[As written for Travel Eye, hosted by The Huffington Post UK, September 2012]
When first deciding on a weekend in Dartmoor, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew the moors would be pretty (and that there was a prison), but what we would do when we got there? Well, thank goodness we decided to explore this gorgeous part of south Devon, because it turns out, Dartmoor is a country dream… In fact (and I know it’s a bold statement), the rolling velvet green hills, fresh chilled air and gentle bird song makes it one of the most beautiful British getaways, I’ve ever experienced.
Our trip started on a Friday night after work (I’d recommend going earlier in the day if possible, it’s worth taking an afternoon off to beat the traffic). My friend Olivia and I packed into the car (nibbles and all) and began our journey. No thanks to the incredibly unpredictable weather, we were faced with a monumental downpour, but our buzzing little Peugot 208 nipped right through the monsoon-like conditions without moaning, getting us there in five hours (from London).
It was dark by the time we hit the country lanes near Exeter. As we drove, Olivia pointed out the stunning but faint shadow of the tree canopies above our head. “Bet that looks great in the light,” we both agreed. Our visual feast of Dartmoor was not to be… just yet.
It wasn’t until morning, that we realised our spectacular surroundings. We had woken up and rushed straight for the huge window in our room at the Prince Hall Hotel (just like a five-year-old would to see if it had snowed). I’m not exaggerating when I say we gasped at the view. In front of us were miles of gorgeous green, topped by a sky of the thickest, brightest blue. There was a river and a few white clouds lightly scattered in the sky (a sign of good weather, we were later informed by local nature expert Richard Hibbert). It was stunning, simply stunning.
Activities in the area
Dartmoor may look sleepy and innocent but behind the scenes, there’s a wealth of activity to be getting up to. We only had a weekend, so we opted for the relaxing ones; such as a long nature walk, eating loads (that’s an activity, right?), horse riding and a short hike.
First, we teamed up with nature expert Richard Hibbert for a two-and-a-half hour walk over the moors. Due to the time of year (Autumn), there wasn’t much wildlife to be seen. However, we did pick a stunning route along the River Dart, taking in the unique honey-coloured water and marvelling at the still-standing stone walls of medieval villages, constructed some 3,500 years ago.
Richard explained how in summer, otters are often spotted diving in to capture trout – while birds of prey are often seen circling overhead, waiting for their dibs on a fishy lunch. We had just missed the migration, so only a few flocks of little birds, such as Wagtails, were about – but it was fascinating seeing how they avoided predators by sticking in larger numbers and used clusters of trees to shelter them during on the journey south.
Horse-riding with the girls from Cholwell Riding Stables was an incredible experience. I used to ride as a kid, so I could remember my rising trot reasonably well (and was therefore fully aware I’d ache the next day). But the pain (and your thighs do get a workout, ladies) was well worth it, to be out in the middle of the moors, trotting and cantering towards the horizon.
For those less experienced, stable owners Donna and Diane are more than happy to keep the ride easy – and a gentle walk over the hills is just as fun. When you’re out there, it’s just you and the horses. An incredible feeling!
Hiking the gorge
Hiking the Lydford Gorge is a must for any Dartmoor visitor. Having taken in the acres of grassy plains, you’d never guess what lay on the other side of those steps by the visitor’s centre. The one-way paths took us around the gorge, and on our way, we hiked past pretty waterfalls, crossed rope bridges and took stunning snapshots of nature at work. It felt like hiking through a rainforest, with the tall trees forming canopies above our heads and the humid temperature leaving dew on their lush leaves. Below us, the river gushed noisily over rocks. It was hard to believe were just minutes from the moor.
Behind the wheel
We also drove east to west through Dartmoor, winding along roads between Prince Town and Mary Tavy. The lanes were narrow, just enough for us to squeeze the slinky 208 through – and alongside us were fields running back for miles into the sunset. We stopped off for strolls by streams, to take in the views and snap the stunning sky as the sun went down. It was such a pretty sight – a big reminder that we take England’s beauty for granted.
Where to stay
We spent our two nights in Dartmoor at two very different local hotels.
First up, was the Prince Hall Hotel by Two Bridges. Standing proudly in the middle of acres of green, this country house is the baby of Londoner Fi and her husband, Chris. The pair moved down to Dartmoor and took over Prince Hall five years ago. Since then, it has been transformed into an eight-bed hotel, with huge leather sofas to nestle in while overlooking the garden, and an outside picnic area (perfect for sipping hot chocolate on a chilly day). The airy restaurant serves up hearty breakfasts (we went for scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and poached eggs on toast) and delicious meat and veggie lunches and dinners, using locally foraged ingredients. Everyone is invited to enjoy their weekly ‘roast nights’ – whether you’re staying at the hotel or not.
While Fi takes care of the guests and the books, you’ll find Chris outside on his tractor keeping the grounds presentable and looking after the pigs, who love lolling about in the garden. Dogs are welcome and it’s not uncommon to see our canine friends curled up on the rugs, having a quiet snooze. The rooms are warm and spacious with comfy chairs to read in and a big bath, perfect for a bit of pampering and a hot soak.
Our second night was spent at the Elephant’s Nest Inn in Mary Tavy. Positioned down a quiet country lane, this old pub has a very different atmosphere to Prince Hall – with burning log fires, cosy cushioned benches and real ale pints being served. Owners Hugh and Denise are usually found reading the newspapers by the bar or serving up a pint and the hot food menu is a delight at dinner (the pea and mint risotto warms you up in no time). Rooms (pictured above) are cosy with garden views, and flat-screen TVs if you don’t fancy missing your weekend dose of Strictly Come Dancing. Each room is set away from the pub, so there’s not a squeak to be heard if you’re after peace and quiet. The traditional English breakfasts are home-cooked and scrumptious!
For a bit of luxury, book a room at the Prince Hall Hotel. Prices start at £95 per night including breakfast, between November and February. If you fancy trying out the restaurant, tables for lunch and dinner are available. All bookings can be made via their website.
The Elephant’s Nest is a perfect base if you’re planning to be out and about during the day. Rooms here start at £87.50 per night and can be booked through the website, breakfast included. If you’re after a cosy pub to sink a local brew or enjoy dinner, they are open from 6.30pm.
The new Peugeot 208 was the perfect super-mini ride down to Devon, providing us with reliable sat-nav, comfy seats and a bump-free drive (even when we hit those country puddles and potholes). Visit their website for more information.
PICTURE CREDIT: KAREN EDWARDS