Dartmoor National Park, in England’s West Country, could be the setting of a fairy tale. As we drove over the cattle grates that mark the edges of these 368 square miles of shadowy hills and rugged terrain, I thought back to some of my favorite childhood memories, the magic of the moors.
I remember sticking my arm out the window of our parked car to offer an apple to one of the curious pot-bellied wild ponies with its wind-swept mane, deep black eyes and wet nose.
On a visit this winter with Jorge and my parents, the famous ponies seemed to be in hiding. We did see the sheep with their sides spray-painted in different colours to mark ownership.
I remember walking over the narrow Clapper Bridge that still stands in Postbridge since the 13th Century. It was built so that the horses could cross the East Dart River on these slabs of granite to carry tin into nearby Tavistock. There are no railings, so it’s fun to cross.
We did the same this time around, dodging muddy puddles along the banks.
I remember climbing up the grassy mound and into the nooks and crannies of the medieval courtroom and prison that is Lydford Castle with its roof open to the dramatic grey sky and crumbly walls with hanging drips of rain. From there, down to the ancient St. Petroc’s church to examine the dates on its gravestones.
We went inside both the castle and the nearby graveyard on our visit not long ago, stopping to admire the clever epitaph on the watchmaker’s gravestone inside of the church. George Routleigh, my dad likes to joke, simply ran out of time. In the churchyard, there are stones from the 1700s and probably earlier, but many of them are still remarkably readable.
The church itself is well preserved with intricate carvings, detailed stained glass and colourful knitted kneelers in the pews.
I remember, on a summer’s day, the 3-mile hike through the wooded gorge nearby, sliced through slate rock by the fast-flowing River Lid. Our shoes slipped on moss and mucky ground as we made our way past elm, hawthorn and horse chestnut trees through the calm of Pixie Glen, toward the menacing sound of foamy waters twisting against the edges of the Devil’s Cauldron whirlpool. It’s contrasted by long slip of the elegant White Lady waterfall.
On this trip, the winter weather meant the pathways were closed so we could only see a sliver of the silver river from the bridge above. One day, I will go back and walk the full length again.
I remember visits to the tiny village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, known for its folk song of “Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All” about seven men and a grey mare heading to England’s most popular country fair that began in the 1800s as a place to show and sell livestock.
On our recent visit, we stopped at dusk for a quick walk around the old church and graveyard before warming up with a traditional cream tea and an argument about which is the correct order of spreading cream and jam on your scone the Devonshire way as opposed to the opposite Cornish tradition. (An article on the two if you care to read.)
I remember driving in a rental car down two way lanes so narrow that shrubs on both sides brushed the car. We drove at night around the windy roads, flashing lights into the pitch black sky in case another vehicle was coming from the other direction. If we found one, either car would have to either back up or pull forward until a dent in the hedge allowed enough room to pass, often with the mirrors drawn in. When we were kids, we stayed in an creepy cottage with an old skeleton key as big as my hand.
This trip, we stayed two nights in the beautiful Parford Well, a B&B run by the friendly Tim (who used to work for a boutique hotel in South Kensington for many years and knows a thing or two about hospitality). It’s well deserving of its 5-stars, set in a pretty walled garden with an inviting fireplace warmly glowing in the middle of a cosy living room. There’s an antique organ, bowl of lavender, fascinating collection of artwork and long bookshelf full of an eclectic mix of books about interior design, furniture, travel and a selection of novels. Tim makes a delicious breakfast and has even printed menus. We all agreed it was probably the best B&B experience any of us has ever had.
Dartmoor, it is said, is a place that tends to pull people back time and again, for its sense of mystery, its shadowy hills, its jagged granite rocks wrapped in moss, its raw and barren beauty, its deep mists that roll across the bleak landscape appearing unannounced at any moment.
People return for the authentic old pubs with their crackling fireplaces, big dark beams that run across the ceiling, white plastered walls and laughing locals.
They come in all seasons: for the purple and yellow stretches of heather and gorse that grow side by side and sweep across the Moors in the autumn, to seek out the bluebells and bright yellow daffodils in the spring, for walks through winter’s twirling branches over frosted ground on crisp mornings when you can see your breath in the air, and for summer picnics and cream tea when the sun is high overhead.
“Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape, as many boulders, foaming rivers and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. . . . When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime just painting that river.” – Alan Lee