A Weekend in Dartmoor
S K Tremayne
I’m lost. I’m standing on a sunlit slope of ochre grass, surrounded by endless, identical, gently rolling hills, and I haven’t a clue which way to go. To make it worse, I thought I knew the route: I’m headed for a pair of stone circles, Grey Wethers, in the remote north-east of Dartmoor, and I’ve been here several times before: I know I have to park my car in tiny Frenchbeer, march through the pines of Fernworthy Forest, then trek west across the sedge….
Fishing in my pocket, I pull out my phone. No signal, no GPS. Still lost.
This is annoying, this is also, in its way, rather perfect. I’ve recently written a thriller set on Dartmoor – Just Before I Died – and one of the reasons I chose Dartmoor is precisely because it is one of the very, very few places in England where you can still get truly, scarily lost – in authentic wilderness. A second reason is that Dartmoor is generously stuffed with sinister legends, dangerous mires, terrifying history, rumours of witchcraft, and it boasts a uniquely daunting topography, with its dramatic granite peaks, called tors (from the Celtic for “towers”).
I’m not making it sound very inviting, am I? If so, don’t worry, there is a third reason to come here for a weekend, besides austere grandeur, and haunted pubs. For all its challenges, Dartmoor is often exceptionally pretty. It is also home to some of Britain’s best hotels and restaurants.
And now, at last, I’ve found Grey Wethers, with a final sweep of my binoculars. Yomping through the swampiness, I approach the faintly melancholic, delicately twinned, 4000 year old stone circles, sleeping in their silence under the sun.
It’s a classic Dartmoor moment. As I stand here, I sense the isolation: the mile after mile of nothing, all around: no one to be seen, nothing to be done. All I can hear is the whirr and murmur of insects, maybe the trill of a stream. That, and the always moving clouds, and my own beating heart.
Also, a rumbling stomach. It’s time to eat and drink, and I know just the place. Hiking back to the car I navigate the fiendishly narrow roads and bridges (built for wild Dartmoor ponies to pass, not two BMWs), and rock up the looooong drive to one of my favourite hotels in the world, Gidleigh Park, near the sweet, chic, bohemian little town of Chagford.
What is it that makes Gidleigh so special? Is it the luscious chunk of river-running woodland at the back, which leads directly up to sacred Kes Tor, and the wistful stone circle of Scorhill? Is it the magnificent view from the main terrace, down a cradling green valley, over the croquet lawn? Maybe it is the remarkable wine list, and the revered kitchen. Famous chefs like Michael Caine and Michael Wignall have worked here (acquiring two Michelin stars on the way), new guy Chris Simpson (previously under Nathan Outlaw) is determined to match their standards.
After a very good night’s sleep (a day of Dartmoor air, and an evening of excellent Rioja, make a great knockout pill) I head for a very different destination, The Two Bridges Hotel, at the wild throbbing heart of the moor. Rambling, dilapidated, splendidly atmospheric, full of ticking grandfather clocks, great gins (try the Salcombe), and dead pheasants in vitrines, this is an excellent place to base yourself for a Dartmoor break, especially if you want something a little cheaper.
My intention is not to sleep: I’m doing the much-loved three hour there-and-back hike (which begins at Two Bridges), to Wistman’s Wood, a miraculous but deeply spooky remnant of primordial, 10,000 year old oak-forest. Over the centuries, Dartmoor’s brutal climate has turned Wistman’s tangled trees into gnarled, arthritic, moss-hung apparitions, their branches clutching the air in a near humanlike way. It’s no surprise the word Wistman derives from “whisht” – meaning “uncanny, eerie, full of pixies”. Brrrr. It’s a great place to bring kids (they love to climb the boulders, and shiver at the ghost stories) then haul them back to the Two Bridges for a lash-up Devonshire cream tea. Bliss.
I’ve got one more night on the moor. I could stay at splendid Bovey Castle, with its golf course, great grub, excellent martinis and its Valhalla meets PG Wodehouse ambience – and its perfect location for famed Dartmoor sights like Haytor (a must-climb) and Dartmeet (have a picnic where the rivers twain!) but my thriller-writing heart is pulling me west, through some of Dartmoor’s darker places.
First, Princetown, surely the grimmest settlement in Britain, with its endless crawling fogs and brooding Georgian prison, which lours over everything, like the mad black castle of a despot on a hill. You might not want to linger, but everyone should see Princetown – once.
Onwards, and the road brings me to Merrivale. The cheerful name belies the sinister truth. Surrounded by classic Dartmoor bleakscape, Merrivale is a wistful row of Neolithic megaliths, with a so-called kistvaen (a stone chest where corpses were interred, possibly after human sacrifice). During the Black Death Merrivale was also known as Plague Market. Why? Because infected people on the coast came up to take food left by uninfected people on the moor. The lowlanders left gold coins in vinegar, as payment, hoping not to spread the germs. Everyone died, anyway.
And now I’m done. I’d like to spend a week here (there’s so much more to see, from legend-filled Lydford Gorge, to exquisite Widecombe, to the tranquil waters of Lake Burrator) but I have a night in maybe the best value hotel in the UK. Boringdon Hall, where the moorland descends to the grey suburbs of Plymouth.
Boringdon has five Stars. It’s also a genuine Elizabethan manor, visited by Queen Bess herself. It even has a minstrel’s gallery, where they serve delicious, inventive food. Best of all it has a world class spa, where you can sit outside in the hot tub, watching the dying summer twilight over the tors. The moorland people have a delightful word for this special light. Dimmity.
So there you are, that’s Dartmoor in one weekend. Now come see it for yourself; I promise it isn’t that scary.