Stage 2A: Circular walk from Widecombe-in-the-Moor

Saturday, May 18, 2019

View back down the B3387 to Widecombe

(1) View back down the B3387 to Widecombe

Hay Tor and Saddle Tor

(2) Hay Tor and Saddle Tor

Saddle Tor

(3) Saddle Tor

Hay Tor

(4) Hay Tor

On the day after I arrived in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, I took a day off the Two Moors Way to walk a twenty kilometre circuit taking in a cluster of Dartmoor's most famous sights located to the east and north-east of Widecombe. While not part of the Two Moors Way, there are many points of interest that may appeal to TMW walkers who have time on their hands. Many shorter or longer variations of this walk are possible.

Starting from Widecombe's village green, I made the long eastward climb out of the East Webburn Valley on the B3387 (picture 1) to Harefoot Cross, a junction just to the north of Top Tor. On my way up the steep hill, I was overtaken, almost in slow motion, by a group of breathless middle-aged cyclists, who stopped for a chat and told me that they were training for a race around Dartmoor.

At Harefoot Cross, the road levels out and the skyline ahead is dominated by Hay Tor and Saddle Tor (picture 2). Forking left at Hemsworthy Gate to stay on the B3387, I continued to the left of Rippon Tor to reach a small carpark from which a grassy path leads up to the large granite monolith of Saddle Tor (picture 3).

I spent some time exploring the main tor and the smaller outcrops surrounding it, then I followed another grassy path heading down the north-east side of the hill and up a heathery slope onto the plateau of Hay Tor. A secondary tor that has a handrail to assist those wanting to climb it offers a good spot to take in the size of the enormous main outcrop (picture 4), which requires a bit more effort to climb.

Haytor Vale

(5) Haytor Vale

Holwell Lawn

(6) Holwell Lawn

Greater Rocks

(7) Greater Rocks

Hound Tor Medieval Settlement

(8) Hound Tor Medieval Settlement

From Hay Tor, several paths head eastward down to the Dartmoor National Park Visitor Centre, just across the B3387 on the edge of the village of Haytor Vale, beyond which fertile farmland falls away off the edge of the moor towards the town of Newton Abbot (picture 5).

The 29-kilometre Templer Way, which I hope to walk in the future, starts near Hay Tor and descends through Haytor Vale and Newton Abbot before following the River Teign to the coast at Teignmouth. On a clearer day it would have been possible to see most of the Templer Way from the top of Hay Tor.

After checking out the Visitor Centre and calling in at the nearby Rock Inn for lunch, I backtracked along the B3387 as far as Harefoot Cross, where I forked right on an unnamed lane. After 500 metres I forked right for a second time, following the next lane for just over one kilometre until a signposted stile on the right gives access to a path across Holwell Lawn.

In May each year, Holwell Lawn is covered in what is said to be the largest display of bluebells in England (picture 6). It's rather unusual to see the little blue flowers growing and thriving in such an exposed location rather than in sheltered woodland.

After crossing the little sea of blue, the path bends left, passing some horse jumps then heading northward past the granite spine of Greater Rocks (picture 7).

Down a slope beyond the rocks are the remains of a medieval village, where the outlines of four longhouses and several smaller structures were excavated during the 1960s and 1970s (picture 8). Archaeologists believe that the houses were built in the 1200s and abandoned around the year 1400, perhaps due to deteriorating climatic conditions on Dartmoor making farming more challenging.

Hound Tor

(9) Hound Tor

Church of St. Winifred, Manaton

(10) Church of St. Winifred, Manaton

Bowerman's Nose

(11) Bowerman's Nose

Jay's Grave

(12) Jay's Grave

From the abandoned village, a path climbs north-westward up to Hound Tor, one of Dartmoor's largest and most impressive tors, made of thousands of granite slabs and boulders (picture 9). According to legend, the tor was formed when a pack of hunting dogs were turned to stone by a coven of witches. Several movies and television programmes have been filmed among the huge stacks of cracked granite here, including two episodes of Doctor Who in 1974.

A path heads down the north-west side of Hound Tor to a parking area where a food truck was doing a brisk trade. Turning right, I followed a quiet lane that heads east then later north to the sleepy village of Manaton, with it's 15th-century church (picture 10).

A lane heads westward from Manaton, passing Wingstone Farm before coming to a junction. Turning sharp left, I followed another lane that descends to cross a stream before climbing over the shoulder of Hayne Down. Overlooking the lane, high up to the left, a six-and-a-half metre rock stack named Bowerman's Nose resembles the profile of a cap-wearing man when viewed from the correct angle (picture 11). Bowerman was supposedly the hunter who met the same fate as his hounds.

A little further south, the lane goes through a metal five-bar gate. Immediately on the other side is a wooden gate on the right, from which a footpath heads westward across several fields on Swine Down to meet Four Cross Lane at the corner of a wood.

Under the trees, in the entrance of a green lane, is Jay's Grave (picture 12), reputedly the burial place of a young Dartmoor lady who died by suicide in the 18th century and therefore couldn't be laid to rest in consecrated ground. The identity of the unfortunate young lady and the details of her circumstances are lost to history. Many different versions of her tragic story are told by the locals, often embellished with tales of ghosts and other supernatural incidents. There is also a considerable body of folklore surrounding the mysterious daily appearance of flowers and other small offerings on the grave, placed by persons unknown — and there were fresh-cut flowers there when I visited. Some of those stories may have rubbed off on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited the grave on a tour of Dartmoor before he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles

From Jay's Grave, I followed the green lane through to the hamlet of Natsworthy, from which a long lane runs down the East Webburn Valley to return to Widecombe. After another dinner in the Old Inn, I headed back up to my sheltered camping spot to set up for another night's wild camping on the moor. With the weather forecast predicting steadily improving conditions, I wanted to make an early start the next morning to ensure good progress along the trail, so I wasted no time in re-pitching my tent and slipping into my warm sleeping bag, hoping to be well-rested by dawn.