My holiday hidden gem – Dartmoor
A narrow road winds through cosy Devon villages full of white-washed cottages beside patchwork fields, then it starts to climb, there’s a sweep of a bend and suddenly you are on the top of the world. Dartmoor appears and - whether shrouded in mist, lashed by rain or crystal clear in green and gold when you can see for miles – it never fails to take my breath away.
My first encounter with a place I now treasure was when I was about ten years old travelling to Falmouth, in an old Ford Anglia, on a rare family holiday. As we rounded that bend in the road, my Dad said in a dramatic voice “This is Dartmoor”; my sister and I shivered in awe as we gazed silently out of the windows. The memory of the view was locked away until I re-encountered this primeval place two decades later.
It’s a corner of Devon more usually associated with a diabolical hound or escaping prisoners from Princetown prison but the untamed wildness is its appeal to me. The market town of Tavistock is a hidden gem and the surrounding countryside holds secret paths known to few. The church of St Michael stands like a beacon on the top of Brent Tor, watching over this area of West Dartmoor, visible for miles. Overcoming my reluctance to write about my favourite walks because I rarely encounter a single person on them, here are a few favourites:
There’s Creason Wood where you clamber along the bank of the River Tavy, tip toeing on the slippery shelves of granite in parts, to reach a cascade and swimming pool. You return along a leet (small canal) where fish dart out of the shadows and sunlight catches the minerals in the water so it glows orange.
On High down, the majestic tors rise above the babbling River Lyd like hump-backed whales. The climb to Widgery Cross, made of granite and erected to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, is rewarded by a bucolic view across two counties to the sea.
Where the River Walkham meets the Tavy is named Double Waters and mossy woodland encloses ferocious, rushing white water and stony beaches (great for an impromptu barbecue to cook sausages).
Lydford Gorge is a crevasse carved out of granite and now looked after by the National Trust. At one end is the White Lady waterfall, a tall streak of cascading white water, and at the other is the Devil’s Cauldron. Reached by narrow stone steps you take your turn standing on a platform above thundering, pounding water forcing its way through a smooth, glistening opening in the rock. The spray nourishes verdant, green ferns that are delicate against the soaring black cliffs.
Devon air and exercise always gives me an equally ferocious appetite and there are plenty of places to buy picnic fare in Tavistock. Country Cheeses only stock cheese from the South West and favourites some from Sharpham, Westcombe unpasteurised Cheddar, Harborne blue and the delightfully creamy Miss Muffet. Try Creber’s, a delicatessen that has been in Tavistock since 1881, for locally sourced ham, apple juice and freshly ground coffee. Pick up some local fruit and veg at Roots and Vines, they also stock a great range of wines, cider and ale from local producers. There’s a farmers’ market every Saturday morning in Bedford Square.
No picnic would be complete without a pasty from the neighbouring county of Cornwall. Ellis the Baker, The Original Pasty House, The Oggy Oggy Pasty House in Tavistock all serve good ones, but we buy our favourites from the village shop in MaryTavy .
Covert country pubs
Inhaling the scent of woodsmoke in the air, propping up the bar with a pint of Jail Ale (made on Dartmoor), eating good homecooked food, all part of the experience in the best country pubs which can be discovered in this neck of the woods. Drive (or walk) to the Elephant’s Nest in Horndon, visit The Castle on a Wednesday and join in the quiz at the lively local’s bar or stay in town and dine at the Cornish Arms – I recommend the grilled pork chop with pork cheek and cider apple sauce.
The Tavistock Pannier Market was was granted its Royal Charter in 1105 and has survived, without a break, for over 900 years. There are different stall holders every day from art and crafts to vintage goods and antiques. It’s a fantastic place to buy locally-made gifts as is InsideOut , a small shop packed with unusual things for the home, jewellery and locally made crafted items. Visit Dukes by the market or Cafe Liason near the church for a restorative cup of tea.
To borrow a well-used phrase, these are just ‘a few of my favourite things’ about this country town and its surrounding moors which seem to have stood still in time in many ways. Like a big cat, Dartmoor can lure you with its beauty but is fatal if you approach it unprepared. Like a lion-tamer, I keep returning to discover more of its hidden secrets. I return from every visit calmer, fitter, restored.
Do you have a favourite holiday hidden gem?
I’ve entered this post for the Tuscany Now ‘Hidden Gem’ competition.
- A little piece of cheese heaven – Tavistock Cheese Festival (mycustardpie.com)
- Angela Rippon’s Tavistock (telegraph.co.uk)
- Dartmoor national park: a ranger’s guide (theguardian.com)
- My favourite Dartmoor Walks (devonwalker.wordpress.com)