Of Britain’s fifteen National Parks, Dartmoor, situated in the south-west of England, is probably the strangest. Its terrain is far wilder than the rest of the region’s green and pleasant land, encompassing desolate tracts of peat bog, gorse, and white-tipped cotton grass, with spiky outcrops of rock running along the ridges of hills.
The moor has many unique and unexpected features. South England’s remotest point can be found at its heart, marked by a hill known as Fur Tor – thought to derive from the medieval ‘furre’, meaning furthest. Two other peaks rising out of the ragged vegetation, Yes Tor and High Wilhays, are the only mountains in the south of England.
Dartmoor is the only place in England and Wales where wild camping is legal. While the practise is hardly uncommon in other parts of the country, here you can spontaneously pitch your tent in a beautiful spot, free from the threat of being brusquely awoken by an irate farmer or zealous park ranger.
For such an infertile landscape, the Park offers a variety of sites to explore: from inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’s most famous case to diverse prehistoric ruins; or the notorious Dartmoor prison to more comfortable accommodation offered in a range of cozy inns and hotels. But before detailing these attractions, it’s worth prioritising the rawest, most liberating way to experience Dartmoor.
[Also see our travel article “Northumberland: England’s Last Wilderness“]
You’ll need a car, some camping equipment, and a copy of Ordnance Survey map 28. Drive to a small car park on the fringes of the moor, hoist your backpack on your shoulders, and set out into the wilderness. Soon, the verdant fields and small villages will shrink behind you, as barren moorland circles round to enclose the horizon.
Follow rutted mud paths between banks of bog and gorse and clamber to the top of jutting rocks for a moment’s view across, in the words of Romantic poet John Clare, the “unchecked shadows of green, brown and grey.” Hop over stepping stones to cross gushing, copper-coloured streams. Enjoy the play of light across the rough landscape as daylight fades, before finding a reasonably dry and flat patch of ground to pitch your tent. Munch a well-earned dinner while the most spectacular starscape in the south of England glimmers above your head. The next day, trace a circle on the map back to your car.
There are many possible starting points for such an exploration. Beginning from the village of Belstone, walkers can opt for a hike along a ridge taking in Belstone Common and Oke Tor, before leading up and over the heights of Yes Tor and High Wilhays. Hiking in these remote areas is wonderfully calming and meditative; it’s possible to walk for hours without seeing a single other soul, simply breathing with the wind and listening to the rustle of vegetation. If you begin from London’s smog-choked city centre – about a 3 hour drive from Dartmoor – the utter tranquillity is truly breathtaking.
Easy walks, tasty eats, and a comfortable bed
For those less inclined to sacrifice comfort for isolation, there are plenty more established walks that can be combined with a hot pub meal and luxurious night’s sleep.
One possibility is the popular two-hour round trip between Castle Drogo and Fingle Gorge. The route begins by the stone arches of Fingle Bridge, and follows the River Teign with sweeping views over the oak woodland of Teign Gorge. The riverbank offers plentiful paddling opportunities on a warm day, where otters, salmon and trout can be seen cutting through the clear water.
The walk leads to the visitor-friendly Castle Drogo, hewn from Dartmoor granite and the last great stone castle to be built in England. It then loops back round on the other side of the river, and finishes at Fingle Bridge Inn, serving mountainous plates of pub food – a satisfactory alternative to mounds of spaghetti cooked over a precariously-balanced camping stove somewhere in the wilds. The Inn itself doesn’t provide accommodation, but the cosy Old Inn bed and breakfast is a brisk fifteen-minute walk away.
Leaving behind such inviting spots, the moor’s bleaker stretches provide a perfect backdrop for sinister tales. It inspired Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which the male descendants of a wealthy family are haunted by a terrifying “coal-black hound.” Conan Doyle explored Dartmoor a few months before beginning the book, and the terrain seeps through the story’s ominous atmosphere.
Literary detectives have pinpointed specific spots that correspond to key settings in the book. An ancient stone hut, in which Holmes shelters during an eerie night of outdoor sleuthing, is most likely located among the dilapidated structures of Ryder’s Ring. The fearsome presence of the great Grimpen Mire, an impenetrable sucking quagmire in which the fleeing villain sinks to a dark death, was based on Fox Tor mires, situated in a wide valley to the south of Princetown.
Conan Doyle’s tale of the hellish hound isn’t the only grisly legend to haunt Fox Tor mires. On the southern edge of the bog stands a granite cross, erected on a rough pedestal and surrounded by smaller stones. This marks the grave of Childe the Hunter. Childe was a Saxon Lord who, out hunting one winter evening, became lost in a sudden snowstorm. In his desperation he came up with a creative way of keeping warm: disembowelling his horse and creeping inside its cadaver. Despite his ingenuity, he froze to death within the carcass shelter, and the Russian doll corpses were found on the very spot where the cross now stands.
The sinister reputation of the area around Fox Tor – actually a pleasant grazing ground during summer, but best avoided by ramblers after extended periods of rain – is perhaps influenced by the nearby presence of Dartmoor Prison. The jail also plays a role in Hound of the Baskervilles, as an escaped convict serves as a red herring that misleads Watson.
For much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the prison was a high-security facility, housing such inmates as the Acid Bath Murderer and the “mad axeman” Frank Mitchell. Surrounded by empty acres of moorland, it is perfectly situated to spawn mythical escape attempts. Inevitably, many of these end with the fugitive swallowed in the neighbouring mire. This semi-factual history is celebrated today in the annual ‘Dartmoor Jailbreak’ charity, which offers a particularly surreal holiday activity. Members of the public escape from the prison and must travel as far as they can in four days without paying for public transport, all while dressed as convicts. Sadly, prisoners may not partake.
The prison’s history can be explored at the adjoining museum, which takes us from its establishment as a Prisoner of War camp in the early 19th Century through its role as a holding pen for conscientious objectors in World War 1. Alongside this narrative are accounts of various mutinies and real-life escape attempts. Exhibits bring these events to alternately terrifying and amusing life. One glass cabinet displays a razor tied to the tip of a toothbrush, brandished during an early-20th Century rebellion. Another holds a set of knotted bed sheets, once spotted dangling optimistically from a cell window.
Any walk around the National Park will quickly bring ramblers into contact with the area’s much older, hazier history. Lives unfolding four thousand years ago are continually visible to the mind’s eye, preserved in a variety of ceremonial and settlement sites.
The ceremonial sites are intriguingly diverse in shape and form. Large, singular granite burial chambers are scattered across the landscape; giant cairns crown the crests of hills, while smaller cairns are dotted throughout the National Park. Most of these cairns are cone-shaped piles of stone, but Dartmoor also hosts 60% of England’s “stone rows” – linear rows of stone that usually lead up to a large granite tomb. Alongside these stone rows are often tall single standing stones; elsewhere, these lanky rocks are used to form stone circles. Attempts to discern the original purpose of these arrangements, and the distinctive symbolism of each pattern, are left almost entirely up to speculation. The National Park Authority say nothing more enlightening than “it seems most likely they were connected with forms of worship and burial” – giving free range to the individual imagination.
Alongside these ceremonial structures there are also a great number of practical stone settlements, which provided shelter for communities living on the moor thousands of years ago.
The most evocative of these is probably Grimspound. On a gentle, bracken-strewn hillside, 24 Bronze Age round houses are encircled by a formidable boundary wall, 3m thick and rising to form a slim, roughly-paved entrance way. The precise position of the settlement is explained by a clear stream running through its northern quarter, which would have provided an excellent source of fresh drinking water. Near the stream, a low row of rubble banks separate rough rectangles from the rest of the interior, which most likely functioned as sheep or cattle pens. Archaeologists doubt the wall was intended as a means of defence, concluding that it more likely served to keep wild animals out and domestic animals in.
These are only a small selection of the activities Dartmoor offers an adventurous traveller. The moor can also be traversed by bike, or horse; and there are many more villages and viewpoints that can be woven into a longer journey through the National Park. In the heavily-populated, hyper-modern south of England, Dartmoor proffers a unique opportunity to escape into the wilds of nature and through layers of history. It shouldn’t be missed.