Dartmoor pony and tor

Dartmoor is one of England’s last great wildernesses. And it’s one of the most beguiling places on the planet.

It has a dark and forbidding side which has spawned countless myths and legends. Some are far-fetched and fanciful. Others are just believable enough to spook the hardest of cynics when they   stray from the path as one of the moor’s sudden mists descends without warning.

The moor’s brooding landscape, with its treacherous peat bogs and towering tors, inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write one of his best known crime thrillers – the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Agatha Christie developed the storyline for her first novel during a visit to Dartmoor and Rosamunde Pilcher also found inspiration here for some her best selling novels.

When you get to know Dartmoor, you realise why it fires the imaginations of writers, painters and poets. It’s a 368 square mile national park, just north of Plymouth and a million miles away from all the hustle and bustle of the UK’s 15th biggest city.

There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that you can leave the city centre’s frantic shopping mall behind and 20 minutes later you’re crossing the cattle grid into a different world. This is a world swirling in the mists of rich folklore – a place where ponies roam across the roads and children still young enough to believe in fairy tales hunt for pixies and witches behind the ancient stone walls.

A giant adventure playgroundBurrator Reservoir

Much of the moor is dominated by granite hilltops – Dartmoor’s famous tors –and the UK’s biggest concentration of Bronze Age remains are scattered here to the delight of archaeologists. This is a land of ancient stone circles, cairns and tombs, some dating back to 4,000 BC.

Dartmoor attracts hordes of hikers, holidaymakers and adventure seekers, especially in the summer months, but its sheer vastness means you can always find plenty of space to roam in total isolation.

Huge tracts of windswept open moorland are peppered with pretty villages where you’ll find some truly delightful old fashioned pubs, many serving excellent home cooked meals prepared from local farm produce.

One of our favourite Dartmoor pubs is the Royal Oak at Meavy – a former 15th century church with beamed ceilings, a flagstone floor and a big open fireplace. The mighty oak tree outside is thought to be nearly 1,000 years old and some like to think it was among those King Charles II used as a refuge from the parliamentarians (though many historic English oak trees have boasted the same claim to fame!).

Some come to Dartmoor for a day’s sightseeing interspersed with a pub lunch and a cream tea. But for many sports enthusiast it’s a giant adventure playground where they can indulge their passion for anything from white water rafting and abseiling to gorge scrambling and orienteering.

Letterboxing is a popular past time involving hunting for containers hidden all over the moor. With the aid of compass bearings and cryptic clues, devotees hope to find as many letterboxes as possible – collecting a prized stamp from each one.

Dangers lurk - some real, others imagined

Dartmoor Bridge in the snow

A word of warning when pursuing any of these activities because Dartmoor can be a dangerous place. Its peat bogs are deceptive and have a nasty habit of doing their best to swallow you up when you thought you were heading across solid ground.

The fog can descend at a moment’s notice and it’s all too easy to get lost when you can’t see any landmarks around you. Many moorland rivers are fast flowing and legend has it that the River Dart lures one victim to their death each year by softly calling their name and luring them into the water!

Well that story’s about as true as the legend of the Hairy Hands at Postbridge or the tales of phantom monks and ghostly highwayman who reportedly roam these barren hills at night. But it’s a fact that Dartmoor’s rivers have claimed many lives over the years and they need to be treated with caution, especially after heavy rain.

Dartmoor has long been used for military training and live shells are still found periodically so it’s vital not to touch any unfamiliar metal objects. A few years ago three children were out letterboxing with their parents and one of them picked up a live shell, not realising what it was. He threw it at his sister who was critically injured but mercifully survived after being airlifted to Derriford Hospital for emergency surgery.

Northern Dartmoor is still used for firing practice and you can find firing dates for the ranges at Okehampton, Merrivale and Willsworthy on the Ministry of Defence web site.

If you find yourself falling under the moor’s spell and fancy staying a while, there’s plenty of visitor accommodation ranging from gorgeous self-catering cottages and B&Bs to hotels and farmhouses.

Dartmoor National Park Authority offers a list of camp sites, hostel, bunk houses and barns. Wild camping is permitted for a night or two as long as you ’re sensible about it:

If you hear a strange other-worldly growling during the night, don’t worry about it – that’ll be the infamous Beast of Dartmoor. We heard it while sitting at Burrator Reservoir watching a meteor shower at midnight… and it scared us witless!

The “beast” is one of the legends which endures to this day and is still under scientific investigation as regular sightings continue to be reported. Some dismiss it as the figment of over active imaginations. Others believe the strange creature could be the offspring of an exotic animal which escaped from captivity.The Sci-fi Channel's 'Fact or Faked' programme concluded the beast was probably a cross between a lion and a wild boar.

Savaged sheep have been found with incisor marks which can’t be identified as being attributable to any known species. Whether or not the beast exists, this vast wilderness provides the ideal habitat to sustain the mythology of an elusive legend.

Dartmoor Prison casts a gloomy shadowDartmoor Prison

You can learn all about the changing face of Dartmoor through the millennia at the High Moorland Visitor Centre in Princetown – the moor’s highest village. The centre used to be the Duchy Hotel where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle concocted his chilling tale of an evil squire and hellish hound.

Much of the land in and around Princetown, including Dartmoor Prison, is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall so attracts the active involvement of Prince Charles who’s a regular visitor here.

The prison looms menacingly over the village – a stark reminder of the dark days of the Napoleonic Wars when French PoWs were used to construct their own jailhouse.

Thousands of French and American prisoners were held here in appalling conditions before the wars with both countries ended in 1815. Many froze to death or died of starvation, small pox or other diseases which were rife in the overcrowded jail. Their bodies were buried in mass, unmarked graves behind the prison.

The prison is still in use today and its impregnable walls have been used to confine some of the most notorious criminals in recent history. The Dartmoor Prison Museum is 150 yards from the jail.