If you’re in search of tiny picturesque villages, miles of rambling over open heathland and more local folklore than you can shake a stick at, then Dartmoor is the place to go. I spent a week swimming in rivers, exploring the wild moors, and generally pretending I was in a gothic horror mystery novel.
Spoiler alert: at no point was I eaten by a giant hound.
We were staying at Budleigh Farm Cottages, just a two-minute drive or fifteen-minute stroll from Moretonhampstead. On arrival we were greeted by a friendly black and white spaniel, which I always take as a good omen for a holiday cottage. Bruce (one of the owners) appeared soon after to show us round and give us some pointers on local walks and activities, before leaving us to settle in.
The cottage itself felt like a snug little retreat from the world, set in a quiet courtyard with the last swallows of the summer darting about overhead, and the first flush of autumn just beginning to appear on the surrounding trees. The days were still warm enough for shorts and t–shirts, but at night there were spare blankets to snuggle under on the sofa while stuffing ourselves with ice cream.
If you just want a place to relax then you could easily pass a whole week lounging by the pool, but with so much to do on Dartmoor it’s worth making the most of your time. Here are some highlights from the trip to give you a few ideas:
Day one was oddly humid, so we decided to seek out one of Dartmoor’s famous wild swimming spots at Fingle Bridge, hidden in a wooded valley below the National Trust’s Castle Drogo. We chose to park at Drogo and take the steep path down through the woods (a choice we regretted on the walk back up), but more sensible people could drive down to the layby near the Fingle Bridge Inn.
It’s an easy 5 minute stroll upstream from there to the weir, where there’s a pool deep enough to get a good paddle going. Even on a hot day the river was cold enough to need wetsuits, but it was pretty blissful to float around in the dark water for an hour or so, staring up at the sun-dappled trees. In fact we spent so long there that the Inn was closed when we got back, but it looked like they did a good cream tea (clearly have their priorities straight).
There are plenty of other wild swimming spots on Dartmoor too – the Wild Swimming book is a great source of information, or you can always visit a pub and ask the locals nicely for their favourite spots.
Walk to Wistman’s Wood
The next day we decided to head out to the ‘proper’ moors, and take a walk to Wistman’s Wood. This was a place I’d only seen in pictures, but was instantly attracted by the vaguely creepy trees with their stunted trunks and gnarled branches, not to mention the fact that it’s supposedly the most haunted place on Dartmoor. It was almost disappointing that the day was scorchingly beautiful rather than misty and mysterious, but you can’t have it all I guess.
From the tiny hamlet of Two Bridges it’s an easy romp across the moor, with bright yellow gorse blooming beside the track and the West Dart river rushing by further down the valley. The wood itself is small, but as soon as you wander under the canopy a hush descends, and it feels like you’ve been transported into a Lord of the Rings novel.
The woodland floor is littered with large granite boulders, so you have to scramble your way through rather than walk, but it all adds to the ethereal atmosphere. The longer you spend there the easier it is to believe the legends that the woods were once a sacred ritual site for Druids, or that they’re home to the diabolical ‘Wisht Hounds‘ – a pack of giant black hell-hounds with blood-red eyes and yellow fangs that hunt across the moors at night in search of lost souls.
After an hour or so of exploring the woods we had a brief paddle in the river (because apparently I’m a Labrador puppy and can’t see water without wanting to get in it), and then hiked it back across the moor. On the way back to the cottage our stomachs dictated that we make a spontaneous stop at the Badger’s Holt in Dartmeet, where the food is cheap and delicious and the friendly local cat will try to steal your chicken burger.
Horse riding (and a pub)
If you really want to explore a place, I reckon horseback is a good way to get around. For one thing you can cover much more distance, and for another you don’t tire yourself out climbing the big hills. Shilstone Rocks riding centre is just a few miles outside the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, surrounded by miles of trails straight out onto the open moors. For confident riders there’s plenty of opportunities to canter away the cobwebs – although my noble steed Hecate generally preferred showing off her ability to trot at speeds rivalling an F1 car. Gotta love a pony.
You’ll be feeling peckish after all that exercise, but fortunately the Rugglestone Inn is just half a mile down the road. We sat out in the sun-trap garden with a tiny moorland stream trickling by, but on cold days you can snuggle up inside next to the open log fire, quaffing cider and eating really good chips. The Ruggle also has the biggest collection of pub animals I’ve ever encountered, from goats and pigs to chickens and ducks, not to mention Walter the dog and ‘Little Cat’. What more do you need from a pub?
Exploring Dartmoor’s tors
Dartmoor just wouldn’t be the same without its looming mounds of jagged granite stone, so we thought we should explore at least one during our stay. We chose Hound Tor – partly because it was nearby, but mostly because it was used as a location in BBC Sherlock. We didn’t find any slavering demon dogs, but we did encounter a rather handsome ‘Hound of the Bassetvilles’. Yes I know my puns are terrible. No I won’t stop making them.
Dartmoor is one of the UK’s best sites for rock climbing and bouldering, but if like me you’re not yet up to trad routes, you can still experience the thrill of climbing real rock by booking a guided outdoor session. We were slightly lacking in funds by this point so went for the cheaper (i.e. free) option of simply scrambling over the tors like mountain goats. Disclaimer: we’re dumb and have no sense of self-preservation.
For the more sensible among you, Dartrock Climbing Centre offers half or full days of outdoor climbing for individuals or small groups, starting from £80. They’ll set up the rope so all you have to do is get yourself up, enjoying the feeling of granite at your fingertips and sweeping views across the moors. Don’t get that in the gym do you?
If there’s one thing that seems to make people nervous, it’s my fondness for weaponry. I’m already a huge fan of archery, but when we discovered that our hosts at Budleigh Farm offered shooting lessons we thought ‘why not?’ (‘Because you’re mad’ seemed to be the most popular response amongst friends. Spoilsports.)
Fortunately we were under the watchful eye of Bruce the whole time, so managed not to shoot ourselves, each other, or any passing innocents. In fact by the end of two hours we were consistently hitting pretty near the bullseye, which speaks volumes about our natural talent. Or the great tuition, one of the two…
Sessions are £20 per person for two hours, and there’s a range of guns you can try. (We went for semi-automatic light sporting rifles. Still no idea what any of that means).
It still feels like there’s a lot left to explore on Dartmoor, so I’ll be heading back a soon as I can. Any recommendations for more adventures will be gratefully received, and I might even reward you with fudge. (I won’t. It’s all mine).