Don’t be fooled by the unassuming appearance of this pretty little village, which sits on the remote western flank of Dartmoor – today it may only hold a handful of houses and a pub (population less than 500) but its place in Dartmoor History is one of huge significance.
This was one of Alfred the Great’s four principal settlements in Devon, built for defence against both the Cornish and the Vikings, who came this far inland to destroy the early Saxon castle in 997. A runic stone carved from local granite and sited in the field next to the castle commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of this Viking attack. Earthworks from the Saxon fortification are still visible and the ramparts within which the village still sits must have been huge. No wonder, as Lydford was once the administrative centre of the whole moor and royal coins of King Aethelred were minted here, known as the “silver pennies of Lydford”. The coins were used throughout the Kingdom of Wessex, and each silver penny represented one days work for a Saxon peasant.
Two castles were built on this site after the Norman Conquest, the first of which was the first castle to be built by William the Conqueror. Today what remains and is referred to as Lydford Castle, is the later Norman Keep built in 1195 as a prison and used throughout the centuries to incarcerate petty criminals and those who broke the local stannary and forest Laws. According to the local poet in the 17th century, this it was in fact little more than a centre for Injustice and corruption.
“I oft have heard of Lydford Law, How in the morn they hang and draw.....And sit in judgement after”
Indeed even by the official accounts this was a particularly horrible place to end up - an order of Parliament in Henry VIII’s time describes the prison as: “one of the most hanious, contagious and detestable places in the realm”. The court of law based here was used in the Civil War, its head being the notorious Judge Jeffreys, known as the “hanging judge”, and the prison was used to keep all military prisoners before being executed for High Treason. The Dartmoor Way runs right past the ruins, which are open for all to enter, and you can still see down to the dreary windowless dungeon where the hapless prisoners were held – the only access being a wooden ladder that was whipped back out as soon as the prisoners stepped off the bottom rung.
Today’s accommodation options are far improved – The 16th Century Castle Inn is the main place to stay here with views over the Castle and Church though there are also a couple of B&B options or the more upmarket Dartmoor Inn a former coaching Inn on the main Tavistock road.
Next to the castle the Church is an impressive and pleasing 13th century building dedicated to St Petroc the Cornish Saint - look for the famous set of wood carvings that form the ends of the pews. Each one is unique and shows a saint surrounded by animals and plants that include frogs, goats, rabbits and sea creatures. The Churchyard is the end of the rather spooky Lych Way or Corpse Trail also referred to as “The Way of the Dead”. An ancient path worn by those living on the remote high moor who were required to carry the coffins of any deceased persons up to 17 miles over the high moor passing the likes of “Coffin Wood” on a sombre journey to Lydford Castle to report the death and then the church next door for burial.
So far, so grim for Lydford – however today it is a peaceful and interesting overnight stop and for Dartmoor Way walkers the main interest is that it allows access to the superb, forested ravine at Lydford Gorge, managed by The National Trust and entered on the south of the village. CLICK HERE to read about the 3 mile circular walk past whirlpools and 100ft waterfalls – it is not to be missed and is easy to build into the itineraries of those staying at Lydford.