A Complete Guide to Visiting Dartmoor National Park, Devon England
Dartmoor is Devon’s wild heart. Covering 368 square miles, this vast national park feels like it’s straight out of Lord of The Rings, with moss-covered trees, giant boulders, little thatched cottages and cinematic scenery. This is one of England’s last wildernesses, and is studded with the leavings of Bronze Age man, including stone circles, graves, and ruins. The high moor offers epic scenery with views as far as Devon’s south coast, while valleys are gentle and ambrosial, with flower-filled meadows, wooded glades, tinkling rivers and thatched villages, each with their own welcoming pub and church spire poking up through the trees.
Dartmoor is the largest wilderness in South West England, covering 368 square miles
Dartmoor has the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the UK, with over 1,200 sites.
High Willhays Tor is the highest point in the UK south of the Brecon Beacons in Wales, rising to 621 metres.
Dartmoor has about 400 miles of footpaths and bridleways,
Warren House Inn is the highest inn in South West England
Canonteign Falls is second highest waterfall in England
Upper Erme stone row is the longest in the world, at 3,300 m (10,800 ft)
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fictional 1994 Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria was hosted on the moor.
The population of Dartmoor is about 47,000.
Hoof prints found during an archaeological dig on Dartmoor were found to be 3,500 yrs old.
When to Visit Dartmoor
Most of Dartmoor’s main attractions, museums and National Trust properties open from the beginning of April to the end of October. If you can visit outside the school holidays, do: you’ll avoid M5 tailbacks and crowded beaches. If you can’t, avoid driving down on a Saturday, the changeover day for most holiday cottages. After the Easter holidays, the lanes and fields are awash with spring flowers. In autumn, the turning of the colours on the moors is glorious, and in September and October, the sea is at its warmest and the beaches at their quietest. Visiting in winter has its benefits – among them, holing up by a fire in a cosy pub.
Getting To Dartmoor
The M4 from London, the M6 from the north-west and the M1/M42 from the north-east link up with the M5 to Devon. Regular train services leave London Paddington and London Waterloo for Devon’s two main hubs: Exeter and Plymouth. Services to Exeter take from 2hrs 10 mins and start at £18.50 one-way. Services to Plymouth take from 3hrs 15 mins, with tickets starting at £20. Exeter and Plymouth are the county’s international airports, with Bristol, in nearby Somerset, another option.
Getting Around Dartmoor
Driving or cycling is the only way to roam around more remote destinations without being at the mercy of sporadic transport timetables. Off the major A-roads, Devon is a web of ancient, narrow lanes built for horses and carts – not tour coaches and cars – so the going can be slow.
Places to Stay on Dartmoor
Dartmoor has a huge variety of accommodation, from campsites and glampsites, to youth hostels, bed and breakfasts, hotels and holiday cottages. Our luxury holiday cottage is one of Dartmoor’s most romantic and makes a great destination for a Devon honeymoon, mini-moon or romantic break. Other accommodation can be found through Visit Dartmoor.
The English are renowned for talking about the weather, but nowhere more so than Dartmoor, where it’s not unusual to see four seasons in one day.
Notoriously changeable, Dartmoor weather is not to be trifled with, so don’t even think about leaving home without a warm sweater and a raincoat, no matter what time of year. The ground is uneven and can be soggy, so sturdy waterproof boots are necessary in all but the driest of weathers.
On sunny days, Dartmoor is idyllic: ponies wander at will and sheep graze beside the road. It makes for a cinematic location, used to memorable effect in Steven Spielberg's WWI epic War Horse. But when sleeting rain and swirling mists arrive, you'll understand why Dartmoor is also the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles: the moor morphs into a bleak wilderness where tales of a phantom hound can seem very real indeed.
Annually, it rains roughly 2,000mm on high moorland and 800mm in drier lowland areas, all of which indicates a preponderance of damp days. Don't let the odd raincloud curb your enjoyment of the fresh air, simply dress up and embrace the elements.
There is no more iconic sight on Dartmoor than a herd of wild ponies grazing with their foals, against the majestic backdrop of Dartmoor.
Hardy, calm, strong and sure-footed, Dartmoor ponies actually thrive on Dartmoor, surviving bogs, rough terrain, bitterly cold temperatures and poor vegetation. They become very adept at knowing where to shelter, where the water sources are and where to go for the best spring grass.
Written records of ponies on the moor go back as far as AD1012 and in medieval times they were used for carrying heavy loads of tin from the mines across the moor. They’ve also been used as pit ponies used to transport granite from moorland quarries, for riding, driving, farming shepherding, taking the family to market and even carrying the postman delivering mail. From the 1900s to the 1960s, ponies were bred at Dartmoor Prison and used by guards for escorting prisoners. Ponies also maintain local ecosystems and wildlife by eating the gorse and bracken that would otherwise carpet the moors.
Although there are around 1500 ponies on the moor, only 140 of these are pure Dartmoor Ponies, which have been granted Rare Breed status. The rest are mostly hill ponies, a mix lot, having bred with Shetland, Welsh, Arab ponies. You can spot a pedigree Dartmoor Pony because it has a small head, large, wide-set eyes and alert ears. The body is strong, with a broad, deep rib cage, won’t be piebald, skewbald or contain any excessive white markings. Two schemes have been introduced to halt the decline in numbers of Dartmoor Ponies and broaden the gene pool: The Dartmoor Pony Moorland Scheme and the Dartmoor Pony Preservation Scheme.
Technically Dartmoor ponies are feral creatures, although all the horses on the moors are owned and branded by Dartmoor Commoners, farmers and residents of the moor who have grazing rights on the open moor. They have the responsibility of seeing that herds of ponies are kept healthy. Every year, in October, in an age-old ritual known as a “pony drift”, ponies are gathered together for counting and health checks, ready to be returned to rough grazing or sold at market.
Although Dartmoor ponies look cute, they aren’t tame, and will kick or bite if you get too close so please don’t feed them. It’s not unusual to see herds of wild ponies trotting through villages and chomping on village greens. Moor-dwellers have learned to keep their garden gates closed as there’s nothing they love more than new-season roses!
Looking more like one of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of Victorian times than a jail, the granite hulk of Dartmoor Prison with its vast enclosing circular wall was constructed in 1805 to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic War. What they made of being housed on the open and often fog-drenched wilds of Dartmoor National Park is anyone’s guess. But the Gothic setting of the Princetown prison is perfectly suited to its subsequent grisly Gothic history.
Famous inmates include ‘The Mad Axeman,’ a Kray crony given to extreme violence who was sprung from the jail by the brothers in 1966, prompting a hunt by 200 police officers. The hunt failed, but the axeman was soon after murdered by the Krays and possibly dumped in the English Channel. Another pithily named inhabitant was the Acid Bath Murderer, who robbed his victims and disposed of the bodies by dissolving them. Dartmoor housed political prisoners as well as psychopaths: Eamon de Valera was held here following the Easter Rising in Dublin, and up to 1000 Afro-American prisoners of war did time within the walls between 1812 and 1815.
This colourful history has seen the jail immortalized in print and on the screen umpteen times: fictional escapees featured in the 1963 Bond movie From Russia With Love, in John Galsworthy’s play Escape, in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The escape theme is given full rein in an annual charity ‘jail break’, when members of the public compete to ‘escape’ the prison and get as far away as possible in either 12 or 24 hours, without being allowed to pay for transport.
Quite an extraordinary event, given that this is still very much a working prison, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and run by HM Prison Service. If you don’t fancy the jail-break run, you get access by visiting the Dartmoor Prison Museum, which displays uniforms, manacles and flogging apparatus as well as, more inspiringly, paintings and models made by creative prisoners over the years.
You can’t go far in Dartmoor National Park without seeing traces of the prehistoric people who came before us, and left evidence of their lives in the form of stone circles, graves, hut circles and cists: stone-built boxes used to house the bones of the dead. These remnants, fascinating in themselves, chime perfectly with the elemental mysticism of Dartmoor, which has long provided artists and writers with inspiration.
The area has the highest concentration of Bronze Age remains in Britain, as well as many Neolithic traces. The climate would have been warmer and more hospitable than it is now, and the current bare expanses of moorland would have been cloaked in trees: indeed it was the Neolithic settlers who began to clear the land for cultivation.
The most dramatic – and mysterious – structures left by these early settlers are the standing stones or menhirs, referred to locally as long stones. There are arranged in circles or rows, whose function is the source of endless speculation. There are fine examples at Upper Erme, Drizzlecombe, Laughter Tor and Merrivale.
Less dramatic but perhaps even more evocative are the hut circles, of which there may be as many as 5000 on the moor. These are the ruins of ancient homes, some of which feature stone porches; it’s thought that their conical roofs would have been timbered and thatched. Bronze Age Grimspound is the most famous example, where both the hut foundations and an enclosing wall survive, backed by rugged moorland.
In Hound of the Baskervilles, the credulous Waston enquires about the circular rings of stone above the deadly Grimpen Mire: "What are they? Sheep-pens?" His guide replies: "No, they are the homes of our worthy ancestors. Prehistoric man lived thickly on the moor, and as no one in particular has lived there since, we find all his little arrangements exactly as he left them. These are his wigwams with the roofs off. You can even see his hearth and his couch if you have the curiosity to go inside.”
It’s no surprise that this unique and wild environment with its peat and blanket bogs, granite outcrops and ancient moss-draped woodland is a haven for animals, birds and enchanting plants such as bog orchids. Many Dartmoor species are rare and even unique: this is the only place in the world, for example, where you’ll find Heckford’s pygmy moth, and the extremely rare cave shrimp lurks in underground streams here. Rare bats such as the barbastelle may be seen, and the call of the disappearing cuckoo can be heard on Dartmoor.
A particularly special environment is isolated and high-altitude Wistman’s Wood, which may date back 7000 years and features 500-year-old oak trees: lichens and mosses bedeck the branches and rocks here, and there’s a large population of adders.
Tough little Dartmoor ponies are gratifyingly easy to spot and roam freely. But keep your eyes open for more elusive wild inhabitants: you might see a polecat bounding over the rocks, or glimpse a southern damselfly flit by.
If you’d like to get up close and personal with nature on Dartmoor, try one of the excellent local tours. Bird and butterfly walks are run by Dartmoor Nature Tours, who also do fungi forays and dusk walks, when you might see roe deer, badgers, glow worms, foxes and nightjars. Dartmoor’s Daughter aims to connect people to the natural world, arranging dawn chorus trips, as well as walks with Dartmoor Pack Ponies. The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust at Parke in Bovey Tracey is a good place to learn about these wonderful little animals, whose independent nature suits their idiosyncratic Dartmoor setting.
Dartmoor Firing Times
The Ministry of Defence uses northern Dartmoor (Okehampton, Merrivale and Willsworthy) for manoeuvres and live-firing exercises, an area totalling 42 sq miles - just over 11% of the National Park. There’s public access to these moorland areas except when live firing is happening. Ordnance Survey's Outdoor Leisure maps show the firing ranges with a purple circumference and are marked on the ground by red and white posts with red flags flying in them. Stay well clear, unless you have a death wish. Generally, firing does not take place on Sundays or during peak holiday periods. For obvious reasons, a local by-law prohibits the collection of metal objects within these ranges. Detailed information about no-go periods can be found at tourist information offices, or by calling the freephone number 0800 458 4868, or visiting www.dartmoor-ranges.co.uk.
Dartmoor Visitor Centres
The park's main visitor centre is located in Princetown and features exhibits about Dartmoor's history, culture and wildlife, as well as changing displays of local art. The visitor centres located in Postbridge and Haytor feature information, maps, guidebooks and items for exploring the area. Most towns have their own visitor centres, but check ahead for opening times.