It may be rough, rugged and dotted with military shooting ranges, but Dartmoor National Park is one of the few places in the south of England where you can find peace, solitude and real wilderness. Just ask Tim Gent
Bouncing over the tufty dry grass, tail waving madly, the black labrador greeted us both with a generous hand lick, warm and impressively damp. As if to put things in balance, and without breaking stride, the happy dog’s owner mumbled something from a distance (it may have been a greeting), before turning towards the next slope. This was our first meeting in over two hours. We didn’t speak to anyone again for more than a day.
Covering a pretty impressive 950km2, as much as 120,000ha of Dartmoor National Park is uninhabited open moorland. Just the thing if you’re searching for a little solitude. A fair bit of it lifts reasonably high too, with over half the tor-speckled upland above 300m. Throw in six granite bumps that push their age-worn shoulders just over the 600m mark and Dartmoor can feel impressively wild and rugged. The army hasn’t chosen to train its infantry here over the last two centuries for nothing. It’s a quite remarkable place.
Heading south into the heart of Dartmoor
Step off the moorland edge and you enter southern England – not the busiest bit it’s true, but Exeter, Torbay and Plymouth are still a sea of development, awash with traffic and people. Make even a short climb up along a sunken lane however, leaving the A30, A38 or A386 to break out quickly onto unenclosed land, and the horizon recedes. All that man-made bustle is soon left behind – completely behind.
Well that was what we had in mind at least as we dropped down from the High Willhayes ridge, Dartmoor’s highest spot, heading, deliberately, deep into the empty heart of this wild moorland.
Only it isn’t that empty, of course. True, we spoke to nobody else until we arrived in mid-moor Princetown sometime around lunchtime the next day. And before crossing the moor-dividing B3357 that morning, we saw only two other walkers, spotting them high on a distant ridge, but the place is far from deserted.
One of Dartmoor’s famous ponies
There may not be quite as many ponies as you’d have found roaming the hills when I was a lad, but they still pepper the moor, sometimes in still quite impressive herds, the alpha stallion standing guard over his shaggy collection of mares and foals from a nearby rise. Beneath a sky alive with the lilting song of the skylark, the intermittent croak of a lone raven or the mew of spiralling buzzards, the hills and boggy dales provide homes to numerous rabbits, foxes and badgers.
It might be wild and unkempt, but it’s still put to work of course, and sheep and cattle also roam the hills. The breeds needs to be tough though – Greyface or Herdwick flocks, with many of the cattle the diminutive but plucky all-black or white-belted Galloways, so suited to these sometimes unforgiving conditions.
Not that they looked particularly cruel as we wandered under a cloudless sky in deliberately aimless fashion, climbing modest hillocks to inspect appropriately modest tors, wending our way along bright bubbling streams, waiting to stumble across the perfect campsite.
And this is where Dartmoor really shines. It may not be the biggest National Park in Britain, far from it in fact. It certainly isn’t the highest, the most rugged, or perhaps even the most dramatic. But despite all that, this upland area of wonderfully human-free ruggedness lies south of London, within only a few hours drive of Southampton, Bristol or even the capital itself.
And if that isn’t good enough, you can just wander in and put up a tent almost anywhere you might wish. There are some restrictions of course, but this wonderfully flexible approach has allowed Susannah and I to camp there often.
A Dartmoor summer solstice sunrise
Sometimes we might set out to a particular spot, possibly deep within the moor. On other occasions, perhaps on a whim, we might head in with a tent late in the day, pitching camp wherever we find ourselves as the sun sets. OK, so this is helped enormously by living right alongside the northern edge, and I can even recall a couple of occasions when we set out after dark, following a familiar route up onto a ridge for the night.
We’ve camped in the snow, in howling gales, or in weather so warm we had to abandon the tent altogether. We’ve camped up there alone, with family, with friends, and on a couple of occasions, as part of huge organised events, lying wide awake in our tent amidst the unfamiliar bustle.
One slightly daft expedition had me shoehorn our seven-man canoe camping tent into a large rucksack before heading out as far as my legs could take the strain (that wasn’t too far), pitching it with views over one of our favourite valleys. Accompanied by our elder daughter, we arose very early the next morning to watch the summer solstice sun break over the horizon.
On this particular trip, we’d decided to set out with no plans whatsoever, wandering as the mood took us, camping on one night by a stream on the western side of the moor, the next, after a good loop, by another to the west. It still ranks as one of our most enjoyable Dartmoor excursions.
Picking one inviting-looking tor after another as our next rugged destination, we revisited quite a few, and even managed to find one we hadn’t seen up close before. That’s not difficult, even if you visit often. Dartmoor is covered with tors, about 170 in all; natural granite sculptures that are just crying out to be explored.
Belstone Ridge is the perfect location to camp if you want a bit (well, a lot) of peace and quiet
And while the moor is relatively free of human activity, at least once away from the rare roads and tracks, it hasn’t always been like that.
For those with an archaeological eye, it’s evident that much of the moor was once far busier than it is today. Prehistoric man loved the place, setting up home to hunt across the uplands, then later farm it. Numerous piles of lichen-covered stone reveal where some of those early farmers still lie, their burial mounds overlooking the land they cultivated.
Even in more recent times the Dartmoor uplands remained very popular, with the search for wealth, notably in the form of tin, now the dominant passion. This resulted in a frenzy of activity that has left its mark across many upland stream valleys.
Camping near Irishman’s wall
True, the moor might not be as varied as The Lake District, as wild as the Cairngorms or as dramatic as the Peaks or Snowdonia. Sometimes, or perhaps more accurately quite often, it can be moody, austere, and even a little intimidating to those who don’t know it. The hills, even on the upper slopes, can also be surprisingly damp and boggy, the going underfoot often demanding. The moorland grass is invariably rough, lumpy and bleached. These are not hills to burst with wild flower colour either.
But Dartmoor is still very special, an oasis of wide open spaces amidst the sometimes maddening bustle below. That’s pretty valuable in our ever more busy world, and all you need to experience this rough southern jewel is a pair of good walking
boots and a tent.
Although wild camping is allowed on Dartmoor, you’ll not be surprised to learn that you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere. Camping on much of the Common Land on the moor is allowed though, and the good news is that there’s a lot of it.
As rules and regulations can change, it’s a very good idea to check the map (which also marks the military firing ranges – see below) on the Dartmoor National Park Authority site before setting out.
Military firing range
While less active on Dartmoor than in the past, the military still maintain large areas of northern Dartmoor as firing ranges. Range boundaries are marked on the ground by red and white posts (which, while a bit of an eyesore, can be very useful for navigation).
Anyone can walk these ranges on public holidays, throughout August or whenever they’re not in use. While this might sound inconvenient, in practice the red flags (by day) and red lights (at night) shown at various prominent points to demonstrate that the ranges are in action, are rarely seen these days. To save a wasted trip though, you can call freephone 0800 458 4868 to check.
While on the subject, the military do still lob things about that can go bang. It’s unlikely you’ll come across anything suspicious these days, but if you do, give it a wide berth and call the Okehampton Camp Commandant on 01837 650010 to let him know where you found it.
Dartmoor has a bit of a reputation as being tough, but if you’re used to upland walking, you shouldn’t have any problems.
It’s true though that some quite big areas are fairly barren and featureless. And while I really don’t want to put anyone off, much of the moor, certainly in the centre, is probably not the best place to be unless you are pretty confident in your navigation skills, especially when the cloud level drops (it’s quite good at that, even in summer).
If you choose to head out, the maps you want are either the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000, OL28 Explorer sheet (I’d pay the extra few pounds for the laminated version), or the lovely Harvey’s Mountain Map (Dartmoor), printed direct onto a waterproof polythene sheet at a scale of 1:40,000.
Photos: Tim and Susannah Gent