Carsington Water is the outdoor destination in the area if you don’t want to go off-piste into the Derbyshire countryside. In all seasons and most weathers there is something to do with the whole family. The site is owned by Severn Trent Water and provides walking, riding, running, cycling, fishing, sailing, catering, playing, picnicking, climbing, birding, sightseeing and shopping in a single site.
There are three car parks. One, at the Visitor Centre, is huge and you need to think where you park based on what your planned activities are. You also need to have some change because parking is £2.50 for two hours and £4.70 for the whole day. Annual passes are available at a discount if you expect to visit a lot – and when our children were young we did this. The one at the South Side of the dam is Millfields and parking there is £2.50 for the whole day – a little more reasonable. This car park also has a toilet block. The Sheepwash car park is free but it has no facilities, is limited and is around a mile away from the Visitors Centre.
The Visitors Centre is adjacent to the Sailing Club which has its own parking. There is also a water sports centre which can cater for groups as well as individuals. Between them you will see the water dotted with dinghies, windsurfers, canoes and kayaks. There is also a climbing wall for the less faint-hearted. You can also hire cycles (with various small child options) if you want to do the circuit. Details of Water Sports and hire charges are here Carsington Water. The Visitors Centre also has a courtyard of shops including an RSPB outlet, outdoor clothing, books and gifts. In the main centre is a restaurant with views over the reservoir and an exhibition explaining what Severn Trent does. They also have function rooms for hire. Children generally like the buttons-and-lights of the exhibition and the ability to control a remote telescope. They also like the huge stone floating on water in the courtyard. The outside cafe is a good place to sit and get a warm drink if you have been exerting yourself, have a dog or have dirty clothes. There are little walks out to the island with viewpoints, the chance to feed the ducks and get some better views of the sailing.
A short walk towards the Sheepwash car park is the Wildlife Centre. This has a huge picture window looking out over a couple of Islands and a creek. There are scarce house sparrows on the trees and feeders to the left.
If you do decide to go for the full circuit – it will take you 2 1/2 -3 1/2 hours and is relatively flat – you have some choices to make. If you have a picnic it doesn’t matter but if you want some sustenance on the way round you could start at Millfields and go anticlockwise. After about 90 minutes you can veer off into Hopton and through to the Miners Arms for beer and a sandwich. You could carry on a little further and after a further 30 minutes or so you’d be at the Visitors Centre. If you arrive just before lunch you could park for free at the Sheepwash car park and start with lunch. If you arrive early in the morning you could aim to end there just in time and go either clockwise or anticlockwise.
I recently took the dog for a walk round and parked at the Sheepwash car park. This can get very busy at the weekend and people end up parking by the road. Don’t miss the little details here – the wildlife carved into the stones alongside the parking bays and the large sculptures of sheep and sheepdogs. The bird hides are nearby – a short walk through the woods just off the main path. Carsington Bird club has a very good list of sightings and the most comprehensive list of what’s around will be in the Wildlife Centre. Obviously the main attractions are the water and shoreline. Recently Great Northern Divers are resident year-round. There are a few real rarities which turn up and hang around for a couple of days.
This part of the walk is the most twisty and possibly the most muddy. There is almost always a more stable and straight cycle path equivalent and in this case it runs from close to the entrance. If you are dog walking there is an issue with waste bins. You will unfortunately see plastic bags left by those too lazy and too inconsiderate. There are bins but you need to look out for them. There is one I think on the Sheepwash end of the cycle trail and the next one is at the end of the gravel section running between the road and the reservoir approximately one mile further on. The next one after this is a further two miles near the self-catering cottages on the far side of the lake and then they are at the car parks at Millfields and the Visitor Centre – no excuses.
The pathway immediately after the Sheepwash car park passes between woodlands and pastures then winds through some damp swampy woodlands before making its way up to the road and rejoining the cycle path. The next stretch is very flat and runs on gravel alongside a stone wall separating it from the road. The views over the water are good and the low elevation can make this section spectacular in mist and with low sunlight. This is the newest extension of the circular route so it will get better with age. Where the path starts you have the options to cross the road and go up through Carsington and Hopton. The Miners Arms in Carsington served good beer and in the spring Hopton Hall has open gardens to see the snowdrops. The road through the village runs in an arc and rejoins the circular route. There is a pathway which is signposted to lead you back to a safe crossing point. The corner at the Eastern end of Carsington Water has an artificial island and some reeds which may provide further interest when they are more established.
At the end of the reservoir is a point of no return. If you don’t want a long walk turn back or do the circular route through the village back to your starting point. If you do go on, the pathway makes its way up through a field and into the woods. There are regular signs of the woodcraft around. This is the steepest part of the route and is the testing point for those choosing to run the circuit. I think going clockwise offers the gentlest route and the steepest slope is downhill in this direction. For those not wanting the climb there is a cycle path running along the bottom of the bank. The woods are beautiful though. You can see the fields and gorse up the hill and the lake through the trees looking down. When the sun is shining this is a beautiful part of the walk and in summer it offers welcome shade. When you get through the wood there is a steep bank with spectacular views across to the Visitors Centre and benches to enjoy it from. This can be one of the areas where there is contention between mountain bikers and walkers. Just keep your ears and eyes peeled.
After a short stretch bordering the lake side the path heads up across some farm fields and, again, this can be breathtakingly beautiful on a summers day with birds singing, blue skies, and a light breeze. At roughly half way round it’s a good place to have a picnic too.
The path continues round a small inlet and then comes out at a Lane which services some self-catering accommodation. The footpath heads through possibly the muddiest part of the route in wet weather as it runs close to the waterfront in dense bushes. An alternative is to take a route across the meadows which run below them but this is possibly even muddier. There is a secluded bench round here to enjoy the views. The route opens up into a Meadow with the dam in sight ahead and then across some boardwalk before arriving at Millfields car park. This is a good place to rest and take a comfort break. There are more duck, goose and swan feeding opportunities here for the little ones. In summer the birders scan the scrubby bushes at the back of the car park for warblers.
From here there are two options. The short run is the walk across the top of the dam. On really windy days I have struggled to make progress without leaning severely into the wind. On a nice day this is the busiest part of the walk with strollers and dogs to negotiate. The rocky lining to the dam regularly has wagtails and wheatears tracking your progress along and the views of the sailing are good. To me it always takes a little longer than expected to get across.
The alternative is to take the left fork and over a stile, crossing the road and entering the gates opposite. This takes you down below the dam and past the water works and you can appreciate the height of the dam from down here. It also tends to be sheltered from any strong wind. The walk takes you through pastureland and then up along the edge of light woodland until it emerges at the far end of the dam. It’s a short walk from here to the Visitor Centre. There is a large play area and some outdoor picnic and barbecuing facilities before you get to the main building.
If you don’t want to visit the centre the quieter, more direct, route is along the back of the car park. After the Water Sports centre it funnels once more into a selection of cycle and footpath routes. This meanders round a couple of inlets with views back to the Wildlife Centre. It passes an old observation tower before emerging at Sheepwash car park and back where you started.
The whole route is at its best when the pathways are a little quieter and the sun is shining. Mid-week in summer is ideal. Enjoy!