The wild and rugged moorland has bewitched and entranced people throughout time. It’s not surprising that Dartmoor is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike throughout the seasons. There’s a wealth of prehistoric history to discover whilst walking along millennia old paths and taking in the breathtaking scenery. Here’s your complete guide to Dartmoor National Park, including where to stay, what to do, and how to visit.
About Dartmoor National Park
Dartmoor is situated in the South West of England between the cities of Exeter and Plymouth, which are located in the county of Devon. This vast wilderness covers an area of some 368 square miles with a minute local population of approximately 47,000 inhabitants. To put it into perspective think of Inner London which is considerably smaller in size (241 square miles), but, with a population of over 3.3 million!
The terrain is highly diverse with wild open heather moorlands, numerous granite tors, gnarled trees, mires, rolling valleys and farmland in the more sheltered lea of the Moor. It goes without saying that the varied landscape and low population means that there is a wealth of flora and fauna in the region. Many of the species are not found elsewhere within the British Isles.
Climate of Dartmoor
One thing you can be almost certain of is that if you intend to spend more than a few days on Dartmoor then a raincoat is an absolute must! The climate like the rest of Britain is temperate. However, due to its higher location, the temperature is generally cooler and it’s often much wetter than nearby coastal areas such as the South Hams.
On the highest areas of the moor, the average rainfall is in excess of 200cm (79 inches) per year with the wettest months being November and December. It’s fair to say that there is nowhere quite as magical as Dartmoor on a fair day, but, if you leave a known route be warned that the weather can change at the drop of a hat and the mists made so famous by Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The fog can often descend at an alarming rate. As such, always be prepared to travel with a map and compass. After all, although the situation has vastly improved over the past few years, there are still plenty of areas of moorland where there is no mobile reception or phone signal to be found.
A history of Dartmoor National Park
In 1951 Dartmoor was designated a National Park despite the fact that much of the land was and remains to this day in private ownership. The creation of Dartmoor National Park meant that the characteristic landscape beauty was and continues to be strictly preserved with both wildlife and buildings of architectural and/or historical merit also being protected.
Dartmoor National Park Authority owns but a small proportion of the moorland with landowners and commoners making up the rest. Aside from the private landowners, areas of Dartmoor are also owned by the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence, the Duchy of Cornwall, Southwest Water and the Forestry Commission.
Approximately 40% of Dartmoor is open to the general public and can be accessed from many of the roads around the perimeter. Access is free and the land is open to visitors throughout the year. Dartmoor National Park also happens to be one of the only places in the UK where Wild Camping is permitted, with restrictions, of course.
Dartmoor and The River Dart
Dartmoor is so named from one of the main rivers, The River Dart, that rises from two major tributaries the East Dart (at Kit Rock, Whinney’s Down) and West Dart (at Lower White Tor) that conjoin at Dartmeet; a scenic beauty spot that’s pretty much geographically located in the most central point of the moor.
The River Dart flows in a south-easterly direction until it leaves the moor at Buckfastleigh and continues in a southerly direction through Totnes until filtering into the sea at Dartmouth.
The Granite Landscape of Dartmoor
The landscape upon Dartmoor is highly diverse, but, there is one element that is characteristic throughout the varying terrain, and, that is granite. It’s granite that makes up the majority of the iconic Tors which have become synonymous with Dartmoor.
The hard material has been used throughout the ages for constructing the many miles of stonewalling to enclose livestock, buildings and indeed the many prehistoric monuments that are still visible today. Due to the high levels of acidity in the soil one of the few products to have withstood the ravages of time is, in fact, the stone itself.
Prehistoric Dartmoor – Mesolithic and Neolithic Period
There’s only sparse evidence dating back to the Mesolithic period (c.10,000-4,000 BCE) of human activity on Dartmoor. No buildings from this period survive, however, flint tools from this period have been found around the moor including Ringhill near Postbridge and Gidleigh Common.
The majority of monuments visible on Dartmoor are from the Bronze Age, however, a few are from the Neolithic Period (c.4,000-2,500BC). On the western side of Dartmoor, there are stonewalled enclosures by White Tor and Dewerstone. The portal dolmen called Spinster’s Rock, close to Drewsteignton (where Castle Drogo, the last castle built in England can be found) also dates from this period and is thought to be a communal burial chamber.
In 2010 nine stones at Cut Hill were discovered flat in the peat on northern Dartmoor. It was possible to carbon date them to 3,500BCE which pre-dates Stonehenge (the most famous Neolithic settlement which is not far from the city of Salisbury or the lost village of Imber) itself.
Bronze Age on Dartmoor
There are numerous artefacts dating back to this era including 76 stone rows (which is over 60% of all known stone rows in England). Perhaps the best known is at Merrivale where the ceremonial site contains two double stone rows, a stone circle, a cist grave and numerous burial cairns.
Stone circles abound in this area of Britain. Although very small in stature compared to ceremonial sites like Avebury and Stonehenge there are sixteen such Stone Circles found on Dartmoor. Scorhill Circle, near Gidleigh, is probably the most impressive and has the largest stones. One exceeds 8ft in height.
Dotted across the entire moor are numerous hut circles and perhaps the most iconic of these is the settlement at Grimspound and this dates back to c.1,500BCE. It consists of a large stone enclosure and contains 24 hut circles.
Dartmoor also has the vestiges of Bronze Age field boundaries that are low stony banks and are known as Reaves. There are over 20 of these field systems still visible of which the largest is found by Rippon Tor and covers an area of 5.4 square miles.
Dartmoor Tors: What is a Dartmoor tor and where are tors found?
A Tor as defined in the English Dictionary:
A Hill or Rocky Peak from Old English Torr, perhaps of Celtic origin and related to Welsh tor ‘belly’ and Scottish Gaelic torr ‘bulging hill’.
The problem with trying to count the number of Tors on Dartmoor is that the above dictionary meaning is incredibly broad and open to interpretation. You will find conflicting numbers both online and in print. The general consensus is that there are more than 160 tors with some estimates up to 400.
To confuse matters further some tors are not even called a Tor; one such outcrop is Blackingstone Rock on the eastern boundary of the moor. And, not all tors on Dartmoor are made up of granite. Perhaps the most famous of these is Brentor which is made up of volcanic material with the ancient church of St. Michael perched atop.
An excellent book with a description of the geology and history of many of the Tors is DARTMOOR TORS COMPENDIUM by Josephine M. Collingwood. Perhaps the most well known of the Dartmoor Tors is Haytor on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, just above the small town of Bovey Tracey which is known as “The Gateway to the Moor”.
Granite Quarries on Dartmoor
There were three major quarries on Dartmoor – Haytor, Foggintor and Merrivale and numerous smaller ones spread across the moor. During the 1800’s Dartmoor was the main source of granite for the whole of Britain. The most famous of these today, popular among tourists and locals alike, is that of Haytor Quarry.
Apart from being used in many Devon and Cornish buildings, the stone from the quarries has been used in the construction of some world famous structures. Haytor provided the stone for the New London Bridge, Foggintor for Nelson’s Column and Merrivale for New Scotland Yard.
Close to Postbridge, there are the remains of a gunpowder factory that was opened in 1844 until 1897. This was crucially important for the blasting in the quarries and the tin mines that were operational at the time. Today the outbuildings are opened as a craft centre and during the summer months, there is a small cafe serving cake and cream teas.
Tin Mining and Stannary Towns
It’s believed that tin has been extracted since pre-Roman times but there is little evidence to substantiate this claim. However, there is evidence of alluvial mining from a later period visible in many areas across the moor. A good example of this is the tin streamworks dating from the 12th to 18th century that can be seen close to Haytor quarry.
Tin mining across the moor was major business from the beginning of the 14th century and King Edward I created the Stannary Charter in 1305 establishing the moorland towns of Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford as Stannary towns. All tin produced in Devon was assayed in one of these towns (Plympton was added in 1307).
The Stannary towns had their own Parliament which used to convene at a midway point which happened to be Crockern Tor close to Two Bridges. The open-air Parliament was last held in 1786 and remnants of the carved ‘furniture’ can still be seen in situ today.
The last commercial tin mine on Dartmoor was the Golden Dagger Mine which closed in 1930. The remains of this and Vitifer Mine can be seen south of Bennett’s Cross, not far from the Warren Inn (the highest pub in the South of England) on the Moretonhampstead to Postbridge Road.
Must Visit Towns and Villages of Dartmoor
With such a small population it’s surprising just how many small towns, villages and hamlets are scattered across the moor. A number of these are an absolute must visit either for their picture postcard looks or historical interest.
Ashburton is a vibrant small town with oodles of character and plenty of small independent shops. This ancient stannary town is the antiquing capital of Devon and is also a foodie’s paradise with numerous cafes and a wonderful fish deli and delicatessen.
Likewise, the attractive stannary town of Chagford on the north-east edge of Dartmoor is popular with locals and tourists alike. Castle Drogo, the last castle to be built in England, is just a short drive away at Drewsteignton.
Lustleigh, nestled in the Wrey Valley, is arguably one of the most attractive villages on the moor. Take a hike through Lustleigh Cleave and then have a hearty meal at the quintessential thatched village pub – The Cleave.
There’s not enough space here and far too many villages to mention, however, this list cannot be complete without adding Widecombe-in-the-Moor, a picturesque moorland village with a church that is known as the Cathedral of the Moor due to the size of its spire. There are often ponies or cattle grazing on the village green which can be viewed as you partake of a tasty lunch at the Cafe on the Green. If you fancy a pint why not try the Rugglestone Inn?
The Iconic Dartmoor Pony
There are large swathes of open moorland with cattle grids to ensure that the livestock stays within the set boundaries. At this point, the speed limit is set at 40mph and it’s easy to see why with sheep, cattle and ponies often blocking the road entirely! In 2018 alone over 158 animals were killed in Road Traffic Accidents across Dartmoor.
One of the most iconic sights on Dartmoor are the semi-wild Moorland Ponies. These animals have been associated with the Moor throughout the centuries, but, the first written evidence is documented in a manorial record of AD1012. It refers to the ‘wild horses of Ashburton’ belonging to the Bishop of Crediton.
The ponies were used as packhorses to transport goods over the rough Moorland and across the clapper bridges. There are over 200 of these Medieval bridges remaining on Dartmoor; some believed to date back as far as the 12/13th century.
During the Middle Ages, the ponies were crucial in transporting the tin being mined on the moor to the stannary towns. Later, in the 1800s, they were used on the Granite Tramway up at Haytor to transport the granite from the quarries down to the canal.
Farming on Dartmoor
There’s no doubt that farming has had a huge impact on the Moorland landscape that can be seen today. The famous Dartmoor Reaves are the earliest visible evidence of farms upon the Moor and indicate that there was an extensive farming community from c.1,600-1,200 BCE.
Little is known about how farming developed from this period until Medieval times, but, from this time onwards there’s plenty of archaeological remains ( eg. Devon Longhouses and medieval field systems) and there’s a wealth of documentary evidence. An example of a deserted medieval farming settlement can be found at Blackaton/Easter Blackdon which is located on the west-facing slopes of Blackaton Down just south of Challacombe.
During the medieval period the higher moorland was an important grazing site during the summer months for much of Devon; livestock was driven up from as far away as the southern coastal regions. Today, as during the Medieval period, there are still numerous farms on Dartmoor and the open moorland is used throughout the year for grazing cattle, sheep and ponies.
Noteworthy Literary and Filming Locations on Dartmoor
It is, without a doubt, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is the first novel, and indeed film, that springs to mind when you think of Dartmoor. Conan Doyle was so inspired by the atmospheric moorland scenery that he penned a further Sherlock Holmes mystery set on Dartmoor called Silver Blaze.
The Queen of crime herself also wrote a book based in Dartmoor with a bleak wintry setting – Agatha Christie’s ‘The Sittaford Mystery’.
War Horse written by the Devon-based author Michael Morpurgo was filmed on Dartmoor and directed by Steven Spielberg who was blown away by the amazing scenery …
“I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming ‘War Horse’ on Dartmoor.”
… and Finally Folklore and Legends
It’s hardly surprising that a place steeped in history since the dawn of time with an awe inspiring landscape and filled with haunting ruins is home to so many myths and legends – Tales of pixies, witches and superstitious tales often involving the Devil abound.
One such tale concerns the Cathedral of the Moor (St. Pancras Church) in the sleepy little village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The tragic event took place on October 21st 1638 when a ball of fire struck the church whilst around 300 parishioners were worshipping.
Four people were killed and approximately sixty injured as well as much devastation caused to the fabric of the building. After the explosion, the church was filled with a sulphurous odour which convinced many of the congregation that the church had been attacked by Satan.
We now know today that the congregation had in fact witnessed a rare meteorological phenomenon that is called ball lightning.
The local legend that grew out of this tragedy was that the Devil had made a pact with a local gambler called Jan Reynolds. He would take his soul if he ever fell asleep during a service. Jan allegedly nodded off on the aforesaid day, with a pack of cards in his hand, and so the Devil crashed into the church and bore him away!
The tale doesn’t quite end there though! As they hurtled past Birch Tor in the thick of the storm the four aces from Jan’s pack of playing card fell to earth. Today, if you stand along the road near the Warren Inn and look back towards the tor you can see four ancient field enclosures that are still intact today. They’re in the form of a Heart, Club, Spade and Diamond…!