John and I love going to national parks. We have been to nearly twenty of them in the U.S. and look forward to visiting more. When we realized how close we were to Dartmoor, England’s national park in Devon, we had to go there for a few days.
The national parks in England are a lot different than the ones in the United States for reasons that are obvious, if you think about it. England is so much older than the U.S. that most areas, even rural areas, are not without towns that have churches, pubs, homes, village halls, and other amenities of civilized life. Dartmoor N.P. has all of this and other ‘amenities’ we didn’t expect, including a working prison within the park, and many, many acres of open range for horses, cows, and sheep. Dartmoor also has a rich history of influence in the literary world, inspiring writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his Hound of the Baskervilles and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
We booked a room at a B&B in Postbridge, which is in the dead center of Dartmoor. Postbridge is rural and tiny, even by the standards of Dartmoor and includes one pub, a couple of hotels/B&Bs, a small store, and a national park visitor center. It is famous for its 13th century “Clapper Bridge,” one of the finest remaining bridges of its sort, built to enable pack horses to cross the river. Postbridge is also the starting point for a nice walk out on the moors to the Bellever Tor, a walk we enjoyed on our first day in Dartmoor. A tor, we learned, is an outcrop of rock in the middle of a moor.
Just us and the blue sheep on the moor
On our second day in Dartmoor, we once again found ourselves on the moor – it’s hard to get away from the moor around here. On a beautiful, but drizzly Sunday morning, it was just John, me, and God knows how many blue sheep. That’s right, blue sheep. We later learned that the local free-range sheep are marked with a blotch of color for identification purposes. The dye they use is clearly water-soluble and the sheep have a hip, tie-died look. Nevertheless, we were headed toward Wistman’s Woods, a forest area on the moor that promised a thick woods with moss covered trees and rocks similar, I hoped, to a stretch of one of my favorite hikes in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Charlie’s Bunion. These are the woods of fairy tales – you can imagine a leprechaun darting out from behind a tree, or Hansel and Gretel finding their way to the gingerbread hut through woods such as these. We did make it to Wistman’s, accompanied by blue sheep, and it was definitely magical.
The devil went down to Widecombe, he was lookin’ for a soul to steal…. (apologies to the Charlie Daniels Band)
We moved on to the small town in the park of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, home of St. Pancras Church, also known as the Cathedral in the Moor, built in the 12th century. Most of the churches in these towns have at least one unique feature and, in St. Pancras, it is the carvings in the ceiling of the church, brightly colored and primitive faces of biblical characters.
There are so many colorful legends in this part of the world. The legend surrounding a very real lightning strike to St. Pancras church during services in 1638 is especially entertaining:
According to local legend, the thunderstorm was the result of a visit by the devil who had made a pact with a local card player and gambler called either Jan Reynolds or Bobby Read. The deal was that if the devil ever found him asleep in church, he could have his soul. Jan/Bobby was said to have nodded off during the service that day, with his pack of cards in his hand.
The devil headed for Widecombe via the Tavistock Inn, in nearby Poundsgate, where he stopped for directions and refreshment. The landlady reported a visit by a man in black with cloven feet riding a jet black horse. [my favorite part] The stranger ordered a mug of ale, and it hissed as it went down his throat. He finished his drink, put the mug down on the bar where it left a scorch mark, and left some money. After the stranger had ridden away, the landlady picked up the glass and it was hot to the touch. She also found that the coins had turned to dried leaves.
The devil tethered his horse to one of the pinnacles at Widecombe Church, captured the sleeping Jan/Bobby, and rode away into the storm. As they flew over nearby Birch Tor, the four aces from Jan’s/Bobby’s pack of cards fell to the ground, and today, if you stand at Warren House Inn, you can still see four ancient field enclosures, each shaped like the symbols from a pack of cards.
It was thought that the devil caused a lightning strike which did, in fact, hit the church, killing four parishioners and wounding several others.
Brentor Church and the Gorge
On our last day in Dartmoor, we visited Brentor Church, which rises 1100 feet above sea level on an extinct volcano, and we also went to Lydford Gorge. The gorge can be hiked in its entirety in about three and a half hours, however, on the day we were there this was not advised, as it had rained the night before and there are downward sloping sections of slate that can be very slick. We opted to visit White Lady Falls, which are nearly 100 feet and quite impressive, and then drove the five minutes to the other entrance of the gorge to visit the Devil’s Cauldron. The Devil’s Cauldron is described as a ‘series of whirlpools.’ This description understates the unusual beauty of the place, set here among the moors. What we found was a temperate rainforest area, unexpectedly in the middle of a British landscape, and the most beautiful pools and small waterfalls. It was such a lovely surprise and was absolutely stunning.
That evening we dined at the East Dart Hotel, a local pub. The proprietor is an outgoing woman who enjoys easy banter with her guests. We had been in before and she recognized us — she asked us how we had enjoyed our visit to Dartmoor. We told her how impressed we were with Devil’s Cauldron and she replied that she should probably get down there and see it sometime. Bear in mind that it is only 30 minutes away from where she lives and is an amazingly beautiful place. We had found the same thing in the Cotswolds. Our host in the B&B, Peter Webb, had not traveled twenty minutes down the road to see so many of the wonderful sights we had enjoyed in our short visit. Of course, this happens everywhere. So many of us don’t ever get around to seeing/doing the things that visitors from other places find so impressive and wonderful.
So, here is my challenge to anyone reading this: Come up with three things that are within thirty minutes of where you live that you haven’t seen or done, pick one, and promise yourself that, within the next three months, you will see or do that thing. Put it on your calendar!