As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Dartmoor National Park, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of historical and natural family-friendly attractions in this wild and beautiful protected area in south west England.
Shaped by perhaps four millennia of human habitation and millions of years of geology and weather, Dartmoor encompasses a wealth of natural and historic wonders. Today its flora and fauna (well, some of them) have been tamed in enchanting gardens, farms and pony centres offering delightful days out for visitors young and not-so.
The varied landscape – sometimes bleak or forbiddingly dramatic, elsewhere bucolically charming – invites you to explore gorges carved by babbling rivers, delve into fossil-festooned caves or roam rolling estates, all the while watching for wildlife and Dartmoor’s own breed of ponies. And the history – well, alongside Bronze Age cists and standing stones, you’ll find grand castles, Victorian forges and museums. A series of National Park Visitor Centres are staffed with enthusiastic locals bursting with information and ideas to help you plan your visit.
‘The last castle built in England’ is not, as a first glance might suggest, a Norman stronghold but a 20th-century confection – the dream of Edwardian retail magnate Julius Drewe and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. A meld of medieval and modern, this imposing granite palace lords it over the Teign Gorge; inside lurks a family home designed to provide all comforts for a wealthy country clan. The castle itself is currently closed to visitors (as of February 2014) but visit to explore the magnificent gardens and grounds, and discover the work being carried out by the National Trust to save this most extraordinary edifice. nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-drogo
The last working water-powered forge in England, now a National Trust property, gives a unique insight into village life in the 19th century. In its heyday the foundry was at the centre of a thriving industry, making and grinding tools for West Country farmers and miners. Today this fascinating museum, set amid beautiful north Dartmoor countryside in the village of Sticklepath, is the site of a gallery depicting the area’s heriage as well as a lovely cottage garden. Kids can forage in the dressing-up box and don Victorian costume to get in period character. nationaltrust.org.uk/finch-foundry
William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust
Centred on the cave complex first discovered in the mid-19th century during quarrying near Buckfastleigh, this trust works to conserve caves and the bats that live in them, as well as promoting the study and understanding of caves. Joint Mitnor is popularly known as ‘Bone Cave’ because of the important deposits dating back some 125,000 years that have been found here, including elephants, bears and rhinoceroses. It can be visited by the public on a guided walk on Wednesdays and Thursdays in August, and is open to groups between Easter and mid September. Other caves are open to members of caving clubs, and the small museum presents interesting exhibits on the geology and paleontological finds uncovered in the caves. pengellytrust.org
Becky Falls Woodland Park
Visitors have been delighted by the eponymous cascades and woodlands at Becky Falls for more than a century, and the range of attractions here has bloomed to include a host of family-friendly activities. Among the beautiful ancient oakwoods you’ll find wonderful walking paths, boulder scrambling and picnic areas, plus a petting zoo hosting rabbits, guinea pigs, Shetland ponies and goats. Shows display more exotic beasts such as tarantulas, boa constrictors and giant millipedes, as well as cuddly creatures including Chinese hamsters and rescued birds of prey. Kids can get involved with nature crafts at the indoor theatre. beckyfalls.com
Dartmoor Nature Tours
Want to learn more about the wildlife and habitats of this wonderful landscape? Phil Page has been leading tours on Dartmoor for almost three decades, and loves to share his in-depth knowledge of the moor’s species. Phil takes small groups of nature-lovers on carefully curated walks, tailored to suit the time of year. In summer you might spot butterflies, or stroll out at dusk to look for badgers, glow-worms and nightjars; autumn yields fungal treasures, and even in winter you’ll spot hardy birds that overwinter here, including fieldfares, redwings and woodcocks, as well as year-round residents including Dartford warblers. dartmoornaturetours.co.uk
Dramatic, mysterious, historic: the deepest gorge in south-west England is an enticing place for a meander through shady oak woods alongside the babbling River Lyd and past sculptures, the spectacular 30m-high Whitelady Waterfall and rock formations carved by the rushing water: Devil’s Cauldron and Tunnel Falls. Walking trails offer a variety of routes, from the full two-hour Gorge Walk to shorter strolls; among the dripping ferns and mosses, there’s plenty of animal and plantlife to spot, from woodland birds to wild garlic in the spring and fungi in the autumn, and tearooms to refuel after your exertions at the moor’s western edge. nationaltrust.org.uk/lydford-gorge
This historic estate on the eastern fringes of Dartmoor offers acres of beautiful, wildlife-rich parkland, woods and river meadows through which to wander – pick up a free leaflet describing a selection of walks. Once the home of a wealthy local family, the estate encompasses a vegetable garden, fruit orchard, ice house and other historic elements that helped the family become self sufficient, including a wonderful walled garden. Dartmoor ponies graze the meadows, which in summer are studded with wildflowers, and there’s locally baked cakes and other goodies at the café opposide the walled garden. nationaltrust.org.uk/parke
Stone Lane Gardens
A magical habitat of woodland and water gardens, this five-acre patch on Dartmoor’s northern edge encompasses a national collection of alders and birch trees and is a wonderful spot to explore. Dotted with sculptures – the site showcases an annual Mythic Garden Sculpture Exhibition, but many pieces remain year-round – the gardens, planted with rare and beautiful tree species, are threaded with streams and shimmering with pools, creating a serene sanctuary for roaming. The adjacent nursery sells a range of unusual and hard-to-track-down species. stonelanegardens.com
Waterleat Walks & Talks
In 1995, Miles and Gail Fursdon developed a micro-hydro system at their Old Walls farm, creating clean, renewable energy to power the farm and more besides. Now they offer visitors the chance to learn about how the energy from falling water is converted into electricity on a ‘Water to Wire’ walk, showing how water from the West Webburn is channelled into a leat and through turbines before returning to the river. These fascinating walks offer insights into how small projects can realistically provide reliable sources of renewable energy. waterleat.co.uk
Miniature Pony Centre
The clue to the main attraction is in the name – and the almost unbearably cute pony foals are certainly a big draw. But with plenty of other wonderful animals to meet – including shire and Suffolk punch horses, goats, birds, rabbits and other small furries – as well as talks and demonstrations, delightful gardens and picnic areas, assault course, indoor and outdoor adventure playgrounds, zipwire and trampolines, indoor soft play area and trampolines, there’s enough to keep kids happy all day. miniatureponycentre.com
Blending a working farm with a children’s playground, Pennywell offers a diverse array of activities for kids of all ages (and has plenty to keep parents occupied, too). Animals kept here include miniature ponies, ducks, donkeys, lambs, the ever-popular micro pigs and deer – join a regular hand-feeding session. There are also four farm-themed rides, a farmyard theatre, pond-dipping zone, show field, falconry displays, cafes, wildlife assault course and plenty of play options including trampolines and an inside soft-play area. There’s a low-key educational aspect, looking at agriculture and wildlife, but the emphasis is on fun. pennywellfarm.co.uk
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