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Dartmoor - ghosts, mists and the sweeping moor
Nationalpark Dartmoor (Devon)
Member Name: silverbird44
Nationalpark Dartmoor (Devon)
Advantages: Beautiful countryside, not busy, filled with history
Disadvantages: Very changeable weather, hard to navigate, poor public transport
(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 :)
Summary: A place that everyone should visit
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