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The International Writers Magazine
: UK West Country

Double-dose of Dartmoor
Natalya Popova

It has always been my great desire to follow the imaginary steps of Sherlock Holmes chasing up the terrifying beast of Baskervilles just west of Yew Alley. When living in Russia such a dream seemed not less fantastic than a flight to the Moon. But what’s stopping me now, living just next door – in Dorset, from going to Dartmoor?

Nothing really. So were we are? – Devon! Devon! Devon! And before we went, I visited the local library to borrow a book on the county - what else is so special of the place?

Plenty! To my surprise it appeared that Devon is not only about the bleak moor and muddy marsh (Dartmoor National Park covers an area of some 365 square miles and rises to a height of more than 2000 feet above sea level) – it is also about spectacular, mainly wild, coastline, picturesque little villages and ancient market towns.

Photo: View from Steps

The nearest seaside village to us in Dorset is Beer. The village, as most of the places lying along the Devon coast, has a long history of smuggling. Why is it called Beer? –the guide-book didn’t say. The town is famous for lace making (beautiful trimmings for Queens Victoria’s wedding dress came from Beer with love) and quarrying (Beer stone has been excavated since Roman times and used in construction of many buildings, and not only in Devon – even for St Paul’s and at the Tower of London) – no reference to beer making though. Caves, recently re-opened, can be explored during special guided tours.

A bit further along the coast – the proud town of Torquay. We decided not to upset ourselves by going there just for a day – as the guide-book offered 6 pages on the town. So this is number ONE for our next (6 day?) visit to Devon. First I heard of the place on "EastEnders", when Dot and Jim received a very kind wedding present from Phil - a honeymoon in Torquay. I was very much impressed by Phil’s generosity – honeymoon in Turkey! "No, Torquay!" corrected me my husband –"A resort in Devon". And apparently, Torquay is the "first class gentle resort of shining white villas spread across, like Rome, seven hills" and nestling among dark green trees. Given (or self appointed?) the title "The English Naples", at one time it could boast more royal visitors per square mile than the most pretentious resort elsewhere. The town is also well known as the birth place of Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (Agatha Christie), where can now be found her memorial room in the Abbot’s Tower at Torre Abbey. Also Torquay hides (who would only think of!) one of Britain’s most important Palaeolithic sites – a cave where dwellers lived some 30,000 years ago (believed to be the oldest known residents in Europe). Shopaholics won’t be disappointed too – there are attractions for them, such as Bygones – recreation of Victorian street shops and loads of others. (This all might well be a terrible exaggeration - reader be warned Naples it is not) Ed

So-so, intrigued and determined not to lose any more of valuable ltime, we are heading to Devon – right now, by car, just for a day. We packed the car with ourselves – my husband, my son, my dog (would love to take one, but no dog, unfortunately). Seemed very natural to take one to Devon though…, might be because of expectations of a space full of wind of the freedom (just like on a flight to the Moon). Ok, I’ll be running, excited, up and down the hills instead of a dog. "Don’t forget the camera!" – yes, and the camera. Food – no packed lunches – we are looking forward to eating in one of those cosy country pubs serving something traditionally Devonshire… we’ll see.

Taking the coast all the way to the West, along the coastline – past Poole, Dorchester and Lyme Regis and further on – it's two hrs drive from door to moor.

Just over the last Dorset hill leaving Lyme behind, the next Devon hill brighten up onto us and looked much greener (???) than the one just left behind. My husband happily said: "You see, there is something about this place - it rains more, and the grass is a lot jucier here". Green hills were pinned up with sheep- this was another, agricultural – visible difference from Dorset.

Following signs to Dartmoor all the way along, we arrived to its eastern banks (just passed a charming village of thatch cottages Dunsford) and stopped at Steps Bridge across the river Teign. We greatly enjoyed a peaceful view from the bridge (constructed in 1816, according to a plaque on it) – on a "step"-like waterfall. (The guidebook promised plenty of "impressive" waterfalls – here we are – this was the one. Not Niagara, but there were signs of a mill race so it might well have once served as a source of energy for a watermill.) Two little islands in the middle of the river were much loved by ducks. Every way off the bridge invited for an exploration walk – up through Bridford Wood, or across open farmland, or along the river into a Nature reserve (owned by the National Trust) full of wildlife in its wide varieties. Also a nice looking hotel on a riverbank welcomed: "Devon Cream Teas" and then not very: "Open July".. Oh, never mind….

Our next stop on a way further onto the moor was Moretonhampstead – "Gateway to East Dartmoor". The town appeared to be not as big and pretentious as it sounded - nice and cosy though. First people we met in the town, a father with three kids, were sort of "Sherlock Holmes" type dressed up - in their raincoats, big hats and long boots. They looked as they were pretty much ready to live on the wild moor, let alone walk on it. How else would you dress up? Dartmoor is probably one of the few places in England that has hardly changed at all since the times of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle – a map of the moor is still not overcrowded with the places and "between and around these scattered points extends the desolate, lifeless moor"- gloomy, bleak and preserved. (Apparently this spine-chilling story was inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor guide, one Harry Baskerville).

The moment, next to entering Moreton (this is how locals call the town), we realised that our old Beetle (140,000 miles on the clock, still bopping along merrily) was running out of petrol. "No problem!"- we thought, enthusiastically. We gave a couple rounds around the town – no mention of any petrol station. (No Tescos – how do they live there?).
We finally stopped and asked. A woman with a strong Devonshire accent revealed a great regret in her voice: "Oh, you are not local!" And we learnt that the nearest petrol stations were - 8 miles Princetown way and 3 miles Okehampton way. Although very tempting, to stay on a safe side we’ve decided to go towards Okehampton – in case of a "surprise" sign on the Princetown petrol station: "Open July". A perspective of spending a Halloween night in the heart of the moor was not less flattering than, let’s say, on a cemetery, I suppose. So – next stop – petrol station near Okehampton (there happened to be three of them next to each other, all open – so something’s changed since 19th century here).

Then, having a full tank and driving to Okehampton, we turned into a very narrow path signposted: "Torr Down" standing next to the "No speed limit" sign (must be for locals or the psychic….) We were just crawling along the zigzagging road, and came to the pretty village of Belstone. The village happened to be a real treasure -its former chapel houses the Post Office, its church dates back to the 13th century, and a path from the village leads up to the ancient standing stone circle well known as Nine Dancing Maidens.

On arrival, we, of course, turned our steps onto the deep moor to find the magic circle. There are many mysterious legends surrounding the construction. One of them suggests that the stones dance every night at noon, which we absolutely trusted, with no desire to stay overnight and check the legend. We very much enjoyed our walk around, but unfortunately did not get to the magic circle. But there were a lot of stones of various shapes, sizes and positions scatted around – as not just after a dance - after a tiring long night out. Local fauna consisted of one wandering (or just living there) sheep. The further we climbed, the wetter was the ground - bizarre effect. This was when I regretted not wearing the boots. Fresh air flooded through my opened up lungs into every cell of my body. I wasn’t’ feeling tired at all, even on our return home.

Despite Dartmoor being so attractive – there were no Devon postcards on the petrol station. Neither I could see a letterbox on the moor side we walked along (to find one was my another ambition). First established by the famous Dartmoor guide James Perrot for his Victorian clients, special letterboxes now amusingly scatter the moor.

When going back to the car, I stopped and asked a young woman (to my husband’s mortification, as a man never asks, you know) if she knows where the letterboxes were – I wanted, if not to post a letter, to take a picture of a letterbox. Open glance, strong and confident posture –looking and tired and rested at once after her walk, she was sorting out her car ready to go. She was very much confused at such a silly question, and asked her mother: "Mother, there is a woman from.." "Where are you from?" "From Russia –she read in a book of post-boxes on the moor." Old woman replied "Yes, there are a lot!….But the moor is hu-u-uge…"

On the edges of this true wildness such independent characters of England as famous Elizabethian seafarers Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake were raised. Yes, the wild coast needs separate detailed exploration (another day- trip, with a dog next time?). Whatever you say – there are only benefits in local holidays – its educational, healthy, easy, cheap and fun - sometimes it’s just around the corner from you!
e-mail :   ferganavalley at
Natalya Popova November 2004

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