Dartmoor National Park may be famous for its high security prison and the Hound of the Baskervilles, but it also has its gardenlike features
And now, as they say, for something completely different.
After the South West Coast Path with its perfect blend of the majestic and the bucolic, Dartmoor National Park provides a sharp and fascinating contrast.
It’s only a brief journey from the one to the other (Dartmoor National Park practically begins in the northern suburbs of Plymouth), but one that takes you from a landscape of sudden changes to one whose very charm is its remorseless, occasionally even bleak monotony.
I know that this may not sound like a specifically strong endorsement, but it is exactly that – read it like the opposite of “damning with faint praise”, as a “praise through words of harsh judgment” perhaps.
The Dartmoor landscape, through a series of constant and slight variations of the same recurrent motives, has a mesmerizing, meditative effect. You really have to try this for yourself.
Mind you, the really bleak and monotonous bits are restricted to the high moors, the area around Princetown and Dartmoor Prison (more of this soon).
Drake’s Country – the smiling face of the Moors
The sections of Dartmoor National Park immediately to the north of Plymouth are, in comparison, almost gardenlike. When we visited in late April, the gorse was in full bloom, and the whole scenery was drenched in glorious sunshine, emphasizing the picturesque qualities of the landscape.
The excellent Moorland Garden Hotel, where we were staying, was only a 5-minute walk away (through the hotel gardens) from one of the area’s main bus lines (Plymouth to Tavistock, with regular services – up to 4 times an hour – throughout the day). This made it a perfect base for explorations into the southern side of the National Park and even for trips into the high moors. (Tavistock is the local transport hub.)
It also has to be said that the Moorland Garden Hotel serves a mean Devon Cream Tea, with very good quality strawberry jam and proper clotted cream – reminding you that you are still in South Devon, no matter how different from the coast the landscape may look. (Worth checking out too is the fine dining they offer in their Wildflower Restaurant.)
This part of southwest England is also known as Drake’s country – after Sir Francis Drake who was born and raised here, Queen Elizabeth’s personal buccaneer, court favourite and (so it has been rumoured) sometimes lover (Elizabeth I, that is, not Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England, who does, so far as is known, not share her namesake’s inclination towards either pirates or piracy).
The area’s main hiking trail – and a good way of getting to know this section of Dartmoor National Park – is called the Drake’s Trail. Its main route (21 miles or approx. 30 km long) connects the towns of Plymouth and Tavistock, but it branches out, at roughly the half way mark near the village of Yelverton, into a network of shorter walks, each of which will take you about two to three hours.
For our first hike in the area, we chose the loop around the hamlet of Clearbrook, starting on a path near our hotel and proceeding northwards towards Yelverton …
… before crossing the busy main road and turning southwards in the direction of Clearbrook.
On this stretch of the trail, you will have plenty of opportunities to familiarize yourself with some of the region’s features: the gorse, the ponies and the sheep …
… as well as the leats, artificial watercourses that have been dug into the ground for centuries to irrigate the drier lowlands of the region with water from the much wetter high moors.
When you can see the hamlet of Clearbrook in the distance …
… it is time to turn right, in the direction of the Moorland Gardens or the bus stop on the line between Plymouth and Tavistock.
A perfect walk for a first afternoon in the area!