High Moorland Alternative Section 1 - Tavistock / Mary Tavy to Princetown
Distance : Around 8.6 miles from Tavistock - you can increase the distance today by taking in a couple of extra Tors and Quarries (see below)
Around 11.6 miles from Mary Tavy - you can increase the distance today by taking in a couple of extra Tors and Quarries (see below)
Grade - Moderate grade walking with exposed moorland sections that would be severe in bad weather. One strenuous climb onto the Moor from Tavistock and again after Sampford Spiney. What these grades mean
From Tavistock at the bottom of the Valley you now climb on The Dartmoor Way to the highest moorland village at Princetown – luckily a mix of moorland lanes and the disused railway line make this less effort than it sounds. After crossing the river Tavy, it is a steep climb out of the town to the open space of Whitchurch Down, a lovely gorse covered common often full of Dartmoor Ponies keeping the grassy sections clipped! You re-enter Dartmoor National Park at this point, with the world of the central Moors Tors just opening up now as you stride over a bizarre Moorland Golf Course, complete with natural gorse lined bunkers that you would not want to be fishing your ball out of.
Pass below the impressive Pew Tor (easy divert to climb it if you want) before you drop quickly to the hidden hamlet of Sampford Spiney. This was the resting place for the Monks crossing the Moor en-route for Tavistock Abbey and the tiny Moorland Church of St Mary still reminds us of the location’s spiritual significance.
A 16th Century cross stands in the centre of the village close to the impressive Manor House, which was won in a bet by Sir Francis Drake (of Spanish Armada fame), who spent part of his honeymoon here. This really is the last hamlet before the high moor so it’s a surprise to find Dartmoor’s Alpaca Farm here and the residents are particularly interested in nosing over the walls to see the occasional walker heading by.
A steep twisting old drove road brings you to cross the infant River Walkham which thunders past from the moor before a long climb out of the woodland onto Crips Tor Moor.
Crossing a short section of open moor, you reach the trackway of the former Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, and this will be your guide for the rest of the day.
Built in 1823 this feat of engineering was the project of Thomas Tyrwhitt the founder of Princetown who felt it his calling to civilise the wildest part of the moor by building a town (Princetown) and linking it by rail to exploit the area of its granite. The irony is that rather than “civilising the place”, Princetown ended up housing the most infamous prison and criminals in the UK – but more of this later.
The track itself ran 25 miles using horse drawn trucks and later steam trains from the Plym Estuary near Plymouth across some of the loneliest moorland on Dartmoor. Before setting off along it however, you should quickly scale Ingra Tor – a classic Dartmoor peak with a strange hammer like Tor formation and views as far west as Bodmin Moor and the South Cornwall Coast. The old trackway steadily climbs up the moor, with every stop bringing sight of more Tors and increasingly distant views. Pass under crumbling granite bridges and over bubbling leats and waterways until you reach the fascinating quarries at Swelltor, which provided stone for London Bridge and Nelsons Column.
You can divert here to follow the cuttings past crystal clear quarry pools, where rusting chains hang high on the sheer quarry walls or wander through the crumbling remains of the blacksmiths forge and loading platforms. Huge, beautifully dressed Corbels of granite 8ft high and 1ft wide lie ready for use, but abandoned by the trail left forever by stonemasons departing when the quarries closed in 1903. Those keen to bag as may Tors as they can, should make a short detour here to climb Kings Tor for the highest views in the area from its twisted Cheesewring type rock sculptures.
For those interested in archaeology and ancient stones, there is a treat in store with a short diversion to see the remains at Merrivale – Dartmoor’s premier site of Antiquities. In a compact section of wild Moorland you can walk undisturbed with a complete absence of the usual tourist shops and trappings through Dartmoor’s most famous Stone Rows, Menhirs (Standing Stones) Stone Circles, Kists and burial chambers.
Back to the railway route and you pass beside Foggintor Quarries, an amazing place of sheer rock walls, deep peaty pools and crumbling buildings. There was even a school here for the quarrymen’s children. The fact that such man-made destruction can look so appealing a century after being abandoned is a mystery in itself.
Ahead now lies 2 miles of open moorland into Princetown, with new views now you have climbed the ridge, looking south to the photogenic trio of Tors at Sharpitor, Black Tor and Leeden Tor linked by the dark green blanket of distant Burrator Forest. For the first time all you can see in every direction is Moor and Tor. Welcome finally to the centre of mighty Dartmoor and under the wide-open skies and endless horizon you will feel true isolation and freedom.