“ Dartmoor is an area of moorland in the centre of the English county of Devon. Protected by a National Park, it covers 953 km² (368 square miles). The granite upland dates from the Carboniferous period of geological history. The moorland is capped with many exposed granite hilltops (known as tors), providing habitats for Dartmoor wildlife. The highest point is High Willhays, 621 m above sea level. The entire area is rich in antiquities. „
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Dartmoor, which was one of the first areas of Britain to be granted National Park status in 1951, covers about 369 sq miles, or 954 sq km, in south Devon. It is predominantly wide open space, though there are several medium-sized towns as well as many small villages within its boundaries.
As I have lived on or close to the boundary since I was about three, I've always had a soft spot for it.
As a holiday destination, people don't come here for excitement. It's more your quiet 'get away from it all' kind of place, known and loved for the beauty of its landscape. In my opinion, it's first and foremost a place to walk and enjoy the scenery. Although much of it is privately owned, most of it is open access and there are very few restrictions as to where you can walk.
During medieval times it was known as Dartmoor Forest, and although mention of the name sometimes conjures up images of granite tors, remains of prehistoric stone circles and grazing land for animals more than anything else, several areas of dense woodland still remain. Wistman's Wood is one such notable spot, with a number of trees several hundred years old, many now with extraordinary twisted shapes.
There are breathtaking views to be seen almost everywhere you look, particularly at Haytor and Hound Tor. I think my favourite time is late August and early September, when great swathes are covered in flowering heather and gorse, and the rowan or mountain ash trees are covered in red berries - for me, there's nothing else in the great outdoors in this country to compare with it. Sadly, wild birds are not as plentiful as they used to be, but sometimes you can just hear buzzards in the distance and see them wheeling around overhead. Skylarks are still relatively common, and you're more likely to hear them than see them - somehow they sound much closer to you than they really are.
It's a wonderful place to explore, not least if you have children with plenty of energy to work off. I have several small step-grandchildren who were born and have always lived in large towns. They adore it - it's like a completely new world to them. It must be admitted that the cheerfully chiming ice cream vans to be found every summer at some of the parking areas are an added attraction. Some stretches of the river are ideal for youngsters to take shoes and socks off and paddle in on a hot day. It can be a good place to take dogs, but with reservations - not during the bird nesting season (generally March to July), and keep an eye out for ponies and cattle.
Dartmoor is appropriate for walking in most weathers, though in autumn and winter it can get chilly, so be prepared to wrap up well, and look out for the sudden mists that seem to come in from nowhere. On the other hand, during summer it can be very warm indeed, particularly in the more low-lying areas when there is no breeze. The National Park authorities recommend that if planning long walks on the moor, walking boots are strongly advised. The ground can be rough and occasionally slippery, with unexpected marshy and boggy areas in lowland close to the river Dart, so trainers or anything too stylish are not the answer. Also parts of the northern moor are sometimes used by the Ministry of Defence for manoeuvres and firing exercises, so if the red flags are flying, consider yourself warned.
If sport is your passion, there are golf courses at Wrangaton, Bovey Tracey and Okehampton. There are also certain stretches of the river, particularly near Two Bridges just outside Ashburton, where it is not unusual to see people out in force in their kayaks.
TRAVELLING ACROSS THE MOOR
The roads across the wilder parts are good although generally single carriageway if sometimes winding, but naturally ill-served by buses if at all, so be prepared to take the car. Some can become rather congested during the tourist season, particularly around the picturesque village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor (immortalised in the song 'Widecombe Fair'), so you might find yourself in the occasional traffic queue or tailback, or even at the bottom of a steep hill. Did I really say 'get away from it all'? Sometimes everybody has the same idea at the same time. One notorious hairpin bend, popularly known as the Devil's Elbow, was modified some years ago as it had been the scene of so many accidents, though it might not have been that way if some of those involved had driven more slowly. (There are no such things as dangerous roads, they say. Only dangerous or careless drivers).
On the other hand, if there is a long clear road ahead of you, watch out for sheep or ponies wandering out in front of you. In other words, keep your speed down - it is their home after all! And above all, please heed all notices at car parks not to feed the ponies. It only encourages them to come too near vehicles, thus causing a severe hazard for motorists as well as themselves.
I know like it may sound as though I'm giving a lot of warnings, dos and don'ts, and the like. Yet having said that, the moor is great for taking a walk to admire the view, and sitting down to a picnic lunch afterwards - something we did in the family on many a summer's day when I was a child.
It may come as a surprise to consider that Dartmoor has a resident population of about 30,000. The largest towns, roughly in order of size, are Ashburton, Buckfastleigh, Moretonhampstead, Princetown, Chagford and Yelverton.
Ashburton is probably the best for shopping, particularly with its delis on every street, and a shop for good walking gear should you need it. It is also home to a particular favourite of mine, the well-established Dartmoor Bookshop, a top-quality secondhand and antiquarian bookseller with stock covering every subject you care to name on three floors, and probably the best in the west country.
Princetown, best known for its notorious jail built by French prisoners around the time of the Napoleonic wars, is regarded unofficially as the capital of the moor. It is home to the High Moorland Visitor Centre, which includes a shop selling maps, guide books, suitable clothing for venturing forth and the like, as well as six exhibition rooms with photographic and interactive computer displays on the area's natural and cultural heritage. The building used to be a very upmarket hotel, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed when writing 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', probably the most famous work of literature ever set on the moor. Being one of the highest-situated towns in England, it can be bitterly cold in winter. If it ever snows in Devon during winter, you can guarantee that it will here.
Every town and village has at least one very attractive pub, many of them old and relatively unspoilt, providing a friendly welcome and very good food as well as a more than decent pint - or soft drinks if you're driving, naturally.
To the west, Tavistock lies just outside the boundary of the moor, while Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter are all within easy reach. If you're a nightlife person and want something more in the evening than a good moorland pub, then those are the places you need to go. However many pubs have live music on a regular basis, rock and occasionally jazz as well as traditional folk, and generally free.
This is one thing I've never needed to concern myself with, but there are numerous bed and breakfasts, particularly in the pubs, as well as hotels in the large towns and cities just outside the area as mentioned.
Dartmoor is sometimes described as 'England's last wilderness'. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but there is many a spot where you can imagine yourself well off the beaten track.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
When you think of a British national park, there are a few key places that spring to mind. The Lake District is probably on the tip of most people's tongues: the Peak would be another popular one, or the airy heights of Snowdonia. There are only a very few people whose first thought would be of Dartmoor. Hopefully, this review will help explain why this underrated piece of country should get the recognition it deserves.
(I apologise for the length - I didn't want to miss anything!)
What and where is Dartmoor?
The Dartmoor National Park is found at the centre of the county of Devon, and has an overall area of 954 square kilometres.
A Little History
Dartmoor is rich in history, stretching back to a time before the open moorland when the area was still covered in trees. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages the region was comparatively densely populated by farmers and herders, who were partly responsible for the creation of the high moor by clearing the woodland. The suitability of the climate and landscape of the moor have led to the modern national park containing more Bronze Age remnants than any other part of the UK - the traced remains of ancient reaves (fields), standing stones and eerie stone circles.
But (as any Dartmoor walker will testify) the modern Dartmoor weather is not as kind as it once was - about 3000 years ago the climate began to cool, and the settlers were forced to move on. It was not until Medieval times that the moor was resettled, and even now (despite the presence of a few major towns) houses are only sparsely scattered on the landscape. Thanks to the earlier inhabitants, there are also few trees. This has led to a vast expanse of moor that is high, lonely and often devoid of people.
Geology and Landscape
In terms of geology, Dartmoor is all about the granite. This is the predominant rock type, and although often hidden among swathes of thick, peaty bogs, it does make its presence known in the lofty hilltop outcrops known as tors.
But a rock type doesn't tell you much about the landscape: it doesn't tell you how grey and grand those tors are when they loom above you, or about the long brown bogs spiky fringed with marsh grass. It doesn't tell you about the conifers hugging the rushing streams, or the twisted woodland of ancient, moss covered oak. This is what makes Dartmoor special. It is a place of mists, ghosts, meres and marshes. It is a place as creepy as it is inspiring.
Walking on Dartmoor
For any ardent walker, Dartmoor should by rights be the Mecca of Southern England. For one thing, it boasts the highest elevation of any point South of Ingleborough in Yorkshire - 621m at High Wilhayes. For another, it offers a great range of terrain, with walks covering such varied environments as woods, reservoir, riverside and the high moor.
But just because walking here is fun, that's not to say that the moor makes it easy. The first thing to contend with is the MOD firing ranges - these are marked on the map, and are generally signed when open, but still keep your eyes open for red flags when approaching. Then there're the navigational problems. The sphagnum bogs of Dartmoor will swallow pretty much anything that comes towards them, including most paths, and so you will often end up either dead reckoning or tussock jumping where the map says the path should be. Even should you find a wide, easy to follow path, you should never underestimate the changeability of the weather. I remember a walk when I was ten which began in blazing sunshine, rained, went into a deep fog, and finished with an enthusiastic snow storm. It definitely keeps you on your toes - so don't go walking on the high moor unless you are very confident in your hillcraft.
There are enough options on Dartmoor for you to plan a walk that suits your own inclination - my only advice would be that when route planning it is great fun to string together a group of tors. These are great fun if you have kids (or if your inner child is still fond of rock hopping), and should the weather set in, they act as good wind or rain breaks and so are good to aim for.
Other Dartmoor Activities
There are a host of activities on Dartmoor beyond the walking. I'm told that there is some great climbing on higher tors such as Hay Tor (even though Dartmoor is in the - whisper it - South), or you can try your hand at kayaking. It is also a key destination for all those who love horses, with plenty of opportunities to go pony trekking and places catering for all abilities.
For the less actively inclined, Dartmoor offers plenty of roads suitable for a casual drive and with car parks where you can stop to sample the view. There are also hosts of pretty villages with attached friendly pubs - although please be considerate of the residents if you are just out for a drive (I'm sure you will be), and mind the sheep on the hill roads! There are also historical attractions such as Castle Drogo, or you can visit natural wonders like Lydford Gorge and its fierce rapids.
For a National Park Dartmoor is surprisingly untouched by major settlements. A few that there are include:
Princeton - one of the larger settlements, and famous mainly for its maximum security prison!
Postbridge - this is the home of the Dartmoor visitor centre, and so a great place to base a day out. You can get plenty of information and find out if the firing ranges are open for walkers, or just go for a picnic along the River Dart. Postbridge boasts a beautiful example of a Clapper Bridge (an old stone bridge - those who've seen a certain Robin Hood film will remember a staff fight on this sort of bridge!) and possibly the best ice cream shop in Dartmoor, which also sells pasties for cold days.
Two Bridges - this is a very small town along the road from Postbridge, with a pub but most importantly with a car park in an old quarry. From here you can easily access the higher moor.
There are several other small villages, and outside the National Park are larger places such as Tavistock, Newton Abbot and Okehampton.
The poster animal of the Dartmoor National Park is of course the Dartmoor Pony, and you can see why. They are a small, robust pony species, very pretty and quite placid, often standing only a few feet from you. I've quite often stroked these when they've come towards me, but please (and once again I'm sure you all know this already), don't force attention on them, don't feed them unsuitable food, and try and keep dogs under control when you are around them.
Other than the ponies, Dartmoor has most of the UKs normal species - foxes, badgers, crows etc - and a few extra species on the high moor. These include little darting birds called Wheatear, and summer visitors such as Hobby and Merlin. You can't really go out expecting to see any particular species - it's a case of going for a ramble and seeing what turns up.
No story of Dartmoor would be complete without mentioning the mythology that is an intrinsic part of the moor. With its rolling fogs and sometimes bleak character, it is not surprising that the Moor is the birthplace of some very eerie tales - everything from the ghosts of prisoners from Princeton prison who force motorists off the road, to Arthur Conan Doyles Hound of the Baskervilles. This last tale was inspired by an older Dartmoor legend, which is my creepy favourite - that of the Wisthounds.
Outside Two Bridges there lies an ancient oak woodland, one of the last original upland forests in this country. Years of wind and weathering have twisted the trees into all sorts of mad shapes, the floor is covered in granite scree and moss, and the air thick with brambles and holly. A party tried to traverse this woods a few years ago, and had to turn back after a day having covered less than a mile. The legend is that in this wood live spectral black dogs known as Wisthounds, which act as the bringers of death, and that if you see one then you will die before the year's through. It's hardly a cheerful tale - it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up - but the point is that when you stand at the edge of Wistman's wood with this story in your ears, then you almost can't help but believe it's true. Something about Dartmoor seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy.
For those with cars, Dartmoor has well kept roads and a reasonable amount of parking, although you will need to leave early if you are aiming for honeypots like Two Bridges. The area is less impressive for public transport. Although larger towns do have stations, to access the inner moor you are reliant on a less than comprehensive bus service. It is a case of if you really want to get to a place, you will: but you will have to put sweat, blood, tears and a lot of walking into reaching your destination!
There are plenty of different types of accommodation, the best of which is far as I am concerned is probably the youth hostels. For a relatively small national park, Dartmoor is over-endowed, with hostels in Okehampton, Bellever and several other places. Should you not be the hostel type, there are also numerous campsites or you can find Bed and Breakfasts in many of the little villages. Some of the pubs on the High Moor also offer accommodation.
The main up of Dartmoor has to be the mood of the place. It has its own quiet, wild beauty, a feeling of freedom and sky and nature uncontained. This is only increased by the changing weather and the invisible paths. When you have walked on the Moor a while, it has a habit of getting into your blood, and you miss it like mad whenever you are away. I haven't visited Dartmoor in two years now, and I know that somewhen this Summer it will call me back.
Speaking more practically, Dartmoor also offers a great range of attractions and varied wildlife. It is suitable for all visitors, from families with young children to enthusiastic hikers to those who like a cup of tea and a nice view. It is also a region filled with historical information and importance.
For me, accessibility has to rank as the main drawback, but that's because I'm no driver. It can also be very frustrating when you lose a path: and, though I hesitate to describe this as a disadvantage because it is so much a part of the Moor, you do always have to bear in mind that the weather can turn on a sixpence.
Of course I would recommend that you go to Dartmoor. For me, despite not being a hair raising, bombastic thriller, it has an energy and feeling that have made it one of my favourite places in the entire world. You may not feel it at once: but, once you have spent a day on the moor, you will find that you cannot help wanting to return again.
Thank you for reading :)
We have been spending a few days with my family in South Devon and no visit would ever be complete without a trip out to Dartmoor. It is a wonderful place to take families especially children who generally spend their time in built up areas because it is so expansive and beautiful. My daughters loved the day we spent roaming the moor and taking in the wonderful scenery!
Dartmoor National Park covers an area of 368 square miles and is apparently the largest and wildest open area in the south of England. We access it by driving up to Bovey Tracy which is on the edge of Dartmoor and then following signs to where we want to go. Some of the Dartmoor roads are pretty good but others can be quite narrow and winding so you do need to take special care when driving especially as it is quite likely that you will meet a large sightseeing coach coming towards you! You do probably want to check the weather before you head up onto the moor as in bad conditions it can be very bleak!
Dartmoor is excellent for both scenic drives and walking. As my mum can't walk very far these days, my parents often enjoy a drive out and through the Dartmoor villages such as Moretonhampstead, Princetown (the location of Dartmoor Prison) and the beautiful village of Widdecombe in the Moor. All of these places, and many more, are steeped in history and tradition and have lots of quaint buildings, tea rooms and gift shops.
On our recent visit we went to Widdecombe and stopped for lunch at the Cafe on the Green which offers a good variety of hot and cold food at reasonable options. There are a few other eating places there too as well as a couple of gift shops and a lovely village green that our daughters enjoyed running up and down on. You have to pay to park in the car park at Widdecombe but as this was only £1.30 for as long as you wanted, I didn't think this was too bad. The car park also is home to a small kiosk where you can get drinks, snacks and ice creams at great prices. Widdecombe is also famous for its annual fair and there is a very famous legend about a character called Uncle Tom Cobbley who along with his six pals travelled to the fair all on one grey mare! All the gift shoips have lots of souvenirs of this supposedly famous event!
If you want to experience the wide open spaces you should head to Haytor although even on the sunniest days this will feel quite breezy as it is so exposed. There is a reasonably sized car park at Haytor with a visitor centre and toilets (very important to know where these are!). There is also a small van selling refreshments at extortionate prices. I bought a packet of three custard creams for 80 pence! I would suggest taking your own refreshments if you don't want to get ripped off!
If you are lucky, Haytor is a good spot to see Dartmoor ponies. We were lucky enough to come across about half a dozen. These are quite friendly creatures and they will allow you to approach them and stroke them if you are very gentle. I did have to warn my daughters not to approach them from behind though. The girls thought that the ponies were wonderful and they don't often get the chance to see creatures like these up close. Also, don't be surprised to see lots of sheep just wandering along the roadside which is another reason to drive with caution.
If you are feeling fit and athletic you might want to walk up Haytor itself. It is a large granite tor and has a height of 457 metres. One side has a slightly less daunting gradient than the other and you often see large groups walking to the top where you can get spectacular views. I have walked it on previous visits but I thought it would probably be too much for out two small daughters who we would probably end up carrying, so we gave it a miss this time.
Talking of views though, the ones on Dartmoor are wonderful. Every direction you look you will get extraordinary views and it is particularly good to take in the colourful plants even though we don't know what most of them are.
There are so many different places to visit on Dartmoor and everyone will have their own favourites. To get a really good idea of what is on offer you can visit
I thought that I would just finish by telling you about a couple of my favourite places. One is the small village of Manaton where you should be able to find the grave of Kitty Jay. Legend states that she was a poor unmarried girl who found herself pregnant and took her own life. She is buried at the intersection between two roads and mysteriously, each day, yellow flowers appear on her grave and no one knows who puts them there.
Another favourite place of mine is the Becky Falls Woodland Park at the centre of which is a beautiful waterfall. There are lots of wonderful walks you can take around the falls and there are often lots of activities for children including challenges and indoor crafts. You do have to pay admission here and a family ticket is £22. This is a contrast to most places on Dartmoor which are all free. I have not yet visited with my young daughters although I have been many times, and I think that we will wait until they are a bit older so that they get the most out of the visit.
It is impossible in a short review to really give a total description of Dartmoor. In fact there are many books that do that. Instead I have given you a little taste of my Dartmoor which I hope you have enjoyed reading!
Devon has two moorlands, Exmoor and Dartmoor. Dartmoor is in the centre of Devon and is 368 square miles. It is rich in history and Archaeologists have found remains of Neolithic and early Bronze Age, Hound Tor also has a deserted Medieval Village on its slopes.
Although over half of Dartmoor is private land it is designated 'access land' and walkers are free to roam pretty much anywhere. The military uses parts of Dartmoor to train and also firing ranges, they have since the Napoleonic wars. Red flags fly in these areas when firing is taking place.
It is perfect for a relaxing walk with the dog, or you can take it seriously and make your way up the many granite tors. There are lots of places to stop whilst driving and take in the breath-taking views with roadside car parks. In the bigger car parks by popular Tors there is usually a van selling ice cream, tea/coffee and snacks.
Driving carefully is a must on Dartmoor, with its winding roads which are sometimes single traffic you are likely to come across a walker, a horse rider, a tractor or a Dartmoor pony wandering across the road. The ponies are friendly and are not particularly bothered by you being there.
It's great for taking the kids, not only is climbing the tors great fun and exercise, there also isn't much to spend cash on so it's quite a cheap day out. It's also brilliant for sledging in the winter, I will let you in on a little secret and the best sledging is done at Haytor, followed closely by Hound tor.
Things to do and see;
Dartmoor is the home of the Ten Tors Challenge, (many of my friends did this at school but I was too lazy) it is for 14-21 year olds walk for distances of 35, 45 or 55 miles over ten tors on many routes. Thousands of people take part from surrounding schools and colleges.
Letterboxing is a hobby amongst some locals and tourists. There are thousands of letterboxes hidden on the moor, inside is a visitors book and rubber stamp. The idea is to stamp your log book and stamp the visitors book as proof of finding the letterbox. Originally the idea was that you left a postcard or letter in the box and it would be posted by the next person to find the box. People gather for 'box hunts' and in some areas it's popular for children to do.
Princetown on Dartmoor is home to Dartmoor prison, the prison was built by prisoners of war during the Napoleonic wars. It was deemed escape-proof because of its buildings and location. The town is popular with tourists during the summer months and boasts many bed & breakfasts. The locally produced Jail Ale is a popular drink.
There are many local legends surrounding Dartmoor, one is that during the great thunderstorm of 1638 it was said to have been visited by the devil. Others include-
'The hairy hand'- Drivers and cyclists have reported suffering unusual accidents between Postbridge and Two Bridges. In many cases, the victims reported that their vehicle had jolted or swerved violently and steered off the side of the road, as if something had taken hold of the wheels and wrenched it out of their control. Others say it is tourists unfamiliar with the roads losing control.
Jays Grave- A farm worker girl who was repeatedly raped by a farm hand and became pregnant. She was so shamed that she committed suicide. As suicide was considered a sin, 3 parishes refused to bury her, as a compromise she was buried at a crossroads in between the 3 parishes on neutral ground, situated just below Hound Tor. A glass jar on top of the grave is regularly refilled with fresh flowers, although who does this remains a mystery. Many motorists have reportedly seeing a ghostly figure by the grave, some say it is the farm hand that raped her. I myself have been up there a few times at night with friends in an attempt to scare each other and have never actually seen anything.