Friday, August 03, 2007


Since my wish to see the Dartmoor was at least partly based on years of reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, I was tempted to title this with some cheesy remark about "... the footprints of a gigantic hound!" However, the really interesting book about the Dartmoor is not the Conan Doyle classic, but the Laurie King sequel called The Moor, in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (all of which is very strongly recommended). Also, there's a series of medieval detective stories by Michael Jecks, set near the Dartmoor in the early 14th century, in which the tin miners on Dartmoor occasionally show up - we'd call them "wildcat" miners today, they usually worked alone on the moor. The moor itself is always in everyone's mind, in all these books. I wanted to see a place that impresses people to the extent that they include it as a character in their books; so after avoiding the Tour de France mess, we rolled westward on the motorways to the suburbs of Torquay. We never actually got all the way into Torquay, since we stayed in a suburb called Cockington (which may actually be no more than a neighborhood, but a charming one). We also realized, fighting our way through the local traffic in Kingskerswell for the 3rd or 4th time, that we might have found one of the smaller towns farther north (Newton Abbott or Bovey Tracey) a better base for exploring the Dartmoor; but so it goes.

We spent 2 days driving around the Dartmoor, looking at sheep (lots of sheep), a few cattle, very occasional wild ponies, and staggeringly beautiful landscape. The Dartmoor is a raised granite lump (I believe I've read somewhere that it is a pluton, but if it is, Wikipedia doesn't mention it), rising sharply some 1200 feet above the surrounding Devon countryside. It's covered with peat where the rocks aren't exposed, and can become very boggy; it was very green (especially given that it had been raining for the past month). We didn't personally encounter any bogs but we found lots of mud. The granite outcrops at the top of hills are known as tors, and climbing up to them can provide a superb panorama of the surrounding countryside. If it isn't raining. We climbed, of course, up to Hound's Tor, which doesn't look anything like a hound (it's supposed to resemble a hound's teeth; didn't look like it to me). The
wind was quite stiff, but the view was wonderful; the rocks themselves were occupied by two separate sets of technical rock climbers, a group of adults on one stack and a larger group of middle or high school children, with teachers, on another.

We were fortunate that, for most of the 2 days we spent poking around, it was merely overcast and windy, and the sun even came out once or twice. Since the Dartmoor is now a national park, it's about as developed as it's going to get; but it's been developed for hundreds of years. No, actually, thousands of years - we went to 2 different bronze age ruins, one near Merivale, and one at Grimspound.

Looking at prehistoric ruins in the U.K. is entirely different from looking at them in the U.S. In the U.S. we'd have parking lots, and graded trails, and educational signs, and railings to keep people off the ruins, and maybe even a ranger to answer questions. In the U.K., and especially on Dartmoor, there is nothing. There are no parking lots; there are no signs or railings, and certainly no rangers. There is a general description of the sort of thing you can expect to find, and a dot on the map that suggests where it might be, but you'd better know what a line of standing stones or a hut circle might look like because you are on your own. There are no trails; you hike up the hill (everything here is up hill) until you see something that looks right. I found refreshing the complete absence of any attempt to keep you from breaking your neck on anything; Americans have become too damn litigious.
If you want to sit on the rocks, or try to flake off a piece (we didn't), no one will stop you: no one is there, at least during the week (we were there on Monday and Tuesday). We found Merivale very frustrating because of this, the remains there are quite scanty; so the next day we went to Grimspound, which is much better marked (but still invisible from where we parked, up an unmarked hillside from a secondary road).

Grimspound was obviously a largeish fortified settlement: most of the stone perimeter circle is still there, with one obvious entrance gate (and a second opening that may just have fallen over); and it contains a number of hut circles, one or two of which look as though they might have belonged to someone of importance (standing stones marking a possible entrance). The site was below the brow of a hill, which I wondered about, as it would have been vulnerable to attack from above by invaders coming over the crest of the hill; but I believe the site was chosen because of the water: there was a stream flowing inside the stone ring. I couldn't find an origin spring, but I didn't look very hard; of course they would want access to water inside the perimeter. We shared the site with a large flock of sheep, wandering around, grazing and lying in the ruins. In fact much of the Dartmoor is unfenced range for sheep, and some cattle; on a couple of occasions we had to wait until they got off the road. They even had a road sign: Warning - sheep laying in road. It was quite accurate.

We also visited some of the towns on the Dartmoor. None of these towns is large. All of them have been there for a very long time; the houses are one or at most two stories, huddled down in folds of the land against the wind. Houses on the Dartmoor are stone or stucco; I didn't see any obviously wooden houses, no clapboard sidings here. Houses here are also not colored; they're either made of unpainted stone, or they're whitewashed.
It gives the place a very grim look. A surprising number of them have thatched roofs.

The first town we visited was Widecombe-on-the-Moor. That's the full name; it isn't just "Widecombe", which happens to be located on the moor. It's a tiny town with a beautiful 16th century church and an inn, appropriately called the Old Inn, which served us two very good meals. I found the Old Inn fascinating; for one thing, it's built into a hill and is, the entrance is up a flight of about 8 stairs from the main floor, and the high windows in that part of the inn are actually at ground level outside. There were no notes on how old it was; it's obviously been recently spruced up, with some very modern clever sayings painted on the walls (including the classic Groucho Marx quote, "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."). It's built of stone and stucco and looks like it's been there forever. Widecombe is in a deep little valley; when you come to it using the route we took, you can see it from the breast of the hill before you start down the really precipitous road. It looks tiny; it is surrounded by very green fields, empty except for sheep; it looks very lonely. In fact, all the towns we saw on the Dartmoor looked as if they were there on sufferance.

Widecombe is, however, a real town, with real town things going on. The day we were there, the local school was having a children's art exhibit in the stone building that was once the old sexton's cottage. I attended it (and put 50p in the donation bowl) after having been accosted by an earnest 8 year old girl (clearly anxious that I was going to refuse). It is not possible to say "No, I don't want to see your art exhibit" to a worried 8 year old.

Widecombe-on-the-Moor has a fair, first held in 1850, which is the subject of an English folk song called Widdicombe Fair
(yes, the song is spelled differently from the town). The song has its own web page explaining the legend behind the song (and being very snide about variant versions from Wessex!); I was delighted to find out about this because it explained a line that Lord Peter Wimsey used in one of Dorothy Sayers' novels: "and Uncle Tom Cobley and all" (intended to mean, "the whole bunch of them"). This line actually comes from the chorus of "Widdicombe Fair". The dates are a little odd - the song's web page says that the song is "thought to have been heard in the early 1800s", which seems unlikely if the Fair only started in 1850 - but then, it's always hard to pin down folksongs.

We also visited North Bovey, largely because of its reputation for a beautiful, unspoilt town green. It is very beautiful: most of the houses are whitewashed stucco, and I'd say the majority of them have thatched roofs; one house had obviously just had the thatching over the doors redone, the straw was still straw colored. A thatched roof that's been there for awhile turns a very dark brown with weathering. I guess in this area, "Thatcher" can be more than just a last name. When we were there (a Tuesday around midday) there was absolutely no one else visible except, down one of the four streets, a man mending one of the area's ubiquitous stone walls; the sense of silence and peace was very deep. These stone walls are 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzles; they aren't drystone, they are mortared, but they are made of whatever stone pieces happen to be around, and yet they always have a relatively flat top over a collection of wildly different shaped stones, fitted closely together. North Bovey's town green is charming for a local habit: when some significant Event happens, they plant a new tree, and put a memorial stone by the sapling. We saw the trees they planted for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, and for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and for the millennium. You can look past the former town pump (the handle is now padlocked), in the middle of the green, and see the sapling, with its stone reading "AD 2000".

In fact, if you want absolute peace, silence (except for the wind, and the occasional low-flying fighter jet - sorry, the Royal Navy uses part of the Dartmoor as a bombing range), and remoteness (except for the bombing range), with pretty much unlimited hiking, you could do worse than to visit the Dartmoor. I sound like a Chamber of Commerce brochure, but it's true.

The only other "town" we visited was Postbridge, notable for its beautifully preserved clapper bridge over the East Dart River (these bridges seem to exist only in the Dartmoor area for some reason). Postbridge is also pretty much the exact center of the Dartmoor national park, so a lot of people use it as a base for exploring. This may explain why, when we were there, there were actually more people than buildings (total buildings, about 6, one of which had a
"For Sale" sign up, but maybe 15 or 20 people). Like everywhere else we visited on the Dartmoor, it is stunningly beautiful. We stopped at a place called Dartmeet, where the East and West forks of the Dart river converge, to see the remains of a ruined clapper bridge; this is listed on the map as a "town" but all I saw was a bridge, a public loo, a park information center, and a van selling ice cream. By Dartmoor standards, maybe that is a town.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:07 PM

    I am soooooooooooooooo far beyond simply envious at this point....
    Actually, I am thoroughly enjoying the memories of a trip 30 years ago. Thanks for these narratives.

    Anonymous David