Here’s our pick of Dartmoor’s best things to do, including fairytale castles, Stone Age hut circles, ancient forests - and a famous prison.
15 BEST THINGS TO DO AND SEE ON DARTMOOR
1. Dartmoor Prison
The Mad Axeman, Frank Mitchell and the Acid Bath Murderer were all inmates at Dartmoor Prison, a grim, gothic jail in the mist-wreathed Dartmoor town of Princetown. Once a byword for the most violent offenders, the prison – now Category C – has a museum for the macabre-minded, featuring makeshift weapons and confiscated escape gear. Most shocking is a razor mounted on the tip of a toothbrush and vicious knuckle-dusters made of six-inch nails. Most amusing is the time-honoured classic of knotted bed sheets, once used in an escape attempt. Also on display are leather-belted tunics, which were used for restraint, and a fading photo of a "mad cupboard", in which deranged prisoners were locked and doused with freezing water.
2. Castle Drogo
Lutyens-designed Castle Drogo is a quasi-mediaeval granite castle that was the last to be built in Britain. Inside is Drewe's remarkable collection of venerable artefacts, such as 17th-century tapestries. The views of the Teign Gorge and Dartmoor are magnificent, and there’s a stunning walk along Fingle Gorge from the grounds (see ‘Walk a Dartmoor Gorge’). It’s currently undergoing restoration – please check their website for latest progress.
This pretty stannary town is crammed with cafes, tea rooms, farm shops and delis. Check out Blacks for great light lunches and local farm produce, Moorland Dairy for delicious local ice-cream and Best Cellars for a small, but perfectly formed wine selection. The town has half-day closing on Wednesday afternoons.
One of the most complete examples of the moor’s prehistoric settlements, Grimspound is a stone enclosure littered with the leavings of 24 Bronze Age hut circles.First settled about 1300 BC, thevillage’s stone perimeter wall is thought to have stood at 1.7 metres high in places. The roundhouses were made from double granite walls with a rubble infill - a technique still used in dry-stone walling.The eerie setting was the model for the prehistoric hut inwhich Sherlock Holmes spent the night in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Free, and open all year round.
5. Fingle Gorge
Taking in a fairytale castle, oak-lined gorge, ancient stone bridge and traditional pub, this two-hour walk along the Teign River is classic Dartmoor. Hunter’s Path runs higher up the valley, while Fisherman’s Path traces the spectacular wooded riverbank path, where kingfishers and woodpeckers dart between shaded pools, and trout, salmon and otters frolic in deep, clear waters. The small rocky beaches are perfect places for picnics and toe-dipping. Look out for glimpses of Prestonbury Castle Iron Age hill fort on the other side of the valley. At the bottom of the gorge is the age-old Fingle bridge, which has recessed buttresses for packhorses to pass. Behind it is Fingle Bridge Inn, which serves a mean cream tea and has a pretty terrace overlooking the river. In spring, the woodlands here are carpeted with bluebells and daffodils.
6. Wistmans’ Wood
Wistman’s Wood is a vestige of the prehistoric dwarf oak trees that used to cover Dartmoor. Here, moss-covered, boulder-strewn woodland floor is dotted with stunted oaks furred with mosses and lichen. The easy one-hour walk starts from the Two Bridges Hotel, near Princetown. Stop in for a cream tea at Princehall for afters.
Haytor is one of Devon’s most famous views: on a clear day you can see the coast, the Teign estuary, the moors and rolling countryside in between. The Rock Inn in Haytor Vale is a good option for food afterwards.
Dubbed the gateway to the moor, Ashburton is an elegant town whose fortunes were founded on cloth and mining. It is one of Dartmoor’s four stannary towns, where tin was bought to be taxed – and its fine slate-hung frontages house a well-to-do selection of antique shops, delis, cafes and restaurants. Most notable of the latter is the Agaric Restaurant, the Fish Deli and Ashburton Deli.
9. Brent Tor
The tiny parish church of The Church of St Michel de Rupe ("Saint Michael of the Rock"), sitting atop Brent Tor, is one of the cutest you’ll ever see, and the views are spectacular. Around the Tor are Iron Ageearthworks, the remnants of a hill fort.
Tavistock is the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake, and the UK's best market town according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. What marks it out is its food. Country Cheeses showcases hundreds of the West Country's finest, and Crebers Delicatessen are both award winners. Check out the farmers’ market (01822 820360, www.tavistockfarmersmarket.com) which fills elegant Bedford Square on the second and fourth Saturday of every month.
11. Lydford Gorge
The 90-foot White Lady waterfall at Lydford Gorge near Tavistock is a gushing torrent enclosed by a thickly wooded ravine. Look out for kingfishers and grey herons waiting patiently for fish and listen for the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers.
12. The Granite Way
Skirting the edge of Dartmoor, this 11-mile traffic-free track running from Okehampton to Lydford gives views of Okehampton Castle, Meldon Viaduct, Meldon Lake, Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and, of course, Dartmoor. The Dartmoor Inn (see 39), a wonderful gastro pub, is perfectly sited at the end of the trail for a rewarding feast.
13. Okehampton Castle
An impressive Norman stronghold laid waste by Henry VIII, and one of the largest castle ruins in the south west, Okehampton Castle ismentioned in the Doomsday Book. Ask about the haunted nightlife. Closed winter.
14. Widecombe in the Moor
With the church 'the Cathedral of the Moor' standing proud in any view, Widecombe (see photo above) has history galore and many folklore legends. Visit St. Pancras Church, with its wonderful stained glass windows, the lovely National Trust shop in the square and have lunch in the Rugglestone, a Grade-II inn with flagstone floors, open fires and Dartmoor and Butcombe Best Bitter poured straight from the barrel. The two restaurants - one of which has an open log fire– are more spacious,and outside, over a small bridge, is a large sheltered garden with picnic tables and fabulous views.
15. Dartmoor Zoo
You’ll will find 70 mammal species alone at this hugely popular zoo near Plymouth, which runs research projects and a breeding programme for tapir, slender-tailed meerkats, common marmosets and wallabies. Visitors thrill to feeding time for the big cats – lions, tigers, jaguars and cheetah – and you can also spot brown bears, wolves, monkeys amongst the menagerie here. Round off your visit with a meal at the Jaguar Restaurant.
This is the scenic spot where the East and West Dart rivers meet; nearby is an ancient field system and an 18th century bridge. A shallow section of water makes for ideal summer paddling round the scattered rocks.