Dartmoor National Park in Devon received its official designation in 1951. Its 368 square miles (953 sq km) is a mix of 1000-foot high open moorland and granite outcrops called tors that rise to 2000 feet. In the east and south-east are wooded valleys, rivers, farms and fields. In the northern section of the park streams cross 20 square miles of blanket bogs formed in prehistoric times.
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There are hundreds of prehistoric sites on Dartmoor; approximately 200 are tors. Some are small and others large, such as Hay Tor and Hound Tor near Bovey Tracey. Combestone Tor lords it over the Dart river valley, while Hare Tor claims the river Tavy gorge. One tor, Vixen, supposedly housed a witch who lured people into the bogs. Pew Tor, Staple Tor and Cox Tor are accessible and offer far-reaching views over the moorland. A rock basin is named the Devilís Frying Pan.
Wild ponies roamed the moors as early as the 10th century. Buzzards, kestrels and ravens fly above the moor, while dippers, wagtails and woodpeckers like the streamsides. Threatened species in the park include the southern damselfly, marsh fritillary butterfly and blue ground beetle. A variety of lichens and mosses grow in the park. Bright green moss deceptively covers deep holes.
Approximately 33,000 people live in this largest of the five granite masses of south-west England. The park is all privately owned, much of it by the Duchy of Cornwall, but several hundred miles of right of way are accessible for walking. Stone walls and hedge banks enclose small fields.
Settlements on the moor are few and small in size. In the middle ages, farmers built granite houses called shippen, one long building with the animals on one side and the people on the other. Blackfaced and Cheviot sheep feed on the moors today, and cattle in small numbers provide further livelihood.
Two roads cross the moor, one a former packhorse road from Ashburton to Tavistock and the other from Yelverton to Moretonhampstead, an old market town. The ancient clapper bridge near Postbridge is worth a visit.
Dartmoor is rich in archaeological remains from Neolithic times onward. Dolmens or cromlechs, thought to be communal burial tombs, attest to ancient manís presence here. Sixty stone rows survive, leading to burial chambers. One, between Stall Moor and Green Hill, is more than two miles long. Bronze Age people lived here in circular huts, and hut circles are numerous on the moorómore than 2000 foundations survive. In medieval times man marked routes across the land with granite crosses.
In 1150 tin was discovered on Dartmoor. Mining took place in a number of areas, and former mining trenches, spoil heaps, and shafts can still be seen in the countryside. It was soon discovered that the tin supplies were little more than surface deep, and, over the years, mining declined and eventually stopped altogether by 1930. In 1830 kaolin, used in the manufacture of porcelain, was discovered and mined. It created white spoil heaps and disfigured the landscape.
Dartmoor is often misty, and in winter can be snowy. Large areas are used by the military and are closed off to the public. Walking is difficult in the park: marshes and peat hags are wet and boggy; deep gullies and fissures crisscross the landscape; it is easy to lose the way, and maps and waterproof boots are a necessity. Leats, dug to carry water to mines and farms, provide walkers with easily discernible routes. The Lich Way, running west to Lydford from the east Dart river, was once a church and corpse road and is now a favourite walking route. The Two Moors Way runs from north to south across Dartmoor National Park.
Dartmoor National Park website: Dartmoor National Park
The High Moorland Visitor Centre
Devon, PL20 6QF
Tel. 01822 890414
Fax. 01822 890566
Open all year, 10am-5pm in peak season, until 4pm in winter; closed Christmas Eve and day and Boxing Day and one week in March.
Photos courtesy Steve's Ancient Sites Cornwall Cam, and Barbara Ballard