While it doesn't quite require the expertise of the Indianapolis 500 or the stamina of the Paris-Dakar marathon, drivers in the English national park of Dartmoor should nevertheless come equipped with keen nerves, a hands-on ability and a healthy disregard for a crucial question: If you're on a two-way lane barely wide enough for a bicycle, what happens when you meet a vehicle coming the other way?
Best not to think about it. But after a hairy near miss -- a delivery truck, say, vaulting around the blind curve you were just timidly heading into -- the temptation is extreme to pull the car over and get out, knees knocking and hands trembling.
Once the engine is shut off, the silence is pervasive. Clumps of mist dot the landscape, which seems to breed only lichen and rock. If the fog is especially thick, you need only walk out of sight of the road to lose your bearings completely. You're in a 365-square-mile park in the southwestern county of Devon, but you might as well be on the roof of the world.
With its ancient grazing rights, Bronze Age villages and folklore-haunted byways, Dartmoor is one of the last corners of a nearly vanished England. You couldn't exactly call it undiscovered, but at least it floats against the current. It lacks that one overwhelming feature -- a Canterbury Cathedral, a Tintagel, a Stonehenge -- that would bring in the teeming millions. Instead, there are a multitude of milder pleasures, isolated by splendidly rugged moors and linked by those hushed lanes.
On chilly mornings, the sheep drift to the edge of the Moretonhampstead-Two Bridges road, making driving a form of dodge 'em. The semi-wild ponies, meanwhile, are so tame that if you stop and open your window, they'll amble over and stick their heads inside. (At least, they try to. I always panicked and rolled up the window. They looked hungry.)
Dartmoor isn't all moorland. Push on to one of the sheltered valleys and the scene changes completely. When the sun appears, the land loses its tundra-like harshness and mellows into a patchwork of light and dark green fields. Even the haze turns emerald.
These are the two natures of the park -- lonely windswept plains and cozy pastoral charm. Each reinforces the other, the first sharpening, the second softening. When entering either, decades fall away. As you cautiously creep down the lanes, you might as well set your watch back a couple of centuries.
Stapleton laughed. "That is the great Grimpen Mire," said he. "A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place."
-- "The Hound of the Baskervilles"
Even those who haven't visited Dartmoor have seen it through the eyes of A. Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes' greatest adventure took place on the moors, but you need the skill of a detective to find any trace of his tracks.
Doyle was loosely inspired by the West Country legend of a spectral black hound that pursued the ghost of a 17th-century manor owner. "The Blue Guide to Literary Britain" unhelpfully notes that Doyle, in setting the scene, "took the writer's customary liberties with fact." Specialized Sherlockian tracts aren't a great deal more encouraging.
Reportedly, however, the great Grimpen Mire is modeled after the real-life Fox Tor Mires, a vast and barren stretch of land in the south-central region of the park. It's not as wild as Doyle makes it out to be, but still carries the romance of the forsaken. This is domesticated danger -- a little like ascending the Matterhorn by gondola.
The road to the mires starts at Princetown, at 1,400 feet the highest village in England and site of a prison lifted straight out of Dickens. It was built in 1809 to house prisoners captured in the Napoleonic wars, which is the reason for the Latin inscription over the entranceway arch -- "pity the vanquished." Several decades later, during an era of relative peace, the prison began to be used to house the most dangerous British criminals, as it still is today.
Princetown functions as a sort of landlocked Alcatraz -- at least one prisoner is said to have drowned on the moors. (That was Frank Mitchell, the "Mad Axeman," who made a clean escape but then disappeared without a clue.) All chimneys and pipes and sullen stone, it appears not to have changed at all in the last century. It's not a place for languidly admiring, however. The police have posted various NO STOPPING ON THE ROAD notices, and they mean it. Perhaps they're afraid you'll toss a hacksaw over the wall.
If you're desperate, you can get something to eat in Princetown -- a fish-and-chips shop there served me the worst meal I've ever had -- but there's no real reason to hang around. Instead, take the unassuming lane that branches off the main Princetown junction and head east toward Tor Royal. Eventually, this path swings to the right and becomes the Fox Tor road.
At about this point, you can start to become uneasy. Even John Pegg's "Visitors' Guide to Dartmoor," which is cheery about all sorts of perils, notes the road "needs to be negotiated with great care." (It adds that the mires themselves are "one of the most desolate, and certainly the most dangerous" areas on the moor.)
The saving grace is that, since the route has such a forbidding reputation, your chances of meeting another car are extremely slim. And really, it's not that bad -- it twists a bit, but is basically smooth, if very narrow. Compared with certain urban dangers -- crossing Central Park at night, or a green-light sale at K mart -- it's as relaxing as a scone with Devonshire cream.
The road snakes along a vast plain that seems have been imported from the moon. The land rises and falls in slight waves; the only signs of human habitation are the occasional horsemen silhouetted against the horizon. After a couple miles, there's a house, with an appropriately forbidding notice: "Please do not call here for water." Then the road just peters out.
From here, if you want to go anywhere, you hike. If it's been raining, take care to avoid the bog-holes. Falling into mud slush doesn't make anyone's day. If it hasn't been raining recently -- say, in the last hour or two -- be warned that it could start at any time. A compass is a necessity if the mist comes up; otherwise, you can get hopelessly lost. If you meet the Mad Axeman, try and be as polite as possible. I believe in staying near the car, myself.
The Fox Tor road was originally built to serve the Whiteworks Tin Mine, which operated here during the 19th century. There's not much left -- just some low stone fences and shallow excavations that once were part of 150-foot-deep shafts. Of course, there's not much anywhere on the moors, which is what makes them moors in the first place.
A moor is defined as a tract of rolling, open wasteland, usually marshy or peaty and covered with heather. Crops don't grow well here, although some of the land can be used for grazing. Fox Tor Mires emphasizes this wild side of Dartmoor, with its echoes of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and the Mad Axeman. But you can only take so much grimness in one day, so many glimpses of a sky the color of oatmeal, before you urgently need some primary colors.
The village of Dean Prior is an antidote to that. Set on the southern rim of the park, it would be the archetypal thatched-roof and whitewashed-stone village -- except they built the A38 highway right through it, and there went the neighborhood. Much of what's left of the settlement is sheltered against the northern side of the A38; the church, which is most visitors' destination, is on the south, and a little to the west.
Robert Herrick was vicar of this parish in the 17th century, and his church is a pilgrimage spot. Not for many, it's true; if the visiting book is any indication, arrivals can be separated by weeks. Indeed, many of the comments have nothing to do with England's greatest poet of pagan pleasures. "So nice to shelter from the rain in such lovely surroundings" -- things like that. Or: "Visiting my mother in Plymouth." Herrick may be a classic, but he is severely out of fashion.
If the church is not used much anymore -- only a dozen or so people attend the weekly service -- it is well kept up. Bunches of fresh goldenrod, chrysanthemums and gladiola decorate it. There is a memorial window dedicated to Herrick, and outside a polished gravestone noting he died on Oct. 12, 1674, and including his credo: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." It is flanked by two rosebushes, on each of which the buds had long since been gathered.
To be sure, Herrick hated life in Dean Prior, saying its citizens were as rude as the "rudest savages." One Sunday in this church, he threw his sermon at the congregation, cursing their sleepy-headed inattention. Perhaps to mock them, he taught his tame pig to drink beer from a tankard.
An unhappy man, then; but out of his misery came a poetry of delight, the sharpest appreciation of the second Dartmoor, the pastoral side:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers:
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
If the moors are only trouble to the foolish, they at least have the aura of adventure. The effect is helped by the abundance of tors, the granite outcroppings that are half-buried through the land like so many blueberries in a muffin. Some tors can be easily reached by car, while some are inaccessible without a good deal of sweaty legwork.
Many tors are arranged in weird and wonderful formations, and nearly all seem to have dark legends attached. Hound Tor, for instance, looks from a distance like a pack in full cry, and is said to be the phantom black dogs belonging to the demon huntsman. This is Halloween country: The devil is never more than a step away.
A few rocks, however, have more benevolent connotations. The Buckland Beacon sticks like a thumb off the edge of a field in the northeast corner of the park. To get there doesn't involve much exertion: You simply park your car near the clump of trees (there's only one) south of the Cold East Cross crossroads and walk across the plain.
From the top of the Beacon, the vast spectacle of Dartmoor -- the russet of the trees, the dark green of the hedgerows -- can be seen in the lower valleys to the west. It's a good spot for a picnic, although the top can be so breezy that, if you're not careful, your ham sandwich will blow away and land on a cow three leagues off.
The name Beacon is meant literally: The Tudors used the spot as a signal tower. When the Spanish Armada was first sighted off the coast, a huge bonfire was lit, allowing news of the threat to be relayed quickly to London. Somewhat less practically, the hillside is also home to the Ten Commandments, written on two blurry yet still legible stones. While the writing looks as old as Moses, the chiseling was actually done in 1923, at the instigation of a local man who wanted to celebrate Parliament's decision not to produce a revised Prayer Book. In attempting to explain this, Dartmoor guides usually insert the phrase "for some reason."
From the Beacon, the path can lead anywhere. A short distance away is Widecombe, a picturesque village where, unfortunately, the visitors outnumber the locals. There is Grimspound, considered the best example of a Bronze Age settlement in the park. Also nearby is Dartmeet, where the West and East Dart rivers join and which is the jumping-off point for several hikes.
If it's late in the day, you're a little wind-chapped, your foot accidentally fell into a bog, and you're pleasantly exhausted, there's one destination that outranks all others. Gidleigh Park, set near Chagford at the end of a private lane that threatens to keep ascending forever, is acknowledged to be one of the best small hotels in Britain.
Unless you count a duke or earl as a good buddy, this is the closest you'll ever get to staying in a genuine English country house. Of course, considering Gidleigh Park's rates, it helps to be an earl just to afford the place. Is it worth the $300-plus it costs for a room, dinner and breakfast for two? Never one to pass up a challenge, I decided to find out.
Set on 40 acres next to the North Teign River (really no more than a brook), Gidleigh Park is a stunning mock-Tudor chateau. There are 14 bedrooms, 10 of which overlook the valley. Mine was one of the bigger ones -- a factor calculated into the bill -- and was designed to sweep away the memory of every shabby or antiseptic hotel room I've ever stayed in. There was no ostentation, but if you wanted anything, it was there. Dimmers on the bathroom lights? Check. Room made up while you're at dinner? Sure. Two towel warmers? Of course. Morning coffee and newspapers of your choice delivered to your bedroom? Yup. Impressive view of the valley from your windows? Just look.
In Manhattan or London, none of this would be extraordinary. The appeal of Gidleigh Park comes from the contrast between its understated luxuries and the undomesticated countryside. The day is spent falling into bogs; at night, after a spell in the enormous bathtub, you retire to be pampered in the world-class restaurant.
While eating here, the emphasis is on quality mixed with luxury. You don't order from the menu in the dining room; instead, you sit near the fire in the living room, drink a glass of wine and peruse your choices. Later, a fresh-scrubbed lad or lass leads you into one of the two small dining rooms, where you start with a saddle of hare in puff pastry, or perhaps a salad of mixed lettuces with grilled guinea fowl and artichoke. An intermediate course might be sauteed red mullet with vermouth and sweet peppers, steamed sea bass with chive and butter sauce, or sauteed monkfish with a mustard and cucumber sauce.
I won't even bother to list the main courses, or the desserts. Nor will I rhapsodize over them -- the world's supply of adjectives may be unlimited, but they become meaningless if stacked too high. Suffice to say that everything was done unpretentiously but correctly, there were some pleasant surprises along the way, and that, at about $50 per person, plus wine, I would do it again tonight -- especially since lunch or dinner can be purchased separately at Gidleigh Park.
But would I actually go back there to sleep? Unless I win the Lotto, probably not for one night. The bedroom is nice, but you do spend most of your time in it asleep. And there are some extras here -- afternoon tea, a packed lunch, any breakfast beyond continental -- that one would hope would be included in the basic price, yet are not.
Forget about the money. Mae West used to say that, whenever she was confronted by two temptations, she liked to try the one she hadn't had before. Accordingly, while one night is too expensive for me, I think I could handle two. It's twice as much cash, but you could spend three times as many waking hours enjoying the place, and mellowing out after a day of Holmes-hunting.
For any amount of time, this hotel is an experience to be savored. Dinner doesn't really stop at Gidleigh Park -- you just make small transitions to the next stage. It's more like being at home than at a restaurant, except here you don't need to worry about doing the dishes. Eventually, you go back to the drawing room, where the friendlier Americans gather to discuss their day, and the lads and lasses bring in coffee. Then they continue to hang around, eager to bring you a liqueur or, presumably, whatever else you please.
The night ends when you want it to. In your room, the rich, sweet valley air rolls in the open windows. There are no hotel-type noises; the Teign rumbles through the grounds.
In the morning there will be more food -- who could resist asking the kitchen to show its stuff once again, by way of the full breakfast (about $8 extra)? The best idea is to tell them to bring you coffee early, and then go for as long a walk as possible. If you follow the path in back of the house, it will lead you through a field to the hamlet of Gidleigh -- all half-dozen buildings of it.
In the 14th century a small castle was built here, although all that remains is the tower. Not much is known of the castle's role over the last five centuries; one chronicler says only that it "has lost whatever history it may once have had." But even at the height of its power, Gidleigh Castle's rulers couldn't have commanded a more impressive meal than the one you had the previous night.
Like reading the ads in The New Yorker, Gidleigh Park could encourage a fatal taste for living the lavish life. A more practical destination -- since you can't move in -- is Castle Drogo, located on the park's northern border and billed as the last castle to be built in England. Constructed between 1910 and 1930 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is considered the eminent architect's best work.
A portion of Drogo is still lived in by the grandson of Julius Drewe, the original owner. Those floors are off limits, but even in the part that can be visited, there's an unmuseumlike sensation of life as it is really lived. The dining room table is ready for a meal, there's a fire crackling in the pantry, and bound volumes of the Strand magazine and "The Times History of the War" await a scan in the library. There are also wonderful and extensive gardens -- this isn't moorland here. You can even play croquet on the circular lawn, assuming you make the proper arrangements.
While the tour is self-conducted, each room has an elderly man or woman recruited from the neighboring villages to make sure you don't bounce on the beds or slip the silverware in your pocket. "In the summer we're seasick with people," one mustachioed man told me. "But during the rest of the year, it's quite fun to sit here alone -- although if you get a long pause, you're inclined to fall asleep."
When they have this sort of time, the villagers are quite willing to provide details about the life style of the wealthy English between the wars -- not quite the decadence of "Brideshead Revisited" but quite pleasant all the same, thank you. Castle Drogo makes Gidleigh Park look like a summer cottage. No wonder it's now owned by the National Trust.
There's another reason for going to Drogo -- indeed, a heretofore unmentioned reason for going to Dartmoor and its encircling county of Devon: the existence of Devon cream teas. While these have some other elements -- like tea -- the basic point of them is eating freshly baked scones.
The correct way to do this, I'm told, is to start by splitting the scone lengthwise. Put the fresh jam on a small portion. Then add a blob of clotted cream on top. Eat. Squeal with pleasure. Repeat 20 or 30 times, as necessary. The whole success of this is due to the quality of the ingredients, and the cream tea served in Castle Drogo's small restaurant could scarcely be surpassed.
Fun, yes; but there comes a point when the moors draw you back. Wistman's Wood is one of the three remaining spots in Dartmoor where the prehistoric forest still holds sway. Getting there is simple: You park your car at the Two Bridges Hotel and follow the marked trail for a mile or so. At first, Wistman lies like a smudge over the landscape, but as you get closer, it becomes more forbidding and impressive.
An early traveler remarked that the wood was a collection of 500 trees totaling 500 feet in height, meaning each was one foot. Slightly exaggerated. Actually, the dwarf oaks are perhaps 10 feet high. What makes Wistman so peculiar is not only that its branches grow downward, but that the trees and rocks are so scrambled together, with lichen and moss covering all. It looks as if green pasta or seaweed had been dumped on this miniature forest. After a couple minutes, you breathe rather carefully, as if you were actually underwater.
Wistman, like the open moorland, presents its own minor dangers. The omni-present lichen causes the boulders to become slick, with the result that it's difficult to keep any sort of balance. I fell twice, real elbow-over-tea-kettle tumbles.
William Crossing, perhaps the greatest Dartmoor enthusiast, wrote in 1905 that the trees of Wistman were most impressive when "seen towards the close of a dull autumn day; when ... the topmost branches are bare; when the wind sweeping down the valley moans as it passes over them, as though lamenting that their beauty has gone; when the air is chill and the Moor is drear, and the coming shadows render indistinct the tor upon the hill."
It takes a peculiar sort to love a scene like this, which is no doubt why Dartmoor is not overwhelmed with visitors. Yet even at its grimmest, there's a bleak beauty here. Just make sure you don't fall into a bog