Days Out: A walk across Dartmoor

The great mystery of Great Mis Tor unravelled

Dartmoor is a paradoxical place. It is a national park – with all the legal protection such a designation suggests – but 35,000 acres are used by the military for live firing exercises that close off large swaths of moorland for up to 100 days a year.

Dartmoor is a paradoxical place. It is a national park – with all the legal protection such a designation suggests – but 35,000 acres are used by the military for live firing exercises that close off large swaths of moorland for up to 100 days a year.

A third of Dartmoor – 70,000 acres – is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, which again has declared many parts out of bounds.

But Dartmoor's beauty is not in dispute. Rain or shine this is a magical landscape. This walk, on the west side of the moor, starting from Hill Bridge Farm, is one of the grandest and one of the least trodden. It is a favourite of Kate Ashbrook, president of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Britain's oldest public access campaign group. "I know it so well and have stayed at Hill Bridge Farm since 1965 when I was 10," she recalls. "It was the start of my love of Dartmoor and my campaigning career."

Park your car close to Hill Bridge Farm (grid reference 532 804), east of the villages of Peter Tavy and Mary Tavy. Cross a footbridge by the weir, where you may see dippers and grey wagtails. Walk uphill through two farm gates to a road. Here, turn right to Wapsworthy Farm. Turn left up the bridleway and you are soon in open country. White Tor is in front of you, deceptively far away. From the first sighting, it will take a good 20 minutes to reach the top.

White Tor is an Iron Age fort and its strategic advantage is apparent in its views. To the south lies the Tamar estuary; in between are the mournful uprisings of Cox Tor, Great Staple Tor and Great Mis Tor. To the north are the Willsworthy and Okehampton firing ranges. On our visit, Willsworthy was in use and the red warning flags were just visible on the skyline.

For the family – young children and the adults that carry them – the scramble up to the top of White Tor may be sufficient. This is a place to linger for some time if you have the weather and then perhaps head downhill to the weir once more. For those looking for a longer excursion, drop down the south side of White Tor until you hit a track-cum-bridleway. Turn left and head uphill, passing a menhir, or standing stone. The antiquity of this 6ft-tall stone, believed to be prehistoric, did not stop the military from using it as target practice – its surface has clear evidence of bullet hits. The Army is a comparative newcomer, having started using the moor for the Crimean War.

Far to your right, towards Great Mis Tor, is a restored standing circle – which may first appear to be cows or sheep. We were now on the Lichway, the old coffin route along which mourners passed to reach Lydford Church, the parish church for all burials until around 1200. The views in both directions are magnificent. When the fence on your left drops off, walk a few hundred yards further to come in line with the slope on your left and then head left toward Lynch Tor. Here, the going is tougher, with clumps of tussock grass and reed beds ready to trip you should your gaze linger too long on the views. Skylarks chirruped in competition with the distant firing and in the distance we saw four buzzards mobbing one another in a territorial stand-off.

Upon reaching Lynch Tor – which is in the Merrivale range – the hard work is done. Now amble down to the clear track over Bagga Tor and follow the beautiful lane down to the point where you reach the field you left before reaching Wapsworthy.

Distance 4.5 miles; Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 28 Dartmoor. The timetable for firing on Dartmoor can be found at www.dartmoor-ranges.co.uk . On occasion the MoD fails to use these days so call first (01837 650010). Visit www.dartmoor-preservation-assoc.org.uk.

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