Explore Dartmoor National Park
Follow our Know Britain campaign and discover Dartmoor's wild landscape, where granite-built villages are scattered amidst mysterious moorland
The mist comes rolling over the skyline of the moor, soundless and unstoppable like a drifting bank of cannon smoke creeping down the sombre green and brown slopes of heather. Standing on the threshold of a tumbledown hut, inside the solid round wall of Grimspounds ancient settlement, youll see the granite tors of Hameldown and Hookney rising tall on their ridges soften, melt and disappear. Out here in the timeless, elemental stillness of Dartmoor its 2012 AD, but it could just as well be 2012 BC. A herd of stocky Dartmoor ponies ambles across the valley, their mist-moistened coats steaming in the warm morning air. The changing moods and atmospheres of Dartmoor are famous. Nowhere else in the south-west of England can show such a contrast between dark and light, sombre loneliness and sunlit beauty. Small communities cluster around the moors edge, and ancient settlements lay scattered and remote across its boggy, silent interior. Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, one of the first areas to be preserved in this way, and with good reason youll find that it is a wilderness at heart, one of very few in these islands; part desert, part oasis, and wholly captivating.
Nature and heritage
Dartmoor is a skyline-to-skyline expanse of moorland, overlooked by jagged granite tors tufted with rustling silver grass and blanketed with heather. Patches of acid-green and ruby-red sphagnum moss betray the location of the famous Dartmoor bogs. Nature lovers will find pink rockets of marsh lousewort and bog pimpernel here, plus ancient, twisted dwarf oaks bearded with trailing lichens in Wistmans Wood near Two Bridges. Down in the lower land, under the high moor, youll discover steep, green farming countryside dotted with villages, some still retaining their school, pub and post office, alongside stream valleys clothed in oak woods. Look out for kingfishers and the stout, white-chested figure of a dipper bobbing up and down on a mid-river stone. Man has left notable landmarks scattered across Dartmoor, including clapper bridges granite slabs resting on piers of the same rock (the one in Postbridge is probably the best known), as well as historic places of worship, such as Brentor Church on its rocky knoll in the west.
Moors and mystery
Most of Dartmoor is access land, where you are free to walk at will. Take the Ordnance Survey map, a compass or GPS, and proper walking gear, and follow the clear and easy routes of the Redlake Tramway from Ivybridge, or the Haytor Granite Tramway near Bovey Tracey. For those who prefer to explore on horseback, there are plenty ofstables catering for beginners, pony trekkers and galloping old hands alike try Shilstone Rocks Stables in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Prehistoric sites to visit include Grimspound ancient settlement and the Grey Wethers stone circles in the east, both wonderfully atmospheric.
Food, music and gardens
Indulge in some regional fare at one of Devons culinary festivals. The Ashburton Food & Drink Festival (8 September 2012) has more than 50 stalls showcasing the produce available in and around the town, as well as street entertainment and cookery demonstrations from celebrity and local chefs. Newton Abbots Abbfest (21-23 September 2012) has around 60 food, art and crafts stalls, while the Dartmouth Food Festival (26-28 October 2012) has become one of the biggest events of its kind, attracting high-profile chefs and foodies, such as Mark Hix and Valentine Warner. Music lovers shouldnt miss The Two Moors Festival, a week of classical music concerts in churches across Exmoor and Dartmoor (11-20 October 2012). Or try the Baring Gould Folk Weekend in Okehampton (26-28 October 2012).
Anyone wishing to visit some historic houses will be spoilt for choice. For imposing splendour, try the neo-Gothic Castle Drogo (01647 433306) near Drewsteignton, or Buckfast Abbey (01364 645500), with its beautiful church, monastic buildings and shops full of local ceramics, candles and honey. Both have superb grounds, only bettered by The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum (01822 854769), home to more than 6,000 plant varieties.
The sucking swamp of Fox Tor Mires is very quiet at six oclock on a late September morning; not a single birdcall breaks the profound silence. The old stones of the tumbledown Whiteworks tin mine are pearled with dew drops strung along invisible wires of spider webs. There are patches of purple heather sprinkled over the amber and chocolate face of the mire, which steams lightly like a pudding on a hob.
A flight of tiny, twittering goldcrests alights in a silver birch, a slender white tree with a froth of trembling leaves already tinged with yellow. Three dark moor ponies are moving across the face of Crane Hill on the far side of Fox Tor Mires; they know better than to stray out among its treacherous sphagnum that is a brilliant green, as soft as butter and many feet deep.
This is the setting for the climactic scene of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', with the fiery beast bursting out of the mist and Sherlock Holmes appearing in the nick of time to save the day. On a magical morning, you can almost glimpse it for yourself.
Granite is the rock hereabouts, and vernacular architecture is on the solid side. Chagford is a handsome market town in north-east Dartmoor, and possesses a gem in the traditional ironmongers and general stores of Webber & Sons (01647 432213) and James Bowden & Son (01647 433271), side by side in The Square.
Nearby Bovey Tracey has the characterful Old Cottage Tea Shop in Fore Street (01626 833430), and the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Riverside Mill (01626 832223), which runs exhibitions, have-a-go sessions and sales of local handiwork.
For picture-postcard villages, head to Widecombe-in-the-Moor, with its tall-towered church and village green, or North Bovey for its thatched cottages. And dont leave without seeing the prison at Princetown its not pretty, but its one of Dartmoors most arresting sights.
Where to eat
22 Mill Street, Chagford
Tucked away in a back street of one of Dartmoors ancient towns, this restaurant has wonderful views over the moor. The menu includes local meat, fish and cheese in dishes that change with the seasons (01647 432244).
Rock Inn, Haytor, near Bovey Tracey
This former 18th-century coaching inn serves up local seafood such as mussels from the River Teign as well as meat from the moor and Devon cheeses. Commandeer the cosy snug next to the bar on a chilly evening or enjoy an alfresco lunch in the garden on warm days (01364 661305).
Ullacombe Farm shop, between Bovey Tracey and Haytor
You can find Dartmoor meat, eggs and vegetables, plus homemade preserves, pies and cakes here. Warm up with a bowl of homemade soup by the woodburning stove in the café (01364 661341).
Where to stay
Apple Tree Bed & Breakfast, Tavistock
A contemporary boutique B&B based in a Grade II-listed Victorian house with a feel of understated elegance in the three airy, en-suite guest rooms two doubles and a twin all of which have WiFi and flatscreen televisions. Doubles from £65 a night (01822 617639).
Cadleigh Manor, Ivybridge
This quiet, traditional guesthouse is located on the southern edge of the National Park and offers three comfortable double rooms. The highlight however, is the full English breakfast with sausages and bacon from the owners free-range Gloucester Old Spot crosses, eggs laid by their hens, and freshly pressed apple juice. Those preferring a lighter option can enjoy homemade preserves and croissants. Doubles from £60 per night (01752 895678).
Little Shotts, Haytor
If youre looking for a more remote and quirky place to stay, this self-catering hut set in woodland is perfect. Situated on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park, Little Schotts is a rustic wooden cabin that sleeps four. For relaxed suppers, the Rock Inn, a traditional country pub serving excellent food and fine local ales, is just a short stroll away. From £267 for a three-night break (01364 661536).
Our National Parks need you!
The Campaign for National Parks is Country Livings Charity of the Year. For the past 75 years, it has been dedicated to keeping beautiful places safe. In this area, it has been working with the Dartmoor Mires Project, which is conserving the moors blanket bog a critical habitat for upland wildlife and an important carbon store. To find out how you can lend your support, visit www.cnp.org.uk.
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