Ancient, wild and bleakly beautiful, Dartmoor National Park is a magical and mysterious place. Located in South Devon, Dartmoor’s 368 square miles of land is home to dramatic granite tors, heather-covered moorland, historic stone cairns, and hundreds of wild ponies who roam the heath.
Dartmoor is a joy to explore whenever you visit: in summer you can splash in pristine streams and catch some rays on purple heather cushions; in the autumn and winter, Dartmoor’s stark beauty is accentuated by its famous swirling mists.
Whether you’re into history or hiking, Dartmoor has plenty to offer visitors, so if you’re thinking about your next break, here are seven of the best things to see and do while on holiday.
1. Explore the Tors
A tor is a large, free-standing rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the summit of a hill – and Dartmoor’s barren landscape is home to dozens of them. It can be easy to walk from one to another, and if you enjoy hiking, spending a day exploring the Tors is a great idea. One of the most popular tors is Haytor, which is located right on the edge of the moors, close to the town of Bovey Tracey.
If you climb to the top of Haytor Rocks you’ll be able to enjoy panoramic views of Dartmoor and the South Devon coast – and at the base of the tor you’ll find a hidden lake; this is all that remains of the abandoned Haytor Quarry, which is now a peaceful haven attracting plenty of wildlife. Be sure to visit the National Park Visitor Centre, where you can find out more about the local area.
Other tors worth visiting are High Willhays and Yes Tor. At 621 metres, High Willhays is the highest point in the South West, and at 619 metres, Yes Tor is the second highest point. These two tors are connected by a path, so you can walk from one to the other – just be sure to pack some layers as the path is exposed and the Dartmoor weather can be extremely unpredictable. A final ‘must-visit’ tor is Brent Tor. Home to St Michael de Rupe Church, the Tor cuts a distinctive silhouette on the Dartmoor skyline, and is well worth the effort of trekking up. Just don’t forget your camera!
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2. Take a tour of Dartmoor Prison
Most people never set foot inside a working prison, and if you visit Dartmoor Prison, this is something you’ll probably feel very pleased about! Located in the town of Princetown, HM Prison Dartmoor is still a working prison for low category offenders, and its imposing granite walls dominate these parts of the moor. HMP Dartmoor is set to close in 2023, so if you’re fascinated by the darker side of history, you might want to take this chance to visit while the prison is still active.
Constructed in 1809, HMP Dartmoor was built to house the thousands of prisoners that Britain took during the Napoleonic wars – and much of the prison itself was built by Napoleonic and American prisoners of war. Dartmoor prison has a rather grim history: in its early years it suffered from overcrowding, and outbreaks of diseases like pneumonia, typhoid, and smallpox killed over 11,000 prisoners. When the wars ended, the prisoners were repatriated, and the prison then closed until reopening in 1850 as a criminal prison – soon becoming one of the most notorious prisons in the world.
At the Dartmoor Prison Museum you can view historic prison memorabilia like manacles, straight jackets, and flogging apparatus, and learn all about some of the most famous prisoners that have done time here – as well as their most daring escapes! Aside from the prison, the village of Princetown has plenty of shops, restaurants, and even a popular brewery, as well as an excellent visitor centre; the visitor centre used to be the old Duchy Hotel, and it was here that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing The Hound of the Baskervilles.
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3. Visit Bovey Tracey
If you enjoy pottering around villages and market towns while on holiday, visiting Bovey Tracey should definitely be on your to-do list. Known as the gateway to the moors, Bovey Tracey is a beautiful and historic town that’s packed with winding streets, pretty parks, and characterful buildings. Just a couple of miles from the imposing Haytor, Bovey Tracey is the ideal base for exploring the stunning natural landscape of the moors.
If you’re interested in local history, you’ll enjoy learning about Bovey Tracey: originally a Saxon settlement, the town was named after the River Bovey and the de Tracey family, who ruled the region after the Norman Conquest. One of the major battles of the English Civil War was fought at Bovey Tracey, and today, Oliver Cromwell’s legacy lives on in The Cromwell Arms pub and Cromwell’s Arch, which is all that remains of an ancient priory.
History aside, Bovey Tracey has many excellent pubs, restaurants, tea rooms and cafes where you can relax after a long hike – or fuel up before a day of exploring. If you consider yourself a foodie, you might want to visit one of the bi-monthly farmer’s markets and pick up some high-quality produce to take home. Alternatively, if you have a creative streak, head over to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, where you can watch craftsmen and women create unusual jewellery, sculptures, prints, and textiles.
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4. Take a trip to Lydford Gorge
If you want to be amongst nature during your holiday, why not visit Lydford Gorge? As one of the most popular natural attractions in Dartmoor, the beauty of Lydford Gorge is no secret, but you’ll still be able to enjoy the peace and serenity of this spectacular location. Managed by the National Trust, Lydford Gorge is the deepest gorge in the South West, and this area is packed with walks, wildlife, and stunning scenery – not to mention an abundance of flora and fauna.
One of the main highlights of Lydford Gorge is the thundering Whitelady Waterfall, which is 30 metres high, and even more impressive after heavy rain. Another highlight is the Devil’s Cauldron pothole, which can be viewed from a platform above – though you’ll hear the water rumbling through the gorge from the cauldron long before you see it! There are dozens of lovely trails to follow here which take you through mysterious woodland filled with secret coves and streams.
Lyford is also home to Lydford Castle and Saxon village, so it’s worth making a day of it. The castle was first built as a prison in medieval times, and became known for its judicial cruelty and severe punishments; an inmate once called it ‘the most annoious, contagious and detestable place within this realm’. There’s also an older Norman earthwork castle in Lydford, and Saxon town defences. To find out more about visiting Lydford Gorge, head over to the National Trust website – and to find out more about Lydford Castle, head over to the English Heritage website.
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5. Explore Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village
If you love exploring abandoned villages – or you’re simply a fan of eerie, atmospheric places – then you should definitely visit Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village. Located at the foot of Hound Tor, this is a site steeped in myth and mystery. According to local legend, Hound Tor was formed when a hunter disrupted a coven of witches with his pack of hounds – and to get their revenge, the witches turned the hunter and his dogs to stone.
Today, visitors to Hound Tor can step back in time to the 13th century as they explore the ruins of this isolated, ancient village. No one knows why this village was abandoned, or what happened to its residents – though it’s thought that a bubonic plague outbreak might have caused the residents to flee. Excavated in the 1960s, the walls of the medieval longhouses have been reclaimed by nature, and purple heather covers crumbling bricks and well-worn pathways. Many centuries since it was abandoned, an eerie silence still hangs in the air.
Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be interested to know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited Hound Tor, and was so struck by its eerie atmosphere that he used it for inspiration in his most famous Sherlock novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. To find out more about the history of Hound Tor, head over to the English Heritage website.
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6. Visit Widecombe-in-the-Moor
Dartmoor isn’t short of picturesque villages – but one of the loveliest is Widecombe-in-the-Moor, which is right in the heart of Dartmoor. Perhaps best known for being the subject of the popular folk song Widecombe Fair, the village attracts visitors from all over the world, and situated in its own valley that’s overlooked by dozens of tors, it’s about as quintessentially Devonian as it gets.
Widecombe’s Church of St Pancras is locally known as ‘the Cathedral of the Moors’ due to its 120ft tower, which can be seen from all across Dartmoor’s eastern moors. Every fourth Sunday there’s a food market in Church House, where you can stock up on local produce – and if you’re visiting in September, you might want to try to coincide your visit with the famous Widecombe Fair, which is held on the second Tuesday of the month.
If you’re looking for a pretty place to spend a leisurely afternoon – whether to browse in gift shops, enjoy lunch in a pub garden, or relax with a cream tea in a quaint tea room – Widecombe is a charming village to visit. To find out more about Widecombe, head over to the village website.
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7. Explore Castle Drogo
Dartmoor is famous for its crumbling castles and ancient ruins – but it’s also home to the last castle to have ever been built in England. Barely 100 years old, Castle Drogo was built in the early 1900s, and was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the famous architect who designed London’s Cenotaph. Castle Drogo is Grade I listed, and its gardens are Grade II – and there’s even a working portcullis on site (which has never been used!).
The castle was commissioned by Julius Drewe, a young tea merchant who retired at the age of 33, and today, the rooms are set out to show how the castle would have looked when the Drewe family lived here in the 1900s. Wandering through the castle, you can explore unique collection items and learn all about the fascinating history of the Drewe family – and outside, the beautiful terraced gardens are a lovely place for a gentle stroll and some peaceful relaxation.
If you fancy a more vigorous walk, you can follow the winding paths from the castle into the ancient Teign Gorge. Heading to the top of the gorge allows you to admire gorgeous views across the moors, and following the Hunters path down to the river gives you ample opportunity to spot wildlife. The castle has an excellent cafe where you can sit down to hot and cold lunches, light snacks, and plenty of cake, so this is a great place to spend a day. Be sure to book tickets in advance!
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Dartmoor may be most famous for its desolately beautiful landscape and wild hiking trails, but this unique part of the country has so much more to offer to visitors than its stunning scenery. Packed with absorbing history, charming villages, and historical sites, you can spend weeks here exploring and still barely scratch the surface of what makes this region so special.
Whether you want to spend your holiday climbing up tors and trekking over barren moorland, or sitting back in a pub trying some of the best local brews, you can do all that and more in Dartmoor.