For two years Megan and I have been planning a vacation around walking the moors (for example, see Gearing up for Dartmoor), and like any long-anticipated vacation it seemed forever in coming, and then over in an instant. This blog post, written mostly on the flight home from London to Seattle, sums up my feelings about various aspects of the experience, including a few highlights and some of the things we learned along the way. I certainly can’t claim to have any particular expertise regarding the walks that Dartmoor National Park has to offer (the official web site provides a good summary if you’re interested), and this is just one person’s thoughts about one experience of Dartmoor. But I wanted to document a few things while they’re fresh in my mind, because we may want to refer to this when we walk the moors again, as I suspect we will. The post grew pretty long (hey, it’s a 9-hour flight), so I’ve divided it into sections, presented in no particular order …
As the trip unfolded, we posted many photos to Facebook, and on our last day in London I posted about 20 of my favorites to a set on Flickr entitled Dartmoor 2014. The photos on Facebook are organized into albums, roughly one per day, and here are the public links (i.e., links that work just fine even if you’re not on Facebook) to those photo albums, along with brief descriptions:
- London – 8/4/2014 – we spent two days in the Bayswater area of London before heading out to Devon and Dartmoor
- London to Bovey Tracey – 8/6/2014 – a train ride from London to Exeter, then a taxi to the Riverside Inn in the village of Bovey Tracey
- Haytor and Bovey Tracey – 8/6/2014 – we had planned to start our hiking at Haytor the following day, but conditions seemed ripe for a good sunset so we took an evening taxi out to Haytor and walked back to town after dark
- Bovey Tracey to Buckfast – 8/7/2014 – a few miles through the remote beauty of Dartmoor, then a detour to the village of Ashburton before walking to the peaceful setting of the Abbey Inn on the River Dart
- Buckfast to Ivybridge – 8/8/2014 – we had planned to walk the whole distance, but after passing through most of Buckfastleigh on a hotter than expected day we decided we didn’t come all the way to Devon to walk on sidewalks alongside rushing traffic, so we caught a taxi to Ivybridge and took an evening walk up the hill to the southern edge of Dartmoor National Park
- Ivybridge and Two Moors Way – August 8-9, 2014 – this was planned to be a rest day in Ivybridge, but since we hadn’t put in a full day the day before we decided to put in ten miles along Two Moors Way, including a visit to the high oak woodland of Piles Copse
- Odds & ends from Ivybridge – 8/9/2014 – miscellaneous photos from Ivybridge
- A walk across southern Dartmoor – 8/10/2014 – this day was the centerpiece of our trip, 20 miles of wandering the moors in high winds that were the remnants of Hurricane Bertha, with an unexpected great dinner in the village of Scorriton before arriving at our destination, Two Bridges Hotel
- Supermoon at sunrise – 8/11/2014 – the clouds had obscured the moonrise the night before, so I headed out before 5:00 in the morning to snap a few photos of the moon setting, and was joined by the flock of white geese who are the mascots of Two Bridges Hotel
- Two Bridges Hotel – 8/11/2014 – we spent two nights at this luxurious hotel in the heart of Dartmoor, enjoying their food and drink and also taking a hike up to nearby Wistman’s Wood, another high oak woodland
- Two Bridges to Chagford – 8/12/2014 – there were intermittent rain showers the morning we left Two Bridges, and we decided to take a taxi to Sandy Park Inn (the oldest inn of the trip), and then hiked through pretty Teign Gorge to Fingle Bridge
- Chagford to Exeter – 8/13/2014 – done with our hiking, we returned to Exeter and took some walks in the area around Exeter Cathedral
- Exeter to London – 8/14/2014 – the train back to London, where we met up with good friends for dinner at The Swan, the pub that has become a regular stop for us near Hyde Park
The signature image of Dartmoor National Park is a tor – an outcropping of granite boulders at the top of a hill – and the best-known of all of Dartmoor’s 100+ tors is Haytor. So we decided to start our walking from Haytor, planning to take a taxi there from the nearby village of Bovey Tracey so that we could start early in the morning before tour buses and tourists descended on the spot. But it was a beautiful evening when we arrived in Bovey Tracey, and we spontaneously decided to see Haytor right away rather than waiting for morning. This proved to be a good decision, as that evening turned out to be the only colorful sunset of our entire trip. We caught a taxi to the parking area near Haytor, then walked up the hill. Sheep grazed nearby, and a few people milled around watching the sun go down. I shot many photos from Lowman, a slight lower peak near Haytor, while Megan sat on the rocks reading her Kindle.
After the sun had disappeared, we walked the five miles back to our inn in Bovey Tracey. We followed trails for the first mile or so, but after it was completely dark we decided to stick to the main road. This was our first experience of walking on a narrow Dartmoor road with no sidewalks, something we got pretty good at by the end of our trip.
That was a great introduction to Haytor, and then we took the same taxi back out to it in the morning and started our walk down through the moors to Ten Commandments Tor, then over to Ashburton and on to the town of Buckfast.
Buckfast is a small village on the River Dart, and home to Buckfast Abbey, which will celebrate its 1000 year anniversary in 2018. It’s a picturesque setting, and the Abbey Inn where we stayed has great places to sit outdoors along the river. We somehow managed to score the only room with bay windows overlooking the river, a nice touch. Buckfast is known in Scotland as the home of buckfast tonic wine, the preferred drink of young soccer hooligans. I wanted to try some, but unfortunately a local bartender explained to me that it’s not actually available in Buckfast.
Two Moors Way
Two Moors Way is the biggest, smoothest and busiest trail in southern Dartmoor, and we spent two days exploring it. It is a very easy trail to walk, and for the first eight miles out of Ivybridge it’s a gentle grade wide enough that you could easily drive a car on it. The miles pass almost effortlessly, and it tracks a high ridge so you have fareaching views most of the time, often in all directions. Where it crests the hill and descends into Ivybridge, you can see all the way to the English Channel, about 16 miles to the south.
High Oak Woodlands
Biologists who study Dartmoor believe that it was likely covered with forests long ago, and those trees were likely covered with moss. The sheep, horses and cows that have roamed Dartmoor in recent centuries have made it impossible for such delicate forests to survive, except for three high oak woodlands where the ground is too rugged for grazing animals to get at the trees and moss, and so the ancient forests survive. the ground is typically rugged because it’s covered with large boulders. We found that moving through these forests was as much a matter of climbing as hiking, and it was easy to see how this terrain is not conducive to the grazing of large four-legged animals. We visited two of the three high oak woodlands at Dartmoor. The first was Piles Copse, which is about four miles north of Ivybridge, at the bottom of a steep hill below Two Moors Way. This one isn’t visited very often, and the trail is pretty overgrown but we happened to meet a local man who was familiar with the route and gave us some tips. Even with his tips, we wandered around the hillside for a while before finding the path to follow down into the woods. The sun disappeared behind clouds when we got there (OMG! The hellhounds are coming!), which made it easy to do a multi-exposure collage, so I did …
The second high oak woodland we visited was Wistman’s Wood, which is just a mile north of Two Bridges and is the most-visited of the three. Unlike Piles Copse, Wistman’s Wood is easy to find, with a wide well-traveled trail and signs pointing the way. It was nice, and we were lucky to have some horses come hang out with us for a while when we were there, but due to the heavy traffic it was more worn and less green than Piles Copse.
There are numerous myths and legends associated with these woodlands, probably because they have a haunting other-worldly look to them. Many of the myths are associated with darkness – werewolf-like creatures that come out at night, and so on. At Wistman’s Wood, people have reported seeing the ghost of Francis Drake leading a pack of Spectral hellhounds that terrorizes the area. We were on the lookout, but only saw grandparents with grandkids and trekking college students there. I meant to go back after dark, but the cider was flowing too freely back in the pub to allow for further exploration that day.
Teign Gorge and Fingle Bridge
This is a pretty hike between the villages of Chagford and Drewsteignton, along the banks of the River Teign. We walked from the Sandy Park Inn outside Chagford past nearby Dogmarsh Bridge and then followed the river down to the Fingle Bridge Inn, where we had a drink on the patio while watching tourists take pictures of one another on the bridge and dogs playing in the water below. A brief rain shower came through, just long enough to make everything shiny and clean.
We intended to visit Castle Drogo on the return trip, but decided to stay down by the river instead because we were tired of crowds, and frankly it’s not the most interesting castle. Its one claim to fame is that it’s Great Britain’s newest castle, built in the early 20th century. We decided we wouldn’t regret missing it.
We came through Exeter on the way to and from Dartmoor, as it’s a simple train ride from London and close enough to take a taxi to any of the villages in Dartmoor to start a walking trip. On the return trip, we stayed at a hotel across the cathedral yard from Exeter Cathedral, and got upgraded to a room with a view of the cathedral. We also went inside the cathedral to look around. It’s a very impressive structure, full of interesting details, but it was undergoing some renovations and much of the interior was a construction site. Interesting to see nonetheless.
On our last two trips to London, we’ve stayed at hotels near Hyde Park. We love to take long walks in and around the park, Kensington Gardens, and the Bayswater and Soho areas. We also met up with various friends when we were there, and generally had a great time.
We probably took a few too many trips to REI in our preparations for Dartmoor, but as members we get a little credit at the end of the year for those purchases so it was all smart shopping, right? Equipment selection is very subjective, but here are some thoughts on some of the items we carried and how they worked for us …
Backpacks. We both upgraded our backpacks for the trip, and I went with the Gregory Savant 58 while Megan went with a slightly larger Osprey Ariel 65. Good backpacks that fit well, and knowing how to pack and adjust them, can make a dramatic difference in how you feel at the end of long days. We were both carrying around 40 pounds when fully loaded, and on some days we were hiking with a subset of our gear (e.g., no laptop or spare clothes) that weighed 20-25 pounds each. These packs worked great for those loads, and we’re both very pleased with our selections.
Boots. I’m a big fan of Asolo’s hiking boots, and am now on my third pair in over a decade without ever having had a blister with them, or any other problems for that matter. I picked up a new pair of their Fugitive GTX model for the trip, and put a pair of Superfeet Green insoles in them per Dr. Sasaki’s advice. They felt great, and I wore my boots all day every day, including non-hiking days in the cities of London and Exeter. Megan went with some boots that are similar to mine but a little lighter – she’s still in the UK, and I don’t know the model details.
Camera Gear. This was the heaviest part of my load, adding up to around 12 pounds total. I decided to not skimp on lenses, and I’m glad I did, although I realize I’m in a diminishing minority of people willing to carry heavy high-quality lenses. If you prefer to carry a smartphone or non-DSLR equipment, that’s great – no need to tell me about why that’s a smarter choice, I’ve heard it all already and I’m just not smart enough to get it. I brought the Nikon D800 camera body, and three lenses: the massive 14-24mm F/2.8 wide angle, a 70-200mm F/2.8 VR II telephoto, and a small 50mm F/1.8 lens. I also carried a MeFoto Backpacker tripod, and a variety of accessories including an SB-400 flash, various shutter cables and remotes, spare batteries and flash cards, and so on.
Laptop computer. This is another area where I’m probably willing to carry a bit more weight than most people, because I want to always have Photoshop handy. I could probably count the days I don’t use Photoshop each year on one hand – there is no other software I can say that about. I carried a Lenovo Carbon X1, with a charger and full-size mouse (which I prefer for photo processing). I could shave off about two pounds if I were willing to spend a thousand dollars or more on a loaded high-end tablet and settle for a flimsier keyboard. Not worth it, to me. Megan carried her Kindle, and used it often.
Water and Food. Megan put a large hydration bladder in her pack, and I carried two 32-oz Nalgene water bottles – we never even came close to running out of water. We also carried a variety of snack bars, Gu and nuts, and on the long days we picked up sandwiches in the villages where we were staying.
The Ten Essentials. We also carried a medicine kit, lighter, headlamps and flashlights, and all the other things that hikers should always carry. As well as chargers and power adapters for our hi-tech gear, etc.
Training for the Trip
By mountaineering standards, Dartmoor is a walk in the park. The hills are mostly gentle, and the highest point is barely 2000 feet above sea level. Roads are so numerous that there isn’t a point in all of Dartmoor National Park more than three miles from the nearest one, and many of the most spectacular sights have a parking area nearby. Nevertheless, walking the moors can be a workout due to the sheer distances sometimes involved. Twenty miles with a loaded backpack in high winds requires more conditioning than you’ll get sitting at a desk, especially if you want to actually enjoy the experience.
Megan has been physically well-prepared for this trip all year, but my I had some work to do to get ready. I’ve been seeing a great trainer (Stephanie Levine) once a week since last winter to work on core strength and related concepts, and for more targeted training we took a variety of long walks with our dogs around the Seattle area, wearing our backpacks with most of the items we expected to be carrying on the trip. We walked around Lake Sammamish, a 20-mile loop that we don’t really recommend because so much of it is on busy roads without sidewalks. We also walked from our home in the Seward Park area down through Renton and up to Redmond a couple of times, 17 or 20 miles depending on the route details, and we once put together two long days of over 20 miles back-to-back as well.
That was all going great as of early June, two months before our trip, but then I developed a problem with my right quadricep that had me struggling to walk more than a mile or two without pain just a month before our trip. Stephanie referred me to Kris Sasaki, who helped diagnose the problem and worked with me on various treatments (stretching exercises, adjustments, etc) multiple times per week right up to when we left.
I was very happy with how things turned out on the trip, so all’s well that ends well. I carried a yoga strap and used it regularly, and Megan also helped me stretch sometimes. On our longest day of walking (around 20 miles plus or minus, depending on whose FitBit was more accurate) I felt no pain at all until we reached a 20-degree paved hill leading down into the town of Coombe near the end of our walk, which was pretty hard on my banged up knees while carrying a backpack. But the fact I could do the trip at all was a testament to the great help I got from Stephanie and her referral to Dr. Sasaki. I’d highly recommend Stephanie to anyone in the Seattle area who needs help with a conditioning plan tailored to their specific situation and goals.
Every body is unique, but I’d say walking Dartmoor is within reach for pretty much anyone in average health who’s willing to spend some time preparing.
The state of meteorology in Great Britain hasn’t changed much since Scottish scholar Patrick Young observed nearly 500 years ago that weather forecasting is right too often to ignore it and wrong too often to rely on it. This proved true pretty much every day of our Dartmoor vacation.
Most days, the forecast called for rain and it never really materialized. We got sprinkled on a few times, but the showers were usually short-lived. I only put my rain gear on twice the whole trip – after that, I’d just let the rain fall and dare it to soak me, and it never did. (I once spent 20 years playing golf with this same attitude – it’s amazing how well it works.)
One thing we did experience was very high winds. I’d guess the gusts were around 40 mph at times, and the sound of the wind often made conversation difficult.
The two times I put on my rain gear were both on our long day of walking from Ivybridge to Two Bridges (or rather to Scorriton, as it turned out – see Finding the Trails below). That was the day that the remnants of Hurricane Bertha were expected to “batter” the Devon area, as the UK Met Office predicted, but we only experienced high winds and occasional light rains. I’m sure it does rain hard sometimes in Dartmoor, and we saw many big pools of standing water from rain the day before, but we got lucky.
Weather is a popular topic around Dartmoor, but truthfully it’s pretty mild yearound – never dangerously hot or cold, and the worst that can happen is you just get wet.
We booked our rooms months ahead of time, to be sure we’d get them during the busy summer season. A few of our stops were just conveniently located hotels that we didn’t expect much from, and we got what we expected. I’ll leave those out and mention some of the places that made a positive impression on us:
- The Abbey Inn in Buckfast has a great location on the river, pretty and peaceful, and is a short walk from the Abbey. Their outdoor tables along the river were a great place to hang out, and we’d love to go back.
- We spent two nights at Sportsmans Inn in Ivybridge. Their pub was very comfortable to us – if we lived in Ivybridge, we’d probably be regulars there. But the room was hot and noisy, never cooling off at night and right above the busiest street around. We’ll check out another place if we stay in Ivybridge again.
- Two Bridges Hotel is the most luxurious place we stayed at Dartmoor, and we already knew about it because Megan stayed there two years ago. Nice places to hang out around the bar and lobby areas, and great food including the best soups and salads we found in Dartmoor. The lack of laundry service was a disappointment (not least because we desperately needed it when we arrived), especially for such an upscale place, but maybe that’s a British thing?
- Sandy Park Inn in Chagford was the smallest and oldest inn we visited: just three rooms total, and the building started out as a traditional 16th century coaching inn. Despite its age, this place had the most reliable wifi and best water pressure of anywhere we stayed on the whole trip. It’s a family-owned and operated business – the daughter cooked our breakfast, her brother hauled in firewood, and the sister-in-law checked us in. We often had the pub entirely to ourselves, except in the evening when it filled up with friendly locals and their friendly dogs.
- The Abode Exeter was a nice place to transition from Dartmoor to London, and we lucked out with the upgrade to a room with a great view of the cathedral. It was more modern than the inns around Dartmoor, but we really appreciated some of the touches. A washcloth, for example.
You can camp out on the moors, of course, and many people do. But we enjoyed having a home base with wifi, a good bed, and cold beverages at the end of each day. To each their own.
At the risk of offending any Brits reading this, nobody goes to the UK for the food. As expected, we found big greasy full English breakfasts to be the norm at the inns, and we ate many pies and burgers as well.
Perhaps less expected were some of the healthy options we came across. Two Bridges Hotel had a great Caesar salad (very light, no parmesan), and we found good soups at a few places as well. But a vegan would have pretty limited options in some of these places.
Finding the Trails
I can’t decide whether to say that route-finding at Dartmoor is really easy because of the availability of the extremely detailed Dartmoor Ordnance Survey Map (OL28), or that route-finding is really difficult because the map glosses over some important details. Both statements were true for us at various times.
The OS maps present an amazing level of detail. They purport to show every major or minor trail, every stone marker, every fence or boundary, and every significant ruin or outcropping. They even indicate the positions of buildings, windmills, power lines and mileposts, and distinguish between various types of rocky slopes (loose rock, boulders, outcrop or scree) as well as various types of vegetation (coniferous or non-coniferous trees, coppice, scrub, orchards, grassland or marsh). But we still got into trouble a couple of times.
Perhaps it’s due to misunderstanding the definitions of terms used. For example, bridleway – I looked it up on Wikipedia, and that seemed to be something we could walk on. Not quite, unless you’re willing to walk through a foot or two or water or a few acres of a swamp. Consider this section of the OS map, showing the spot where Two Moors Way and Abbot’s Way come together in roughly the center of the southern half of Dartmoor National Park:
We were walking up Two Moors Way, coming from the south (bottom), and it was a very wide, smooth and easy to follow trail. Here’s a photo of Two Moors Way that I took that day. And our plan was to take a left on Abbot’s Way, and follow it for a few more miles before taking some other paths up into Two Bridges, where our luxurious room awaited us. Yeah, right. The marker stone indicated on the map was right where we expected to find it, but oddly there was no visible trail to the left (northwest) as the map seemed to indicate. Here’s a photo taken as we approached the marker stone:
OK, so the trail’s a little rough, no big deal, we can deal with this. We followed it for a while, constantly verifying that we were on the correct route through a variety of means (compass direction, topographic details, and positions of marker stones). The trail was nearly invisible at times, but everything was checking out just fine.
Then we came to a point where the map shows the trail crossing a small creek. There was no bridge, but we made it across (if less than gracefully in my case):
And then it got vey messy, so much so that I forgot to get any photos for a while. We were stumbling through a swampy area of high grass, following the line on the map (there were several visible stone markers, creeks and hills to confirm our position on the map) but with no visible trail at all, and then we made it to the point just left of Dry Lake Ford on the map above, where we had to cross a creek again. A larger creek. And we walked up and down the side of it, but it was clear that without horses we were going to have to get pretty wet to get across this one:
So we gave up. We backtracked to Two Moors Way, having killed a couple of hours on this little adventure, and followed that trail to the east, eventually leaving the park and arriving in the town of Scorriton, where were stumbled upon a great little restaurant with a spectacular view called the Tradesman’s Arms. We ate dinner there as the sun was setting, then took a taxi up to our destination, Two Bridges Hotel.
I’ve explained this in some detail as an example for the benefit of anyone else planning a trip through Dartmoor by studying the ordnance survey map. It’s a great map, but be prepared to do some creative thinking if you get off the major routes.
We saw many of the freeange livestock for which Dartmoor is known: sheep, cows, horses and ponies. The sheep and cows tolerated us until we got close, then wandered quickly away. The horses were a bit more skittish (not letting us get as close), except for some of the ponies, who approached us expectantly. I guess tourists must feed the ponies more than the others.
We saw a few dogs walking on the moors, but most of the dogs we saw on this trip were in or around pubs. British businesses have a very dog-friendly approach, and as one bartender explained to us, people are attached to their dogs so you won’t get their business if you don’t allow their dogs into the pub. Most of the dogs we saw were purebred, with Border Collies being most common and also various setters and retrievers. They were all very friendly and well-behaved, and some of them were clearly familiar with the pubs and knew many of the customers and employees. We had one dog casually hop up on the bench seat next to Megan during a meal and sit with her for a while, and we saw another one laying on a seat in a booth when business was slow. To state the obvious, we approved of all this very much. Felt like home.
Between the Trails
People go to Dartmoor to walk the moors, but there are also many sights to see in the villages. We visited Buckfast Abbey, for example, and since it was early morning we had the place almost to ourselves. One thing we’d do differently if we go to Dartmoor again is to take advantage of taxis to move from one interesting trail to another. I had planned a route consisting of hikes from point A to B, then B to C the next day, and so on. But once you’ve walked through a couple of villages, do you really want to walk through a few more? We found that we didn’t. So I think the better strategy would be to select a few spectacular hikes, full of views and tors and Dartmoor scenery, then stitch them together with taxi rides each morning or evening to get you from the end of one hike to the beginning of the next one.
Hardcore hiking and climbing people would probably find Dartmoor a bit too easy, and those looking to just relax in the pubs would probably find the walking a bit too much, but for us this was a perfect combination. We could get plenty of exercise and fresh air during the days, and have hot showers and cold drinks in the evening at pubs full of interesting conversation and friendly dogs. We’ll be back, I’m sure.