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Answering the call of

The slow-burning charm of rural Devon is impossible to ignore, writes Gavin Bell


ir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t do Dartmoor any favours. A sinister, fogshrouded wasteland stalked by a murderer and a hound from hell awaited Sherlock Holmes in the spinechilling case of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. He omitted to mention grasslands ablaze with gorse and heather, sun-dappled rivers meandering through woods and meadows, zany dances at folk festivals and the heroic exploits of the Rugglestone Inn tug o’ war team. That’s not to say it was his fault. Times have changed since Sir Arthur visited the moors, heard legends of diabolical black beasts with blood-red eyes preying on travellers after dark, and penned one of his classic mysteries. Dartmoor National Park, the largest and wildest open country in southern England, is now a place for holidays rather than horror. Any strange sounds heard after dark are more likely to emanate from folk singers in pubs than supernatural creatures. My wife and I find a bunch of the former in the Oxenham Arms, a 12th-century coaching inn in the village of South Zeal, during the Dartmoor Folk Festival. This is an annual event that draws thousands of enthusiasts for a weekend of traditional music and dancing, including a step dance competition on a 15in square board in the back of a hay wagon. While professional musicians perform in a nearby hall, patrons in the bar of The Ox amuse themselves and anyone who cares to join in with lusty renditions of sea shanties and working men’s songs from Cornwall to Northumbria. This is no drunken bawling, but harmonious ballads by men with fine voices singing for the love of it. The tin mines that inspired some of the songs are long gone from Dartmoor, and the high moors are the domain of untamed ponies born free in the wind-blown cotton grass. The vistas of wild, lonely land are immense, with skylines dominated by tors – jumbles of massive stones squeezed up as molten granite through the earth’s crust 280 million years ago. Like ruins of ancient hilltop forts, they are the sentinels of a bygone age. Among the most impressive is Hound Tor, standing imperiously above traces of a medieval settlement. Over the years it has gained a reputation for ghostly sightings, and even under kind skies it has a mystical presence. This was noted by Sherlock Holmes, and later by BBC producers who used it as a location for an episode of Doctor Who. With artistic licence, Conan Doyle ignored the fact the moors are surrounded by wooded valleys, where hamlets of thatched cottages nestle in farmland among dry stone walls and hedgerows. This is hobbit territory, where roses ramble on honey-coloured stone walls, and country lanes are full of butterflies and songbirds. The patchwork of fields, meadows and woodland is criss-crossed by a maze of narrow lanes barely wide enough for a single vehicle, bounded by high hedges. Driving is a slow affair, periodically interrupted by cows, horses and tractors.


Approaching the market town of Moretonhampstead – the longest one-word place name in England – we find the road blocked by a man in a car and another on a horse who have stopped for a chat. In no hurry to go anywhere, we pull into a passing place and wait, and when the rider and motorist move on, we receive cheery waves of thanks.

The Dartmoor landscape, dotted with granite tors and wild ponies, has more than a passing resemblance to the Shire imagined by JRR Tolkien in Lord Of The Rings

Our base for the weekend is North Bovey, a hamlet of thatched houses around a village green that boasts a 13th-century church, a pub and a community hall. Regulars in the Ring of Bells pub include farriers, sheep shearers and a mole catcher, drawn by a cheery ambience and the local Otter real ale. This gives rise to car stickers saying: “I could murder an otter.” The pub is where we collect keys to Moorland View, a cottage a few steps away that has my wife sighing with delight. It is the kind of luxurious



Get on your bike for Scots whisky tour

hideaway Bilbo Baggins might have lived in if he had won the lottery – oodles of character and comfort in a mix of traditional West Country style and mod cons, including a wireless digital sound system and a wondrous copper and tin bath that could accommodate a small family. In the morning the sun warms a bench by the front door, and in the late afternoon it shines on a seat by a lily pond in the garden. One day we are woken by a clip-clop of horses’ hooves, and find a leaflet by the door announcing that orders are being taken for this year’s lamb. For £46 we can have half a lamb butchered, cut, packed and labelled for easy freezing, or a half carcass of mutton “finished slowly on herb-rich meadows”. In rural Devon, who needs supermarkets? We could have gone for a hike on the moors, or even signed up with Dartmoor Llama Walks and had our picnic lunch transported by the ponysized animals, but we opt for a more sedate stroll

the wilds

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along the banks of the River Teign at Chagford. This is your quintessential English babbling brook, flowing past lush green meadows, old wooden gates, stately oak trees and an old mill by the stream. My wife sums up the scene: “It’s like we’ve fallen into the pages of a storybook.” Babbling brook number two lies near our doorstep. Down a lane from the cottage, we find a footpath by the River Bovey that leads via stepping stones and old stone bridges to Bovey Castle, erstwhile baronial pile of Viscount Hambleden, heir to the WH Smith book and stationery empire. It is now a luxury hotel and sporting estate where, for a price, guests can disport themselves with archery, falconry, pheasant shooting and golf on a course rated among the finest in England. Guests of Moorland View have free access to the swimming pool and spa, but we’re happy just rambling by the river and throwing sticks in rock pools for wet dogs.

There are bigger pools in the River Dart at Newbridge, where Atlantic salmon rest en route to spawning sites upstream. This is good news for otters looking for takeaway snacks. In summer the indigenous wildlife gives way to another form of wild life – people riding rubber rings over shallow rapids to a popular picnic spot, and leaping from rocky heights into a deep pool with squeals of fright and delight. For some, the marquee at the Manaton Show and Fair, organised by the young farmers club, is an equally exciting sight. Wooden tables are laden with a cornucopia of prize runner beans, carrots, herbs, roses, treacle tarts, flower arrangements,handmadetoysandamateurphotographs. Competition is intense for the Sweet Pea Cup, in memory of Lt Col and Mrs Donald Smith, for the best dahlias. We arrive too late for the Fun Dog Show, including classes for the dog or bitch with the

Barpatronsamusethemselves withrenditionsofseashanties andworkingmen’ssongs TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE AND WHERE TO STAY The simplest route by car is the M6 then M5 to Exeter, about half an hour from North Bovey. There are daily train services and flights with Flybe (from £116pp

return) from Glasgow to Exeter. From September to April four nights at Moorland View costs from £540 and seven nights from £810. Visit www. moorlandview.com or call 07786 264865.

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TRAVEL DARTMOOR most appealing eyes, and the dog or bitch the judge would most like to take home. We’re in time, though, for the grand spectacle of the show, the fiercely contested Inter Pub Tug O’ War. We cheer our local heroes and reigning champions, the North Bovey Ringers, who are sporting shirts warning: “Danger – Men on the Pull.” Our brave lads brush aside a challenge from a “foreign” team – the Royal Oak from Sussex – but finally go down, literally, in a titanic struggle with the Rugglestone Inn from over the hill. A Royal Oak ladies team, given the advantage of an extra body, beat their own men to take third place. Amity between victors and vanquished is then restored at length in the bar over foaming pints of Gun Dog bitter. So what happened to the diabolical hounds of Dartmoor, with an insatiable hunger for human flesh and souls? Go to Wistman’s Wood if you dare, we are told, for that is their lair. In 1797, the Reverend J Swete wrote: “Silence seemed to have taken up her abode in this wood – and to a superstitious mind some impression would have occurred approaching to dread, or sacred horror …” From a distance, the wood of ancient oaks above the West Dart River is a small patch of green that doesn’t look much like a door to hell. The only vaguely dangerous beast we encounter on the way is a bull, too intent on propagating his species to pay us any heed. On a dark and stormy Halloween night Wistman’s Wood might live up to its reputation as a den of ghosts and devils, but on a bright day it is a magical place. A remnant of woodland dating from prehistoric times, it is a labyrinth of gnarled dwarf oaks writhing among a clutter of granite boulders, all of them swathed in luxuriant ferns, mosses and lichens. With sunlight filtering through the foliage, it is a place for poets rather than phantoms. It seems the Hound of the Baskervilles is long gone. ■

Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone in the 1939 film The Hound Of The Baskervilles, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s murder mystery featuring a dog said to prey upon travellers in Dartmoor after dark. The area is better known now as a holiday destination



by Rab Anderson


Location: Dunkeld, Perthshire Map: OS Landranger 52 (GR 003 437) Distance: 5 miles (8km) Time: 2.5 hours Terrain: footpaths, tracks This lovely walk takes you along the banks of one of Scotland’s finest rivers and past one of its most popular beauty spots, before heading through one of its oldest managed forests. Although you can start from the NTS car park at The Hermitage, it’s better to continue north up the A9 and turn off left immediately before the bridge over the River Tay, then park in the Newton Craig car park. Cross the road and take a path downhill beneath the railway then under the A9 road bridge, dropping down towards the banks of the Tay. The mix of woodland is splendid and further along you come to a bench and a gnarled oak tree tenaciously clinging to the banks. This is Neil Gow’s Oak, or the Fiddle Tree, named after the

by Fergal MacErlean START Alloa



Culross Denny

Inver Wood



River F or




Rosyth North Queensferry Queensferry




Craigvinean Forest

A9(T) P


The Hermitage

famous 18th-century fiddler who reputedly composed many of his much loved reels and strathspeys here. Continue along the river to within sight of the fivearch bridge built by Thomas Telford at Dunkeld. Then, where the River Braan meets the Tay, follow the banks of the Braan back under the A9. Don’t cross

over the footbridge, take the path leading away from the river to reach Inver, then at the end of the road take the path beside the A9 and follow this to the NTS car park at The Hermitage. Here, the main path leads under the railway to Ossian’s Hall, a lovely spot at this time of year. Take the main track leading rightwards, then

after 50m go left on another track and follow this as it swings round into the Craigvinean Forest. Continue straight ahead on the main track for 1500m, then turn sharply right down another track for 50m and left on to a grassy track signposted Inver Walk, which leads to a path downhill back to the start.

Map: OS Landranger 57, 65, or Sustrans Round the Forth cycle map (£3.99 from www.sustransshop.co.uk) Distance: 34 miles (55km) Time: 4 hours Terrain: mainly flat, quiet roads and cyclepaths If you’re more familiar with driving between Stirling and Linlithgow you’ll be surprised to learn how good the cycle links are. The National Cycle Network route 76, which will link St Andrews in the north to Berwick Upon Tweed once finished, runs between the two towns with few busy sections or ascents. From Stirling train station, turn right and first right to reach a small roundabout. Turn right again to join the Sustrans


route with views down to the River Forth which, despite being so far from the sea, is tidal here. Cycle on to join an old railway line which gives easy cycling past the former mining village of Fallin. Further on there’s a circuitous, but excellent, route on very quiet roads by Dunmore and Letham mosses. The Forth comes into view again as you approach Grangemouth, after which the route leads through Kinneil Estate by Bo’ness. Kinneil House, said to be haunted by Lady Alice who leapt to her death from its tower, is no place to tarry as dusk falls tonight. From Bo’ness the route climbs steeply away from the Forth to join the Union Canal. Follow the canal west for Linlithgow and the train station.



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The Herald Magazine (Oct 2009)  

“(Moorland View) is the kind of luxurious hideaway Bilbo Baggins might have lived in if he had won the lottery.” — Gavin Bell, The Herald Ma...

The Herald Magazine (Oct 2009)  

“(Moorland View) is the kind of luxurious hideaway Bilbo Baggins might have lived in if he had won the lottery.” — Gavin Bell, The Herald Ma...

Profile for veryholly