Okehampton - The Town with Moor1
The market town of Okehampton sits right in the middle of Devon, England, at the top edge of Dartmoor. It's perfectly placed for...well, for being ignored totally by visitors to the north and south Devon coastlines or being bypassed totally by tourists on their way to Cornwall.
Head for the south-west of England, down the M5. As you fall off the end of the M5 just past Exeter, you have two choices: down to south Devon on the A38, or across the top of Dartmoor towards Cornwall on the A30. So, hang a left onto the A30 dual carriageway. As you round the first bend, you'll find yourself driving into true Devon landscape - proper rolling hills. Not flat(ish) like Somerset, not manicured like Dorset, not harsh like Cornwall. This is definitely Devon.
Okehampton (or Oke as the locals call it - pronounced Oak-ee) will be coming up in just over 20 miles (30km). You'll know when you are almost there because three things will happen:
- First, you'll get a sense of something a bit bigger - a bit more vast - happening over to the south. There it is, a glimpse, in the distance, then gone, hidden again behind one of those ubiquitous Devon hills. Then, yes, there it is again, bigger this time. That'll be Dartmoor, looming large immediately on your left.
- Next, you'll get caught out by a steep bit of hill, where the inside lane of the dual carriageway is always occupied by a tractor pulling a trailer of hay bales followed by a Land Rover pulling a horsebox.
- Finally, you'll see the Okehampton B3260 turn off.
Years back, Oke was known as the bottleneck - the place where the summer holiday trip down to Cornwall turned into a traffic jam. There is a pub a couple of miles further on from here at Sourton Down called The Bottle Neck, just to remind us. Legend has it that a frazzled motorist from London once ground to a halt in an Oke car park, kids in the back asking 'Are we there yet?', and found himself being approached by a born and bred Devon local, who strolled up to his quarter-light, bent down real slow, and said 'Take it easy...you be in the slow country now'. So, get into the spirit of things, pull in behind that horsebox, and follow it up the road into Oke.
Trade and Tourism
On your way down the hill into Okehampton is the Exeter Road industrial estate, where some of the town's larger businesses are based: transport and haulage companies, a milk distribution business, a bee-keeping equipment supplier. Nothing unusual. However, the view from the top of the steps beside the cardboard recycling skip in the municipal dump must surely be unrivalled across the country; there's the edge of Dartmoor again - you don't see that every day (unless you regularly dispose of your household waste in Okehampton).
Also on the way into Oke is a big farm and country supplies shop where you can purchase washing-up liquid in the next aisle down from the spot-welding equipment - the rural farming community served by Okehampton are clearly a resourceful bunch.
One of the main sources of employment in Oke is tourism. As you follow the road down into Okehampton town proper, on the face of it, this could be any other town. The 'outdoor' and walking equipment shops and the abundance of tea shops are a dead giveaway though. Having said that, unlike some other tourism hotspots, Oke doesn't get too overrun by visitors during the summer, particularly when you consider the increase in cars and caravans just up the road on the A30.
Take a quick look around Oke to see everything you might expect on your average town high street: bus stops, chemists, churches, dentist, estate agents, hospital, job centre, laundrette, library, medical centres, playgroups, police station, pubs, schools, shops, supermarkets, taxi rank, town council offices, town hall and vet surgery.
Market and Museum
Once in the centre of Okehampton, turn right at the main crossroad to find the Charter Hall and Market Hall. The pannier market is open from Wednesday to Saturday, with trade steadily building up towards the end of the week with the addition of a number of extra stalls. On one Saturday each month the regular market traders get kicked out of the Market Hall to make way for the farmer's market, (much to the irritation of the usual traders - to the extent that there have been heated exchanges on a Saturday morning outside in the Red Lion Yard).
Back across the central crossroad are the museum and the tourist information centre. The museum's name reveals Okehampton's strong links with the moor: The Museum of Dartmoor Life. The museum building - a disused granary built in the 1800s - was purchased by funds raised by local volunteers in 1982 and has been improved over the years to award-winning status. The cobbled courtyard features rails on which the carts would run to the old mill buildings across the road. A water-wheel also still stands, situated within a row of houses now.
Castle and Common
Staying on this side of the high street, signs can be followed for a short walk up a side road to Okehampton Castle. Just when you think you must have gone the wrong way, there it stands in front of you. It was built during the Norman conquest in 1070 and was acquired around 100 years later (along with the entire borough of Okehampton) by the Courtenay family, by marriage. Over the next 400 years, various Courtenays either rebuilt the castle or let it fall into disrepair, the cycle ending in ruin when Henry Courtenay (the then Marquis of Exeter) was executed for treason and the castle abandoned. Climb to the castle keep on top of the motte2 and - once again - you can see the edge of Dartmoor. As this is now an English Heritage site, there is an entrance fee. However, pick the right day and you may well be party to an outdoor Shakespeare performance, medieval games afternoon or bird of prey presentation.
Back down towards the town centre, and on about 50 yards (45 metres) is the entrance to Simmons Park. The park gets its name from Sydney Simmons, a local man who made his fortune in America and who, in 1906, paid off Okehampton Council's mortgage on this commons site and transformed it into a park. Since then the park has been improved with the addition of a bowling green, tennis courts, pavilion and putting green. You can follow a footpath out of the park which leads - you guessed it - onto Dartmoor.
An un-signposted road out of the back of Oke leads to the best bit of Dartmoor3. The town planning department has cleverly sited a dead-end road sign just before things get interesting, apparently in the hope of deterring a handful of visitors. Stick with it though: up the hill, round a sharp bend, across the bridge over the A30 and up a bit more hill. Ahead is a cattle grid, beside which a plaque attached to a lump of rock begrudgingly admits that this is Dartmoor National Park. Keep on up the hill. The grass has that 'never mowed but kept down by sheep and ponies' look. Follow the road round to the right, still going up. The trees have that 'hunched away from the southwesterly wind' look. Keep on going on and up and over. The lumps of rock have that 'been here since the stone ages' look. Turn left towards the next cattle grid ... stop ... look ... breathe in. That's the moor. And that's just the edge of the moor. Explore.