Dartmoor Tourist Association, 8 Fitzford Cottages, Tavistock, Devon, PL19 8DB.
Dartmoor National Park, The Information Officer, Parke, Haytor Road, Bovey Tracey, TQ13 2JQ. 0626 832093.
If you really want to get away from everything for a while, then what about Dartmoor National Park? - 365 sq miles of mostly unspoilt wilderness. But Princetown and its prison has given the whole area a bad name which it ill deserves. The prison was originally built so that Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt could use the French prisoners to build him a grand house out on the moor, Tor Royal. The prison cost twice as much and took twice as long to build than they first estimated, but the first detainees came up from the rotting prison hulks in Plymouth in 1809. Their numbers increased and were swelled by American prisoners so that by 1813 there were 9,000 inmates altogether.
After they had been repatriated it was turned into a domestic prison which held some of the country's most dangerous prisoners, who spent their time cracking stones out in the granite quarries on the Moor. Today numbers are fewer and the inmates somewhat different but the sight of the front gate is still chillingly forbidding. Antiquities found on the moors show that the Beaker people of the Bronze Age were here. Cairns have been found along the river valleys, and stone rows bear witness to the presence of prehistoric man.
Most of this high granite shield is more than a thousand feet above sea level. Much of it is covered with peat and bogs but is by no means barren and unproductive. At some times of year even the hard centre of the moors is alive with colour supplied by the furze and gorse. 'When the furze is out of bloom kissing's out of favour' the old saw went, implying that the furze was always in golden bloom. Broom finds its way into disused quarries and banks by the road whilst the heathers, heaths, mosses and lichens attract attention because they are different from those found in, say, neighbouring Cornwall.
Many of the rivers of Devon come from 'the great source' as someone once called it. The Taw, Okement, Teign, Dart, Avon, Erme, Yealm, Plym, Tavy and Lyci fall off the edges of Dartmoor with a rush down the wooded valleys, sparkling bright and clear. Most come from 'an insignificant puddle in the heart of a vast bog. near Cranmere Pool', but on their way to the coasts north and south they form into little pools or 'stickles' which as every local knows is good trout water. Across the top of the Moor massive granite tors rise on the hills: High Willhayes is over 2,000ft; Vixen Tor just over 100ft and in between are Hunt Tor, Ingra Tor, King Tor and Laughter Tor.
The 'Royal Forest of Dartmoor' is a place of quickly changing moods, a trickling summer stream can turn into a waterfall almost overnight, a calm autumn afternoon can suddenly grow wild or deep mists can sweep across the whole countryside losing even the most well prepared walker. At its harsh centre it can be sullen and ungracious but where it gently frays at the edges it is fringed with lush green valleys and calm scenery.
Farming is the chief occupation on Dartmoor today, tourism the second. There are guided walks, fishing, pony-trekking and picnics in country parks; in fact, something for everyone.
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