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My holiday hidden gem – Dartmoor

August 23, 2013

DartmoorA 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:

Hidden walks

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.


Secluded picnics

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.

Pew tor

Secret supplies

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.


Tavistock – with Saturday Farmers’ Market

  1. August 24, 2013 8:16 am

    Dartmoor is a very special place. I’ve known it since about the age of ten when the family used to have our annual holiday near Teignmouth staying with friends of my parents who owned the house built by Colman of mustard fame. I remember picnics, climbing the tors (granite outcrops) and, of course, cream teas. Later, I learned to drive in those insane, narrow lanes. I absorbed the legends, from Holmes’ Baskerville hound (the scariest day of my life, I think, was being in Grimspound neolithic site when the heavy mists suddenly enfolded us) to Jay’s Grave (where flowers appear every day, but nobody can discover who leaves them). Tourists are one problem as they clog the place in the summer. Lack of water another, despite seemingly endless rain for half the year. My parents retired there and I’ve now inherited a house on the moor but, despite 50 years of visiting, I will always be an outside. One of the most fascinating days of my life was riding up to the high moor on a hay wagon for the ceremony of beating the bounds, which marks the outline of various parishes. Come on holiday and be welcome but, please, don’t expect life to run at anything but a slow pace. This is a farming community. People work hard for a living and you need to respect that, just as much as you’ll fall in love with the nature and the constantly changing weather. Britain’s first National Park, as I recall.

    • August 25, 2013 1:18 pm

      Your comment adds so much to this post Dave. It makes me realise that everyone has such a distinct experience of the magical place. The part of Dartmoor I know is different from the your bit of the moor just 20 minutes drive away. What I love also is although there are a few spots where tourists congregate, the hidden secret places (just a few of which I’ve outlined here) are a few minutes away from them and you can be totally alone. We were at Double Waters yesterday on a Bank Holiday weekend and met a couple of dog walkers only. Thank you so much for sharing your memories – really special.

  2. August 24, 2013 9:00 am

    It is such a hauntingly beautiful place Sally 🙂

  3. August 24, 2013 11:08 am

    No wonder you had to wrestle with yourself before revealing your secret walks. You’re very generous to hand over the keys, Sally! It’s a beautifully written piece that took me back to a place I haven’t seen in thirty years. Brilliantly done.

    • August 25, 2013 1:20 pm

      Thank you Charlie – your comments always mean a lot to me. So glad it evoked good memories.

  4. August 24, 2013 11:19 am

    So wild and beautiful! It is a dream of mine to visit this gorgeous area of moorland in South Devon. Thanks for sharing your impressions with us.



    • August 25, 2013 1:19 pm

      I do hope you get there one day Rosa – would love to see your pictures.

  5. glamorous glutton permalink
    August 24, 2013 5:05 pm

    A beautifully written piece and I do hope you win. I love Dartmoor, it is so incredibly unspoilt but with that whiff of danger if you don’t respect it and the weather. Very, very beguiling, you captured it perfectly. GG

    • August 25, 2013 1:21 pm

      So true about the weather – the mist can come down in an instant and it’s incredibly easy to get lost. So few of these unspoilt places left in our green and pleasant land.

  6. August 24, 2013 6:56 pm

    Absolutely stunning. Now I want to visit Dartmoor. Congratulations, btw, on winning #MWWC2!! Salud!

    • August 25, 2013 1:21 pm

      Thinking of the MWWC theme – Thanks Armchair!

  7. Sylvia permalink
    August 25, 2013 4:30 pm

    Such a beautiful place! Remindes me a bit of my home country.

  8. August 25, 2013 5:16 pm

    Love Dartmoor and exploring – have you tried Letterboxing? An old custom that has grown in a wonderful way and can encourage youngsters to walk further in the search for hidden “letter boxes”. Many families have added their own over the years – now requested to be left in waterproof plastic boxes rather than an old biscuit tin to ensure no chance of confusion with any military debris. Each box contains a rubber stamp, ink pad, pen and visitors book. You stamp and sign the book with your own stamp before returning to it’s hidden crevice!

  9. August 25, 2013 11:49 pm

    What a stunning place, Sally! Having never visited, it’s lovely to read your words and see your photos, thank you xx

  10. August 26, 2013 9:54 pm

    A lovely post which is making me want to jump in the car and demand that Ed drives me West. We could be in the middle of the moor in 90 minutes!

    We used to holiday on Dartmoor and my mother loved the wilderness and asked to drive “away from the patchwork quilt”. We try to drive over the moor when going to and from Cornwall it is especially glorious when the sun is low on the horizon.

    • August 27, 2013 1:00 am

      So true about the light – and if you are driving to Cornwall you probably drive over this bit of the moor. We leave the A30 and drive along the back roads to Moretonhampstead then through Postbridge and Two Bridges to Tavistock. It’s definitely not patchwork quilt 🙂

  11. August 27, 2013 12:44 am

    Great description of Dartmoor Sally. Makes me realise I don’t know it well enough and I really want to explore more now! Your walks sound lovely, as does the food and I love the look of Tavistock.

    • August 27, 2013 12:57 am

      I think you’d love Tavistock. The walks are amazing

  12. August 27, 2013 11:12 pm

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to Dartmoor but after reading this post it has made me want to when we next go back to the UK. Sounds like the combination of long walks, historic town and lovely food.

  13. August 28, 2013 8:08 pm

    Such a beautiful post. I remember my Dad doing a: “THIS is The Lake District” moment!
    I especially love the pub photographs. It’s so tricky to photograph inside a dark village pub, but the pictures really capture the scene…I think I can evoke the exact pub smell – entirely unique to Britain – you must have been smelling as you were taking them!


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