High Moorland Alternative Section 2 - Princetown to Buckfastleigh
Distance : 15 miles - Grade Moderate to Strenuous walking with one section on the open moor which would be severe in bad weather. Several strenuous climbs from river valleys. What these grades mean
Summary: Glorious wild open Moorland track from Princetown before dropping to cross three of the River Darts deep valleys, with Tors to climb in between on spectacular trails. Great views all day before a gentle finish after Holne to Buckfastleigh through low woodland and back lanes arriving by the impressive Buckfast Abbey
Leaving Princetown this morning on an old moorland track, the Dartmoor Way uses the route locally called the “Conchie Trail” as it was built during the war by the Conscientious Objectors (Conchies) who were held at Dartmoor Prison. Given the task of toiling on the building of a track that leads to nowhere was punishment for their refusal to fight and an attempt to mentally break them. It suddenly ends in the nothingness – which was as far as the gangs got when peace was declared, and the grateful prisoners were set free.
As you follow the track, the menacing Prison starts to recede, but ahead is another day of 360 degree panoramas of open and untouched moorland stretching away to the horizon in all directions.
Tors dot the landscape at every angle including Belliver, Higher White Tor, Longaford Tor and the Beardown Tors and far ahead you work towards the distant and dramatic Sharp Tor that you will be climbing later today.
This is a truly desolate route but one giving a complete sense of big wide skies, openness and freedom, with the only landmark ‘Crock of Gold’, a single Cairn and Bronze age burial cist. The heavy granite cover slab is still there today, thrown to one side of the burial pit by whichever grave robber struck lucky and found their riches buried here.
After the open moor you descend to join a more ancient track lined in wild yellow gorse, leading you to the abandoned village of Swincombe, where crumbling farmsteads and pillars poke through the undergrowth ahead of the most tranquil of high moorland spots, where you cross the peaty infant River Swincombe – still a place where modern man has no place and apart from the crumbling village remains one where he leaves no signs.
Then the variety creeps back into the walk with a quick descent into bracken and scrubland for a double crossing of the dark wooded Dart Rivers.
The first at the Hexworthy Packhorse bridge, a hamlet of thatched Dartmoor longhouses with a welcome walkers pub The Forest Inn - the first habitation since Princetown.
A short climb over a valley below Coombestone Tor, before another sunken trail to the crossing point at Dartsmeet. Its “modern” bridge dates back to 1782, but the remains of its far older collapsed clapper bridge demonstrating that for centuries this has been the main crossing point of this charging moorland river. Luckily today you can find refreshments here and you should make use of them as looming above you now is the mighty Sharp Tor and you can avoid it no longer.
Climb up and up from the valley to the heights through the heather, gorse and bands of wild ponies that cover the remains of the reaves or ancient field boundaries on the hillside.
Halfway up the climb you can catch your breath as was done regularly centuries ago with a visit to the Coffin Stone which lies in sight of the old road over the pass to Widecombe. Any death in the higher moor required a team to carry the coffin miles over the moor, using routes known as the “ways of the dead,” to reach the solitary church at Widecombe for burial and this was the stone that bearers would rest the coffin on as they struggled up the hill side from Dartmeet.
The rock itself is carved with letters and crosses, but is split in two along its length. Perhaps inevitably the local story is of a particularly evil local landowner whose coffin was rested on the stone as usual. God himself took exception to it and a bolt of lightning struck the stone turning the coffin to ashes and splitting the stone neatly in two. True or not, spare a thought for the job of the regular coffin bearers who had another 4 miles to go from this point to reach the consecrated ground at Widecombe Church.
Once you reach the top it is all worth it. Sharp Tor is a huge and twisted sculpture and a major landmark with slopes grazed by packs of wild ponies. Whilst not right on The Dartmoor Way route, it is worth the scramble up the Tor, only 10 minutes off the route, and not to be missed.
From its iconic pyramid shaped rock stack, you feel on top of the world and the views are outstanding - you can see the whole of this final days walk in one glance - reaching right back to Princetown and the high moor and forward off the plummeting slopes of Dartmoor to the end of the days walk at Buckfastleigh.
The route descends once again, this time joining the Two Moors Way Walking route along Dr Blackall’s Carriage Drive, a superbly decadent high level carriageway route build over 100 years ago by the local doctor so that he could drive his carriage down here on his days off.
Linking a trio of peaks, including Mel Tor and Aish Tor, which all cling to the lip of the deep forested Dart Gorge, you can appreciate why he went to the trouble. As you start to drop down the old trackway you notice the nature of the moor quickly change from harsh wide-open heather and gorse uplands, giving way to deep forested chasms smothered in lush green bracken and ancient woodland out of which poke random contoured boulder outcrops.
There is an option for the final descent to the valley floor that is a classic passing Leigh Tor, one of Dartmoor’s spookier peaks, before what feels like a near vertical drop through the dense woodland to emerge at the now mature Dart River, which you track for a short distance as it curls and meanders below low rocky cliffs and wooded valley. Keep an eye out as this section is home to otter and kingfisher and therefore plenty of easy to spot fish!
From the Medieval bridge at Newbridge climb through vibrant woodland, managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust, admiring the River Darts renewed energy here with rapids, little gorges and crashing watercourses often being ridden by white water kayakers as you pass.
A short climb brings you into the lovely edge of the moor village at Holne, with its community tearooms and an inn still paradoxically owned and let by the church next door! This is a real Devon heartland village and makes a good stop for refreshments before the final steps of your circle on the Dartmoor Way.
It’s fairly flat and easy walking now for the final few miles into Buckfastleigh as you now say goodbye to the last glimpses of those moors. Instead you follow the “Holy Brook” past overgrown remains of ruined watermills and wheel pits shrouded in ivy and bluebells before entering the majestic pines of Burchetts Wood.
From there it’s a simple descent by back lane to the impressive Buckfast Abbey, which is free to explore and has welcome refreshments right on the route. Following the Dart River now you finish in the town of Buckfastleigh with its little cottages, tea shops and inns. For those heading out by train you can put those feet up and relax and recover on the South Devon Steam Railway as it takes you further down the River Dart to the mainline and the “normal world” back at the town of Totnes.