Ilam – An Unexpected Treasure in the Heart of the Peak District

The Peak District is full of beautiful places to visit. Spread out over five different counties, you’ve got a lot of different areas of natural beauty to choose from.

However, some popular tourist spots can become incredibly crowded over the summer months and during school holidays, which can turn a relaxing trip to the Peaks into a stressful visit where you spend more time queuing and trying to find somewhere quiet than you do actually enjoying your surroundings.

When visiting the Peak District, you want to find a spot that is still undiscovered enough that you don’t feel like you’re sharing it with the rest of the UK, but not so remote that there’s nothing to do and no chance of a tea shop or toilet. 

This perfect place sounds too good to be true, right?

Wrong.

We’ve found somewhere that ticks all the boxes.

Where is Ilam?

Ilam is a small village in the Staffordshire area of the Peak District, found right next to the River Manifold. With a population of under 500, it’s a picturesque little settlement surrounded by views of the dramatically sweeping hills of the Manifold Valley and overlooked by the impressive figure of Thorpe Cloud.

The village is thought to have been established in Saxon times, and retains an authentic, historic air that gives the whole place a very peaceful atmosphere. The fact that there is virtually no phone signal anywhere in the village only adds to this – it’s the perfect place to visit if you want to go off-grid!

It’s Ilam’s architecture that makes this place really special however. When exploring the village, you’ll notice that instead of the typical grey, stone cottages found across most of the Peak District, almost all of the cottages, Ilam school and the village hall are designed to look like Swiss chalets. This is because the estate was bought in the 1800s by a wealthy industrialist, Jesse Watts-Russell, who decided that the Staffordshire landscape reminded him of the Alps and wanted to design the village to reflect that.

Now, Ilam looks like somewhere straight out of a postcard or a fairytale. No matter what time of year you visit, there’s something really magical about the rows of houses with their gabled roofs and uniquely decorated walls.

How Do You Get to Ilam?

The easiest way to get to Ilam is by car, although public transport is available. 

The village is found 2.5 miles off the A515 road from Ashbourne to Buxton, and is 25 miles from the M1 junction 28 or 25 miles from the M6 junction 15. The roads down into the village once you’ve turned off the A515 are unmarked, country lanes that will require some caution, especially if you arrive or leave in the dark. 

There is also a community bus service as part of the Derbyshire Connect scheme that connects Ilam with nearby Thorpe, with more information available here.

The nearest train stations to Ilam are all over 10 miles away, with Matlock and Uttoxeter being the closest stops. If you travel on the train you can catch the bus into Ilam or take a taxi from the station.

If visiting for the day or as a stop on a longer walk, you can also get to Ilam on foot. Footpaths and quiet roads lead off from both the Tissington Trail and the Limestone Way that will lead you to the village, and there are shorter walks leading from places like Dovedale, Milldale and Ashbourne.

What to Do in and Around Ilam

There are several popular attractions to enjoy in and around Ilam, whether you’ve arrived for the afternoon or are spending a couple of days in the area. Below are some of our favourite recommendations.

Ilam Park

The main draw for visitors coming to Ilam is the Ilam Park National Trust property, which covers the grounds of Ilam Hall and a lot of the surrounding countryside. Entrance to this attraction is free, but you will have to pay to get into the car park either at Dovedale or the hall itself.

Whilst Ilam Hall itself is not open for National Trust visitors, the extensive grounds and tea rooms are. There’s an impressive terraced garden that overlooks Thorpe Cloud and its surrounding hills, with a turret and sweeping staircase down to the rest of the gardens and a pretty little church. You can also enjoy your order from the cafe outdoors with similar stunning views.

The grounds of Ilam Hall also include a footpath that runs right along the side of the River Manifold through masses of wild garlic and wildflowers. Circular routes around the hall are available for all ages and abilities, with the option to cross over the river and get out into the hills from the grounds.

NB: Whilst Ilam is a quiet part of the Peak District that is often overlooked in favour of other tourist hotspots, Ilam Park car park is known for getting rather busy on bank holiday weekends or particularly hot and sunny days. Because the car park is small and the roads are so narrow, even a small amount of traffic can quickly back up, so we recommend arriving very early if you’re planning a visit on a day that you know will be popular.

Dovedale

One of the most popular places in the Peak District is Dovedale, which can be easily reached on foot from Ilam and is definitely worth a visit if you’ve got the time. A beauty spot stretching out on either side of the River Dove, Dovedale is a 2-3 mile area at the bottom of the Manifold Valley that is known for its iconic stepping stones, peaceful atmosphere and gorgeous views.

There is a car park close to the stepping stones at Dovedale where you can start your exploration of the area, or you can walk across the fields from Ilam Park and avoid having to slot your car into a little parking space. It’s is another location managed by the National Trust so you will have to pay to park, but this does mean that there is a kiosk and public toilets in operation which is great if you’re ending a long walk here.

Once you’ve walked alongside the River Dove and hopped over the water on the stepping stones (a bridge is also available if you’re feeling less adventurous), the path winds round to the left and leads you through the valley towards the beautiful hamlet of Milldale. This is an absolutely stunning walk that includes plenty of spaces to stop and enjoy a picnic or even a swim in the river, with the steep walls of the valley rising up on either side and impressive outcrops of rock towering above the path.

The path itself varies the further you walk, with one particularly steep incline that has steps leading up and down to a viewpoint that is well worth the climb. There are also sections where the path becomes a wooden trail suspended over the water, creating magical sections of the route where you feel as though you’re being swept through the valley by the river.

A highlight of this Ilam Dovedale circular walk is the dramatic Thor’s Cave; a naturally occurring cavern in the limestone crag that you can walk into from the footpath. The huge, circular entrance overlooks the river and the wall of the valley on the other side of the water, and you can climb a little way up into the cave as long as you are careful, as the rock is steep and can get slippery in wet weather. 

YHA Ilam Hall

If you’re planning on visiting Ilam and the surrounding area for more than one day, your best option is to stay at the Youth Hostel Association property, Ilam Hall. This 17th-century gothic manor house is one of the most impressive buildings that the organisation owns, with 25 rooms that include accessible and ensuite facilities.

You do not have to be a member to stay at a YHA property, and even if it wasn’t one of the only accommodation options for miles around, we’d recommend it as a brilliant place to spend the night! 

The hostel offers catering for its guests with full breakfast and dinner menus that have plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, as well as a licensed bar and large communal lounge that has dramatic windows looking out over the grounds of Ilam Hall. As with any hostel, there is also a self-catering kitchen that guests can use to store and prepare their own food, although you’ll have to remember to bring ingredients with you if you want to cook as the nearest shop is quite a drive away!

It’s not the brilliant food, the incredible architecture, the cheap price or even the fact that you get to spend the night in what was once a grand English manor house. Staying at Ilam Hall means that you have the grounds to yourself once the daytrippers have departed. You can enjoy peaceful evening strolls through the gardens and by the river as the evening draws in, or enjoy waking up early and taking your breakfast out into the grounds to watch the sun come up over Thorpe Cloud, feeling as though you’ve got the entire estate to yourself.

The ultimate holiday Peak District accommodation? We think so.

Thorpe Cloud

Wherever you are in Ilam, the distinctive, flat-topped figure of Thorpe Cloud can always be spotted in the distance. This impressive hill rises 942 feet into the air above Dovedale and is an excellent place to enjoy a walk that offers incredible views of Ilam and the surrounding dales for the entire route.

You begin the walk at the Dovedale stepping stones where the path towards Milldale peels off to the left, taking the steep, rockier route up to the right. You can also approach Thorpe Cloud from Ashbourne and travel over the hills, or take a steeper route straight up to the right from the car park.

After gradually winding your way around the hill, which takes around half an hour, there’s a final steep climb that ends with a scramble up to the ridge at the top. From the distance, Thorpe Cloud appears to have a perfectly flat top, but when you climb it you’ll discover there’s actually a narrow, rocky peak that mellows out into a thin stretch of grass overlooking the whole of Dovedale and Ilam.

The final ascent of this walking route is perhaps not best suited to anyone who suffers from vertigo, but the views from the top of Thorpe Cloud are breathtaking. Stop and catch your breath after the intense climb, then get out your camera to capture an unforgettable panorama.

There are steep paths down the hill that are signposted as being liable to landslides, so it is recommended that you come down the same way that you walked up.

Suggested Itinerary for a Weekend in Ilam

If you want to get the most out of this beautiful Peak District gem, we recommend visiting for a weekend and either staying at the YHA Ilam Hall or the connected Ilam bunkhouse that is also part of the property.

Saturday

Start your weekend in Ilam by packing a picnic and heading away from the hall, past the church and through the village towards Dovedale. Walk across the fields, past the Izaak Walton Hotel, to the car park at Dovedale and cross the river at the stepping stones.

Take the left-hand path and enjoy the route along the bottom of the Manifold Valley to the tiny village of Milldale. We recommend stopping and having lunch on the grass by the river, and maybe dipping your toes in if it’s warm, but there is also a small snack kiosk in Milldale if you want to buy some food there.

Walk back along the same path, stopping to have a look inside Thor’s cave. On arrival back in Ilam, have dinner at the YHA and then venture out into the grounds now they are empty and explore the impressive gardens before bed.

Sunday

Plan an early start on Sunday morning and head out on the same route you took yesterday towards Dovedale. This time, tackle the ascent up Thorpe Cloud before anyone else arrives, and enjoy unspoiled views of the valley and nobody getting in the way of your photos!

Walk down Thorpe Cloud and back to the Dovedale car park, this time taking the signposted path off to the right that leads you back to Ilam. This route is steep and curves along the hills overlooking the village, but will give you a chance to see more of the landscape and find a dramatic spot for another picnic before you head back to Ilam Hall.

In the afternoon, enjoy a cream tea at the National Trust tea rooms at Ilam Hall and then take a walk alongside the river, heading right away from the village. You can do a long, circular route up the other side of the valley and back down to Ilam, or you can take a shorter circuit back to the YHA before collecting your belongings and starting your journey home.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for a Peak District holiday destination that differs from all the usual recommendations, Ilam is an excellent choice. The lack of local amenities and remote location might be a deal-breaker for some, but if you’re looking for a beautiful part of the countryside to get away from it all for a couple of days, you’ll fall in love with this picturesque village.