Dramatic landscapes and stunning sunsets on Dartmoor
Dartmoor, in the English County of Devon covers some 360 square miles and is an area of truly dramatic landscapes.
It is the largest area of open country in the south of England.
The ‘danger’ areas in the northern, more desolate, part of Dartmoor are used at agreed times by the British army as a firing range.
This part comprises large areas of wild, rugged, open moorland, punctuated with granite tors.
When not ‘comendeered’ by the military it is a magnet for the intrepid hiker or mountain cyclist whose ability with a map and compass negates the need for footpaths, tarmac or direction signs.
The southern part of the moor is an altogether more welcoming environment with hills and dales cut through by ancient wooded valleys and fast flowing streams and rivers, alive with dippers and kingfisher.
Together, they offer a place for those attracted to the great outdoors, whatever the season – and whatever the weather, which can change from day to day.
Growing up in the predominantly rural English county of Somerset, my first recollection of staying away from home was as a ten year old and on a ‘boys brigade’ camping weekend in the Quantock Hills.
This officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, just twelve miles by four, is one of country lanes passing between rolling meadows and hillsides that slope casually to the Bristol Channel.
While this was an undeniably gentle introduction to the pleasures of the English countryside, it none the less instilled in me a passion for the outdoors – particularly when linked with nights under canvass.
Having been tempted by the Quantocks, the natural next area of expedition was the neighboring Exmoor National Park.
Straddling the West Somerset/North Devon border, and ‘weighing in’ at 267.5 sq miles across this was a real step up for this young adventurer.
During my early teens I spent many happy school holidays on back packing explorations of Exmoor and so began a life long love of its rolling moorland, deep valleys and towering cliffs along its coastal border.
With the Exmoor ponies and wild red deer roaming free and the chance to go, off road, for long periods without meeting anyone, I thrived on the real sense of the wild (confident that ‘civilisation’ was never that far away.
But Dartmoor, home to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, at 368 sq miles, was far more daunting.
We all knew (albeit Incorrectly) that Dartmoor Prison held only the most dangerous criminals who were there because it was just impossible escape across the moors.
This was indeed the ultimate challenge to this young adventurer.
But I never did get to camp on Dartmoor. Rugby, girls and a slowly burgeoning career all got in the way.
But now, and after more years later than I care to recall, I have been able to tick Dartmoor off my list – albeit on a visit that did not involve a constantly flapping tent and waking at dawn bleary eyed and aching.
During our short break on Dartmoor we, unfortunately, did not have time to explore the ‘so called’ danger areas.
We did, however, enjoy three wonderful days that brought home just what I had been missing all of these years.
The grand tour
For the first full day on Dartmoor we decided to take, what might be described as, the grand tour that took in Princetown, Two Bridges, Postbridge, Widecombe-in-the-Moor and Dartmeet
Princetown is a good place to start any tour of Dartmoor – if for no other reason than the excellent tourist information Centre in the village, with its incredibly helpful staff.
Thirty minutes here and the two ladies we met sorted out our whole stay on the moor, including the most scenic way off it on the last day.
During the tourist season, Princetown will be a bustling crossroads for hikers and cyclists and a stopping off point for coach loads of day trippers.
In addition to the cafes and convenience stores, Princetown has its own brewery producing a range of real ales including the appropriately named, and suitably robust Jail Ale.
This can be supped in the village’s two pubs and at inns throughout the moor.
HM Prison Dartmoor
Princetown is also ‘home’ to the aforementioned Her Majesty’s Prison Dartmoor, an imposing Category C men’s prison (for those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to try to escape), which debunks that myth of my youth.
It was built between 1806 and 1809 to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars and has been confining wrongdoers ever since.
The prison museum
The Dartmoor Prison Museum, located in the old dairy buildings, focuses on the history of HMP Dartmoor, and has exhibits highlighting the prison’s role with displays including manacles, weapons, memorabilia, clothing and uniforms.
There are sections on famous prisoners and less well known aspects of the prison such as the incarceration of conscientious objectors during World War One.
A couple of miles on from Princetown is Two Bridges, which gets its name from, well, the two bridges that cross the West Dart River here.
One is part of the old turnpike road built across Dartmoor in the late 18th century, with the other the less exciting B3357.
The area here is surrounded by Bronze Age settlements, stone row walls and the intriguingly named Whistman’s Wood.
A none to strenuous, one-mile, walk from Two Bridges gets one to Whistman’s Wood, an area of ancient oak woodland growing among granite boulders.
Back in 1797 a Reverend Swete felt compelled to write that “It is hardly possible to conceive anything of the sort so grotesque as this wood appears”.
He was referring to the woods large clump of stunted oak trees with twisted, gnarled and intertwining branches.
These can be spotted quite a way off and adds real encouragement to completing the walk to it.
The oaks with their tangled branches,and the uneven rocky floor, make it impossible for Dartmoor ponies and cattle to graze.
As a result there is also more than 100 different species of lichen found in the Wood.
The Two Bridges Hotel
Back from the walk and it was straight into the Two Bridges Hotel, an old 18th Century coaching inn that is as welcoming as one could hope to find.
It may have been the thirst acquired by the walk, but my Jail Ale, supped from a comfortable Queen Ann chair in the hotel’s lounge, was as nice a pint as I have tasted in a long time.
Widecombe-in-the-Moor, one of Dartmoor’s prime tourist hubs, is an attractive village offering refreshments in its cafes, something to take home from the gift shops and two pubs (the Old Inn and the Rugglestone).
The village lies in a valley created by the East Webbern river, with its name deriving from ‘Withy-combe’ meaning ‘Willow Valley’.
It is perhaps best known for its annual fair made ‘famous’ as the destination for a group of lads called Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke – and ‘old Uncle Tom Cobley and all’, in the traditional English folk song.
The 14th Century church of St Pancras is known locally as the “Cathedral of the Moors” because of its 120-foot tower and large capacity for this small village.
Postbridge, which is no more than a short string of homes with a shop and pub, is bang in the middle of Dartmoor and, therefore, a start and finish point for ramblers.
It also has the finest example of a ‘clapper’ bridge in the county, which straddles the East Dart River.
Clapper bridges, which are unique to Dartmoor, were built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by medieval tin workers and farmers as crossings over the many small rivers that flow on the moorland.
They are constructed from four large granite slabs supported by three granite piers and there are still some 30 clapper bridges to be found on Dartmoor.
For those not looking to hike for miles there are more gentle footpaths up onto the moorland.
Our grand tour ended, perhaps appropriately, at Dartmeet.
Genuinely impressive, and an inevitable tourist hotspot during the summer months, it is where east and west branches of the River Dart meet in a steep, wooded valley.
Another fine example of a stone clapper bridge is to be found here, as can the Pixieland and Brimpts Farm, the home of the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, and the Badgers Holt tea rooms with its goats, peacocks and tearoom.
A stroll around the lake
On day two of our visit we opted for a morning stroll around Burrator Reservoir followed by a visit to Buckland Abbey.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw several reservoirs built on Dartmoor to capture the rainwater in order to supply the towns surrounding the moor.
Following the establishment of the Dartmoor National Park in 1951, these have also been developed as areas for leisure and recreation.
Burrator Resevoir is a fine example of this offering a large stretch of water, surrounded by mixed woodland with open moor and rugged Dartmoor tors providing a backdrop.
The reservoir has a number of footpaths and bridleways which provide for a 3.5 mile walking round trip or as starting points for longer treks into Dartmoor itself.
We opted for the not too strenuous inner footpath which follows the edge of the reservoir, passing through mainly wooded areas with the chance to view the water all the way round.
The Burrator Discovery Centre provides the chance to learn more about the history of the Burrator catchment and reservoir.
Those who know us know we look to support the National Trust, while on a UK trip, and will always seek out its properties.
On this visit to Dartmoor we were able to visit Buckland Abbey, which is a 700-year-old, one time, Cistercian Abbey founded in 1278.
Following the Dissolution of the Monestries by Henry VIII, in 1541, the property was occupied by Sir Richard Grenville the Elder (Sewer of the Chamber to Henry VIII).
It was also home to English navel commander, Sir Francis Drake, and ‘Drake’s Drum’ forms a centerpiece of the museum in the main house – along with a Rembrant self-portrait valued at £30 million.
The Great Barn has remained virtually unchanged since it was built all those centuries ago and the gardens and surrounding meadows offer relaxing strolls and views of the Tavy Valley.
As with all National Trust properties, Buckland Abbey provides for a fascinating and very enjoyable visit.
Leaving the moor by the best route
Taking the advice of those very helpful ladies at the information centre, we left Dartmoor, on our last day via Ledford Gorge.
Another area managed by the National Trust, Ledford Gorge is a stunning area of ancient woodland along the River Lyd at Lydford, with a 1.5-mile-long walk from the White Lady Waterfall to the Devil’s Cauldron.
The White Lady is a spectacular 30 metre waterfall and the Devils Caudron a series of startling whirlpools.
The river Lyd is fast flowing here and this attracts dippers, wagtails and a variety of finches. We were also delighted to spot a kingfisher.
Seasonal flowers add flashes of colour all along the riverside path through the woods.
The route between the falls and the cauldron can be achieved as a rigorous three mile ’round trip’ or, if time or legs do not permit, there are National Trust entrances at both ends with parking, refreshments and facilities.
Taking afternoon tea while feeding cake crumbs to the grateful finches and robins at the Trust’s tea shop at Devil”s Cauldron was a wonderful way to end a memorable stay on Dartmoor.
My first trip to Dartmoor, after all these years, will not be my last – even if my backpacking days are long gone.
Spectacular images of the Moor
Mark George is a Plymouth based photographer who has created a series of stunning images of the rugged Dartmoor landscape.
His photography illustrates the dramatic scenery of Dartmoor and ‘Mother Nature’s’ magical light.
As a professional teacher of photography, Mark gives presentations to photographic societies and regularly leads landscape photography workshops.
These workshops which give novice and intermediate photographers an opportunity to learn essential skills to improve their landscape photography technique.
The tuition is relaxed yet highly informative and will take place in the landscape environment, allowing photographers to experience and capture some of Dartmoor’s stunning vistas.