Dartmoor National Park

Granite tor's, ancient woodlands and the wild open moor....

Dartmoor National Park, in the south western county of Devon covers 368 square miles, an area approximately the same size as London, but without the traffic or pollution. The magnificent terrain is home to a wide variety of habitats and wildlife, where nature and man have lived side by side for thousands of years.

There are many ways to get active and experience all that Dartmoor has to offer, some more strenuous than others. Explore the highest tors on foot, cycle up the legendary hills, ride across the moor on horseback, or go wild swimming in a disused quarry. Kayaking on the beautiful rivers and rock climbing is also an option, or you can always enjoy a quiet days fishing or just relax and enjoy the stunning views and scenery.

A wonderful and exhilarating place, Dartmoor is dotted with villages including Princetown, the highest settlement on Dartmoor (1465ft above sea level) and home to the austere and foreboding Dartmoor Prison. Originally Built in 1809 to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic War, it is an iconic structure on the landscape, complete with visitors museum. Its also the inspiration for Jail Ale, brewed in Princetown by Dartmoor Brewery – the highest brewery in England. When it comes to sampling their award-winning ales, Dartmoor is home to many picturesque pubs and inns offering refreshing drinks and home cooked food – a welcome break whilst out exploring, or a well earnt reward after a day out on the moors. Princetown also houses the National Park Visitor Centre, located in what used to be the Duchy Hotel. This is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed and started writing his famous Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, inspired by the surrounding landscape.

Other villages and towns on Dartmoor worth exploring include Ashburton, Chagford and Widecombe in the Moor – the picture-perfect setting for a traditional Devonshire cream tea. The ancient UNESCO World Heritage town of Tavistock is only seven miles away, and several National Trust properties are nearby including Saltram House, Buckland Abbey, Cotehele House and Lydford Gorge. The historic port city of Plymouth lies fifteen miles to the south west and there are also three moorland golf courses within a twenty-minute drive. Slightly further afield, but still within easy reach, is the Roman city of Exeter, the Eden Project and the beautiful coast and beaches of north and south Devon.
It should be noted that to the north of the moor, the military has three ranges which are used for live firing practice – Okehampton, Merrivale and Willsworthy. The public has access to these moorland areas and the boundaries are marked on the ground by a series of red and white posts. If you see a red flag flying by day or red lamps at night, do not enter the area as this means live firing is taking place.

Dartmoor – A brief history

Dartmoor has one of the finest archaeological landscapes in the United Kingdom and is the most important area for Bronze age archaeology in Western Europe, where evidence of human history abounds from prehistory to the present day. 

Close to Princetown is Merrivale, a famous site of the 2nd millennium BC with stone rows, a stone circle, a standing stone, cists (stone graves) and hut circles (dwellings). If you stand in the stone circle on Midsummer Day, the sun sets in a prominent gap on Middle Staple Tor on the opposite side of the valley.  The area can be reached on foot from Duchy House and makes for a beautiful walk, stopping at the pub in Merrivale for refreshments. Equally renowned is the Bronze Age enclosed settlement of Grimspound with preserved outer pound walls, multiple hut circles and a significant entrance.

Over the centuries the extraction of Dartmoors natural resources have changed the landscape and provided work for many.

Tin was extracted from granite from prehistory until the early 20th century. Nearby Black Tor Falls on the River Meavy has several mining remains worth exploring including mills for crushing tin ore which date from the 16th/17th century. Also close to Princetown, below the Warren House Inn (where the log fire has not gone out since 1845!) are the remains of Vitifer and Golden Dagger mines, where 200 men, women and children worked in the mid-19th century.

The quarrying of granite has also left a fascinating legacy. The old GWR railway track(1883-1956), now a popular cycling and walking route, can be followed from Princetown to the 19th and 20th century remains of Foggintor and Swell Tor quarries. Granite was quarried here for use in many notable structures including  London Bridge – now in Arizona. Many impressive cut and carved pieces lay abandoned here, presumably surplus to requirements. On the east side of Dartmoor impressive former quarries, buildings and remains of tramways can be found at Haytor.

Princetown is famous for Dartmoor Prison, the brainchild of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, which was built to accommodate thousands of Napoleonic prisoners of war, and then prisoners from the American War of 1812. The first prisoners arrived in 1809 and the last of these were released in 1817. Today the prison holds approximately 600 low risk inmates. Interestingly, the church in Princetown was built by French and American prisoners in 1812 and there are many graves of prisoners in the area

Other places of historical importance worth a visit include the 12th century hilltop church of Brentor (Church of St Michael de Rupe) on the west side of Dartmoor, which can be seen from miles around and it is well worth climbing the steps for the views from the top.

At Hound Tor near Widecombe, the remains of a medieval (13th/14th century) settlement can be explored. There are foundations of dwellings, corn drying ovens and grain storage barns which give an insight into what the area must’ve looked like when inhabited.

Please take care when exploring Dartmooor (especially old mines and quarries) as there are old shafts, pits and unstable heaps of stone.

Kindly written by local historians and archaeologists Elisabeth Stanbrook & Dr Tom Greeves.