A walk to the birthplace of Dartmoor’s most famous son gives you a taste of both town and country
The southwest corner of Dartmoor is Drake country: Sir Francis is still the most famous and most glamorous local boy, with a reputation that has lost little of its shine after more than 400 years.
Many pubs and cafés bear Drake’s name, and the foremost local hiking route is called the Drake Trail. There are good reasons for all this Drakery: although Sir Francis made his name overseas (circumnavigating the world, for one), his links with the area are deep and varied.
The southwest corner of Dartmoor, (where he initiated the construction of Drake’s Leat, one of Britain’s first municipal water supplies), represented three constituencies in the area as an MP and lived the last decade of his life at the stately family home of Buckland Abbey near Yelverton, in between various acts of piracy and his victory against the Spanish Armada.
Of all the towns in the area, however, it is Tavistock that appears to have the strongest claim on Drake – this, after all, is where he was born, grew up and altogether spent twenty years of his life.
Tavistock-heart of Drake Country is one of Britain’s favourite market towns, a perennial contender of nation-wide popularity and beauty contests.
It is undeniably pretty …
… and managed to look charming even on the day of our visit, despite the weather (which had suddenly turned for the British) and the fact that Tavistock town centre was, two weeks before the General Election, firmly in the grip of political party activists who were spreading their stalls, flags and leaflets around like mildew.
Mrs. Easy Hiker was cornered by a UKIP member who – having heard that we would be writing about our trip – urged her to “tell the world” that UKIP were not racist. Well, now you know, world. For the rest of our stay, we made a wide berth to avoid the UKIP stalls and took our Town Hall pictures only from the safety of a good cover.
One thing you learn during a trip to Tavistock is that, never mind Drake, the town is, let us say: closely associated with the Dukes of Bedford. Theirs is one of Britain’s most prominent aristocratic families, owners of the Bedford Estates in London (to which most of Bloomsbury belongs, the area around the British Museum), and whose scions include the 19th century Prime Minister Lord John Russell and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Until 1911, “most buildings” in town (it says in the official literature) were owned by the Duke. He since appears to have been reduced to running a betting shop opposite the town hall – he also changed his name, albeit slightly. Dropped the “Duke”, too, but he can’t fool me.
Francis Drake was born at a farm called Crowndale, a couple of miles outside of town. To get there, leave Tavistock market square with the Town Hall on your left, walk towards the river Tavy, cross Abbey Bridge and turn right into the footpath on the riverbank called St John’s Avenue.
Behind the skatepark, turn right to cross the river. Turn left, walking along the river for approx. another 150 metres, then diagonally cross the green space in front of you – appropriately called The Meadows –and use the underpass to get to the Tavistock Canal, a few steps up on your right hand side.
From here, it’s another mile or so to Crowndale Farm, the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake. The farm buildings do look (almost) old enough to give a credible impersonation of a 16th century estate, …
… but in fact, the original stone buildings have since been dismantled. Still, there are a few, albeit cryptical allusions to the history of the place.
What do the “twisting roots” have to do with the “wild past” of Drake’s family? That is sure to give you enough stuff to think about on your walk back to Tavistock through the picturesque Dartmoor countryside.
We were based in the Moorland Garden Hotel Yelverton during our stay on Dartmoor and Tavistock is a but a short bus ride away from the hotel.