In the spring of 2017 we had a week’s holiday in the neighbouring county of Devon. South Devon to be precise because it was one area that we hadn’t explored much in many decades. Although we had a wonderful week we never had time to go into Dartmoor National Park so we were determined to go back. A lot has happened since then, but finally last week we did manage a short break.
We based ourselves in Tavistock on the western edge of the park and for once we booked into a hotel with bed, breakfast and dinner included so we didn’t have to think about anything other than where we were going to go each day. I prefer holiday cottages but they are never a proper holiday for me.
The weather was a bit iffy – sunshine and showers forecast throughout the 4 days, but we didn’t do too badly. On the rainiest day we went into Exeter to tick off yet another cathedral from our list. And of course there had to be one garden visit.
I planned a circular drive around Dartmoor with several stops to have a walk, enjoy the views and on the OH’s birthday we had a perfect day for it with blue skies, sunshine and wonderful fluffy white clouds. Our first stop was just inside the park, a bare 4 miles from Tavistock, at Pork Hill car park where you have amazing views over Tavistock and towards Plymouth to the south. Loads of parking and a good place for several walks / hiking trails / tors.
And an ice-cream van. Though too early in the day for us.
Onwards to our next stop at Postbridge where you will find a large car park and toilets. There is a small museum and and exhibition about the local area which helps to explain the development of the moors and a shop selling books, maps, information leaflets to help you explore the area, including the Walks around Postbridge leaflet as well as local crafts and gifts. The staff are very welcoming and friendly too.
Close by you will find one of the best examples of an iconic clapper bridge. It is believed to date back to medieval times and would probably have replaced stepping stones to help packhorses cross the river. The bridge has two central piers spanned by three large granite slabs, or clappers.
The word clapper is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cleaca’, meaning stepping stones, or ‘bridging the stepping stones’.
It’s a very popular place for families who love to paddle in the river with fishing nets for pond dipping (not sure what they can find) and also picnic in the meadow close by.
One of the nicest things about driving through the park is the sense of space. Despite it being the school half term holidays the park wasn’t very busy and most of the many car parks (usually free) were relatively empty which meant we could stop when and where we liked.
Of course stopping to look at the ubiquitous Dartmoor ponies was a must. The speed limit with the park is 40mph – but you always have to keep your eyes open for sheep, ponies and even cattle crossing or walking in the road. Slow travel at its best.
I was thinking about what makes Dartmoor different to other similar places I have visited, such as Exmoor, North Yorkshire, the Brecon Beacons. It seems a lot bleaker and desolate with so much space and very few signs of human habitation and perhaps a sense of history from Early Neolithic to the much more recent tin mining. The big skies and on this day, the clouds, are pretty amazing too though I wouldn’t want to be up here in the mist and rain.
Wending our way around the park via Moretonhampstead and Bovey Tracey our next port of call was the famous Haytor which lies between Bovey Tracey and Widdecombe in the Moor.
Haytor is perhaps the most easily accessible tor and has spectacular views across Dartmoor and the South Devon coast. I think we chose the steepest path up to the rocks though, but we made it!
The rocky granite outcrops (tors) that dominate the landscape were formed over 280 million years ago. People have been here for over 4,000 years, you will see the remains of prehistoric round houses, field boundaries and burial cairns.
It was the busiest place we came across during the day with a lot of people rock climbing and bouldering. There is a Visitor Centre here too where you can buy a ‘Walks around Haytor’ leaflet or the ‘Haytor’ booklet.
We didn’t stop in Widdecombe in the Moor which is famous for two things; The Church of St Pancras, colloquially known as the Cathedral of the Moors in recognition of its 120-ft tower, stands over the village green — helping to make Widecombe one of the most beloved villages on Dartmoor
and the folk song “Widecombe Fair” which immortalises the tale of Tom Pearce and the death of his horse at the famous annual fair which is held on the second Tuesday in September. It is a classic agricultural fair with horse jumping, rural crafts, a dog show and much more.
“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.”
The roads here are quite narrow so there is much stopping and reversing and squeezing into passing places so not for the faint-hearted driver. I had planned my route to avoid the narrowest of roads, but some are unavoidable. All I can advise is to take your time and don’t panic!
Our final stop was at Dartmeet where two rivers – the East Dart and the West Dart converge. After a short stroll along the banks of the river looking for damselflies, dragonflies and Kingfishers we called it a day once the route became too rocky for comfort.
All in all a great day out, though to really make the most of Dartmoor you probably need to explore on foot and spread out the walks over several days.