The revitalised 108-mile Dartmoor Way showcases a different side of the national park and will provide a valuable boost for local communities – but its creation has not been easy.
Words by Matthew Jones, photography by Ellie Clewlow
The climb up the Hunters Path from Fingle Bridge is a steep pull, but the rewards are worth it. Winding along the northern rim of the impressive Teign Gorge, the path teeters on the edge of one of Devon’s landscape gems. This verdant river valley is covered in a mix of spreading beeches and gnarled oaks, creating a multi-hued carpet of greenery that creeps up the steep banks of the gorge. Clamber onto one of the series of rocky outcrops that dot the path, and you can look west to the high moors of Hangingstone Hill. Somewhere south of Hangingstone, the river at the bottom of this spectacular gorge rises from its source and tumbles from the higher ground, gathering pace as it rushes and cascades through the landscape on its way to the sea at Teignmouth. So, although here you are only on the fringes of Dartmoor, it is still very much a place shaped by the moor itself.
But this open, airy country has also been sculpted by human hands. The most conspicuous example is Castle Drogo – built by the architect Edwin Lutyens for grocery and retail magnate Julius Drewe between 1911 and 1930, making it the last castle to be built in England. Its grand visage overlooks the gorge, midway on a stretch of the Dartmoor Way between Moretonhampstead and Chagford. The magnificent castle and dramatic gorge are just two of the highlights to be found along this sweeping circular route that winds its way around the edge of Dartmoor. It is split into ten manageable stretches of between eight and 12¾ miles – each forming the ideal day walk. The varied route passes along sparkling streams, plunges through beautiful wooded valleys and follows ancient drove roads, quiet lanes and a network of footpaths and bridleways.
Image right: Beautiful scenery close to Moretonhampstead (Michael Owen)
It is an accessible trail that can be walked almost all year round, allowing walkers to experience a landscape that changes with the seasons. Most of the paths are relatively low level, with no large tracts of open moor to pose any navigational challenges. As such, it offers a gentler, more tranquil walking experience than tramping the High Moor, showcasing a different side of the national park. Having said that, the trail includes an additional 22¾-mile High Moor Link, which cuts across the heart of Dartmoor – effectively turning the loop into a giant figure-of-eight and enabling you to get a sense of the sprawling, lonely moorland too.
In essence, however, the Dartmoor Way has been designed to link a succession of local communities, giving you the chance to sample local food, ales and other refreshments while enjoying trademark Devon hospitality in the many pubs, inns, cafes, village shops and restaurants on the route. As Michael Owen, Dartmoor Way project manager, explains: ‘The whole ethos of the route initially was that it would be one that was not only scenically interesting but would take people into the towns and villages, bringing sustainable green tourism to the area and helping local businesses.’ That includes, of course, plenty of opportunities to sample the county’s famous cream teas, served with warm scones that really should be eaten the Devonian way – that is, spread with clotted cream first, then a dollop of strawberry jam – not the other way around, as they do in Cornwall.
The concept of the trail was first devised in 1999 by a collection of Dartmoor towns, who wanted a tourism-focused walking and cycling route around the northern part of Dartmoor. The cycling route was successfully waymarked in 2001, and a parallel walking trail – though not waymarked – also followed suit. As Michael recalls, ‘It bumbled along, but unfortunately nothing had really been put in place to sustain it, and so it didn’t really go anywhere. Initially, it was put on OS maps but was then taken off, as it wasn’t really getting much footfall.’ Long-time Ramblers member George Coles, who is chair of the Dartmoor Way Steering Group, takes up the story. ‘I got involved back in 2009, when I actually went to complain to the Dartmoor National Park Authority, because the Dartmoor Way was on the OS map, but was impossible to walk. After getting lost a couple of times on really overgrown paths, I went to find out what was going on. Their response was basically, “We realise it is neglected and are keen to revive it – do you want the job?” So, I formed a steering group, started to raise funds, and got stuck in.’
They came up with the idea of making it a complete circular trail with a new southern loop, rather than just covering the northern half of the park. Initially, they focused on getting the cycle route up and running again – an easier prospect. The charity Sustrans acted as an umbrella organisation to oversee the project, with funding from Defra. It was successfully relaunched in 2013. ‘After that, we went away to take a bit of a breather,’ says Michael. ‘Then, a couple of years later, we came back, recharged, to tackle the walking route.’
But in that time, the political landscape had changed. Public purse strings had been tightened. National parks had experienced severe funding cuts. The group realised early on that they would have to explore other avenues in order to raise the money needed. A feasibility study revealed that, though revitalising the route was viable, the costs would be considerable. Channelling his professional fundraising experience, George approached Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust to secure financial support for the Dartmoor Way. He also made the most of waste management company Viridor’s Landfill Communities Fund, which allows landfill operators to donate a percentage of their tax liability to an environmental body. ‘We got a chunk of that to help pay for signage,’ Michael reveals. ‘Then we got some Lottery support, a generous legacy from a local Ramblers group, and other smaller contributions. We got about £90,000 together in total and then really started work on the route back in January 2019.’
A call for help
The next challenge was to find volunteers to help with the physical work of restoring and upgrading the path. The Dartmoor Way followed existing rights of way, but new signage and waymarking along the entirety of the trail’s 110-mile length would be needed. ‘When George and I discussed how we’d undertake the work, he suggested getting all the local Ramblers groups to help – there are probably half a dozen or so around Dartmoor,’ says Michael.
A call for help went out. One of those who answered was Amanda Camden, chair of the Ramblers Moorland Group. ‘The steering group asked for volunteers to help waymark the trail,’ she says. ‘I thought it was a great project, so we got involved. Three of us took a day off work and waymarked a section of the route.
We had a great time, learning how to use a drill, and screw and nail into softwood and hardwood.’ The waymarks are a distinctive purple roundel emblazoned with a boot print. ‘I love to spot the waymarks – especially if it’s one that we did. It’s a lovely feeling to know that you put that there,’ says Amanda. ‘And they really stand out, too.’
As well as being instrumental in the waymarking, local Ramblers volunteers will also be custodians of the Dartmoor Way in the future. ‘We’ve all been allocated a section of the trail to ensure it remains fit for purpose – that all the fingerposts are in order, all the roundels are in place and so on,’ explains Amanda. ‘Though our group is too small to have its own path maintenance team, two volunteers have agreed to take on the task.’ George adds: ‘It’s vital. You need somebody to do that role in order to avoid what happened in the past.’
Progress continued apace into early 2020. But then coronavirus and the ensuing lockdown brought the project to a screeching halt. ‘We got to mid-March and had four sections left to do – then Covid happened, and we just couldn’t do it,’ says Michael. ‘No one could go out to check things, and it scuppered all our May launch plans, too – which would have involved a thank-you lunch for the volunteers and a press day, followed by a three-day mini walking festival coordinated by the various Ramblers groups.’ Fortunately, the project team are still planning to do that in 2021. In the interim, they are planning a virtual launch in September. Harnessing the power of Facebook and Instagram, the plan is to promote the trail with input from social media influencers, including well-known hiking bloggers Two Blondes Walking. A video has also been shot, with other contributions from Ramblers in the form of short clips. ‘Moorland Ramblers has just donated towards some boardwalks around Throwleigh, a difficult area that is quite marshy, but which forms part of the trail. So we’ve done a little video on that section to support the virtual launch,’ reveals Amanda. ‘Though we weren’t too happy with the first take, so we’re going to go and have another go!’
In typically business-like style, George has also looked for opportunities that might come out of this unprecedented situation. ‘We need a bit more funding to secure our position,’ he says. ‘I’ve put in a bid for a Covid-19 recovery project. The government needs local areas to recover and so there are funding sources available, and we will try to take advantage.’
If anything, Covid-19 has brought the original vision for the Dartmoor Way into sharper focus. ‘In light of what’s happened, this is a way that people can enjoy Dartmoor but also help local communities,’ says Michael. ‘We understand that many local businesses need help, and we’re keen to support that – by helping to attract not just visitors but also by encouraging locals to explore more of the areas in which they live.’ Amanda also hopes that there might be a silver lining for groups, too. ‘Ramblers members are typically of a certain age – 55 plus, and retired – and it would be lovely if this walking route and the spike in interest that we’ve seen post-lockdown in exploring local areas brings new people to the group.’
It’s an admirable response to an entirely unforeseeable challenge. But as well as a shared sense of determination, perhaps what motivates and unites all the volunteers is a love for the landscapes of Dartmoor and a desire to support its small communities. ‘I was born in Devon and have never left – so Dartmoor has been my back garden all my life. I love it,’ says Amanda. ‘It truly is home, and for
me it is the perfect place to be. We may not have mountains like North Wales or the Lake District, but we have our own beauty here.’ And what better way to experience that beauty than to explore the Dartmoor Way?
Image above: Wild camping at Black Hill (Jen and Sim Benson)
177km/110 miles, split into 10 stages of 13 to 20.5km/8 to 12¾ miles; plus optional High Moor Link, 36½km/22¾, miles, split into two stages, from Buckfast (near Buckfastleigh) to Hexworthy, 16½km/10¼ miles and Hexworthy to Tavistock, 20km/12½ miles. Ivybridge is the official start of the route.
OS Explorer OL28; Landranger 191 & 202.
Various options in villages/towns along the route. Wild camping is permitted in some areas.