We decided to take a road trip over Dartmoor. My choice of vehicle for this trip was the ‘go anywhere’ VW T6 Kombi ‘Columbus’. With a powerful 2.0 TDi engine, 7-speed automatic gearbox and optical reversing system, it made navigating Dartmoor’s winding, hilly and sometimes narrow roads and lanes an absolute pleasure.
Loading up my curly co-pilot and her car seat, we dialled up our Road Trip playlist on the iPod and headed for the hills.
We stopped just up the road at the well-stocked Cheriton Bishop village stores to load up with road trip supplies. Parking behind an old Land Rover Defender, we noticed a window sticker that you’d only see in Devon and Cornwall. And, true to form, its owner had just stocked up on baked goodies.
With dry but heavily clouded skies above us, we headed West along the deserted former A30, getting tantalising glimpses of Dartmoor in the sun up ahead. We passed through Whiddon Down and decided to call in at the Dartmoor View campsite to see what they had to offer our customers. The campsite was quiet but immaculately kept. There was an outdoor heated swimming pool (not much call for that, however), well-spaced pitches and as I’m reliably informed, some pubs nearby!
The road took us towards Moretonhampstead, passing Woodland Springs campsite, which is another of our favourites and recommendations. Adults only, you are assured a very pleasant stay and lots of peace and quiet.
We drove up past Parford Well to Castle Drogo - National Trust owned, and the last castle to be built in England (1911 to 1930). Designed by Edwin Lutyens for Julius Drewe, who was the founder of the Home and Colonial Stores. The castle, built of granite, is in a striking setting above a gorge on the edge of Dartmoor. The garden is noted for its rhododendrons and magnolias, herbaceous borders, rose garden, shrub garden and circular grass tennis court - now used for croquet. However, owing to the local climate and the granite used in its construction, the castle has had to undergo a massive restoration project to finally make it watertight. Work is expected to be completed in 2018. You can still visit, and you can also get a tour of the works in progress.
Nearby is another National Trust site, Lydford Gorge. A 3-mile circular walk will take you through stunning autumn leaf colours to the 30m high waterfall. Devil’s Cauldron is also accessible at this site; however, the path is closed in winter for safety reasons. The National Trust list 50 things you can do here. Here’s a small summary: “For many 50 things activities you don’t even need to venture into the gorge. The orchard at the Devil’s Cauldron entrance is a wildlife haven and gets the best of the sunshine when it is out. Here you can eat an apple straight from a tree, although some may taste better than others as we do have some cider varieties which can be a little sharp on the tongue. It is also a great place to look for wild blackberries. They ripen later at the gorge as we are close to Dartmoor and so higher and colder than other parts of the county”.
“Some other 50 things activities that can be ticked off in the orchard include bug hunting, den building and wild art. A good place to hunt for bugs during autumn is around the fallen apples, as lots of insects and other animals will make good use of this new food source. If you need to keep warm why not build a den against the trunk of one of the bigger trees. Collect fallen leaves and twigs to make some wild art, how about getting some inspiration from the things around you and creating a picture of a tree or waterfall”.
“The new suspension bridge at Whitelady waterfall is a great place to play pooh sticks with the whole family. Pixie Glen has a wider and quieter stretch of river good for skimming stones. Also look out for the pixie door in one of the trees in this area”.
We passed the sign for the very pretty Fernworthy Reservoir. No time to stop today, however, the site boasts a rich abundance of wildlife and points of archaeological interest such as ancient stone cairns, hut circles and submerged clapper bridges (which can be seen when the water levels are very low – as in 2016). Fernworthy Reservoir is nestled in the heart of Dartmoor National Park, adjacent to the idyllic village of Chagford. It feeds water into Trenchford Reservoir and supplies Torquay with drinking water. Construction was completed in 1942 and the reservoir holds up to 380 million gallons.
Driving through Moretonhampstead, we noticed a very quirky looking vintage Motor Museum in the former bus depot. This is apparently home to a collection of over 120 vintage vehicles, from Victorian horse-drawn carts to cars, motorcycles and light commercial vehicles from pre-1920s to the 1990s, motoring artefacts and automobilia. Definitely worth a look next time!
From here we drove up to the top of the moor, passing the Dartmoor Miniature Pony Centre. We didn’t stop on this occasion, firstly because Sophie went there just a month ago, and secondly because little girls and ponies can become expensive business! Crossing the cattle grids, she was excited to see sheep and Dartmoor ponies grazing happily both on and off the road.
We then stopped for a photo opportunity, a cheeky sandwich and a ‘brew with a view’ on the road past the exceptionally remote Warren House Inn (steeped in legend, and also the 10th highest inn in England). There are some great photos in the pub of RAF helicopters dropping supplies to the pub during massive blizzards in the 1970s. To our rear lay the Late Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound (about 1450–700 BC). The remains of 24 stone roundhouses survive here, within a massive boundary wall about 150 metres in diameter. A short steep walk from the road will get you onto the site.
To our left, a small wooded area concealed the remains of two of the most productive Dartmoor mines - Vitifer and Golden Dagger. This area has been almost continuously mined since medieval times and the results of all this activity can still be seen by the large deep excavations (or gerts) that scar the hillsides around. At first, miners would have streamed the tin-rich stream of the Redwater, but as this began to yield less tin then they resorted to digging and then creating mine pits. Vitifer and Golden Dagger were the last mines and were worked on or off until the 20th century. A couple of deep shafts (400 ft) provided access to the underground workings in which up to 100 miners worked in hard conditions. The nearby Warren House Inn was their public house and the warren provided them with rabbit meat. There are surprisingly few remains left of this important mining area. Nothing of the rail tracks that transported the ore from the mines or of the wheels that drove the machinery. The exotic name of Golden Dagger may derive from a bronze dagger that was found many years before in a nearby cairn.
From the Warren House Inn, the road to Postbridge took us past Powder Mills, where away from the road you can see a chimney stack and some derelict industrial workings. In 1809 this would have been the gunpowder factory - ideally placed in the middle of nowhere in case of some catastrophic incident, and in the perfect place to supply nearby mining and quarrying activities. Today, it offers a somewhat less dangerous visit in the form of a pottery, which you can visit.
Postbridge, next, is one of the top three most visited areas of Dartmoor, owing to its beautiful (and exceptionally old) Clapper Bridge. A traffic survey carried out in 1998 revealed in excess of 800 vehicles an hour passing over the new bridge adjacent to it. With a convenient car park nearby, it’s an easy and very pretty stop, although it can get quite busy at peak times. We took some pictures, had a paddle, kicked up some autumn leaves, and chatted to a friendly Robin.
We continued past Princetown, the prison looming bleakly above the village. This is where we send clients who don’t empty the toilet when returning their motorhomes. The road took us towards Tavistock, via Merrivale Quarry, with huge waste granite boulders lining the road, and the shells of buildings left abandoned after its closure in 1997. Merrivale is also home to a series of Bronze Age megalithic monuments - and the Dartmoor Inn, which will sell you a pint of Merivale Ale to quench your thirst after all that exploring (not if you’re the driver, however!)
As we started heading towards the northern edge of the moor and Tavistock, I noticed a familiar motorhome in a beauty spot by the side of the road. A long way from its home in Norfolk, this was one of Capricorn Campers’ motorhomes - pretty much our sister company on the other side of the country (James and I travel together when collecting our motorhomes from the factory in Italy). We stopped for a quick chat with its occupants - however, my 3-year-old co-pilot was more interested at that point in the couple in the car next door, who had just returned from the Mr Whippy van. With a protesting child on board, we pushed North to Tavistock and the A30.
The final glimpse of the moor and its industrial heritage was offered by engine house of the 900ft deep lead/copper mine Wheal Betsy at Mary Tavy. Wheal Betsy is Dartmoor’s rival to the leaning tower of Pisa. The mine closed in 1877, and the chimney stack of the engine house has leaned at a precarious angle for very many years. It is maintained and stabilised by the National Trust. The main road takes us past the MOD firing ranges before emerging into more traditional countryside surroundings.
The final unusual stopping place was The Highwayman Inn at Sourton, originally built in 1282 and also steeped in history. We didn’t have the chance to go in, however, they quote that it is “An Aladdin's cave of eclectic artefacts and curios, an interesting and celebrated clientele (including a resident ghost), combine to make The Highwayman Inn truly something special”.
Hitting the A30, we switched on the cruise control and the van effortlessly whisked us back to the yard. And, on top of having a grand day out, we also managed to achieve 35 mpg while doing so!
We barely scratched the surface of places to visit and things to do on Dartmoor. The scenery is so varied - from leafy woodlands and rolling fields, imposing granite Tors and untamed heathland, quaint market towns and thatched granite cottages, to once prosperous industrial heritage. You could easily spend 3 days - and possibly even a week - touring around this beautiful yet mysterious wilderness.