Writers return, again and again, to the place where their dreams are set; to the landscape of their subconscious. Creativity has been a strange visitor during the past year — delivered in frantic bursts and long absences, perhaps because during lockdown I’ve been exiled from my native writing habitat, away from the landscape that forms the backdrop to my dreams.
I was raised in the tropics. My father is a water economist and while I was growing up we moved every three years as he worked on projects, mostly in developing countries — from the US to Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen and Morocco. But every summer we returned to Dartmoor, to a cottage in the deep valley fold below Hamel Down. It was the one fixed point in an itinerant life.
To me, accustomed to heat, red earth and sun, everything about this part of the world seemed alien and exotic. The wide sweeping skies, purple and golden hillsides topped with granite, mist that touches the cheek with light, chilly fingers, the sight of wild ponies silhouetted dark on the brow of a hill at dusk. Having never lived in the UK, I had gleaned knowledge of my supposed home country largely from books such as The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, which seemed to bear little resemblance to reality. On Dartmoor I found a connection to an older, wilder Britain. It was the first place I ever felt at home.
Human and natural history are written into the land here — Dartmoor is a visible geological record. The remains of the vast dense woodland that sprang up following the last Ice Age are preserved in the form of peat, which covers most of the high moor — the famous, treacherous Dartmoor bogs. The granite of the area’s characteristic tors is molten rock, cooled 280m years ago. The Ice Age broke these great rocks into clitter, which are still strewn across the hills. Later, houses were built of the granite, echoing the shape of the land, with its clusters of grey stone.
Dartmoor has been swallowed by the sea and risen again, more than once, has been racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, and inhabited by dinosaurs. People arrived here relatively late, 12,000 years ago, when it was a forest of oak, ash and beech. The outlines of ancient settlements, field boundaries and burial mounds can still be seen on what is now rolling moorland. The distinctive small, dark Dartmoor ponies came even later — a 3,500 year old fossilised hoof print is the earliest sign of them.
I was familiar with safaris, long drives though deserts and rainforests, the American hike, but I learned about the British walk — which takes place regardless of weather, with chocolate or sandwiches in your pocket — on Dartmoor. For more than 30 years I have walked here with family, friends and partners in snow, rain, wind and sun. These landscapes were the setting for my first novel, Rawblood, and they continue to haunt me.
Scale the flanks of Hamel Down to the remote high moors, and the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound can be glimpsed below, mist coiling in ribbons through the ruined huts. There are no signs of modern life here, no ticket office or pamphlets — you come upon the village suddenly, much as travellers would have done thousands of years ago. Grimspound was once ringed by a wall, now a great snaking trail of tumbled stone. It’s unusually high and thick for a boundary wall, suggesting danger, dark nights and hard life. But enclosed as it is on three sides by hills, Grimspound would have been too vulnerable for defence. The wall seems to have been built for ceremony, not from fear.
The 24 Grimspound huts are small, tumbled stone circles, walls still standing at a height of two feet or so. Heather springs from old hearths, and the lintels and doorways are still discernible. Some huts feature stone pallets, sleeping platforms which were, one hopes, made comfortable with hides and straw. The houses would have been 10- or 11-feet wide, dark and smoke filled. Up here the wind batters your ears, and more often than not blows rain horizontally into your eyes. Passing through Grimspound, you are thrilled by its bleak beauty. But one wonders what drew people to live here, on this inhospitable hillside, 1,400 feet above sea level.
Nevertheless, people were drawn here and have been ever since. The hillsides around Grimspound are marked by the past, both near and distant. The Viking burial site, King’s Barrow, can be seen on a hill to the southeast. A memorial commemorating second world war pilots, including four who crashed on the hillside in 1941, rises lonely on the slopes towards Manaton. A 14th-century track once used by tin miners leads straight through Grimspound. The path runs over the remains of the boundary wall, taking the most direct route through the ruins. Maybe the miners didn’t care for antiquity. Or maybe they liked walking through this memory of those who came before, on their way back to the dark mines.
The name Grimspound was first recorded in the 18th century by the Reverend Polwhele in his History of Devonshire. It’s unlikely that it was the settlement’s original name. Whatever that was, it is now lost.
From Grimspound, you can scale the fierce incline onto the whale-like back of Hamel Down and follow the old high funeral route through the Iron Age hilltop barrows, eyes watering with wind and sun. On a clear day, in the golden light with skylarks bursting from the undergrowth, it’s easy to see why they buried the dead here. It feels hallowed, a god-like vantage.
Hamel Down is the highest point for miles around; Dartmoor rolls out below in every direction. Grimspound and Hookney Tor to the north, to the east Hound Tor, with the saddle of Honeybag, Chinkwell and Bell Tor in the distance. Down in the west lies the old road, still known as Woden’s Way, and beyond, the Warren House Inn on the lonely Postbridge road. On day-long rides as children, my sister and I tethered the ponies there for a lunch break. Beyond that are the low, steep-sided hills of the army training area. Dartmoor has been used by the military for hundreds of years. The remains of 1891 artillery trenches, dug for training during the Boer war, are still visible on the northern flank of Rowtor.
At last, when the path begins to descend once more, it’s possible to turn east down a steep unpaved lane, to the village of Widecombe in the Moor, to emerge, dazzled and blinking, by the pub. It can take time to adjust to being among the living again.
My second novel, Little Eve, opens with the discovery of a murder in a stone circle. The book is set on an island off the coast of Scotland, but in my mind’s eye I saw Scorhill Stone Circle on Batworthy Common, near the tiny village of Gidleigh. This part of the moor can only be reached via a riddle of ancient, narrow lanes, overhung with woodland. If you meet a car coming the other direction, be prepared to reverse for some miles. The only sign of having reached the right footpath to Scorhill is the fact that the lane ends. A gate leads onto the open moor.
In summer the flowering cottongrass ripples in waves across a great plain where deer and vast shaggy cattle wander, with Dartmoor’s north plateaus rising gently in the distance. The stones stand at the edge of this rolling meadow. From a distance they are almost invisible, weathered to the colour of the land. It has an otherworldly appearance. I understand why people erected monuments here.
Though only 25 stones remain standing out of the original 70, the circle has been fortunate to escape the attentions of 19th-century restorers, with their reorganising hands. At 89 feet in diameter, with some stones reaching over eight feet in height, Scorhill is the largest circle on Dartmoor. On fine days I’ve seen people playing rounders in the smooth green centre.
Five minutes’ stroll to the west, the Wallabrook dashes to meet the Teign, narrow and black in its deep channel. Close to, the tiny stream roars loud as a river. It’s crossed via two of Dartmoor’s famous clapper bridges — great single slabs of granite toppled to span the banks. The stream is deep enough to swim, but in places only wide enough for single file, ducking rowan branches and nodding bracken from the enclosing banks. I have never felt water as cold as the Wallabrook.
Downstream, the Tolmen stone leans out over the water, in the shade of a twisted rowan tree. In local legend the stone promotes fertility and healing. The deep round hole in the heart of the boulder is large enough for several people to stand in, perilously, over the rushing water.
Dartmoor is full of ghosts of every kind. Even Dartmoor’s most famous song, “Widecombe Fair,” features a ghostly grey mare. After dark, drivers on the Princetown road may fall victim to a pair of hairy hands which materialise from nowhere, grab the steering wheel and drive the car off the road.
Jay’s Grave lies at the junction of a cart track and the road to Hound Tor. Legend has it that in the 18th century a young woman named Kitty Jay found work on a farm. When the farmer’s son got her pregnant she killed herself and was buried, as was the rule for suicides at the time, at a crossroads. At night a cloaked figure can be seen kneeling by the grave, weeping. There are always flowers on it — in 30 years I have never seen the grave bare of at least a posy of foxgloves — though no one is seen to put them there.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in the experience of seeing them. Dartmoor taught me fear, too. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when it started, but during those Dartmoor summers, as I grew out of childhood, my nights became troubled. The cottage was old, with granite walls six feet thick. Thick enough for safety, I had thought in the past. Now I began to feel they were thick enough to smother.
Each night I woke with a hand in the small of my back, pushing me out of bed. I felt a mind and an intent, there in the dark. For some years I ended the night on the floor of my sister’s room. It was years before I learned about hypnagogic hallucinations, which visit you on the edge of sleep. I still experience these things in the night, but I have made my peace with the dark now. I put it into my books instead.
The great, slablike rock of Haytor may be Dartmoor’s most photographed landmark. Crowds flock here in summer, when the green-grey slopes are covered with the bright dots of anoraks. Just to the northeast lies a lesser-known site, hidden from view. There are two entrances, both difficult to spot. I’ve been coming here for 20 years — I still lose the way.
The surest route is to follow the tramway, built in the 19th century to transport granite from the various quarries across the moor. The tram tracks themselves are made of stone, giving an odd impression of the industrial and the prehistoric mingled, as the granite tramway wanders through the great spoil heaps, like building blocks thrown down by giants.
From here a narrow path leads between high banks, then opens up into a sandy hollow surrounded by steep cliffs. At first glance the valley resembles a crater, left by an old bomb blast. Gorse, Dartmoor rowan, bilberries, foxgloves, bracken and vivid moss grow from the living walls. A still lake lies at the centre, covered in water lilies. Newts and tadpoles swim here, and dragonflies hover over the still surface. It seems a pagan place, except for the rusted machinery that rises ominously from the centre of the lake. This is Haytor Quarry; the granite mined here built the British Museum and London Bridge in the 1830s. In 1968, the bridge was sold by the City of London and its granite blocks were shipped to the US. Dartmoor stone now bridges the river in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
If you don’t mind the company of newts, the quarry is good for swimming. Lying on your back among the waterlilies on a summer day, blue sky reflected in the dark water, red kites circling overhead, it’s almost impossible to believe this place has been touched, let alone made, by human hand. People leave their mark here, but Dartmoor always returns to the wild.
Catriona Ward’s latest novel, ‘The Last House on Needless Street’, is published this week by Viper
Gidleigh Park Only a mile and a half from Scorhill Stone Circle, but in very different surroundings, Gidleigh Park is Dartmoor’s smartest hotel. A Tudor-style country house with 24 bedrooms, it is set in 100 acres of wooded grounds beside the river Teign, with croquet lawns, a grass tennis court and putting greens. There’s also a celebrated restaurant with a 13,000-bottle cellar. Doubles from about £300; gidleigh.co.uk
Sanders (pictured) Just to the north of Hamel Down and Grimspound is the ancient hamlet of Lettaford, where the Landmark Trust rents out this perfectly preserved Dartmoor long-house, built around 1500. With walls of enormous granite blocks and ancient rafters and flagstones clear to see, it is an ideal retreat from modernity. Sleeps five, four nights from £390; landmarktrust.org.uk
Bovey Castle This Jacobean-style pile has a mile-long private drive, its own golf course and a spa, swimming pool and tennis courts. Less conventionally it also has its own ferrets and chickens — which children can meet as part of a wide programme of family-friendly activities. Doubles from £249; boveycastle.com
Wolf Wood Treehouses Set in 13 acres of deciduous woodland, just beyond the northern edge of the moor, are three luxurious treehouses. They come with wood-burning stoves, fully equipped kitchens and outdoor Jacuzzis amid the canopy. Treehouses sleeping up to four from £1,000 for four nights; wolfwoodtreehouses.co.uk
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