The short walks available on Dartmoor are innumerable, but some are out of the ordinary, and one such was a walk to unexpected industry on the high moor.
Setting off from a car park by the Pump House, east of Merryvale, we walked south over the moor to the isolated Yellowmeade Farm. To the east rises North Hessary Tor, with its tall television mast – beyond the hill is the dark grey, elegantly ugly prison, and the village that has grown around it, Princetown, and this unseen place shaped what we were about to come across.
Ahead, beyond the farm, was a sudden spur jutting over the valley, flat-topped and man-made, and around it a complex of shattered granite-built buildings. This was a lost quarry village, from when the hillsides were blasted out for stone to build the Dartmoor Prison, and Princetown.
Turning aside from the path, we passed through a gap in cliffs and suddenly an unexpected site – a tranquil lake, lying where there had been a quarry, hemmed in all about by sheer cliffs, but cliffs made by dynamite and pick-axe. It is always a wonder to think how huge blocks of the unyielding stone of the moor could be hauled away, but over such broken and precipitous ground it is all the more so. We had walked, we realised, much of the way on an old tramway, the sleepers still forming the path, but the tramway is to one side and somehow the quarried boulders (go and have a look at Merryvale Quarry by the road to see how big they are) were hauled out time after time to create this new valley.
Passing round and out of the lost village, the track reaches a cross-track to King’s Tor, and this we took, crossing as we did so the embankment of the old Dartmoor Railway – an industrial railway which once crossed the moor to Princetown.
We then compassed round the side of the hill, coming to a stop at another powder-blasted cliff face and a sheer drop too far to contemplate – and yes I was about to creep around, but I did not want the children to risk it, so we went up and round (and of course darted to the closest summit on the way and down again).
Lower down, the best path is that of the railway, which curves around King’s Tor. The views here are to the west, to Vixen Tor nearby, the green valley of the River Walkham and Sampford Spiney beyond. Here too are tumbled ruins of quarry buildings, and strangest of all a stack of huge granite pieces, all dressed and carved and abandoned by the track. They are supporting quoins carved for the Victorian London Bridge, but rejected as they were just too small.
The railway leads north and all round the hill: the main summit known as ‘King’s Tor’ is in this part (not as high as the southern top of the hill as it happens) and can be climbed on the way back. Then path leads back to the first quarry and its shattered village.
The back the way we came to the farm and the car park.
It is a modest walk of a few miles. The moor seems bleak and empty, but then to come across this unexpected industry, though I cannot call it beautiful, is as if to find a whole new moor and a glance back in time to when this part of Dartmoor was abuzz with work. Here they won the stone to built HMP Dartmoor, and Princetown, and London Bridge, and Nelson’s Column. Yes – the noble captain stands atop a stack of King’s Tor Granite.
There is a visitor’s centre over the hill in Princetown which tells of the nature and mysterious prehistoric remains of the moor. Industry though is all part of the story.
- Ordnance Survey Explorer Series, Map OL28: Dartmoor