Dartmoor is one of England’s richest historical areas. The national park, which is in south Devon wedged between Exeter to the northeast and Plymouth to the southwest, has the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in Britain.
People have occupied its hills since pre-history. There are thousands of burial mounds, along with numerous stone circles and monoliths. While it was inhabited and largely cleared of forest during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, many of the ancient settlers migrated away from its slopes when the climate changed around 1000 BC. People then returned during the medieval warm period, and while its occupation was sparse, there are numerous hints of this through settlements and mines that mark the landscape.
It also has a rich industrial history, now almost entirely abandoned, alongside its many natural wonders. Tin mining was a particularly important industry for Devon and Cornwall from the middle ages through to the end of the 19th century, and there is evidence of this throughout the moors. Here are 10 of the best historic sites to see in Dartmoor.
The wonders of Devon's national park
There are 15 stone circles on Dartmoor, and Fernworthy Forest perhaps has the most unique. Set in a clearing of the tall spruce forest which occupies the middle of Dartmoor, there is a sense of magic here. It is best visited on a crisp day close to sunset.
While not on Dartmoor proper, Brentor Church is a historical wonder. It is one of England’s smallest parish churches, and also the highest above sea level. Sitting on a steep tor rising 70 metres from the landscape, from a distance, it looks like a fairy tale tower. It was built shortly after the Norman Conquest, and the views looking west into Cornwall from the top of the tor are spectacular.
3. Ditsworthy Warren House
Rabbit warrening was common in Dartmoor from the middle ages up to the beginning of the 19th century, and there are a few abandoned farmsteads scattered through the moors. Ditsworthy is perhaps the most well known of these, having featured in the World War One film ‘Warhorse’.
Marking the slow northerly slope of Ditsworthy Warren is the Drizzlecombe Bronze Age complex. These are a series of stone rows, with huge megaliths marking the beginning and end, along with a numerous tumuli (burial mounds). Among the many stone rows on Dartmoor, Drizzlecombe has the largest monoliths.
Grimspound is a most unusual site for anyone walking from Hameldown Tor. In a dip between the hills, there is an enormous man made circle of boulders. The site is not in an ideal defensible position, so it was most likely a settlement combined with a livestock enclosure – an ancient ‘pound’.
One of Dartmoor’s most visited locations is the beautiful medieval clapper bridge that strides over the East Dart river. Postbridge was an important outpost between Princetown and Moretonhampstead, particularly for the tin trade which was a significant industry in medieval Dartmoor. The clapper bridge was built in the 13th century to better handle this traffic.
This abandoned china clay quarry sits on the desolate Brown Heath in the center of the southern moors. It is incredibly remote – and any visit will take at least three hours of walking there and back. The works is notable for having a large spoil tip, which is about 30 metres high, poking out of the surrounding moor. There are fantastic panoramic views from its top. ‘Redlake’ itself is a nearby river, but there is also a manmade lake at the china clay works from quarrying.
Higher Uppacott is one of the best kept examples of a medieval longhouse in the UK, having been built in the 14th century. It would have been used as a farmhouse, with animals such as cattle living at one end of it – the ‘Shippon end’, which is lower than the living quarters of the farmers who lived at the other end.
9. Hingston Hill Stone Row
Not far from Drizzlecombe is perhaps the Antiquarian’s favourite stone row on Dartmoor – Hingston Hill. It is 316 metres long, and finished with an impressive monolith and cairn circle. Reaching here on a hike is a rewarding experience, and you can see why the landscape had a special significance to the early settlers of Dartmoor.
10. Wistman's Wood
This small outcrop of trees is located near Two Bridges. A short walk up the track north will take you to a remarkable medieval forest, with stunted oaks growing twistedly out of giant boulders. It is the highest oak forest in England, and with the right early morning mist can feel like a deeply enchanted place.