Brimming with tales of witches, giants and the devil, it’s no surprise that thousands of paranormal hunters and thrill seekers alike flock to mythical Dartmoor every year for the chance to glimpse the surreal. (it is also the only place in England where wild camping is legal; hence all the outdoorsy people everywhere). Here’s a guide to the most unusual places to visit in Dartmoor!
Fast facts about mythical Dartmoor:
2 million years ago, the Earth was a lot warmer and at that time, Dartmoor was a tropical island (complete with monkeys and all!) The area of Torbay, Teignmouth, and Shaldon were all submerged in seawater during that time.
12,000 years ago the last ice age ended and the whole of Dartmoor was covered in oak forests. 5000 years ago, the prehistoric man cleared the woods and forest, leaving a somewhat empty canvas. Today, the barren landscape is punctuated by rocky outcrops of granite known locally as ‘tors’, while the grassy plains are covered in heather and gorse.
And so without further ado, here are the most unusual places to visit in Dartmoor National Park. All of these destinations are open to the public and most can be visited free of charge. However, it’s worth noting that in some cases, the only way to reach the locations is via car or on foot; there is little public transportation running through Dartmoor, with the exception of a few local bus services.
Bowerman’s Nose, Hayne Down
Free to visit, Bowerman’s Nose is one of the lesser known gems of Dartmoor. Local legend has it that Bowerman was a fearless hunter who ran with his pack of dogs and could rarely give up on the thrill of a chase. Unfortunately, one day, he was running with his dogs, chasing a hare.
Bowerman was so eager to catch the hare that he stumbled upon a coven of witches in a secretive meeting. They were so angry at him that they turned him into stone (see picture below). In a panic, his dogs fled but only made it to nearby Hound Tor where, they too, turned to stone.
Everyone was so outraged by the demise of Bowerman that they banded together and drove the witches away, up into Wales. And to this very day, there have been no sightings of bad witches on Dartmoor. During the 20th-century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became so enamoured with the moors, that he based his book ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ across Dartmoor. Here’s how to follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes.
Hound Tor, Medieval Village
Asides from being the alleged final resting place of Bowerman’s hounds, the surrounds of Hound Tor are also the site of a ruinous medieval hamlet (although the land itself has been farmed since as early as the Bronze age). In fact, this village was even mentioned in the Domesday Book!
Free to visit and now owned and managed by English Heritage, the eerily quiet, abandoned and lifeless village of Hundatora lies in the valley below Hound Tor under the shadow of Greator Rocks. It boasts the greatest mystery on Dartmoor: Just how and why did the village become abandoned?
Various theories include the plague and a sudden change of climate. The only thing that is clear is that the villagers left behind little when they left… Best visited on a misty day when the fog surrounds you and little can be seen, here’s a quick guide to visiting the abandoned village of Hound Tor.
The Quarry, Haytor
Dubbed ‘Haytor the Honeypot’ by my year 7 Geography teacher, this is literally the only fact I remember from that class! So-called because of the number of visitors the rocky outcrop, if you’re looking for a quiet, solitude walk, then this is not the place for you!
One of the best things to do in Dartmoor is to walk from the base of Hound Tor rocks, along the 19th-century granite tramway, and towards Dartmoor’s worst kept secret, a hidden lake. Located in the heart of an old Dartmoor Quarry, this calm and tranquil place is the perfect spot to have a picnic or look for local wildlife.
Grimspound, Two Moors Way
In times when Dartmoor was warmer and the climate wasn’t as harsh, people lived up in villages on the ‘high moors’. Now a barren and windswept place, it is difficult to imagine the place having ever been anything but a desolate place unable to sustain human settlements.
One of these villages up on the moorland is the partially reconstructed village of Grimspound. Now under the curation of English Heritage, this early settlement dates all the way back to the Late Bronze Age. 24 hut circles are enclosed within a circular stone wall, nestled in a valley overlooking the rest of the surrounding countryside.
The name ‘Grimspount’ probably originated from the Anglo-Saxon god of war, Grim (Odin). If you look hard enough in the image below, you’ll be able to see the stone circle in the distance… For those who wish to see the Bronze Age village for themselves, here’s a quick guide to visiting Grimspound.
Brentor Church, Brentor
Often dubbed the ‘smallest church in England’, Brentor actually doesn’t actually hold the Guinness World Record for the smallest ecclesiastical building in the UK. However, it still only seats a modest 40. One at Brentor, you can see the bell tower and a small graveyard surrounds the church.
No one is quite sure about exactly how the church came to be. However, one tale is this: There was a merchant sailor who was sailing toward the coast during a terrible storm. The crew informed him that the ship was certain to crash upon the rocks.
Upon hearing this, the sailor threw himself to the deck and begged his patron, Saint Michael, to save him. Michael saved him and his crew. As thanks, the sailor vowed to build a church at the nearest high point. He proceeded to start the build, using a lot of his wealth to do this.
The devil was angry at being cheated of victims and so attempted to sabotage the build. However, saint Michael came down to the site and threw rocks at the devil, injuring him and forcing him to flee the site, never to return. Today, you can visit the wonderful church of Brentor for free.
Castle Drogo, Drewsteignton
The last castle to have been built in England, it was built to resemble a much older Norman style castle and even has a functioning portcullis. The castle is currently under the curation of the National Trust and is undergoing major renovation works to repair a leaking roof. Want to see the Lutyens’ designed structure for yourself? Here’s a guide to visiting Castle Drogo.
Lydford Castle, Lydford
Free to visit and open during reasonable daylight hours, Lydford Castle is a bit of a misnomer if ever I saw one. Lydford Castle was never a castle but actually a prison. Dark and imposing on the surrounding landscape, I could not help but feel sorry for any prisoner that ever had to reside there.
The building you can currently see was built in the 13th century and was used as a prison and courtroom right up until the 19th century when Dartmoor prison was built near Princetown.
Spinster’s Rock, Drewsteignton
This dolmen of Spinster’s Rock (which is confusingly actually a set of four rocks) was originally placed to mark the entrance of a neolithic burial chamber. Due to the harsh and acidic nature of the soil on Dartmoor, all that remains are the stones.
Legend has it that, unfortunately, in a particularly violent storm in 1862, the structure collapsed. And so, one morning, three local witches re-erected the stones to their current position before breakfast. At this point, it’s worth noting that The slabs are 16 tons and so I’m not sure how they managed to maneuverer them without heavy machinery, or even their morning coffee.
The field where the stones reside is only reachable by single track road and is marked my a lone wooden signpost about one km away on the main road. Should you visit to see the dolmen for yourself here’s some further information about visiting and the history of Spinster’s Rock.
Meldon Resevoir, Okehampton
900 feet above sea levels with 360 views over the surrounding open moorland, a trip to Meldon reservoir is definitely not to be missed. When you think of Dartmoor, you likely imagine wide open landscapes rather than leafy canopy and endless glittering lakes.
However, Meldon Reservoir is actually one of a handful of reservoirs dotted throughout the National Park, the most famous of which is probably Burrator Reservoir. Meldon itself can be found near the charming town of Okehampton. Here’s a guide to the best of Dartmoor Reservoirs.
Often hailed as ‘the Cathedral of the moor’, the small 14th century church in the little village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor was said to have been visited by the devil during a thunderstorm in 1638. The church was packed with just under 300 people worshipping at the time; 60 were injured whilst 4 were killed.
The stretch of road spanning from Postbridge to Two Bridges has been haunted by tales of the ‘hairy hands’ of Postbridge have haunted since the dawn of automobiles. Reports from accidents dating back as early as 1910 have often sited drivers as claiming that just before the moment of impact, hairy hands have grabbed the wheel and forced the vehicle off the road.
Postbridge itself is a small community with little more than a Dartmoor National Park visitor centre, village shop, and post box. Alongside a charming humpback bridge, it’s possible to see a medieval clapper bridge that has since become one of the most visited attractions in Dartmoor. Best seen during the off-season (so as to avoid the crowds), this beautiful bridge has been in use for centuries.
Kitty Jay’s Grave
The story of Kitty Jay is not a happy one. According to local stories: in the late 18th Century a young woman was working at a grand manor house. She had an affair with the owner’s son and fell pregnant. He, wishing to avoid scandal, washed his hands of him and so she was left pregnant and alone. She had no one to turn to and so tragically committed suicide.
As she was regarded by the church as having committed a ‘mortal sin’ by hanging herself, she was not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground and so was buried at the edge of three parishes. Today, fresh flowers can be regularly found lying upon her grave. No one knows exactly whom places them here.