Section 5 - Okehampton to Mary Tavy
Distance : 13.6 miles - Grade Generally easy walking with some short sections of moderate open Moorland - what these grades mean
Summary: Gentle ascent of the Moor via impressive Meldon Viaduct, before returning to drove roads and ancient track ways through woodland and upland pasture to Lydford. Options to explore Lydford Gorge and climb to the iconic Tor Church at Brentor.
The Dartmoor Way leaves Okehampton through the Old Town Nature reserve by the bubbling banks of the West Okement – if the river is full watch for Atlantic Salmon leaping the natural rock weirs.
A gentle climb through pleasant bluebell woodland offers good views of the impressive Okehampton Castle Ruins, built to protect the medieval route from London to Cornwall and left in ruins since Henry VIII had it destroyed in revenge for its owner’s treason. You can easily make a visit to the castles remains as part of today’s walk.
With the moorland closing in on your left, climb to the old Okehampton Railway line and the dramatic metalwork of Meldon Viaduct, a 305ft masterpiece and a superb example of Victorian Engineering spanning the deep river gorge. This former railway viaduct has a unique construction and breath-taking setting afford views up to the highest Tors on Dartmoor over Meldon Dam and Reservoir.
You divert at this point for a steep climb through the woods to cross the viaduct itself, with stunning high-level views of the moors - this route now part of The Granite Cycle Way. Beyond this, enjoy a section of the disused railway line which cuts impressively through rocky ravines, before you start a steady climb on the historic Kings Way track that eventually takes you past standing stones and boulder litters onto the open moor itself below the easily recognisable Sourton Tors.
Passing below South Down Tor from here you can see into the deepest interior of Dartmoor, towards its highest point at High Willhays over the restricted Army firing ranges. It is a vision of an endless, vast and desolate moor, very unlike the forested slopes of earlier sections of the Dartmoor Way – here you really are treading the edge of the northern limits of the moor.
Ahead looms the dramatic Sourton Tors, and the route takes you just below these impressive features (it’s an easy option to climb them as you pass) through boulder stone and gorse covered moor, with superb views north and east to Exmoor and the north coast.
A dramatic drop from the moor on the old Corpse Path (used to bring the dead off the moor for burial) brings you to the lovely valley church at Sourton, and the most bizarre Inn in Dartmoor if not the UK itself at The Highwayman.
Gothic arches, doors rescued from whalers and a huge wooden sculpture of a serpent that was dragged from a bog on Dartmoor sit amongst a myriad of bizarre curiosities - you have not seen a pub like this anywhere - a pause for a cider and pasty is highly recommended.
An easy section of fields and track ways follows, with glorious views on your left of the disused granite way railway viaducts and the lofty Tors beyond. You cross little streams on tiny clapper bridges, before breaking out into a beautifully green, gorse peppered stretch of high ground across Fernworthy Down, before dropping into the village of Lydford.
Those on a relaxed itinerary will overnight at Lydford right beside its castle, as well as anyone keen to explore the National Trust Lydford Gorge just outside the town.
Having explored the ruins of 12th Century Lydford Castle on your way through, The Dartmoor Way takes you into the enchanted valley that holds the huge rocky cliffs and the gin clear churning waters of the carved out Lydford Gorge, the deepest gorge in the South West.
Managed by The National Trust, this hidden valley is truly unique and completely out of place with the rest of the scenery today – we urge everyone not to miss this, with its whirlpool like Devils Cauldron and huge 100ft White Lady Waterfall.
Beyond the Gorge and back on The Dartmoor Way, you break onto the open moor to traverse the slopes of Black Down on a steady climb over springy moorland vegetation.
The views behind stretch up to the highest points of Dartmoor at Yes Tor and Higher Willhays, whilst away from the moor on your right is the island like hummock of Brent Tor, with uninterrupted views of its amazing church of St Michael precariously clinging to the Tor summit - as close to heaven as it would seem one can get.
On good days as you climb you can now see right over to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall many miles to the west and Dartmoor’s smaller but equally rugged sister.
Passing a small cairn marking this superb panorama, you then quickly drop off the moor below Gibbet Hill. As you reach the cattle grid on the Brentor Road, spare a thought at this lonely spot, for criminals who were left swinging in cages here.
This was the "Iron Cage Gate" where they used to keep the prisoners before taking them to be hanged at the top of Gibbet hill – a policy to discourage the highwaymen that operated on the Tavistock to Okehampton road. Thankfully today its now the gate into the welcoming village of Mary Tavy.