Wanderer at Large: Devon & Cornwall – Dartmoor

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Devon & Cornwall.

Dartmoor by thesmith. CC license BY-NC 2.0


Route from Exeter: from the A38 at Heathfield, turn right onto the A382. At Bovey Tracey turn left onto the B3387.

400 million years ago, intense heat and volcanic action five miles below the surface forged an igneous (fired) and metamorphic (pressured) rock-scape. As the rock thickened, the magma could not erupt, so it formed domes of hard granite. (The same granite as used for Nelson’s column). Then 250 million years ago, the ice penetrated the granite and expanded at the surface levering away the rock resulting in ‘tors‘. Victorian geologists studying this landscape named the period after the county, hence, the Devonian Age.

With human habitation there was an environmental disaster, as once there was a forest on the granite uplands, but tree-felling here meant the delicate acid soil struggled to retain nutrients. The rain washed away the fragile soil. Crops failed and livestock died. Thus, it became a wet desert. Today, it is a 365 square mile national park rich in minerals such as in tin, copper, iron and arsenic.

A drive through Dartmoor is a vivid experience, not least because cattle, sheep and wild ponies brazenly seem intent on disrupting your journey! The cattle are mostly of the Belted Galloway breed. The sheep are a mixture of Dartmoor Whiteface and Greyface, Devon Longwools, South Devons and Scotch Blackface. The ponies, about a thousand of them, are wild Dartmoor ponies. The flora includes yellow gorse flower and heather which is periodically burned to make it grow strong enough to withstand the encroaching purple moor grass and bracken.

As the road passes through Dartmoor National Park take the B3357. At Two Bridges, branch left onto the B3212. At Princetown, you will suddenly see a monstrous bleak grey granite building looming on the moors. This is the infamous Dartmoor Prison.

Dartmoor Prison by exfordy. CC license BY-NC 2.0

It was built in 1809 to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars. Just three years later it was holding American PoWs from the war of 1812. Many remained incarcerated after the war had finished in 1814. In 1815, seven were shot dead and 31 wounded on the orders of a drunk British officer who thought they were escaping. There is a memorial to 271 PoWs (mostly seamen) who are buried in the prison. By 1851, it had become a civilian prison and, during World War One, a detention centre for conscientious objectors. After that war it reopened as a prison for the most serious criminals. In 2002, it was downgraded to a category C prison for less violent offenders. Famous prisoners in its past include Peter Hammond, founder of Hammond, Louisiana, and future Irish president Eamon De Valera. Dartmoor is still a major prison and you can visit its fascinating, but slightly chilling, museum.

Today, the Dartmoor Jailbreak is an annual charity event, where civilians (not prisoners!) ‘escape’ from the prison and must travel as far as possible in four days, whilst in convict clothing and without paying for transport.

The trick is not to stray away from the main road if you can help it, as you might run into the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles!  Yes, indeed, the most famous Sherlock Holmes mystery was set on this sublime yet unforgiving landscape with a plot involving an escaped convict from the forbidding prison. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had toured Dartmoor in 1901. His coachman, by the way, was one Harry Baskerville.

The story of the hound itself was inspired by a local legend too. A ten-mile hike across to the south-eastern edge of the moor (longer and safer by car!) will bring you to the village of Buckfastleigh. Here you will find the ghostly ruins of Holy Trinity Church.

In the graveyard stands a kiosk-like porch which contains the tomb of one Squire Richard Cabell, He had such an evil reputation that when he died in 1677, it was said that the Devil himself summoned a pack of baying spectral hounds to conduct his soul to Hell. The locals had a special tomb built from heavy stone and iron to secure the rest of him. However, ‘legend has it’ that on stormy nights, the hounds return to join Cabell’s spirit on a murderous hunting expedition across the moor. It is also said that if one were to walk 13 times backwards around the tomb and then stick one’s finger through the railings, the ghostly squire would bite it off.

The church itself was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1992. Local rumour has it that it was the result of a Satanic ritual being held in the middle of the night.

Nearby, is Buckfast Abbey, the only monastery in Britain still operating in its original medieval location. They make a strong fortified tonic wine here. So strong, in fact, that it was which was once reputedly responsible for 5,000 crimes a year in Glasgow!

It should be noted that there is a lighter side to Dartmoor! In the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, the famous Widecombe Fair takes place in mid-September. It features horse trading, produce and livestock shows and competitions including, drystone walling, sheep shearing and thatching demonstrations, dog races, a cross-country race over open moorland from the top of Widecombe Hill to the Fair below and a tug o’ war. There is also street entertainment in the village and evening bars selling the local delicacy, gingerbread with spiced ale. The fair was immortalised in the folk song ending with the line ‘Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.’

Elsewhere, young children will enjoy the Dartmoor Miniature Pony Centre which features a petting zoo. Local beauty spots include the Becky Falls, known as ‘the gem in the granite’ which has a wildlife centre; River Dart at Spitchwick; River Plym at Cadover Bridge; and the 13thcentury Clapper Bridge at Postbridge. There are also a number of megalithic stone rows to be investigated, some up to two miles long. To finish your day in style, take tea at the splendid Bovey Castle Hotel.

Dartmoor: lose yourself in its darkness and light.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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