Walking on Dartmoor

These granite uplands are the largest area of untamed land in southern England, offering wonderful opportunities for walkers.

The wilds of Dartmoor comprise the largest upland area in southern England. It's a great place for all kinds of outdoor activities – among them walking, as local tour guide Phil Page explains.

Covering 368 square miles, Dartmoor is an ancient landscape characterised by wide open spaces with moorland, blanket bogs and rocky granite outcrops known as tors. There are also deeply incised river valleys with boulder strewn rivers and ancient woodlands.

This area has a long history of human habitation, and in Mesolithic times was one of the most densely populated areas of northern Europe. Those people left us with an amazing legacy of stone circles, stone rows, megaliths and other monuments.

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Each of the following five areas are recommended for walking:

The North Moor

The North Moor consists mainly of blanket bog and boulder-strewn rivers, and provides some of the most challenging walks in the area. Much of this part of Dartmoor is used by the military, so access is limited – though always possible at weekends and from 1-31 August inclusive. The boundaries of the ranges are marked with red and white posts in the ground and red flags during the day (as well as red lamps at night). Before planning a walk in this area it is best to check the official government site for infomation, or telephone 0800 458 4868.
 
View of Steeperton Tor (© Phil Page)
Walking on the North Moor can be both challenging and rewarding. Whilst many of the tors in other areas are heavily visited, it is possible to walk here and experience real wilderness. Road access to this area is very limited, but the village of Belstone just off the A30 makes an excellent start point, as does Okehampton Railway Station.

East Dartmoor

East Dartmoor contains a series of geological fault lines, including the famous Sticklepath Fault, which have produced steep-sided gorges: the most promonent is Teign Gorge, flowing from west to east beneath Castle Drogo. The car park here is the most convenient starting point for exploring The Teign Gorge and Fingle woods. The castle itself is owned by The National Trust and is believed to be either a rich man’s folly or the last ‘castle’ to be built in England (1931).

After leaving the gorge, the Teign turns south towards the sea via the Teign Valley and is eventually joined by the River Bovey which itself forms a dramatic boulder-strewn gorge below the slopes of Lustleigh Cleave. The Teign eventually forms a tidal estuary just below Newton Abbot.

The eastern edges of Dartmoor are characterised by numerous small villages and hamlets linked by narrow lanes and byways with impressive stone walls, covered in ferns and moss. The village of Hennock stands on the near-precipitous edge of the Teign Valley, and the views from the back of the pub are spectacular.

The Forest Of Dartmoor

The Forest Of Dartmoor is ancient Common land still owned by the Crown and is mostly comprised of uninhabited moorland and blanket bog. The Forest is surrounded by the Commons of Devon, and it is this extensive open space which was a significant factor when Dartmoor was considered a candidate for national park designation (which arrived in 1951).

The River Dart rises on the high moorland of this area - its two main tributaries, the West Dart and The East Dart, both originate within a few miles of each other before taking their different routes to the confluence at Dartmeet. The East Dart has a series of impressive waterfalls a couple of miles north of the main road at Postbridge, whilst the West Dart Valley includes the nationally famous Wistman’s Wood.

Access to The Forest is best made from the National Park Information Centre at Postbridge where there is a car park, a shop and a pub, as well as the famous Clapper Bridge.

The Dart Valley

The River Dart has gouged its way through the granite bedrock to form an impressive gorge complete with boulder-strewn slopes. Until the early twentieth century the woods here provided fuel for local mines, metal-smelting industries and tanneries. These days, the trees have largely recolonised the land.
Looking down to the West Dart Valley (© Phil Page)
From Dartmeet the river changes course several times before leaving the moor at Buckfastleigh. Access to the Lower Dart Valley is best made via the Ashburton-Tavistock road, while the car park at Newbridge provides an excellent starting point for exploring the area (plus there are also several informal car parks alongside the road).

There are very few shops in the area, but nearby villages such as Holne, Hexworthy and Poundsgate have pubs.

The Western Edges and Princetown

The western edge of Dartmoor is dominated by a series of prominent Tors and abandoned granite quarries below which lies the valley of the River Tavy, which ultimately flows into the Tamar.

Dartmoor is famous for its Prison, built at Princetown in 1806 to house French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited Princetown in 1901 and by 1902 had completed The Hound of the Baskervilles; he used local legends of ghostly hounds and brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead to solve the mystery which eventually became his best known work and which helped make Dartmoor a popular tourist destination. The fictitious Grimpen mire is probably based on Fox Tor Mire, two miles to the south of Princetown.

Princetown is now the site of the principal National Park Visitor Centre and also the Dartmoor Prison Museum. It also serves as a useful base for walks along the western edge of Dartmoor including the archaeological sites at Merrivale. There are several pubs, cafes and shops in the town, plus cycle hire and camping.

Long-distance paths

There are several long-distance paths crossing Dartmoor including The Two Moors Way (102 miles) linking Ivybridge on the southern edge with Lynmouth on the coast of Exmoor, and which takes about one week to complete. Other routes include The Dartmoor Way (82 miles with options for walkers and cyclists), The Tarka Trail and The Templer Way.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Steeperton Tor and Cosdon Beacon

This is a challenging 5-6-hour circular walk across North Dartmoor starting from Belstone village. It takes in isolated granite tors, secluded valleys and archaeological monuments, and culminates in a gradual ascent to Cosdon Beacon (1,804 feet). From here, follow the path back to Belstone.

2. Grimspound and Hameldown

A fairly easy, but rewarding, circuit starting from the Warren House Inn and crossing the former extensive site of the Vittifer tin mines. Pass Headland Warren Farm, the enclosed Bronze Age village of Grimspound, Hamel Down Ridge (superb views on all sides), before descending to the medieval farmstead of Challacombe - one of the best places to see and hear cuckoos in the spring. From here continue along the footpath via Golden Dagger Mine back to the Warren House Inn.

3. Dart Valley

Follow the minor road from Newbridge car park around the back of Hannaford Manor. At the top of the hill, join the Two Moors Way as it heads north for views across the Dart Valley to Bel Tor Corner. A short section of road takes you to the footpath to Sweaton, from where a minor road takes you onto Blackadon Common with great views of the Dart Gorge. Descend to The Glen, from where a little-used woodland path goes down to Buckland Bridge, then follow the Dart upstream back to the car park.

4. South Hessary Tor, Crazy Well Pool and Foggintor Quarries

From Princetown take the well-worn track heading south to reach a path that proceeds west towards Burrator Reservoir. Pass above Crazy Well Pool, then cross the River Meavy via footbridges. Cross the B3212 (with care) before descending to the track bed of the former route of the Yelverton-Princetown branch railway line. This is now a cycle path that leads back to Princetown via Kings Tor and Foggintor quarries.

5. East Dart Falls and the Grey Wethers Stone Circles

From Postbridge follow the track that goes down past the side of the Information Centre. Although not shown on the OS map there is a well-used path heading uphill via Broad Down before descending to the East Dart waterfalls. It is usually possible to cross the river here and proceed across the blanket bog towards Sittaford Tor, below which are the two Bronze Age stone circles known as the Grey Wethers. Follow the path south via Hartland Tor and Roundy Park back to Postbridge.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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Best tImes to visit
Mid-April to mid-June: the trees are in leaf and birds are in full song. Dartmoor is still a place where you can see and hear the cuckoo, and late spring is also a good time to see fritillary butterflies.

From late June through July the heather and western gorse is flowering and many moorland birds are still active. Autumn (September/October) can also be an attractive time to visit if the weather is fine.

Times to avoid
The Ten Tors Walk/Expedition usually takes place on the second weekend in May so – unless you are taking part, of course - it is best to avoid Dartmoor then. The fourth Sunday in June when the Dartmoor Classic Cycle ride takes place is another time to avoid. August can be very busy on the roads and villages, although most walking trails aren’t too crowded.

Go prepared
Although located in South West England Dartmoor can experience severe weather at any time of the year especially when Atlantic storms come in from the west bringing heavy rain, low cloud, mist and fog. Dartmoor rivers (especially the Dart) also have the nasty habitat of rising and falling very rapidly especially when the blanket bog is saturated. 

Ticks
Unfortunately Dartmoor has a large population of ticks which can carry Lyme Disease. In order to avoid ticks it is best to stay on the paths and keep out of areas dominated by bracken where the ticks tend to accumulate. Anyone walking on Dartmoor should carry tick removers in their first aid kits and check themselves carefully at the end of the walk.

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