You know you’re onto a good thing when an A-list movie director waxes lyrical about a place. Steven Spielberg was very taken with Dartmoor when he came to film War Horse.
The landscape is described as “the third character” in the epic story and this extraordinary part of Devon certainly held its own alongside horse and boy. To quote Spielberg:
“I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty.”Stephen Spielberg
Covering an area of 368 square miles (954 km2), Dartmoor is about the size of London but is home to only 34500 people.
90% of the land is used for farming, much of it pastoral – in fact cows, sheep and ponies outnumber humans.
The area has been settled since the Bronze Age, though Dartmoor (given national park status in 1951) is as famous for its breathtaking scenery.
Dartmoor has inspired several authors. Most famously Arthur Conan Doyle used the bleak moors as the backdrop to his Hound of the Baskervilles Sherlock Holmes novel.
And not just the backdrop. The fog-bound marshes from which the mythical hound is thought to dwell contributes many parts of the suspense of the plot.
You can feel the eeriness as Homes, Watson and the other characters wander blindly around, hoping not to become the hound’s latest victim.
It is hard to imagine these scenes being as successful without the bleakness of Dartmoor, its treacherous bogs, and mists rolling over the landscape.
Beguiling Dartmoor Market Towns And Bucolic Villages
Ashburton is what’s known as a Stannary town. It became a centre for trade in the Middle Ages and was one of four towns that tested the quality of the tin that was mined on Dartmoor.
These days, it’s dubbed the gateway to southern Dartmoor, a mecca for foodies, thanks to its many delis, bakers and cafés and an annual food festival.
A liberal helping of book stores and antique shops also help to make this an ideal place to lose an afternoon doing little more than mooching and browsing.
The hamlet of Postbridge is home to one of the national park visitor centres.
Located on the bank of the East Dart, it is best known for the ancient clapper bridge that spans the river. It was built in the 13th century to enable packhorses to cross the water bound for the Stannary town of Tavistock.
The bridge is still there, flanked by a newer bridge dating from the late 18th century.
Postbridge has one more claim to fame: the route out to neighbouring Two Bridges is said to be haunted by a pair of hands that grab hold of steering wheels to fling vehicles off the road.
You might know more about Widecombe-in-the-Moor than you think you do.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Uncle Tom Cobley and all” to describe anyone and everyone, you’ll be referring to a character that features in a Devon folk song called Widdecombe Fair.
Despite the slightly different spelling, it’s a ditty about Widecombe-in-the-Moor, an uber-quaint village whose church tower you can spot from the eastern moorlands of Dartmoor.
The fair is still held every September, but year-round it’s the perfect place for a Devon cream tea.
Buckfastleigh is best known for the nearby Benedictine abbey. The first Buckfast Abbey was built on the site in 1018; another in 1134.
After dissolution in 1539, it was left ruined and later demolished to make way for a Gothic mansion. But in 1882, another group of Benedictine monks founded their own monastery and 20 years later, it was reinstated as an abbey.
Today, its monks are well known for producing tonic wine and also for beekeeping.
National Trust Sites In Dartmoor
Dartmoor has a number of National Trust sights but perhaps the most breathtaking is Lydford Gorge. This steep-sided, forested ravine cuts through the western fringe of Dartmoor.
Among its highlights are the Whitelady waterfall and also the Devil’s Cauldron pothole. It’s a hiker’s dream: from short rambles to more adventurous loops, walk to the sound of birdsong surrounded by nature.
The last castle to be built in England, Castle Drogo sits high above the Teign Gorge.
Perhaps the most famous walking trail in Dartmoor, the Hunter’s Path, climbs from the castle, though its challenging, steep terrain means it’s not for everyone.
Renowned architect Edwin Lutyens designed the castle for millionaire Julius Drewe. Despite its 20th century construction the castle feels like it has stood there for centuries. Yet from the beginning, water penetration has damaged the structure and extensive renovations have been necessary to finally make it watertight.
Another popular National Trust site is Finch Foundry. Located in the pretty village of Sticklepath it holds the distinction of being the last water-powered forge in the country.
Once, it would have churned out something in the region of 400 tools every day, proving sickles, scythes and shovels for the local workforce. Today, regular demonstrations give visitors a fascinating insight into 19th century rural life.
Outstanding Natural Beauty
Granite makes up about 65% of Dartmoor and outcrops known as tors dot the windswept moorland of the south west.
On Dartmoor, one of the most famous rock formations is Brent Tor, but it’s actually made of ancient basaltic lava. Once this was surrounded by a shallow sea and as the waves eroded the rock, debris littered the mound. The water has long gone, but with St Michael’s Church perched on top it’s an easily recognised silhouette visible for miles around.
Dartmoor contains as many as 180 kistvaens, burial tombs from the late Neolithic age, though it’s thought there could be more hidden beneath the surface. Most were positioned so that the body faced the sun.
Sadly, the majority have fallen victim to tomb raiders; there’s written proof that local people were looking for buried treasure as far back as the 14th century. Legends abound: stories tell of parsons, lightning strikes, ravens and changing personalities but the message is always the same – don’t touch the kistvaens or bad things will happen.
One sight you can’t fail to see is that of the Dartmoor ponies. Though the first written records of the ponies date back about a thousand years, archaeologists have discovered hoof prints dating back 3500 years, and they still roam the moor today.
Once they were the workhorses of the granite quarries but now herds of Dartmoor ponies, Heritage ponies, Hill ponies, Shetlands, Welsh, and Spotted ponies – about 1500 in total – graze the area.
Dartmoor commoners (a term given to those farmers and local residents who have grazing rights on the land) own them.
Admire from a distance as they can kick or bite!
Dartmoor is found in the West Country, in the county of Devon.
Extraordinarily beautiful, time seems to stop still on Dartmoor, yet it is easily reached from the M5 motorway in Devon, as well as from the A30 or the A38.
It will take you about half an hour to drive from either Exeter or Plymouth.
It’s a little too far for a day trip from London, but would be a perfect weekend or mid week break. Or a base from which to explore the rest of Devon and nearby Cornwall.