Dartmoor was formed by huge flows of molten lava during volcanic erupions about 280 million years ago. Later, dinosaurs lived there, it being one of the few parts of Southern England to be above water. Sea-reptiles swam and wallowed in the warm waters lapping around it. Surely Neanderthal Man discovered Dartmoor on his long overland trek from Asia into Europe 200,000 years ago. By the time the ice retreated 12,000 years ago, early hunters and gatherers must have hunted and lived there, in places like Grimspound.
This attractive village in its dramatic Dartmoor setting, is indeed the Widecombe of Uncle Tom Cobley and Widecombe Fair fame. An annual fair is still held here. It began in the mid 1850s and now takes place on the 2nd Tuesday in September. Equally famous is its C14th Church of St. Pancras. It is known as the Cathedral of the Moor. The saint himself is said to have been a Roman convert to Christianity, martyred by beheading at the age of 14. There are numerous dedications to St. Pancras in England. Around AD313-4 there was an old church of St. Pancras in the area around the Victorian railway terminal in London. It was abandoned in the C14th, to be reconstructured 500 years later. An expanse of Dartmoor can be seen from the church entrance. After exploring hills and tors, Widecombe's green is a pleasant place to sit and rest. There is a range of small shops and eating places around the green.
The small town of Princeton is on a high and bleak part of central Dartmoor, though its mood changes on a sunny Summer's day. It has a Visitor Centre for information on Dartmoor, as well as a museum showing the history of Princeton's famous prison. This was built early in the C18th to hold French POWs, then later, Americans. Princeton is a good starting point for many walks on Dartmoor and the town has lots of inns. Its Church of St. Michael and All Saints is no longer in regular use but is still maintained.
The village of Belstone is very popular with visitors and justifiably so. Open moorland is at its front door, giving lovely views of Dartmoor. Moorland sheep, ponies and cattle wander among the buildings. Near the old chapel are the village stocks, no longer in use and probably unneccessary here as Belstone people seem admirably law-abiding.
On the old Telegraph Office there is an interesting sign. Can you make out the engraved words: "Zion Chapel and 1841"? Apart from exploring the village there are many fine walks on the nearby moor, after which you might want to visit the Tors Inn for refreshments. This inn is about 100 years old, its predecessor having burnt down, and is haunted by a kind and pleasant lady ghost.
Belstone's parish church of St. Mary the Virgin has been dated to at least 1260AD, but a church doubtless existed well before the official date. It has a granite cross estimated to be from the C7th to C9th. The Domesday Book records the Manor of Belstone. The church in its present form dates from the C12th to C15th. It was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin in 1738. The church, as does the village, lies 1000 feet up on high Dartmoor. Much more details about Belstone can be seen on this site.
From Bellever Tor there are extensive views of surrounding heights: north to hills bordering the northern fen, east towards Fernworthy's firs and Challacombe, south over the central basin and west towards Holne Ridge and Princetown. The summit is easily reached from the Forestry Commission plantation of the same name, where there is a car park amongst the firs, or from Higher Cherrybrook bridge along the Lich Way, or from the Ashburton road on the opposite side at Dunnabridge. Perhaps the most interesting of these is along the Lich Way, a mediaeval path that connected Bellever's settlements with their parish church of Lydford. It is known as the way of the dead because coffins passed along it on their way to burial in the churchyard.
Loveliest of Dartmoor's four mediaeval Stannary towns Chagford has many intriguing little lanes to explore, like the one above. Mining of tin, probably pre-Roman or earlier in origin, was vital for the economy in mediaeval times; it was abandoned early in the C20th. High above the Teign River, a community has occupied the place for at least 4000 years. On the surrounding moor is evidence of Neolithic life, in the form of hut circles and standing stones. Chagford's Church of St. Michael was dedicated to the Archangel on the 30th of July 1261. The building is of granite. Its earliest part is C13th, the major parts being C15th. If you visit on Good Friday and fail to receive free bread, the town has a number of inns and restaurants to choose from.
The name Combestone Tor appears on maps. Originally it was known as Cumstone Tor by locals, but the map-makers from outside didn't understand the Devon accent and adjusted the spelling. There are great views over the Devon countryside from here. This is good walking country and the Forest Inn is conveniently nearby for solid and liquid nourishment.
Huccaby is on the West Dart river, sited lower down the valley than is Hexworthy. A short stroll takes you to The Church of St. Raphael. This is the only church in England dedicated to the saint. St. Raphael is one of the seven archangels and is the patron saint of travellers. His feast day is the 29th of September. In February the far side of the churchyard was carpeted in snowdrops. From Huccaby Bridge the road climbs up to Hexworthy.
Meldon is about 2 miles from Okehampton, in beautiful countryside on the north-west edge of Dartmoor. Its viaduct was built in 1874 for single-track railway travel between Okehampton and Lydford on a line of the Devon and Cornwall Railway. Later saw its expansion. The service west of Okehampton was axed in 1968 (Beeching again!). There is a seasonal Dartmoor Railway from Coleford, through Sampford Courtenay (of Prayer Book Rebellion fame) and Okehampton, then terminating at Meldon. Nearby is Meldon Quarry, which sells beautiful blue-grey slates, and Meldon Reservoir. There's trout-fishing, picnic tables and walks around the reservoir. The Meldon Hill Race this year took place on Sunday 26th of February 2006, for the alarmingly fit. The pictures of the reservoir were taken in September 2006, after a dry Summer.
If you wish to pass as Devonian you must pronounce it "Scorrll" (2 syllables, the 2nd unstressed). The main stone, at over 6-feet high, is the largest of the standing stones at Scorhill on Dartmoor. The circle is almost 30 yards in diameter and comprises 24 stones still standing; 10 others have fallen. Originally they might have numbered up to 70. Fine panoramic views over the Devon countryside can be seen from there. Gidleigh is the nearest village and Chagford its closest moorland town. Before Bronze Age settlements such as this one, hunting and gathering groups of Palaeolithic people inhabited Dartmoor by 10,000 years ago. Animals hunted include, deer, horses, bison and ox.
Mor Ton was part of a larger Saxon settlement from c 682AD. A weekly market and 5-day fair existed from 1207, surviving until 1935 and 1822 respectively. The town's prosperity flourished with the wool trade, until the late C17th. The sparrowhawk is a symbol of Moretonhampstead, one such bird being paid annually to King John in the C13th. Places in the town house various ghostly presences. You might feel some protection - especially if planning to stay overnight - by visiting its lovely granite Church of St. Andrew, with its Dartmoor backdrop. The church is mainly of C15th and early C16th construction.
The East and West Dart Rivers meet, beautifully, at Dartmeet. The head of the West Dart is north of Flat Tor; that of the East Dart is further north, near Cranmere Pool Letterbox. On both sides of the rivers are interesting walks through varying countryside. Dartmeet itself is lushly wooded, with remains of old settlements scattered around the area. There's a large, free car-park on site at Badger's Holt, with "facilities", but they are nice ones.
This ancient oakwood of gnarled and contorted limbs among moss- and lichen-festooned boulders, lies about a mile north of Two Bridges. There's a small, free parking area opposite the hotel and next to a white house. The sign by the gate doesn't indicate Wistmans Wood; take the footpath anyway. You'll past two pale coloured properties on the left; then, if you follow the most worn routes, you'll be in for a slog over the top. For the unfit, lazy desk-potatoes among us, start bearing left as you walk on. You'll see the wood from a distance. By the time you get near to it a wide, sand-coloured path will take you straight there. I wish I'd had this tip before going.
Grimspound, on Dartmoor, is a Middle Bronze Age village. In England the Bronze Age lasted from about 4000 until 2500 years ago. People lived in round, stone huts about 10-feet in diameter, with a hearth for cooking and warmth. Other huts were for storage. Roofs would have been made from available vegetation nearby. A couple of dozen huts have been found; more could lay unexcavated. Domestic animals might have been penned in stone enclosures.
The granite, moorland landscape is dramatic and beautiful. I wonder whether the Bronze Age residents considered the view, or just found it a good vantage point for seeing game and invading rivals. Early hunters and gatherers saw the death of the megafauna. Settlement brought deforestation to Dartmoor's forests, which had grown in the warmer condition of the post-glacial. By 2500 years ago much of England's woods were gone. Fascinating Grimspound pics and info, plus old manganese mining at Doddiscombsleigh and personal pages here.
The town of Postbridge is at the geographical centre of the granite upland plateau known as The Forest of Dartmoor. It has a stone clapper bridge over the East Dart river, one of 30 such bridges on Dartmoor. These date from the C13th and C14th centuries. They were built by mediaeval tin workers and farmers, to cross the moor's rivers and bogs. Transport then was by packhorse and sled. At the other end of the village is the Church of St. Gabriel
Most of Dartmoor's mediaeval bridges have been swept away by floods, then subsequently rebuilt. Fingle Bridge largely retains its original state. It's near Castle Drogo, a C20th "mediaeval" granite castle, the last built in England.
Sir Edwin Lutyens designed Castle Drogo as an ancestral home for Julius Drewe, a successful grocer at a time when being "in trade" wasn't the done thing. The building took place from 1911 to 1931. Part of it is still used by the Drewe family. I think there's something special about a historic building which still has its family in residence.
We'd heard of Gidleigh Castle and searched for ages looking for a sign. Then we noticed what appeared to be a castle, behind the gates of what was clearly the grounds of a private residence. This tower is the sole remains of the early C14th building. Almost next to it is the Church of the Holy Trinity. Gidleigh is set on high Dartmoor but in an area lush with trees and vegetation; old and attractive cottages and houses abound.