An eerie, isolated place, high on the moor, this is Dartmoor’s highest town and exposed to the full force of weather from the north and east. Princetown is a harsh but unique place dominated by the UK’s answer to Alcatraz, the notorious Dartmoor Prison.
The settlement was the grand idea of Thomas Tyrwhitt who was secretary to The Prince of Wales and leased the desolate Moorland for his attempts to “Civilise the interior”.
In an unashamed attempt to curry favour with his boss he called his new project Princetown. When it became clear that his plans for a rich agricultural settlement were doomed due to the inhospitable nature of the location, he decided perhaps wisely that the location best lent itself to a prison.
The logic was the natural barrier of the moor itself – if prisoners managed to escape, they would either perish from hypothermia on the open moor or be easily tracked by dogs through a landscape with no shelter and few places to hide. The structure was built originally in 1808 by French and American Prisoners of War who had been held in the hulls of large, decommissioned ships along the south coast and at one time there were over 11,000 incarcerated here.
The stark church remains only one in the UK built by convicts. Thousands died of disease and exhaustion here and were buried in mass graves recognised today by simple memorials in the Prison grounds.
In the 20th Century the prison became infamous in the UK housing not only its most feared criminals but conscientious objectors in World War 1 and IRA prisoners in the early 1921 risings.
Today around 800 prisoners are still held in this wildest of spots with nothing but open moorland to gaze over from their cell windows. The “modern” prison revamped by the Victorians is as scary a place to look at as you can get - dark uncompromising and stark sitting in the middle of miles of desolate moorland it is truly a shuddering sight. Crime has paid in one sense at Princetown as the town you see today grew around the Prison to house the officers and families who were sent here. Whilst, on the face of it, Princetown is not a pretty place, it does provide a fascinating overnight stop and an important contrast to the picture postcards and cream teas of the thatched villages on the Eastern Moor. In that sense a vital and utterly unique place for those who really want to explore and understand Dartmoor in its entirety.
This is the most deprived ward in Devon and to understand how the high moor still makes an isolated and harsh environment to live in you should be stopping here.
On a positive note, for the arriving Dartmoor Way walker, all the facilities here are geared towards those heading into the great outdoors and walkers are more welcome here than anywhere. The place has several Bunk houses, walkers’ tea shops and welcoming inns offering good B&B and serving hearty meals - are all reliant on the trade from walkers alone to survive.
Right in the middle of town, The High Moorland Visitor Centre is the Dartmoor National Parks flagship location for visitors to Dartmoor. It is an impressive tour featuring state of the Dartmoor art displays and National Park information, very different to the Prison Museum but equally informative.
The building housing the exhibitions used to be the Duchy Hotel, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed while writing The Hound of the Baskervilles – the deadly Grimpen Mire that features throughout the book was in fact The Fox Tor Mire to the South of the Town.
Highly recommended, you should make time to visit the Dartmoor Prison Museum just north of the Town, set in one of the grim outlying prison buildings. Run by the some of the wardens, this place is superb, no modern ‘hands-on’ displays here, just the fascinating history of the prison, the riots and rebellions by its prisoners, its most famous inhabitants and their usually doomed attempts at escape.
There is a wealth of items which have been steadily added to by the wardens including early straitjackets, manacles, and various items from Victorian prisoners’ dress to displays of lethal looking home-made weapons confiscated by warders found in the cells, as well as the usual gadgets fashioned to try and make an escape over or under the walls. You can see a mock up cell, buy items made today for sale by the prison workers and, in what is perhaps the most informative part, watch a video of today’s prisoners telling their stories, talking openly and frankly about the prison, why they ended up there and how being incarcerated here has affected them and their hopes for the future.
Princetown is also home to the Dartmoor Brewery, now housed by the old railway line and it produces its award winning “Jail Ale” here – Our advice? - Get holed up round the fire in one of Princetowns pubs with the locals and count your blessings that you are staying here and not in a cell down the road. Have a few pints of real Ale and a hearty walker’s dinner and Princetown may well end up your most relaxing stop on the Dartmoor Way.