A perfect day in Dartmoor

I can see the iconic tors of eastern Dartmoor from my bedroom – but on a road trip to the western fringes I discovered an emptier, more inspiring landscape. I live in Totnes, less than 10 miles east of Dartmoor. I know the eastern edges intimately as well as the popular granite outcrops beloved of photographers, climbers and parkour-practitioners: Hound Tor, Greator, Haytor. I can even see the latter from the top floor of my house.

 

I know Exeter and Plymouth and Ivybridge, to the south. I’ve been to Chagford and Okehampton north of the moor. But I didn’t know the west at all. This presented an ideal opportunity for a day trip by car. An incorrigible wanderer, I like nothing more than seeing a new landscape. Dartmoor is 365 square miles. That’s a lot of space to explore.

As I set out from Totnes, I wondered if all the ingredients would come together. But, after a long winter of snow in the south-west of England, late spring brought the first glimpses of sunshine and blue skies as I set off on my Dartmoor adventure with my partner and co-driver Kate.

Cruising around Devon’s winding roads

Anyone who enjoys driving will love Devon’s high roads and labyrinthine lanes.

We followed our usual route towards Ashburton and then climbed on to the moor. Cyclists were out in force and a few tractors had been seduced out by the dry weather, so we had to go slow. I love the moment when you cross your first cattle-grid – that rippling strum as the tyres go over the iron bars – and know you’re on the moor proper.

Dartmoor doesn’t have the contours or strident features of some of the UK’s more obviously photogenic mountain ranges and national parks, but it has a unique, expansive quality.

The drive to Tavistock dips down to the river Dart, crossing ancient bridges and passing under the dappled light of old-growth forests. Soon, after passing Princetown and its large Victorian prison, we wound up onto a final lane, hemmed in by tall hedges and drove to a dead-end and Lane-head carpark.

Being at one with nature

A group of teenagers on their Duke of Edinburgh courses were resting close to where we booted-up. We set off brightly, our eyes on a low slope a few hundred metres away.

We passed over a rushing leat and were soon walking through waving fields of yellowish grass – the landscape looked like parts of Patagonia or Mongolia. Skylarks, cheered by the novelty of the warm day, were out hovering and cheeping enthusiastically. They darted low, chasing one another out of love rather than war. We passed signs advising that flags would be flown when the MoD used the area as a firing range.

Our map displayed a series of close peaks that would serve as a natural route for us to follow. We were soon ticking off Ger Tor, Hare Tor and Little Hare Tor, clambering over boulder fields around their bases. Dartmoor’s rock has an elephantine quality – it’s a pleasant grey colour, gritty on the eye, but quite smooth to touch. Where layers are compressed, the towers can look like wrinkly legs.

What struck me most about this western fringe of Dartmoor was the openness – more like a steppe than the general impression we have of a moor. The sky was singing, the grass enticingly warm-looking, and the land inviting.

As the paths began ascending, we took in views down to a narrow cleft through which a brackish river teemed. The River Tavy, tributary of the Tamar to be precise.

Climbing a summit for a picnic with inspiring views

I like nothing more than al fresco food on the hop. We had packed cheese and pickle sandwiches, homemade scotch eggs and energy bars, hot coffee and apples. A couple of Dartmoor ponies wandered over to demand the latter, but we hunkered down for half an hour in the lee of the wind and ate our lunches in the sun.

I don’t over-research my hikes. I like the surprises that spring up. So, when I stood after lunch at Sharp Tor and walked to stretch my legs, I was awestruck by the view between two natural rock columns. Far below was the Tavy again, now deep in a ravine known as the Tavy Cleave, where the river tumbles down a series of cascades.

It was the summit of our views as well as the highest point we touched that day. We turned to begin the walk back to the car, sated and weary but not in the least worn-out.

Extending the day trip in a cosy B&B

Driving and walking Dartmoor makes for a perfect day trip. Yet, we didn’t fancy rushing away just yet. We booked into Lee Byre, a B&B fashioned out of three converted barns – a perfectly peaceful place to rest and recover.

A perfect day in Dartmoor? Yes – with plenty more tors to trek to over the summer. In the morning, the weather had reverted to type. We set off back over the moor under lowering clouds and beside moody-looking, mist-fringed fields. Secretly, I also love to see English wildernesses on such days – but from the comfort of a car.

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