Canal, abandoned as long ago as 1849. You will soon arrive at Oakamoor car park, where a copper works stood until 1962; the wire for the first transatlantic telegraph cable was made here in 1857.
Cross to Mill Road and turn left along the quiet lane. Keep right at the junction by houses and advance steadily uphill along Stoney Dale. The lane crests in woodland before dropping to a junction with Greendale Lane in a narrow vale.
3. Into the dale
Turn left on the bridleway at Old Furnace and remain with this as it advances into Dimmingsdale (Dimmings Dale), a slender, craggy valley with majestic Scots pines, broadleaves and myriad spring wildflowers. Hereabouts in 2004, Time Team archaeologists investigated medieval and Elizabethan iron furnaces; this once frenetic industrial area is now a seclusion of peace. The walk passes furnace ponds as it follows a brook back to the Ramblers’ Retreat.
Click on the map below for an interactive version of the route.