Okehampton is the second largest town on the Dartmoor Way, sitting on the northern fringes of Dartmoor National Park and dominated by the imposing peaks of High Willhays and Yes Tor which are the moor’s highest points a few miles south of here.
Its origins are as a place of freedom, recorded in AD980 as the crossroads where slaves were released to “choose their own destiny”. Indeed its location on a safer lowland route past the moor has been key to its development throughout history and it was for this reason that it’s most famous building, Okehampton Castle, was built by its first Norman Sheriff Baldwin de Brion who wanted to protect this vital route to Cornwall. Over the next few centuries, it became the largest castle in Devon and certainly its most impressive, set in a stunning setting on a wooded spur above the churning River Okement.
In 1539, as an act of revenge, Henry VIII dismantled not only the castle but also its owner – at that time one Henry Courtenay, who was beheaded for his alleged treason. The castle slowly crumbled into the atmospheric and ivy clad ruin that remains today though its enchanting location and impressive remains are still well worth visiting as you leave the town on the Dartmoor Way.
For today’s walker Okehampton is a pleasant enough overnight stop. With a pretty laid back atmosphere, its large parks and wide streets give a much more roomy feel than the compact towns and tiny villages you have encountered so far.
The glass-roofed Victorian arcade houses an interesting mix of independent shops and along with Red Lion Yard, these include an organic bakery and greengrocers selling local produce. There is also a farmers market held in the chapel square.
As a reflection of the town’s past as a staging post from Exeter to Cornwall, there are a number of former coaching inns offering accommodation, as well as a good handful of walker friendly B&B’s. There are several eating options in the town, from Italian to an American Diner (?!) and for those who want to explore further you will find the town has several antique and jewellery shops, art galleries and boutiques as well as a useful walking equipment retailer and the usual banks and chemists.
For those with the time, one place not to miss is The Museum of Dartmoor Life. The Dartmoor Way is actually routed to and from the Museum, an indication of its relevance. Concentrating on a social history of the areas you are walking through, rather than the usual legends and wildlife themes, this is a very useful overview of habitation on the moor since earliest times that will enlighten and inform those that are walking through the National Park on foot.
Laid out over three floors with interactive exhibits, you will find out about the Civil War battle of Sourton Down (an area you will be walking over tomorrow), about the main Dartmoor industries, the military presence, the infamous prisons and the moorlands transport history as well as get your questions answered about the old-fashioned farming methods, tin mining and quarrying. Set just off the main street in an old courtyard that holds an impressively huge water wheel there is a handy cafe on site as well as the Tourist Information Centre.