The complete guide to Dartmoor and Exmoor

Feeling hemmed in? England has nowhere more untamed than the windswept wilds of Dartmoor and Exmoor. Harriet O'Brien beats a path through ancient forests and moors, circles deep bogs, scales steep cliffs - and seeks out orchids, bats and a hearty cream tea


TWO DAMP PATCHES IN THE SOUTH-WEST - WHAT'S THE APPEAL?

TWO DAMP PATCHES IN THE SOUTH-WEST - WHAT'S THE APPEAL?

In a nutshell: walking, wildlife and the great outdoors. These two tracts contain some of England's last wilderness areas, but there's much more besides, not least an added frisson of danger. Getting lost on open moorland is a perilous possibility, particularly in one of Exmoor's sudden, swirling mists or on Dartmoor's untamed expanses.

Set inland in southern Devon, Dartmoor is 368 brooding square miles of deep bogs, dramatic hills capped by weirdly shaped granite outcrops, or "tors", and windswept, gorse-clad moors studded with the eerie remains of Bronze Age man's mysterious civilisation. Meanwhile, straddling western Somerset and northern Devon, Exmoor's strikingly varied landscape is packed into 267 square miles. Surprisingly, this diverse area of forested glens and open moorland, and precipitous cliffs and hidden coves along the Bristol Channel coast, is not a big crowd puller. Exmoor attracts about 1.5 million visitors each year, in contrast to more than 3 million to Dartmoor.

To protect the moors, both were designated national parks in the 1950s. The natural life in Exmoor includes guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes nesting on exposed cliff faces, wagtails and kingfishers living along its 300 miles of rivers and streams, red deer roaming its moors, and rare fritillary butterflies breeding in its soft woodland. Offering a subtly different range of habitats, Dartmoor is home to a mind-numbing variety of species little seen elsewhere: bog orchids, barbastelle bats, golden-ringed dragonflies, skylarks, golden plovers, dunlins and much more.

CAN I WALK WHEREVER I LIKE?

The short answer is no. It is as well to be aware that the term "national park" was coined to denote an area of importance to the national heritage rather than signifying that the property is owned by the state. And, of course, neither park is entirely uninhabited, wild land: the population of Dartmoor is about 47,000, Exmoor an estimated 11,000 (both paltry figures compared to the number of resident, roaming sheep).

Within Dartmoor and Exmoor there are many different landholders, from the park authorities themselves to the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, private individuals and, on Dartmoor, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Ministry of Defence.

However, walkers are allowed to wander freely over more than 40 per cent of each park - with the caveat that between March and July extra care should be taken not to disturb nesting birds. (The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 gives the same freedoms to horse riders.) The "open access" regions are delineated by a purple circumference on Ordnance Survey's Outdoor Leisure maps: OL28 for Dartmoor, OL9 for Exmoor. Beware, though, of Dartmoor's military firing ranges around Okehampton, Willsworthy and Merrivale, which are, alarmingly, contained within these stretches of ostensibly open land - and clearly shown on the OS maps. The public is not allowed here on days when bullets, shells and mortars are tested: red flags are flown in the zones to warn them away.

Any walkers or riders worried about missing these fluttering danger signs should seek information about the no-go periods at tourist information offices or in the local press, or by calling the freephone number 0800 458 4868 or visiting www.dartmoor-ranges.co.uk. Generally, firing does not take place on Sundays or during peak holiday periods. For obvious reasons, a local by-law prohibits the collection of metal objects within these ranges.

CAN'T I JUST STICK TO A PATH?

Absolutely. Quite beyond the free-to-roam tracts, both parks contain a vast number of clearly marked trails: Dartmoor has about 400 miles of footpaths and bridleways, Exmoor a staggering 650 miles. The main, long-distance paths are the most famous of these routes: the South West Coast Path runs through Exmoor, hugging the shoreline between Minehead and Combe Martin; the Two Moors Way stretches 103 miles between Ivybridge on the edge of Dartmoor and Lynmouth on the coast of Exmoor. Other smaller paths may be more intriguing. On Dartmoor the Lich Way is the ancient route along which corpses were carried from remote farms to the church at Lydford on the western perimeter of the moor. Exmoor contains part of the Tarka Trail, a walking and cycling route that takes its name from the book Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, who lived in Georgeham, north Devon.

AAAH, LITERARY LOCATIONS. . .

Indeed, both moors have strong associations with some of Britain's most famous writers. Percy Bysshe Shelley spent his honeymoon at Lynmouth on the edge of Exmoor with his 16-year-old wife Harriet (later scurrilously abandoned in favour of Mary Godwin). Woodbine Cottage, where they stayed, is now Shelley's Hotel (01598 753 219; www.shelleyshotel.co.uk). Other romantic poets also visited Exmoor: the Ship Inn at Porlock is said to have been a haunt of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. The pub also features in RD Blackmore's romance, Lorna Doone. This tale of outlaws, love and murder has inspired its own burgeoning tourist industry, even though the book is hardly the bestseller it was in the 19th century.

The weird and wild landscape of Dartmoor itself has inspired a great many authors, from Agatha Christie to Alice Oswald, whose second book of poetry, Dart, was published to much acclaim in 2002. This year, a new society, Moor Poets, was set up for writers living in or near Dartmoor, including inmates of HM Dartmoor Prison at Princetown. It was in Princetown, at the turn of the last century, that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, and his haunting tale of treacherous bogs and ghostly dogs continues to be a powerful influence on perceptions of Dartmoor.

SO I SHOULD STEER CLEAR OF BIG CANINES - ANYTHING ELSE?

Wild horses, too. The cute-looking ponies that graze freely in both parks have an unpleasant tendency to bite and kick if you get too close. Technically these are feral creatures, although all the horses on the moors are owned and branded. Exmoor's ponies, which through isolation have developed very little from original Stone Age species, are now considered an endangered breed. There are only about 140 of these hardy creatures still roaming the moor. The ponies on Dartmoor are more of a mixed lot, having bred with Shetlands that were brought in to increase stock and supply pit-horses for the coal mines in Wales. Considerable efforts are now being made to re-establish a pure line of wild Dartmoor ponies, which should not be piebald, skewbald or contain any excessive white markings.

More sinister is the Beast of Exmoor, a puma-like animal whose activities were first reported in the 1970s. In 1988, after well over 100 sheep had been slaughtered, with their throats ripped out, the Royal Marines conducted a search for the creature(s). However, no big cat was ever found. One more eccentric theory holds that these are creatures from another dimension, slipping in and out of a parallel universe.

Such supernatural preoccupations seem endemic to both parks. Ghost stories abound. Near the village of Challacombe on the western edge of Exmoor, for example, the apparition of a young servant girl is said only to appear to men. Meanwhile, on Dartmoor, some fatalities between Postbridge and Princetown are thought to have been caused by "the Hairy Hand", a hirsute phantom that attempts to kill motorists by pushing them off the road.

ENOUGH OF THE PARANORMAL: AREN'T THERE LOTS OF FRESH-AIR ACTIVITIES?

With its coastline, Exmoor holds something of a trump card over Dartmoor. Minehead on the eastern edge of the moor became a significant seaside resort in the Victorian era and retains something of a kiss-me-quick atmosphere, not least through the addition of a cheerful Butlins holiday camp (0870 242 1000; www.butlinsonline.co.uk) in 1962. Exmoor's best beaches, however, are generally considered to lie further west, between the quaint village of Lynmouth and Combe Martin. Many of the sandy bays are not easily accessible - a remoteness that can be rewarding in the lack of crowds.

Not to be completely outdone, Dartmoor offers the unique outdoor pursuit of letterboxing. This wacky form of orienteering started in 1854 when James Perrott, a local guide and fishing expert, placed a bottle at Cranmere Pool on the northern moor so that other walkers could leave their calling cards there. Many more "letterboxes" were subsequently hidden in different parts of the high moorland, down small crevices and between the granite rocks of the tors without a clue as to their whereabouts. Today these, mainly Tupperware, containers house rubber stamps, the quest of the "letterboxers" being to collect stamps in their own books and thus prove that they have succeeded in finding the boxes, which are often in remote areas. For those frustrated by the lack of clues, an unofficial help centre is run by Mr and Mrs AR Moore of South Brent, who produce a catalogue of tips costing £6 to cover paper and photocopying (01364 73414 for details).

In both parks there are plenty of opportunities for cantering across the moors on horseback: on Exmoor try Outovercott Riding Stables near Lynton (01598 753 341; www.outovercott.co.uk) or Burrowhayes Farm Riding Stables near Porlock (01643 862 463; www.burrowhayes.co.uk). Dartmoor's stables include Cholwell Stables, Mary Tavy (01822 810 526); Skaigh Stables, Belstone (01837 840 917; www.skaighstables.co.uk); and Shilstone Rocks Riding and Trekking Centre, Widecombe-in-the-Moor (01364 621 281; www.dartmoor-riding.com).

A huge choice of other activities ranges from biking, fishing, hang-gliding and safari Jeep tours at both parks to sailing at Wimbleball Lake on Exmoor, and bouldering (a form of rock climbing) on Dartmoor. (Contact Exmoor's tourist offices, see www.exmoorattractions.com, or Exmoor National Park Authority on 01398 323 665 or www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk. For Dartmoor, call the Okehampton tourist centre on 01837 53020, see www.dartmoor.co.uk, or contact the Dartmoor National Park visitor centre at Princetown on 01822 890 414 or visit www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk).

For more leisurely pursuits, and to support the flagging fortunes of the local agricultural communities, visit the farmers' markets. Minehead on Exmoor offers such opportunities for retail therapy every first and third Friday (01984 640 817). On Dartmoor, markets take place on Thursdays at Buckfastleigh (01364 649 086) and selected Saturdays at Bovey Tracey (01626 835 363), Okehampton (01837 53158) and Tavistock (01822 820 515), where there is also an excellent West Country cheese shop (Country Cheeses, Market Row 01822 615 035; www.countrycheeses.co.uk).

WHAT IF IT'S RAINING?

Frogs and toads thrive on Dartmoor and Exmoor, with good reason. Annual rainfall statistics are similar for each park: roughly 2,000mm on high moorland and 800mm in drier lowland areas, all of which indicates a preponderance of damp days. In such clement weather for amphibians, the local museums and galleries see a steady stream of soggy visitors.

On Exmoor, the West Somerset Rural Life Museum at Allerford, near Porlock (01643 862 529), celebrates domestic and farming life from the Victorian era and contains an intriguing archive of photographs (open 10.30am-4.30pm, admission £1.50). The Lyn & Exmoor Museum at Lynton (01598 752 225; www.devonmuseums.net/lynton) houses an eclectic collection, from Stone Age implements to a 19th-century dolls' house; it is open from 10am-12.30pm and 2-5pm, closed all day Saturdays and on Sunday afternoon; admission is £1. Dartmoor's heritage, including its tin-mining industry, is commemorated at the Museum of Dartmoor Life in Okehampton (01837 52295), which is housed in a working watermill; it is open 10am-5pm daily, and admission is £2.

Grander indoor sights include Dunster Castle (01643 821 314), set in the chocolate-box village of Dunster on Exmoor's north-eastern perimeter; open 11am-4.30pm except Thursday and Friday, admission £6.40. This former Norman fort was refurbished after the Civil War as a Jacobean manor house and contains fine 17th-century furniture and painted leather wall hangings. Meanwhile, Dartmoor offers Castle Drogo (01647 433 306; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) at Drewsteignton in the eastern part of the moor. The austere, granite edifice designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is set in gloriously elegant gardens, which include a croquet lawn where visitors can play. It opens 11am-5.30pm daily except Tuesday, admission £5.90.

Those in search of scenic views without getting their feet wet could opt for a nostalgic train ride. The South Devon Steam Railway (0845 345 1420; www.southdevonrailway.org) runs between Buckfastleigh and Totnes, taking in the glorious greenery of Dartmoor's Dart Valley.

The West Somerset Railway (01643-704 996; www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk) operates between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead, travelling along the eastern edge of Exmoor. Further west, the Cliff Railway (01598 753 486) is a funicular arrangement of Victorian cabins that creak up and down the rock face between Lynton and Lynmouth.

But why be a wimp? Don't let the odd raincloud curb your enjoyment of the fresh air. Unless visibility is minimal and conditions positively primeval, simply dress up and enjoy a muddy challenge. Waterproofs, sturdy boots, compasses and plastic map pouches are readily available at local outdoor equipment shops - with a good choice at Porlock on Exmoor or Chagford on Dartmoor.

WHERE CAN I DRY OFF?

Head for a cosy pub. Set in splendid isolation on the high wilds of Dartmoor, Warren House Inn (01822 880 208) is on the B3212 near Postbridge. The hearth fire here has never been allowed to die - and has been burning for more than 150 years. Such warmth extends to a generous choice of no-nonsense home-cooked food and a wide range of real ales. Except on the hottest of days, at Withypool in the heart of Exmoor the Royal Oak (01643 831 506; www.royaloakwithypool.co.uk) has a large log fire glowing in its beamed lounge bar. There's an imaginative bar menu here (the likes of salmon fish cakes or braised lamb shank) and, for the more gastronomically inclined, a very well-regarded restaurant.

Alternatively, warm up and replace any lost calories with a cream tea. The full works - scones, jam, lashings of clotted cream - is served up on the tea terrace overlooking Dartmoor's East Dart Valley at the Lydgate House hotel (01822 880 209) in Postbridge. Exmoor's many teatime outlets include the thatched Periwinkle Cottage Tea Rooms (01643 862 769) in Selworthy near Porlock, and Boevey's Tea Rooms (01643 831 622) at Simonsbath, right in the heart of the park.

AND IF I WANT A LITTLE LUXURY?

With a large sheep and cattle population, both Dartmoor and Exmoor were badly affected by the foot-and-mouth crisis two years ago. The tourist industry took a nosedive, but it is now recoveringso fast that good accommodation is filling up, so early enquiries are recommended.

Stylish B&Bs include Edgcott House (from £30 per person per night, 01643 831 495; www.edgcotthouse.co.uk) at Exford in the heart of Exmoor, and The Old Orchard (from £25 per person per night, 01822 854 310; www.baross.demon.co.uk/theoldorchard) at Yelverton on the western edge of Dartmoor.

Country house hotels range from the slightly chintzy - and very relaxing - Porlock Vale House (B&B from £75 per person per night 01643 862 338; www.porlockvale.co.uk) near the coast on Exmoor, to super-gourmet luxury at Gidleigh Park Hotel (dinner, bed and breakfast for two people from £420, 01647 432 367; www.gidleigh.com) near Chagford on Dartmoor.

Meanwhile, Lewtrenchard Manor (B&B from £130 for a double room, 01566 783 256; www.lewtrenchard.co.uk) near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor provides considerable comfort in Jacobean surroundings - and is believed to have been the inspiration for Baskerville Hall in Arthur Conan Doyle's most spine-chilling Sherlock Holmes story.

Summer daze

Catching crabs - and the mystery of the stones

Next Saturday and Sunday may be a particularly good to time to visit either park, depending on your predilection for June jollities or New Age phenomena. Exmoor celebrates the longest days of the year with "Midsummer Madness" activities around Porlock. Events include a crab-catching contest; a grand prix for any wheeled vehicle capable of being pushed or pulled; and an evening with the Dorset folk group The Yetties (Saturday 21 June, 7.30pm, tickets £7: call the Porlock Visitor Centre on 01643 863 150).

Midsummer on Dartmoor is possibly more ethereal. Many of the park's Bronze Age standing stones appear to have been placed according to a celestial alignment - although no one has proved this for certain.

The stones are believed to have been set up using the stars and the lines of midsummer and midwinter sunrise and sunset, making the summer solstice one of the best times to appreciate these ancient emblems of a mystical culture.

The Merrivale row, an avenue of stones running from a megalithic circle and stretching a few hundred yards just off the B3357 between Two Bridges and Tavistock, is probably the easiest to see.

Erme row is more challenging to reach but well worth the effort. This double line of standing stones spans nearly two miles and is probably the longest row of megaliths in the world - small in height, but far more extensive than the famous standing-stone rows at Carnac in Brittany.

The Erme Plains are a healthy hike north-west of Shipley Bridge in the southern part of the moor.

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