Bleak House on a Bleak Landscape

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The most famous building in Dartmoor National Park is not open for visitors

On our last afternoon in Dartmoor National Park, we made a trip to the highland moors.

"Bleak landscape of the Moors in Dartmoor"

We could not go hiking anymore, there was no time left for that, but better a cursory view than no view at all, so we took the 98 bus from Tavistock to the village of Princetown which sits pretty much in the centre of the moor and also on its highest peak.

Read: Tavistock – Heart of Drake Country in Dartmoor

The bus ride is approx. 30 minutes long, and about half way through, the landscape changes abruptly, from idyllic and heath-like to something much more stark and severe …

"Bleak landscape on a rainy day in Dartmoor"

… and as you travel upward on a cloudy day (such as the day when we visited), the weather is also likely to change, from overcast to foggy and, well, more than a little eerie.

I do not remember what I expected Princetown to look like. I probably never gave it much of a thought, but coming from Tavistock, I was probably looking forward to something similar, less picturesque certainly and somewhat smaller, but recognizeably a village with a church, a few cobbled streets and some timber-framed houses, mock-Tudor or the real thing. In fact, Princetown is nothing of the sort.

Where the main road from Tavistock (the BB3357) forks, there are half a dozen shops, a pub and a couple of cafes, all imbued with the charm of an East German roadside settlement in about 1975. And that’s pretty much all there is. Princetown has a church, too, but it stands virtually alone, a few hundred metres away from the “centre” and surrounded by an old graveyard.

"Old graveyard on a bleak landscape on the Moors in Dartmoor"

The whole place is a little spooky, to be honest, as though it was putting itself forward for one of those Hammer House Of Horror movies where a visitor arrives from out of town only to find that everybody around is a zombie or an illegal immigrant from Alpha Centauri. A movie called “Village of the Damned” or something like that.

Actual visitors are likely to come for one of two things: one is the National Park Visitor Centre, originally a hotel where Conan Doyle once stayed and where he let the landscape inspire him to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the single most famous Sherlock Holmes story.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles"

The bleak prison house on a bleak landscape

The most important building in town, however, is Dartmoor Prison, Britains’s most famous jail.

"Bleak house of Dartmoor Prison on a bleak landscape of the Moors"

Much of this fame derives from Dartmoor’s reputation of being virtually escape-proof. That’s what it was designed to be, and that was the reason why they built it pretty much in the middle of a bleak landscape (the prison came first, the village of Princetown later, mainly to house the prison staff and their families).

Read: The Smiling Face of the Moors

Think about it: if an inmate manages to climb the walls and make it to the outside, where will he go? For miles and miles, there is nowhere to hide, not even a tree. In that respect, Dartmoor has always been Britain’s Alcatraz.

The jail was constructed in the early 19th century, to house POWs from the Napoleonic wars. Much of the building’s front has changed little since then, including its famous gate.

"entrance gate of Dartmoor Prison on a bleak landscape in Dartmoor"

Thousands of men must have passed these gates over the years (there are 600 inmates today), thinking that this would be the last view of the outside world they would get until their body was a shell and their hair was whiter than snow.

Today, as a matter of fact, Dartmoor is no longer reserved for the toughest of jailbirds, but merely a “Category C” institution (where the letter “D” marks open prisons) that houses mainly white collar criminals and sex offenders.

You cannot visit the prison from the inside. This should really go without saying, but apparently people regularly ask … yes, come to think of it, what do they do: ring the bell? bang on the iron doors? … whether they can have a peek inside. (“Come on, don’t be such a jobsworth! We have come all the way from Pennsylvania to see this!”)

There is, however, a small prison museum where they have done their best to illustrate Dartmoor’s two-hundred-year history as a penal institution. And why not take a small piece of Dartmoor Prison home with you …

"ceramic statuettes of cherubs made by prisoners of Dartmoor Prison"

… in the form of a figurine that was carved by one of its inmates. (They are for sale at the museum.)

And finally, this would not be Britain if there were not, somewhere in this foggy gloom of a town, somebody who was determined to “always look at the bright side of life” and see the funny side of it all. Princetown, you see, has its own micro-brewery …

"van delivering Jail Ale in Dartmoor"

To which I say: three cheers for Dartmoor and its prison.

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7 comments to Bleak House on a Bleak Landscape

  • Yes, visiting a former prison ground can be interesting, Meg. I suppose as interesting as visiting a cemetery, trying to “piece a story” together.

  • Wow, I spent a year in the UK and didn’t manage a visit here, so it’s been added back to the list. We just returned from Alcatraz in San Fransisco over in the States, and I’m developing a new appreciation for prison tourism – spooky, but a unique way to understand a different side of history of a place. Thanks!

  • Thanks for that info, Michael. I’ll add it to my list as there’s a good chance I’ll be there next month.

  • Prepare for a 3-hour journey to Dartmoor, Marcia. But it is certainly worth it!

  • Not a place to hide for miles….perfect spot for a prison. I’d be curious too, to see the inside. Though it was built later than the Hanover jail in Jamaica, I’d be curious to see if they were still building concrete beds like those I saw in the jail, which also was in use until pretty recently.
    Dreary though it looks, I’m going to add Dartmoor to my list for the next time I’m in London. Thanks for the tour, Michael!

  • It was very bleak on that particular day because of the weather. We, of course, do not know how it looks like on a sunny day. But we were told weather in this part of Dartmoor is almost always like this.

  • The pictures and the story are spooky! This is exactly how I imagine the British countryside that I know from this excellent novel. Great post!

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