Mystery of the moors

Helen Werin goes in search of the drama of Dartmoor.

They say that discovering Dartmoor can take a lifetime; we've only got a week. We've been lured by stunning postcard scenes of its dramatic tors, wooded valleys and clapper bridges across gurgling streams. We've read about invigorating walks across the moorland and along old miners' tracks and the fantastic views from those 150 or so tors. And that's not to mention the cream teas and the Dartmoor ponies. They're the main reason behind our daughter Sophie's enthusiasm to come here.

All these things seem a rather distant dream as we try to shelter from vicious rain among the tangle of branches in Wistman's Wood in the middle of the moor. It's hard to imagine a more eerie place. Sophie's shaking; whether from cold or fright it's hard to tell. We're surrounded by ancient dwarf oak trees, their twisted finger-like branches reaching out for us. Underfoot is a virtual carpet of boulders. To add to the chilling atmosphere everything, including the gnarled branches, is thickly covered in moss. It doesn't help that just an hour before we'd been reading about the legendary Dartmoor "devils" and "hell hounds" at the High Moor Visitor Centre. Or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, there.

Certainly, we should have been forewarned by what we'd also read in the visitor centre about Dartmoor's infamous weather. This is one of the wettest places in England. The south westerlies sweeping in from the Atlantic bring in as much as 100 inches of rain a year.

No comfort to us then as Sophie clings to my squelching trousers among the dripping branches. She'd been longing for the sight of a few ponies. Instead, she'd got a wood not only famous for its stunted trees and lichens but also for its reputation as "the most haunted place on Dartmoor". As we'd left Princetown, with mists dramatically swirling around it, it hadn't been difficult to empathise with the first inmates of Dartmoor Prison, around which the town was built. These were French PoWs from the Napoleonic wars, who had tramped across a bleak landscape from the prison hulks at Plymouth to get here. We'd only come a few miles from our scenic campsite on the edge of the moor, at Moorshop. With this weather, we were beginning to understand a little of why the French soldiers had given their first impressions of Dartmoor as "like Siberia".

Fast forward to the next morning and what a contrast! We're standing on top of Brent Tor, bathed in sunshine. From the high moors we'd caught glimpses on the horizon of this hill topped with a church. Now we were 1,110 feet above sea level on an extinct, volcanic cone. From

beside the little church of St Michael of the Rock the views are incredible; Plymouth Sound and Whitsand Bay to the south, the Tamar Valley and Bodmin Moor to the west and the heights of Exmoor just visible to the north.

To the east, some of the rugged tors which dot Dartmoor's 368 square miles are calling us. There are some curious names among them; Yes Tor, Stinka Tor, Snappers Tor, Ripper Tor, Hoax Tor, Chat Tor, Claret Tor and Honeybag. The one I like best is Gotterknap, considering that walking on these high moors is nothing short of exhilarating.

Some of the easier walks spring from Princetown. Dartmoor may be one of the best preserved tin working landscapes in the world, with almost every hillside or valley showing the marks of the tin miners' hands, but it is to the defunct granite quarries of Foggintor and Swelltor that the Princetown to Yelverton railway track leads. The line was built for this industry, which employed thousands of people. Now the old track is busy with sightseers because of its wonderful, elevated views across Sheepstor, Ingra Tor, Burrator and towards Plymouth Sound and Caradon Hill.

The area is renowned for visitors of the feathered variety too. It's a stronghold for bird species that have declined elsewhere, including the snipe and skylark, curlew and lapwing. Our curiosity has been aroused by an altogether different sort of "bird" – the serving of a prison sentence kind. Dartmoor Prison is said to have been the harshest in Britain. Its curious little museum, just up the road from the grim cell blocks, certainly paints a disturbing picture. The museum stems from when warders began collecting memorabilia. Alongside the eclectic displays of ingenious improvised weapons and escape tools made by prisoners are rather alarming restraint items no longer used by the prison service, including straitjackets and body belts. We're shown a macabre flogging frame last used in 1947. Prisoners were beaten with a cat-o-nine-tails. Twelve lashes were common. All around us on the walls are stories of Dartmoor's infamous prisoners, including "mad axe man" Frank Mitchell. There are also shocking accounts of the mutiny in 1930 in which the Governor's office had been set on fire. Some rioters got an extra 12 years on their sentence. Yet others who helped the wardens had their sentences reduced. It seems that even the appealing ponies for which Dartmoor is famous had a hand in keeping prisoners in line. The animals were used by mounted officers patrolling for escapees until four-wheel-drives took over. We returned from a short walk up Mel Tor, with its views across to Venford Reservoir, to find our vehicle surrounded by these cheeky ponies looking for a tea-time snack. They were going to be unlucky. Signs in the many parking places had warned us not to feed them. This didn't mean that these cute creatures weren't going to try. Neither are these sturdy ponies wild, as I had naively believed. They all have owners, but live out on the moor all year round.

I hadn't realised, either, that one third of Dartmoor National Park belongs to The Duchy of Cornwall to provide income for the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Sophie tells me that Dartmoor seems like one of those slightly eerie kingdoms from her fairytale books. The legends and terrifying tales, the tors sculpted into the strangest of shapes by the weather, the deep valleys and vast, wild open spaces have obviously had a dramatic effect on her.

We get an entirely different perspective the next day around the partially-collapsed clapper bridge at Dartmeet. In total contrast to the lonely high moors, not a blade of grass on the banks of this beauty spot beside the crystal-clear waters is free from tourists. It feels like the whole world has come to jump across the rocks and on to what's left of the bridge. At nearby Postbridge, where the ancient clapper bridge is still in one piece, it's coachloads of international tourists, cameras at the ready, who monopolise this postcard-pretty scene.


High Moorland Visitor Centre, Princetown. (01822 890414). Open all year.

Dartmoor Prison Museum, HMP Dartmoor, Princetown. (01822 322130; Open all year.

YP MAG 9/10/10