The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.
from The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Dartmoor is situated in the heart of Devon in south western England. It can be in turns beautiful, bleak, wild, foreboding and inspirational, changing its mood at a whim to confound the unwary traveller.
Situated on a high granite plateau, shaped by both nature and man into a landscape so rare the area was designated a National Park in 1951.
It is thought that man first came to Dartmoor about 10,000 years ago, certainly by 2,500 BC Neolithic peoples were building chambered tombs on the moor. At this time, the area was heavily forested with oak, hazel and elm. Most of this forest was cleared by the early farmers, although a few remanants of it can be seen at Wistmans Wood, Black-a-Tor Copse and Yarner Wood. Gradually the climate changed, rainfall increased and the bogs begin to form. Human activity slowed on the moor as its people withdrew to the milder regions at the moors edge. It is this abandonment of the moor which gives us a unique insight into prehistoric life as many of the granite built structures have survived the years - Dartmoor has the largest concentration of Bronze Age features in Europe.
Much of Dartmoors industrial past is visible if you know where to look. Hut circles and enclosures made by the earliest farmers can be clearly visible on the hillsides, medieval field systems can be identified by looking for systems of ridges and furrows. Other industrial remnants include tin mining, peat extraction, quarrying and even ice production.
The ponies are probably Dartmoor's most famous and oldest inhabitants, thought to have been living on the moor for at least a thousand years. They were used as pack animals by the early tin miners and, as with the sheep and cattle that also wander the moor freely, have become a vital part of moorland, keeping down the scrub vegitation.
Visitors to the moor are asked not to feed the ponies - it enourages them nearer the roads where many are killed and injured by cars each year. Not only that - they may look cute, but they kick and bite.
The Ministry of Defence
The MoD use a large proportion of the land on Dartmoor to train troops. There are three live firing ranges on the north moor. These are clearly shown on all maps as 'danger areas' and on the ground by red and white posts. When live firing is taking place, red flags (red lights at night) are shown on the surrounding tors. When these are showing, there is no public access. The ranges are always open at weekends and during the entire month of August, at all other times, check first - the firing schedules are on display in the information centres or by telephoning a free phone number - 0800 4584868. Even when there is no live firing, training still takes place, so don't be surprised by the sight of troops and loud bangs - they're only blanks!
Towns and Villages
The vast majority of Dartmoor's villages are clustered in the sheltered valleys around the moors edge or on the gentler eastern part. Many are little more than a couple of cottages and a farm, but there some worth a visit.
- Moretonhampstead - Known as the gateway to the high moor, it sits between the lower, gentler slopes of the eastern moor and the wilder high moor.
- Buckland-in-the-Moor has arguably the most photographed row of thatched cottages anywhere, the picture perfect scene straight off a chocolate box or a postcard. The Church of St Peter has an unusual clock, instead of numbers the words 'my dear mother' are spelt out
- Princetown is Dartmoor's largest town, home of the infamous prison. The National Park Authority have a large visitors centre there. The TV mast on North Hessary Tor dominates the town and provides a landmark for walkers.
- Widecombe-in-the-Moor - made famous by the folk song1, Widecombe fair is still held in September every year. The church is known as the Cathedral of the Moors, a landmark visible for miles around. Somewhat of a tourist trap in the summer months, is awash with gift shops and tea rooms.
Dartmoor has some of the best pubs anywhere, rather than list them all here, an impossible task as they are numerous and everyone has different tastes, an attempt will be made to list common factors.
A look at any map of Dartmoor will show almost no roads and few settlements, what roads and villages that are present are located on the edges of the moors, and here you'll find pubs. Many are in very small villages or even hamlets, some are almost totally on their own. Many date back centuries.
Most of the pubs are stone floored, have open fires are small inside but often with large gardens. Some even have camp sites attached.
Dartmoor pubs have to serve three totally separate types of customers. Firstly are the locals, these are by the large agricultural worker with large appetites for drink and food, the second are those who come out to the moors for walking, riding, kite flying, alfresco sex or whatever activity takes their fancy, the last type are the city folk who just want to get out, walk around for a few minutes then go somewhere for a good meal. The presence of the first two types have meant that the pubs don't care to much about customer dress or smell - in many the smell of horse dominates - the pubs have to provide good quality beers, ciders and wines, provide good quality food for the townies, but large portions for the locals and activity tourists as well as keeping prices low to satisfy all concerned. Often the pubs will be busiest during the lunch hours when all three types of customers will be present, and almost deserted at nights when it will be just locals.
Dartmoor pubs tend to view licensing laws as rough guidance rather than strict rules.
A word of advice, don't complain that the cider is warm and flat. Traditional cider should be like that.
Even though it's estimated over a third of visitors go to Dartmoor to walk, most people will arrive by car. The main routes to the south west (A30, M5, A38) can become incredibly busy during peak tourist season but luckily most of the traffic is heading towards the coastal resorts. Dartmoor can still be very busy during the summer. The tips for
driving and motorcycling in Devon will be useful for the little lanes but there are a couple of extra places worth taking extra care on the unfenced open moorland roads.
- Because the tarmac keeps warmer, sheep often sleep on the road at night.
- Lambs have even less road sense than their parents.
- The ponies have learnt the presence of humans means food, so they will often congregate around the car parking areas.
Dartmoor has a pretty good transport system for a rural area to help the visitors with many good offers. During the summer of 2001 these included "Sunday Rovers" that entile individuals or families on many Dartmoor buses and trains, as well as discounts to local attractions and as guided walks run by the park authority, full details can be found on the Devon County web site.
Other "Rover " tickets are available as well as details of day long circular routes such as Exeter to Ashburton to Tavistock to Okehampton which effectively cirles the moor, again details on the Devon CC web page.
Always check times of buses, as although there is a good network of routes, frequency can be less than urban bus routes, a missed bus could mean a long wait till the next one.
Dartmoor offers a huge range of walking for different abilities. There are deep wooded river valleys, babbling brooks, twisting lanes with high hedges as well as the open moorland. There are over 160 granite tors on the moor that have an irresistible lure. A few are within an easy walk (albeit uphill) of a car park, ideal for a picnic. The drawback is they can become very crowded in high season. Venture a little further away from the car parks and the extra effort is well rewarded.
Once venturing out onto the open moor, the ability to use an map2 and a compass are essential.
The terrain on the moor can be deceptively hard going. Soft, tussocky ground with rocks hidden by bracken conspire to wear out legs and twist ankles. Keep a watch for bogs - usually these are just soft, wet mossy areas that aren't any problem with halfway decent footwear, but there are also the type that is a mat of floating vegetation over deep water - definitely worth avoiding!
Dartmoor if famous for its changeable weather, so appropriate clothing and footwear are a must. Often a walker can spend a day on the moors in the pouring rain, only to return to base and find it's been glorious sunshine there all day - on the plus side the opposite can often occur. Sunny weather can have its drawbacks too, the breeze and cooler air temperature of the high moor make it far easier to get sunburnt without realising it. It
A few of the places worth visiting on foot
- Pew Tor (grid ref SX 532735) - 5 minutes from Tavistock, ideal for a short stroll with a relatively undemanding climb, but still offers wonderful views over the moor, the town and beyond.
- Teign Valley (grid ref SX 743899) - a short drive from Moretonhampstead, a lovely wooded river walk. Alternatively, take the Hunters Path to climb out of the valley for wonderful views and a visit to Castle Drogo.
- Merrivale (grid ref SX 554748) - take a wander around the bronze age stone rows, burial cairns and megalith, or plan a longer walk towards Princetown using the old tramway from the base of Kings Tor.
- Meldon Reservoir (grid ref SX 563916) - a short journey from Okehampton. Take an easy walk around the reservoir or follow the river upstream to Black-a-Tor Copse. Also a convenient start point for several routes to Yes Tor and High Willhays, the highest point on Dartmoor.
Back in 1854, a gentleman tourist left is calling card at the cairn at Cranmere Pool, a remote region of upland bogs on the north moor, thus starting the strange passtime of letterboxing on Dartmoor. Those seeking letterboxes on the moors are easy to distinguish from the usual walker or hiker - the letterboxers are the ones looking avidly at the ground! One important point to note - there are no letterboxes within the firing ranges. There are none hidden in anything that looks like a mortar shell - seems obvious enough but there have been nasty injuries sustained this way.
Other Dartmoor Activities
Although most visitors to Dartmoor are walkers, there are plenty of other things to do; a good network of bridlepaths are ideal for pony-trekking or mountain bikes. Some of the tors and rocks are good for climbing, but do check access first. If your're under 20 and fancy seeing more of Dartmoor, there's always the annual Ten Tors Challenge to test your legs, stamina and willpower with.
For further information
2Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Sheet 28 covers the entire moor
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along lee.
For I want to go Widecombe Fair,
Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy. Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.