Raised above the rest of Devon, Dartmoor has always been a place apart; one minute an aching emptiness of brooding tors and windswept skylines, the next a deep valley at your feet, a falling away of mossy oaks and the sound of a river running far below.
Its hillsides are littered with relics of long ago, drawing you into an ancient landscape of clitters, cleaves and featherbeds – Dartmoor-speak for scree slopes, glens and quaking bogs.
Granite is the key to getting to know it. Rain or shine, the sullen glitter of its feldspar crystals is everywhere, in every rough-hewn gatepost, in the tall grey tower of Widecombe’s St Pancras church – the Cathedral of the Moor – and in the four mighty slabs of the medieval clapper bridge at Postbridge.
On the Ordnance Survey map, Wistman’s Wood is a green teardrop, no more than nine acres all told, but it’s one of the botanical wonders of Britain, a troll wood of stunted oaks whose low canopy conceals a tumbling chaos of mossy boulders.
Hidden just off the A30 on the northern edges of Dartmoor is another must-do walk into Belstone Cleave – part of the Tarka Trail, which follows the upper reaches of the Taw on its way down from the high moor through Skaigh Wood. Readers of Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson’s lyrical countryside saga, will recognise this as the scene of Tarka’s encounter with the stoats of Belstone Cleave.
Another writer who fell under the spell of Dartmoor was Ted Hughes, the poet laureate, who lived in Devon for nearly 40 years until his death in 1998. He wrote of the elusive otter crossing the moor “like a king in hiding,” and hardy souls can make a pilgrimage to his memorial stone lying close to the source of the Taw in the wild heart of the land he loved.
Dartmoor is just one of the 15 national parks established in the UK over the past 70 years, and while they may lack the sheer size and scale of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, they are every bit as precious.
Together they represent landscape on a more human scale, protecting the best of Britain’s coast and countryside.