Dartmoor – unexpected industry

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.

The lake in the quarry

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.

Quoins for London Bridge

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, [amazon_textlink asin=’B004BW5AM6′ text=’Map OL28: Dartmoor’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’agbwildthing-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’728917e0-51ce-11e8-803f-f12abed5a5dc’]

The route: map

High Willhays: closest place to heaven in Devon

Devon is a place I could wander forever.  The vast extent of the high moorland of Dartmoor is both beautiful and fearsome, inviting and forbidding:  when the sun is out, there is little better than the freedom to wander at will on what looks like an unbounded landscape; but when the icy wind cuts to the bone or the cloud descends on the hill, there is no shelter.

It was a few years ago that I climbed the highest hills on the moor, Yes Tor and High Willhays, two neighbouring peaks, the latter being also Devon’s county top.

It is a modest walk – just 7 miles – mainly involving climbing (even the precipitous descent seemed to be climbing) but well worth it for the views, the location, and for bagging another county top.  It did not finish where I started, and would not change the distance much to do so.

The walk is within the army’s Dartmoor live firing ranges, so you will need to check the range timetable before setting out:  there is a link below.

The Meldon Reservoir

The walk

I started at the Meldon Reservoir – a beautifully calming stretch of water, and while as a reservoir it may be manmade, it lies in a natural valley, and the water falls from the heavens as to any normal lake, so it can count as one, apart from the dam, which is the first and almost last artificial thing to cross.

A path leads up from the dam, winding up the slope of Yes Tor.  The hill rising above looks forbidding, but on a sunny day (I was blessed with a sunny day) it is an invitation.

An inhabitant of Dartmoor

In the days before exact, scientific surveys, Yes Tor was believed to be the highest point on the moor, and in the county.  It is certainly the more prominent one to the eye from the nearest villages.  (There has been this confusion on Dartmoor, perhaps understandably for want of anywhere to stand to measure the hills other than by the impression of the eyes:  until the early nineteenth century Cosdon Hill (1,804 feet) was thought to be the highest on Dartmoor, because it looks prominent from a reachable village; then the crown moved to Yes Tor, until someone thought to count the hill hidden behind it; High Willhays.)

It is a straight haul up Yes Tor to its rocky outcrop.  The views from here are broad in all directions.  It looks to the north beyond the bounds of Dartmoor to the rolling hills in the middle of Devon, and westwards to Cornwall across the Tamar Valley.  Closer to, to the north-west, is the reservoir and to the north of it a peculiar viaduct apparently to nowhere.  The map shows it to carry the old line of the Dartmoor Railway over the West Okement River but no further.  (It now serves a quarry, but apparently the line does not cross the viaduct these days.)

The top of Yes Tor is at 2,029 feet above sea level. From here I turned south, down the little saddle separating Yes Tor from its neighbour, High Willhays, which is just ten feet higher.  On the saddle my sense of remoteness was knocked a bit by seeing a track running up to the saddle from the east, and a Land Rover parked a little way down it:  this place though is within the army’s firing range and access has been driven to it.

The summit of High Willhays stands at 2,039 feet above sea level.  It is marked with several rocky outcrops, and it is hard to see by eye which is the highest, so I clambered up each of the tallest. I was not alone; one chap had hauled not only himself but also a ham radio set and a small dog up to the summit (to make a broadcast, he explained, from the top of each ‘Marilyn’ hill).

From here, the views to the south and east broaden across the sweep of Dartmoor, to Great Kneeset prominent at the centre of the moor, and many more around.  Below the hill westwards is the deep valley of the West Okement, into which I had to descend later, with stands of woodland amid the bare moorland. To the south is top after top of the peculiar hills of the moor.

The descent from High Willhays looks simple on an Ordnance Survey map (as below).  In practice, the valley of the Brim Brook does its best to imitate the West Okement, and the West Okement itself extends with few distinguishing points and is misleading.  It takes careful compass work not to end up walking miles in the wrong direction (which did happen to a friend of mine who did the same walk a few months after me but without the aid of a compass).

It is steep and trackless off the tor, plunging down over broken ground into the valley.  Sturdy boots are needed or a twisted ankle is promised.  Eventually in the bottom of the valley I could track northwards to a little below the head of the reservoir, where there is a ford and a track to the west up and over the shoulder of the Sourton Tors (though I took a lower path, a little less direct).

The Two Castles Trail and the West Devon Way share a route along the lower hills here, though I went to the track of the old Dartmoor railway, which has been converted into a footpath and a trail known as the Granite Way.  A little way down here, and I came to my finishing point at Sourton (home to Devon’s weirdest pub, incidentally).

One more county top done, and it was all good warming up for the next challenge….

Outside link


  • Ordnance Survey Explorer Series, [amazon_textlink asin=’B004BW5AM6′ text=’Map OL28: Dartmoor’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’agbwildthing-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’728917e0-51ce-11e8-803f-f12abed5a5dc’]


The route: map