The days have been lengthening for a month now, to little discernible impact. Sunny days in January still have their fleeting hints of spring curtailed abruptly by a half-light of faded, drained colour. Where better then than Dartmoor for a seasonal walk? These moors can feel cloaked in gloaming in summer, more so in winter; but there’s also a magic to be found at this time of year, particularly when the low winter sun lifts itself over the summits of the tors, blackens the skyline into a silhouette and throws a vivid, if brief, brush of colour across the foreground.
Dartmoor’s woodlands may be leafless now, but there is still an intense green to enjoy in the smothering form of mosses and lichens. This is especially the case in Wistman’s Wood, one of the most enchanting, mysterious and downright spooky groves to be found in a national park that is not exactly short of tales and locations to send a shiver down your spine.
We begin the walk to Wistman’s Wood from Two Bridges, a minuscule hamlet dominated by the eponymous, welcoming hotel. Resisting the considerable temptation of the Two Bridges’ open fires, we resolve instead to return there after our walk.
The track along the valley of the West Dart is clear at first but, as we pass Crockern farm it whittles to a stony sheep’s track. We can spot Wistman’s Wood a mile before we reach it, tucked up against the river bank and precisely shoehorned into the lower flanks of Longaford Tor. In a hint at what is to come, every fingerpost sign is draped in lichens. Due north is the distinct outline of Rough Tor, its largest rocks seemingly petrified on the verge of tumbling into the depths of the moors.
As we approach, the woods become more distinct and its three overlapping groves of dwarf oaks can be picked out. Little can prepare you, though, for the breathtaking spectacle of contorted trunks and boughs, all swathed in drooping, spangled green lichen. Ferns grow out of every arboreal armpit and stout, serpentine trunks appear to sprout from the bare granite rocks that are sprinkled along the banks of the river.
Before setting out, Liz and Richard Jones, our hosts at Archerton guesthouse in Postbridge, had shown us a sepia-tinted travel guide to Dartmoor, Gems in a Granite Setting, by William Crossing, sometimes regarded as the Wainwright of the area. It’s a mesmerising account and well worth searching out; and his descriptions stayed with me as we wandered through and around the wood.
The path skirts to the east above the wood, but it’s hard to resist dipping our boots in this maze-like patchwork of green piping, though Crossing is spot on when he writes that “to penetrate far in means a continuous scramble, with every chance of slipping now and then into some deep hole between the boulders.” As Crossing puts it: “It’s worth the trouble, for certainly no other wood such as this exists.”
Wistman’s Wood is so extraordinary that it is unsurprising it has unsettled inhabitants from Neolithic settlements right through to the present day. From tales of the Devil lurking here with his prowling “wisht” hounds slavering over unwary travellers, to agitated druids, it has always been fertile territory for the imagination. Crossing adheres to the Age of Reason, however, and suggests the name is simply a corruption of Saxon and old English words for “water, stone and wood”.
Suddenly, we are clear of the wood and decide to aim for a distant weir across the West Dart. Every path we follow, however, evaporates among the reeds before we reach the bank, so we turn instead and cut across open ground to reach Longaford Tor.
Clambering to the summit, we stare down at Wistman’s Wood and then further afield. To the south-west we can pick out the granite frame of Dartmoor Prison. Due west, flagpoles denote the edge of the Merivale military training area.
We head south, skipping from tor to tor via a boggy plateau. Our final, modest summit, is Crockern Tor, location of Dartmoor’s medieval stannary parliament which operated for 400 years during the Middle Ages, registering tinworks and hearing petitions and dealing with law breakers.
Standing on Crockern’s jumble of rocks, we glance back at Longaford Tor and the distant Higher White, Rough and Beardown Tors and realise that every tor we have climbed, passed or surveyed from afar has its own distinct identity. Some appear to have been burped up from within the earth, others are more wind-pummelled, a number have their rocks scattered and sprawled across the moors, others look to have been designed with great precision, one vast immoveable boulder positioned just so upon another. Littaford Tor looks like a collection of granite macaroons. A monotonous landscape at a monotonous time of year? Not a bit of it.
Distance: Four miles
Time: Two hours
OS Map: Outdoor Leisure 28 Dartmoor
Start/Finish: Two Bridges Hotel, or quarry car park opposite.
From the quarry car park in Two Bridges, follow fingerpost signs to Wistman’s Wood. Just beyond the wood, bear right (east) over open ground up to Longaford Tor. Head south via Littafod Tor and continue south to a stile in the stone wall (grid ref SX 615767). Take the left-hand path here to Crockern Tor, then bear right (south-west) to pick up the track and retrace your steps past Crockern farm to the car park.
The nearest mainline train station is Plymouth, served by Great Western Trains and Cross Country Trains (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk)
Archerton guesthouse (01822 880286; archerton.co.uk) has double rooms from £95, including breakfast.
Eating & drinking there
Two Bridges hotel (01822 892300; twobridges.co.uk) offers dinner from £35pp excluding drinks.