Discover challenging and dramatic walking trails shaped by the footsteps of traders, smugglers, saints and pirates. Cornish walking trails will reveal ancient tin mines, clifftop castles, timeless fishing villages and wild moors as you travel through a landscape of huge cliffs and hidden coves that goes back to the depths of time itself. In between the coastal drama, iconic harbours such as St Ives and Padstow give walkers access to some of the UK‘s best restaurants and coastal hotels. A county encircled by the wild Atlantic ocean, there is over 330 miles of spectacular world class coast path here taking you around the farthest corners of England - put simply it feels like walking on the edge of the world.
Stretching from coast to coast across the southwest of England, Devon is a richly diverse county with rugged shores and cliffs in the north, and classic Victorian seaside resorts in the south. In between you'll find tranquil green pastures, wooded gorges and the two dramatic wild moors in the National Parks of Dartmoor and Exmoor. Choose Devon for its walking variety, and you'll find that the popular image of cream teas and thatched cottages is true - but that Devon is so much more once you explore it on two feet. Coast to coast routes like the Two Moors Way will offer a journey through it all from the wild northern shores that inspired the Romantic poets to the maritime ports of the south coast.
Free your soul and clear your mind! Walking on the wild moors of these National Parks is a wonderful antidote to modern living. England's last true wilderness, Dartmoor offers 365 square miles of virtually uninhabited freedom with high moors and twisted dramatic granite tors a land of myths, ghosts and legends. Exmoor, its smaller and more gentle neighour, is 250 Square miles of near perfect and unique beauty, with high uplands swathed in heather and steep, wooded gorges and rushing streams. See Dartmoor ponies and Exmoor stags in these wildlife rich areas, home to 30 species of mammals and over 240 types of bird. The moors offer a unique opportunity for more challenging walking where the only human sound you will hear is the rhythm of your own breath.
Avoid the crowds and discover “Secret Somerset” missed by so many rushing headlong for the far South West. The 'land of the summer people' was named in a time when this area could only be visited in the summer months as the sea receded. Today its a rich, fertile and 'for real' landscape crowned by the fine walking ridges of the Mendip and Quantock Hills both protected areas of outstanding natural beauty. Rising up over King Arthur‘s Vale of Avalon along with the magical Tor at Glastonbury, walkers will find hidden gorges, wooded combes and the best inland panoramas of the South West. Also boasting its own Jurassic Coast Path, providing a gateway into the wilds of Exmoor National Park, Somerset offers walking routes without the crowds for those who want to find..... what the rest miss.
Dorset has a comfortable old world “English” feel to it and its walking routes traverse a rather more green and agricultural land of thatched cottages, cream teas.... and fossils ! Walkers here will find the more gentle rolling farmland, pretty villages and chalk ridges beloved by Thomas Hardy that sweep down to end abruptly at the World Heritage Jurassic Coast. Here, alongside the sea, those after more challenging routes can take a walking holiday through time itself amongst the dramatic chalk stacks, cliffs and arches of the Dorsetshire fossil coast. An area that can be very busy in high season but often suits walkers looking for more gentle and less exposed walking than the far west of the region.
Wales offers some of the best walking and outdoor activities to be had anywhere in the world. The 870-mile Welsh Coast Path was only fully opened in 2012 and is the world's first walk along the entire coast of a nation. The terrain is on an equally grand scale with towering cliffs, vast stretches of unspoilt golden sands, imposing castles, offshore islands and to the north there is the backdrop of Snowdonia National Park with its stunning mountains. Wales in general offers walkers great value for money compared to more popular areas like Cornwall with walking options to suit everyone, from those who want the cosmopolitan restaurants and facilities of towns like Tenby and St Davids, through to isolated and remote forests and coastal hills that sit on the very cusp of the Snowdonian Peaks. Bursting with confidence and pride in its “Welshness”, its Celtic history, language and culture there has never been a better time for walkers to enter Wales.
The South West Coast Path is the UK's longest National Trail and one of the top ten walking routes in the world. It snakes, dips and rises continuously on its way through a staggering 1014km (630 miles) of pristine coastline, 450 miles of which is through nationally protected areas. It's a challenge too; walking the entire South West Coast Path is the equivalent to scaling Mount Everest four times! From towering cliffs to hidden coves, ghostly tin mines to lush subtropical wooded creeks. One minute a dramatic rock theatre hewn out of the cliffs, the next a prehistoric fossilized forest or a 20thC Art Deco Island Hotel. What sets The South West Coast Path apart from other trails is that around almost every corner is yet another surprise as you retrace the footsteps and histories of the tin miners, fisherman, smugglers, wreckers and the customs men who chased them.
For Dartmoor Way walkers Buckfastleigh is the start and end of the trail and so most will end up spending two nights here based in the lush valley surroundings of the lower Dart River. Holding a good selection of accommodation and plenty of attractions it serves its arriving and departing visitors well.
Most famous for its Benedictine Abbey at Buckfast this was first founded in 1018 by King Canute and was mentioned in the Domesday Book before becoming a place of peace for the monks of a Cistercian Monastary in 1148. That peace ended when it was "dissolved" by Henry VIII in the Reformation. Set just outside the town, the present buildings are well worth visiting set in stunning location on the River Dart a favourite spot for the forest deer. The modern parts were constructed by a handful of French Benedictine monks in 1932 and Buckfastleigh Abbey now funds itself by the production of stained glass, honey and their own recipe of tonic wine. The gardens are well worth exploring based on a Medieval design that includes purple lavender gardens and a sensory water garden intended to stimulate the senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch.
Built where two streams converge on River Dart the running water was ideal for the development of industry and the Town grew during Middle Ages and at one time was the principal wool manufacturing town in Devon with over 7 mills as well as being a major staging post between Plymouth and Exeter. The Dartmoor Way route description gives details about the fascinating and eerie remains of its Church and Chapel on the hill above the town, which sits above a network of prehistoric caves and forms part of the first days walk.
Today the Town provides a range of accommodation options for the walker from small B&B's to welcoming Inns including The Abbey Inn which has easy access for visiting the Abbey as well as a pleasant terrace beside the river if the weather is good enough to eat outside. The town with its narrow streets and tiny areas of park is a pleasing place to wander through with a reasonable set of shops including cafe's, tea shops, a chemist and three pubs. Don't get confused by The Valiant Soldier however if you do need a drink - this was a pub which closed in the 1960s and the place has now been frozen in time for the visitor, untouched (even down to the change in the till and a jar of pickled eggs on the bar) and left as a museum of that era, its old pub games, furniture and decor a fine record of a time now gone. The Tourist Information point is here and its well worth a quick visit before heading off for the Moor.
If you were inspired by all the Tors and rock faces along the Dartmoor Way, then on your return try Devon's premier Climbing Centre and Indoor wall at Dartrock where you can easily arrange a taster lesson.
For more leisurely pursuits there is an excellent outdoor lido and heated public swimming pool beside picturesque Victoria Park that is popular with residents and visitors alike during the summer season. If you missed seeing any wild otters on the Dartmoor Way then you can make up for it at the Butterfly Farm and Otter Sanctury right beside the Steam Railway - here you can get a close view of the otters swimming underwater in specially built glass enclosures.
Arrival and departure is made all the more enjoyable by the South Devon Steam Railway which runs a regular service several times a day from the mainline train station at Totnes.
You can pitch up in style on fully restored steam trains which travel alongside the pretty River Dart to arrive in the old Buckfastleigh Station, a fascinating time capsule in its own right with its preserved ticket offices and platforms straight out of the last Century. There is a small Museum here and interesting displays along with a railway cafe that serves the returning moorland walker well.
A thoroughly attractive town Ashburton sits just below Dartmoor as the Southern Gateway to Dartmoor National Park and the largest town within its boundaries. Originally a Saxon village, recorded in the Domesday Book and from 1285 one of the designated stannary towns of Dartmoor (along with Chagford and Tavistock) Nearly half of all the tin mined in Devon passed through the town from the middle ages onwards.
Its early prosperity still shows today, attractive tall merchants houses from the 15th Century with overhanging slate frontages now house antique shops, cafes and range of quirky independent stores. The Dartmoor Way walker is well served for refreshments as Ashburton has established a reputation for being a “foodie” haven. Cafes, restaurants and several pubs abound to suit all budgets and tastes, there are 2 delicatessens a bakers and a daily market selling organic veg and other produce farmed locally. The Tourist Information Centre run by enthused volunteers is well worth visiting with an excellent selection of books and leaflets covering the National Park.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, described Ashburton as “the most heathen town he had ever visited” but things clearly improved and as the Dartmoor Way passes the Parish Church you can reflect on the wealth the town must have enjoyed. Its an impressive structure with a 92ft tower and intricately carved roof. There is a small museum in the centre worth visiting, although not open every day. Bizarrely for a small town on the edge of Dartmoor it holds an internationally renowned collection of North American Indian items !
Most people start and end The Dartmoor Way from Buckfastleigh. However, with an excellent bus service to the nearby mainline train station at Newton Abbot walkers can, if they prefer, look to start and finish the Dartmoor Way here from the larger town of Ashburton – just ask for info on accommodation options.
Another self proclaimed gateway town to Dartmoor, this time the Eastern Entrance, Bovey Tracey sits in a wide valley below some of Dartmoor National Parks most iconic Tors at Haytor and Hounds Tor and is therefore a very walker friendly place.
Its major historical events surround the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell surprised the Royalist troops here who were supposed to be guarding the town but were too busy drinking in the Riverside Inn which is now closed. The Royalists were playing cards and only escaped by hurling the money out of the window and making good their getaway whilst the Roundheads scrabbled around for the loot. It may have been an inspired move but it failed to help them much however as Cromwell slaughtered them the next day at the Battle of Bovey Heath.
The towns more modern industrial roots lie in its Mills on the powerful River Bovey and the potteries which flourished because the local clay deposits made raw materials immediately accessible, the bottle kilns are still here and are now listed buildings. The Church is also an indication of the wealth Bovey once enjoyed with fine carvings and it was in fact, built as a penance by the local knight, Sir William de Tracey. In 1170 he was one of the infamous four who hacked to death Archbishop Thomas a Beckett on the High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral on King Henry II’s command. One of the most notorious acts in English History, however the locals of Bovey did not feel much shame at this terrible crime and they added the name of “de Tracey” to that of Bovey, where it has remained ever since.
There are a handful of teashops (including The Flying Pig Coffee Shop) along with several Inns and Hotels serving food and Spice Bazaar a very popular Indian restaurant.
For other needs the town has a chemist, deli with an impressive selection of West Country cheeses, cash machines and a small Walking Equipment Shop . For those who want a refreshing dip at the end of the walk here then right on the Dartmoor Way as you arrive there is the excellent Bovey Tracey Open Air Swimming Pool where you can take a plunge in the heated waters whilst looking up to the heights of Dartmoor above.
Well worth visiting as you cross the old bridge into town on the Dartmoor Way is the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, the largest contemporary craft centre in the South West. Housed in a former mill, there are regular exhibitions as well as products from around 250 South West based artists and craft makers. The Terrace Cafe here has rooftop seating with good views across the town and also offers meals cooked with local ingredients including farm cider.
Situated on the Dartmoor Way close to the larger town of Moretonhampstead (see below), walkers on a more relaxed itinerary will choose one or the other for an overnight stay in this area.
North Bovey is the one for those who want a night right below the moors in an stunning and unspoilt time capsule village with nothing but a stroll over the medieval village green for entertainment. Those seeking a wider range of facilities should walk the few miles on to Mortetonhampstead.
North Bovey is everyone’s idea of a Devon village a handful of cottages with thatched roofs around a rough village green with its stone cross and water pump. Its other appeal for the resting walker lies in the excellent 15th Century Ring of Bells Inn. With bags of atmosphere, good wine and hearty meals for those coming in from The Dartmoor Way its currently being refurbished after a fire in 2015 but will reopen shortly and its been sorely missed.
The villages wealth came from the nearby moorland tin mining with both open cast and shaft workings and the fine Wagon Roofed Church of St John the Baptist was built with the tithes from the mining.
The decline in tin mining left the village struggling, but in the late 19th century the land was bought by W H Smith from the former Earl of Devon and Frederick Smith, his son, inherited the estate and built one of Devon’s finest manor houses for himself.
After various incarnations as a convalescent home during the First World War and a military hospital for the duration of the Second this impressive building is now the luxury Bovey Castle Hotel. Those wanting a night of luxury can stay here and indulge in the spa at Dartmoors most famous hotel set in stupendous surroundings – ask for prices and options.
Today, the population of North Bovey is now less than half what it was a hundred years ago but perhaps in part because of this it retains a unique charm for the overnight visitor.
Yet another inspiring and energising Dartmoor Town many walkers comment on how Moretonhampstead is one of the friendliest and most welcoming overnight locations on the Dartmoor Way - perhaps due to its rather isolated location set at the North East corner of the moor.
The name comes from a Saxon word “Mortun” meaning ‘enclosed piece of land near the moor’ whilst the Hampstead is from one of the many Lords of the Manor.
Moretonhampstead’s location is almost exactly in the centre of the county of Devon and it has always been an important stop for travellers at the crossroads of the two roads which cross the moor. This would no doubt account for the incredible 18 public houses listed as open here in the 18th century. Then it was a busy town supporting paper, tannery and tallow works as well as the cloth mills.
A great fire in 1845 destroyed all but a few of the buildings but did leave the impressive 15th Century church of St Andrews which stands proudly against the moor at one end of the village as well as a set of unusual almshouses, two-storey granite buildings now owned by the National Trust. Both are well worth a wander to from the centre of town.
Today, Moretonhampstead has become a bit of a centre for craftsmen and artists and because of this there are many fine sculptures of local moorland wildlife around the town to spot including sheep and Dartmoor ponies 'grazing' in Pound Street and mice and owls decorating the town's railings.
From a wall in the town square you will see a flying sculpture of what has become the towns emblem, the sparrowhawk, which represents the time when King John granted the town its charter in the thirteenth century and set the rent at one sparrowhawk per year.
There are a several good inns here providing accommodation and food for walkers as well as some excellent B&B’s.
The town is justifiably proud of its refurbished Green Hill Arts Gallery which is in the old Victorian Schoolhouse and holds contemporary art and heritage displays and as with all these East Dartmoor Towns there is a welcome outdoor swimming pool heated this time by solar power and open to all....including dusty walkers arriving from North Bovey.
The helpful Tourist Information Centre is right on The Dartmoor Way which has a comprehensive range of books, maps and guides. There are a choice of “moorland” tea shops and cafes and generally the town with a chemist and supermarket can provide whatever else may be needed by the passing walker.
Okehampton is the second largest town on the Dartmoor Way, sitting on the northern fringes of Dartmoor National Park dominated by the imposing peaks of High Willhays and Yes Tor which are the moor’s highest points a few miles south of here.
Its origins are as a place of freedom, recorded in AD980 as the cross roads where slaves were released to “choose their own destiny”.
Indeed its location on a safer lowland route past the moor has been key to its development throughout history and it was for this reason that it’s most famous building, Okehampton Castle, was built by its first Norman Sheriff Baldwin de Brion who wanted to protect this vital route to Cornwall. Over the next few centuries it became the largest castle in Devon and certainly its most impressive in a stunning setting on a wooded spur above the churning River Okement.
Then in 1539 as an act of revenge, Henry VIII dismantled not only the castle but also its owner – at that time one Henry Courtenay who was beheaded for his alleged treason. The castle slowly crumbled into the atmospheric and ivy clad ruin that remains today though its enchanting location and impressive remains are still well worth visiting as you leave the town on the Dartmoor Way.
For today’s walker Okehampton is a pleasant enough overnight stop. With a pretty laid back atmosphere, its large parks and wide streets give a much more roomy feel than the compact towns and tiny villages you have encountered so far.
The glass-roofed Victorian arcade houses an interesting mix of independent shops and along with Red Lion Yard, these include an organic bakery and greengrocers selling local produce.
A farmers market is held in the chapel square, and as a reflection of the town’s past as a staging post from Exeter to Cornwall, there are a number of former coaching inns offering accommodation as well as a good handful of walker friendly B&B’s. There are several eating options in the town, from Italian to an American Diner (?!) and for those who want to explore further you will find the town has several antique and jewellery shops, art galleries and boutiques as well as a useful Walking Equipment retailer and the usual banks and chemists.
For those with the time, one place not to miss is The Museum of Dartmoor Life. The Dartmoor Way is actually routed to and from the Museum, an indication of its relevance. Concentrating on a Social History of the areas you are walking through rather than the usual legends and wildlife themes this is a very useful overview of habitation on the moor since earliest times that will enlighten and inform those that are walking through the National Park on foot.
Laid out over three floors with interactive exhibits, you will find out about the Civil War battle of Sourton Down an area you will be walking over tomorrow, about the main Dartmoor industries, the military presence, the infamous prisons and the moorlands transport history as well as get your questions answered about the old fashioned farming methods, tin mining and quarrying. Set just off the main street in an old courtyard that holds an impressively huge water wheel there is a handy cafe on site as well as the Tourist Information Centre.
Don’t be fooled by the unassuming appearance of this pretty little village which sits on the remote western flank of Dartmoor – today it may only hold a handful of houses and a pub (population less than 500) but its place in Dartmoor History is one of huge significance.
This was one of Alfred the Great’s four principal settlements in Devon built for defence against both the Cornish and the Vikings who came this far inland to destroy the early Saxon castle in 997 and a runic stone carved from local granite and sited in the field next to the castle commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of this Viking attack. Earthworks from the Saxon fortification are still visible and the ramparts within which the village still sits must have been huge. No wonder, as Lydford was once the administrative centre of the whole moor and royal coins of King Aethelred were minted here, known as the “silver pennies of Lydford”. The coins were used throughout the Kingdom of Wessex, and each silver penny represented one day’s work for a Saxon peasant.
Two castles were built on this site after the Norman Conquest, the first, of which was the first castle to be built by William the Conqueror. Today what remains and is referred to as Lydford Castle, is the later Norman Keep built in 1195 as a prison and used throughout the centuries to incarcerate petty criminals and those who broke the local Stannary and Forest Laws, it was little more than a centre for Injustice and corruption according to the 17th century local poet
“I oft have heard of Lydford Law, How in the morn they hang and draw.....And sit in judgement after”
Indeed even by the official accounts this was a particularly horrible place to end up - an order of Parliament in Henry VIII’s time describes the prison as: “one of the most hanious, contagious and detestable places in the realm”. The court of law based here was used in the Civil War, its head being the notorious Judge Jeffreys, known as the “hanging judge”, and the prison was used to keep all military prisoners before being executed for High Treason. The Dartmoor Way runs right past the ruins which are open for all to enter and you can still see down to the dreary windowless dungeon where the hapless prisoners were held – the only access being a wooden ladder that was whipped back out as soon as the prisoners stepped of the bottom rung.
Today’s accommodation options are far improved – The 16th Century Castle Inn is the main place to stay here with views over the Castle and Church though there are also a couple of B&B options or the more upmarket Dartmoor Inn a former coaching Inn on the main Tavistock road.
Next to the castle the Church is an impressive and pleasing 13th century building dedicated to St Petroc the Cornish Saint - look for the famous set of wood carvings that form the ends of the pews. Each one is unique and shows a saint surrounded by animals and plants that include frogs, goats, rabbits and sea creatures. The Churchyard is the end of the rather spooky Lych Way or Corpse Trail also referred to as “The Way of the Dead”. An ancient path worn by those living on the remote high moor who were required to carry the coffins of any deceased persons up to 17 miles over the high moor passing the likes of “Coffin Wood” on a sombre journey to Lydford Castle to report the death and then the church next door for burial.
So far so grim for Lydford – however today its a peaceful and interesting overnight stop and for Dartmoor Way walkers its main interest is it allows access to the superb forested ravine at Lydford Gorge, managed by The National Trust and entered on the south of the village. CLICK HERE to read about the 3 mile circular walk past whirlpools and 100ft waterfalls – its not to be missed and is easy to build into the itineraries of those staying at Lydford.
Those on a standard itinerary from Okehampton will stay in one or other of these neighbouring villages. Both are small and relatively remote places with only one or two accommodation options but are set in a sheltered and lush green valley that sits on the rushing River Tavy just below the edge of the moorland.
The two villages grew separately, although both were named after their respective churches and the river which passed through these small agricultural settlements with their scattered farms and cottages. The two churches are located a mile apart from each other at Mary Tavy church you can still see the village stocks in the porch, whilst St Peters Church has medieval rood screen remnants and Tudor wood carvings worth taking a look at.
The geology here gave Mary Tavy the upper hand in its fortunes, as rich veins of copper, tin and silver were all discovered here. Wheal Friendship the local mine to the north of the village was at one point the largest copper mine in the world and employed over 1000 men and women in its heyday. The huge overgrown engine house remains clinging to the moor today one of Dartmoor’s most Iconic and lonely sights and it can be visited on an evening stroll from the village.
At Mary Tavy you can stay in the local Inn whilst at Peter Tavy there are no Inn rooms but one or two B&B’s for walkers - however just as Peter Tavy retains its own church ....so it has its own pub and the 15th Century Peter Tavy Inn has roaring log fires in the winter and a beer garden with views of the moor in Summer as well as a reputation for good food and the holder of several real ale pub awards.
On a week long walking holiday there is always one place that the weary walker can look forward to reaching as the best location on the route for facilities, accommodation and fine foods and on The Dartmoor Way this would be Tavistock.
A vibrant and lively place Tavistock is Devon’s Premier Market Town with a population of around 11,000 and as such offers numerous good eating choices including delis, cafes, hotels and fine dining restaurants.
Winner of awards for the UK’s “Best Market Town” and in Devon as the “Best Food Town” its a time to indulge for those arriving for some rest and relaxation from the high moor and the single Inn overnight villages. With plenty of luxury B&B’s and guest houses, inns and smart hotels there is something to suit everyone’s needs in Tavistock.
The location in a wide green bowl at the point the Tavy river leaves the moor is also fittingly attractive and has long been a draw for those who have held or sought the West Countries wealth and privilege.
The important Tavistock Abbey was founded in the 10th century by the Earl of Devon though it had an inauspicious start being burnt to the ground within 20 years when the Danes sailed up the river Tamar to make off with the riches inside. It was quickly rebuilt however and became very wealthy very quickly with a Royal Charter granted in 1105 that included the legal rights to create the town including a weekly pannier market and 3-day long fair once a year.
Both rights are still exercised 1000 years later with the Goose Fair in October still going strong and the daily Pannier market the major feature of the Town.
The towns Market used to be held in Bank Square but was moved in 1860 to the impressive stone-built covered Pannier Market and it has bustled with stalls, good food and the plain unexpected ever since. Don’t miss a wander around this unique venue - whatever your fancy, be it - old books, antiques, model aeroplanes or smart jeans - there is enormous variety and choice. Outside the market there are plenty of art and craft galleries to wander around, both in the town and at The Wharf Arts Centre where you will often find live music, cinema, theatre and art exhibitions. The towns central point is the wide and airy Bedford Square built in 1859, with has the 15th Century Parish Church of St Eustachius (the Roman Officer who was martyred), sitting on one side and the Town Hall and other impressive administrative buildings on the other.
The square has quite a European feel to it and the market often spills out here in rows of stalls outside the Town Hall.
You will also find the excellent Town Museum which houses displays on local history, mining and of course Sir Francis Drake, the most famous of Tavistock’s sons whose exploits and achievements are well documented here.
Sadly for the Abbey and its monks the good days ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII and most of it was destroyed. However ruined sections remain atmospherically dotted around Bedford Square and The Churchyard, a Court Gate, a ruined gatehouse and a section of cloister wall and tiled pavement – all adding to the sense of history and importance of the town. Some of the outer wall of the Abbey and the monks Stillhouse “ where medicines were distilled “ can also be found on the pleasant Abbey Walk river path which makes a great pre evening meal wander along the gentle banks of the River Tavy.
Last but not least if you are going to have one Devon Cream Tea on the Dartmoor Way then we think it should be here in its spiritual home - 11th century manuscripts record that the monks at Tavistock Abbey fed travellers with bread, clotted cream and preserves – and in doing so invented the West Countries biggest ever industry and export - one that has outlived all the mines and the quarries!
Enjoy Tavistock and do refuel and stock up as the next section is all uphill from the low valley to the highest town on Dartmoor at Princetown as you finally make your crossing of the Central Moor.
An eerie, isolated place, high on the moor this is Dartmoor’s highest town and exposed to the full force of weather from the north and east, Princetown is a harsh but unique place dominated by the Uk’s answer to Alcatraz, the notorious Dartmoor Prison.
The settlement was the grand idea of Thomas Tyrwhitt who was secretary to The Prince of Wales and leased the desolate Moorland for his attempts to “Civilise the interior”. In an unashamable attempt to curry favour with his boss he called his new project Princetown. When it became clear that his plans for a rich agricultural settlement were doomed due to the inhospitable nature of the location he decided perhaps wisely that the location best lent itself to a prison.
The logic was the natural barrier of the moor itself – if prisoners managed to escape they would either perish from hypothermia on the open moor or be easily tracked by dogs through a landscape with no shelter and few places to hide. The structure was built originally in 1808 by French and American Prisoners of War who had been held in the hulls of large decommissioned ships along the south coast and at one time there were over 11,000 incarcerated here.
The stark church remains only one in the UK built by convicts thousands died of disease and exhaustion here and were buried in mass graves recognised today by simple memorials in the Prison grounds.
In the 20th Century the prison became infamous in the UK housing not only its most feared criminals but conscientious objectors in World War 1 and IRA prisoners in the early 1921 risings.
Today around 800 prisoners are still held in this wildest of spots with nothing but open moorland to gaze over from their cell windows. The “modern” prison revamped by the Victorians is as scary a place to look at as you can get, dark uncompromising and stark sitting in the middle of miles of desolate moorland its a shuddering sight. Crime has paid in one sense at Princetown as the town you see today grew around the Prison to house the officers and families who were sent here and whilst on the face of it Princetown is not a pretty place its a fascinating overnight stop and an important contrast to the picture postcards and cream tea’s of the thatched villages on the Eastern Moor. In that sense a vital and utterly unique place for those who really want to explore and understand Dartmoor in its entirety.
This is the most deprived ward in Devon and to understand how the high moor still makes an isolated and harsh environment to live in you should be stopping here.
On a positive note for the arriving Dartmoor Way Walker, all the facilities here are geared towards those heading into the great outdoors and walkers are more welcome here than anywhere. The place has several Bunk houses, walkers’ tea shops and welcoming inns offering good B&B and serving hearty meals - are all reliant on the trade from walkers alone to survive.
Right in the middle of town, The High Moorland Visitor Centre is the Dartmoor National Parks flagship location for visitors to Dartmoor. Its an impressive tour with state of the Dartmoor art displays and National Park information, very different to the Prison Museum but equally informative.
The building housing the exhibitions used to be the Duchy Hotel, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed while writing The Hound of the Baskervilles – the deadly Grimpen Mire that features throughout the book was in fact The Fox Tor Mire to the South of the Town.
Highly recommended, you should make time to visit the Dartmoor Prison Museum just north of the Town, set in one of the grim outlying prison buildings. Run by the some of the wardens this place is superb, no modern hands on displays here just the fascinating history of the prison, the riots and rebellions by its prisoners, its most famous inhabitants and their usually doomed attempts at escape.
There is a wealth of items which have been steadily added to by the wardens including early straight jackets and manacles, and displays of various items from Victorian prisoners’ dress to the displays of lethal looking home-made weapons confiscated by warders found in the cells as well as the usual gadgets fashioned to try and make an escape over or under the walls. You can see a mock up cell, buy items made today for sale by the prison workers and perhaps the most informative part watch a video of today’s prisoners telling their stories, talking openly and frankly about the prison, why they ended up there and how being incarcerated here has affected them and their hopes for the future.
Princetown is also home to the Dartmoor Brewery, now housed by the old railway line and it produces its award winning “Jail Ale” here –
Our advice? - Get holed up round the fire in the Plume of Feathers with the locals and count your blessings that you are staying here and not in a cell down the road. Have a few pints of real Ale and a hearty walkers dinner here and Princetown may well end up your most enjoyable and fascinating stop on the Dartmoor Way.
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