View from Hound Tor in Dartmoor on a January afternoon | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

A wild winter walking weekend on Dartmoor

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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 recieve a gift we love, an adventure away from home.

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.

Hound Tor rocks from Swallerton Gate, Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Close to the city of Exeter, it’s surprisingly easy to get to. There’s options to travel by train or by air to Exeter if you’re coming from further afield, but you’ll want a car if you really want to make the most of your stay. We choose to drive as it was the quickest and most convenient way to get here. But it also made it easy to get around and gave us the option to stay somewhere rural.

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. A descent on the far side of the Down took us towards, but not quite into, the village of Manaton. Here we picked up a very quiet road that meanders around the foot of the down and back in the direction of Hound Tor. This brings you back towards the Tor from the north-east, where it was silhouetted against the sky in the late afternoon. We had another good scramble upon the rocks here – there are views that stretch for miles across the moorland from the top – and took a peek at the remains of the medieval village that lies in it’s shadow.

Hound Tor rocks at sunset, Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Six Tors and more moors

Saturday morning dawned grey and a little overcast. Much as I’m loathe to admit it, the downside to breaks in the UK at this time of year is that the weather can be more than a little unpredictable. We’d been spoilt with sporadic sunshine on Friday, but today was a day for waterproofs. That said, we both don’t mind a little drizzle, so we ploughed on with plans for a day walk that would take us up and over some of Dartmoor’s best known Tors, into the pretty village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and take us across Hamel Down on the Two Moors Way.

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.

A misty Black Hill with Haytor in the distance on Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

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.

View of a winding road and Saddle Tor from Haytor in Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

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 14th century church, consoling ourselves about the weather with all the other walkers we found doing the exact same thing. British to a tee.

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.

Girl on bridge across River Bovey, Dartmoor, in winter | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

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 greets you as you find your way to the bar. This pub stood out thanks to its exceptional specials board. We tucked into goose leg confit with cassoulet and slow-cooked beef goulash, plus hearty desserts, for less than £20 per head. If you’re looking to try something a little bit different to your usual pub grub then I’d heartily recommend the Old Inn.

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 a pub books up quick and for good reason.

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.

View of Hound Tor from Swallerton Gate, Dartmoor, Devon | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

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.

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A wild winter walking weekend on Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
A wild winter walking weekend on Dartmoor | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
  • Suzanne Jones
    Posted at 14:41h, 24 February Reply

    We were nearby in Ilfracombe in April – not quite winter but the scenery was gorgeous and we had some fabulous coastal walks

  • Jen Ambrose
    Posted at 10:44h, 18 February Reply

    Totally agree that doing something outside is the best way to spend New Year’s! We haven’t spent much time in the UK, but this looks stunning!

    • Alice
      Posted at 18:08h, 18 February Reply

      We have some wonderful hidden gems in the UK! And I lovee getting away at this time of year when it is quieter – if you’re ever interested in visiting very beautiful Cornwall in the UK, Christmas and the New Year is a great time to do so.

  • Amanda
    Posted at 06:46h, 17 February Reply

    What an interesting place! I have actually not been to Southern England at all, but your photos are lovely! I’d like to backpack around UK in the future, so I’ll have this place in mind! 🙂

    • Alice
      Posted at 18:51h, 17 February Reply

      We’re lucky to have some amazing National Parks in southern England. Dartmoor is a gorgeous ones, but there are some other greats too. I’m glad to have shared some inspiration, I’m sure you’d have a wnderful time exploring this part of the UK!

  • Sabrina
    Posted at 16:30h, 16 February Reply

    Beautiful scenery. It feels like the setting of Wuthering Heights.

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:52h, 16 February Reply

      Yes, can’t agree more! There’s something a little mysterious and beautiful about this part of the world. But it’s gorgeous at any other time of the year too.

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