11 Feb A wild winter walking weekend on Dartmoor
What better way to start the new year than in the great outdoors, exploring some of Southern England’s most spectacular moorland landscapes? In this post I’m sharing our unconventional Christmas gifts to one another – and the simple pleasures of escaping to the wild countryside of Dartmoor.
You might remember from my posts around this time last year that Ben and I don’t buy each other Christmas presents. Instead, we treat each other to a modest weekend getaway close to home. We each book a night or two away and don’t reveal our plans to each other until Christmas day. It’s enormous fun plotting and planning in secret – and it means we each
With last year’s trips both roaring successes, we needed a bit of imagination to come up with something that compared. Ben did a brilliant job as ever, and on Christmas morning I unwrapped a surprise trip to Dartmoor and a stay in a cosy cottage at the end of January.
This little National Park might only be a few hours from home, but it’s somewhere neither of us had spent much time before. We’d be spending a weekend covering new ground together.
Tell me more about Dartmoor
At the heart of Devon, in the south-west of England, lies Dartmoor. It’s a wild moorland landscape of rolling hills, rocky Tors and hidden villages tucked away in deep valleys. Whilst it has been a National Park for just over twenty years, it’s history goes back many thousand years and both Iron Age and Medieval remains are scattered in plain sight across the moors. On Dartmoor, farming life has remained largely unchanged for generations, wild ponies, sheep and cattle roam freely and every turn in the road opens up new vistas. It’s wild yet welcoming.
The moors are often overlooked, as the dramatic coastlines to the north and south attract many visitors to this part of the world. But underestimate Dartmoor and you’ll miss out a truly beautiful part of England.
Close to the city of Exeter, it’s surprisingly easy to get to.
Walking in a winter wonderland
You might be wondering what there is to do on the moorlands of southern England in January.
In a word, walking.
Honestly, it’s one of my favourite times of year to explore the British countryside. Crisp mornings, lingering late afternoon sun, rust-coloured grassland and heather. The wild beauty of these parts is at it’s rugged best in the winter, and you’ll have the place largely to yourself.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and headed home around the same time Sunday. This meant we could pack in three walks – two shorter routes, and one all-day epic.
An afternoon exploring Hound Tor
With only a few hours of light left on Friday afternoon, we headed out to get our bearings as soon as we’d settled into our cottage. We chose to take a gentle route, just a couple of miles long, from outside our door.
Starting at Hound Tor car park, we began by heading away from the Tor and up to the nearby Bowerman’s Nose. Here we could do a little scrambling on the rocks and head across Hayne Down for some great views across the neighbouring valleys.
Six Tors and more moors
Saturday morning dawned grey and a little overcast. Much as
We started our route at Hound Tor once again, striking away to the east and skirting Black Hill. A skip through Yarner Wood, with its low-hanging birches and oaks, was a nice contrast to the ochre-coloured moorland on either side. From here the path rose onto Haytor Down, where we picked up the unmistakeable route of the old tramway that once served the quaries here. The cut-granite rails lead you uphill to Holwell Tor, where there’s a great panoramic view back towards Hound Tor.
It’s just a short stroll across from here to Haytor Rocks, one of Dartmoor’s best-known landmarks. The exposed granite Tor punctuates the surrounding landscape and is a great place to scramble. We’d have happily stayed here longer had the wind not have picked up by this point. The gentle drizzle had now progressed to rain and surprisingly strong winds whenever you found yourself in exposed spots. That said, we weren’t the only ones out this weather. If there’s one thing we Brits love to do, its persevere in spite of the weather.
Saddle Tor is just a few hundred yards away here, so it seemed rude not skirt this rocky outcrop too. But we were headed for the much larger Rippon Tor slightly to it’s south. The path here isn’t hugely clear, but it’s easy to see where you’re going. A wide scattering of smaller rocks, and a stone cairn, top this hill where the view must be fantastic on a clear day (I’ll be honest, there wasn’t much more than cloud to see on our arrival!). With a very satisfying amount of climbing done, we started to make our way towards our lunch spot at Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
We took a path down the far side of this Tor, across the road and up and over Hollow Tor to lead us to the Widecombe road. I’d thoroughly recommend not going off-piste into the bog at the bottom of Blackslade Down like us – but aside from this, it’s now a gentle and largely downhill two miles into the pretty village.
We stopped for our picnic lunch outside the
The remainder of our route took us up and out of the village onto Hamel Down, the highest point on our route, before a gradual descent towards Natsworthy Manor, Jay’s Grave and finally Hound Tor. Honestly, by this point the bad weather had set in and whilst the walking was enjoyable, I couldn’t see a thing. I’ve absolutely no doubt there are beautiful views along this stretch of high moorland, but I didn’t have a chance to see then!
Thankfully, Ben and I are seasoned walkers that are used to the British weather. But this walk serves as a good reminder to call it day early if conditions aren’t great. We’d have gone on further in good weather, but a roaring fire and cosy pub were calling, and it sounded a better plan.
Down by the river
Sunday morning was a brighter day, and it felt like time for something a bit different. Looking to explore Dartmoor beyond its moorland, we headed to the village of Manaton and the River Bovey.
Manaton might not be big but it has some charming old houses around it’s green that are worth a visit in their own right. But we were here for the riverside and took a path that wound down into the valley until we reached the rushing waters. With tall trees sheltering us on both sides of the water it felt completely different to the landscape we’d spent the past two days in.
We followed the river to it’s conflux with Becky Brook, that pours down off Hound Tor and Hayne Down. We joined a new path here that tracked along this valley bottom and ultimately up through a densely forested hillside back to the grazing pastures that extend beyond the village of Manaton.
Down the pub: Cosy watering holes on Dartmoor
There’s nothing better to do once the sun sets on a winter weekend than head to the pub. Especially when you’re ravenous after a day walking.
Thankfully, Dartmoor is home to some pretty outstanding ones. With a few pointers from our Airbnb hosts we tried two exceptional pubs in Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
The Old Inn: Not just your usual pub grub
A sprawling stone building opposite the Church, the Old Inn is the sort of pub you hope to find after a long day. Roaring fires, cosy armchairs and a smart but casual atmosphere
The Old Inn, Widecombe-in-the-moor, Devon, TQ13 7TA
The Rugglestone Inn: Pub traditions done perfectly
If you want to eat at the Rugglestone on a weekend, be sure to book in advance. This absolute charmer of
The Rugglestone is one of those wonderful places that the passage of time hasn’t changed much. It’s a warren of small rooms, each with a blazing log fire, stone floors and a bar where most of the drinks are drawn from the barrel in front of you. There’s some great beers and ciders to try – just leave some room to sample plenty of the menu too.
Huge portions of beautifully cooked pub classics are the name of the game here. Think homemade pies with enormous portions of chunky chips, plus melting braised red cabbage. Old-fashioned desserts like syrup sponge pudding are served with lashings of custard. You’ll leave feeling very full and very happy.
The Rugglestone Inn, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, TQ13 7TF
Where we stayed
We spent our weekend at the lovely Swallerton Gate Annex, a picture-perfect thatched cottage Ben found on Airbnb. Just a stone’s throw (quite literally) from Hound Tor it couldn’t be more ideally located for anyone wanting to explore the heart of Dartmoor. Comfortable and toasty warm thanks to its feature fireplace, we were welcomed with freshly-baked bread and some great recommendations for what to get up to. Would I stay again? Absolutely.
Swallerton Gate Annex, Manaton. Find it on Airbnb here.
There was a time when I would have questioned choosing to get away to the moors at this time of year.
But I’ve come to learn that not only is it a beautiful time to head outside, it’s also more peaceful, unspoilt and wild. And as for the weekend being a Christmas gift, I can’t think of a better way start the new year than in the great outdoors with someone else who loves it just as much as you do.