I was expecting bleak expanses of moorland, shrouded in fog. What I experienced was the polar opposite: blistering heat and clear, blue skies. If I had to choose a favourite day in Dartmoor National Park, it’d be the one spent hiking to Postbridge, via Princetown (for that all-important cream tea) and Wistman’s Wood (a magical spot which, in misty conditions, would be a dead ringer for the Forbidden Forest).
Over Whitchurch Common. Pew Tor behind us; up ahead Merrivale, bracketed by Merrivale Quarry – a granite quarry which ceased operation two decades ago – and a notable Bronze Age settlement. If prehistoric stone circles, stone rows and standing stones are your thing, this spot has them in abundance.
Below King’s Tor, we picked up a track which took us past Swelltor and Foggintor Quarries and on to Princetown. Unlike Postbridge and Widecombe-in-the-Moor (the latter of which we’ll come to next week), Princetown would never be proclaimed ‘pretty’: it’s functional and fairly bland, but what it lacks in aesthetic it makes up for in cream tea provisions.
Fox Tor Café (2 Two Bridges Road) serves up scrumptious cream teas and, more importantly given the soaring temperatures, has covered seating outside. If you’re looking for postcards and souvenirs, head to the National Park Visitor Centre (and even if you’re not, head there for the educational display on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes).
Further down Two Bridges Road, there’s a viewpoint for HMP Dartmoor. Between 1809 and 1815, this granite fortress held French and American POWs in their thousands; it wasn’t until the 1850s that it became a criminal prison and home to some of Britain’s most infamous offenders. If you’re so inclined, you can learn more about the history of HMP Dartmoor – and its famous inmates of years gone by – at the Dartmoor Prison Museum.
Off we trotted to Two Bridges, a tiny little spot built around the confluence of the West Dart and the River Cowsic. It was just as well we had our cream tea fix in Princetown, as when we passed the Two Bridges Hotel a wedding reception was underway and the hotel closed to the public.
To the north: Wistman’s Wood, a sliver of centuries-old oak woodland. From afar, it doesn’t look like anything special, a greyish mass of trees on a hillside (above); up close, gnarled trunks festooned with mosses, ferns and lichens and a carpet of mossy boulders underfoot combine to create an enchanted forest. I’ll let the photos do the talking: this other-worldly woodland is beyond description from a mere mortal.
This gem might’ve passed me by, had it not been for Dad seeing a photo of Wistman’s Wood earlier this year and, aware of my then-vague plans to hike across Dartmoor National Park after a conference, sharing it with me. (Thanks, Dad!) We meandered through the trees, stopping in the shade for a sugar-fix.
I could quite easily have spent a whole afternoon there, but we needed to reach Postbridge by six ‘o’ clock, so on we went . . . inadvertently veering off the path and into a bog in the process. I should probably mention that I’m not all that keen on bogs; being sucked into one would rank pretty highly on a list of things I fear the most. We tentatively picked our way round it, one clump of grass at a time, breathing sighs of relief when we hit stable land once more.
Beside the path: chimneys and incorporating mills, all that remains of a former gunpowder factory. Built in 1844 to supply the local tin mines and granite quarries, Powder Mills comprised grinding, blending and incorporation mills alongside a range of buildings where the gunpowder was pressed, dried, glazed and, eventually, stored. The incorporation mills (below) had thick granite walls and flimsy rooves, the idea being that the sturdy walls would contain an explosion and direct the blast upwards, away from the workers.
Through Bellever Forest, spindly conifers providing much-needed shade. We passed a couple of groups on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions (and more ponies), arriving into Postbridge just as the last of the day trippers were trickling away.
Our Airbnb host, Judy, welcomed us with a cuppa, made us feel at home and gave us the locals’ verdict on the two pubs in the area. (The East Dart Hotel? Food is mediocre at best. The Warren House Inn? The better option by a mile (up the road).) She kindly dropped us off at The Warren House Inn, as she was heading out that way to walk her two dogs. Laurence opted for a hearty portion of steak and ale pie, while I tucked into a plate of gammon and chips. Needless to say, after a day’s walking, neither of us could resist the siren calls of the pudding menu!
- Although we didn’t see any, Wistman’s Wood is home to a sizeable population of adders. Leave your sandals at home, and wear a pair of sturdy shoes.
- Wistman’s Wood attracts a fair number of visitors, but fortunately it’s not too difficult to escape the crowds: the further (north) into the woods you go, the fewer people you’ll see.