Walk: Belstone, Devon
Discover the delicate tones of the skylark, and many other Dartmoor delights, on this remote ramble through the national park's northern moors and tors.
Just three miles below its source, on Dartmoor’s wild north moor, the River Taw meanders gently across Taw Plain. The jagged tors of Belstone Common and the slopes of Cosdon Hill overlook this natural amphitheatre, wonderful not only for its watery beauty but also for its acoustic qualities.
Skylark song is delightful anywhere, but here it is elevated to heavenly proportions.
The Taw inspired the poet Ted Hughes. At his request, his ashes were scattered and a simple memorial stone erected in a secluded spot near Taw Head. It is easy to imagine him enjoying the skylarks while walking here along the fledgling river.
Many poets have exalted the skylark, but it is perhaps Ralph Vaughan Williams who best translated this avian delight into human expression. On dark winter days when skylark song is harder to find, the nostalgically melodic fluttering of his The Lark Ascending has the same calming but inspirational effect.
During the breeding season, skylarks are among the earliest birds to begin singing. On Dartmoor, meadow pipits usually join in later. If you want to hear this dawn delight at its best, you have a choice. Bring your sleeping bag, or head out early for a dawn walk.
5.5 miles/8.8 km | 4 hours | moderate
This 5.5 mile circular walk takes you from the village of Belstone, past intriguing Irish Man’s Wall, over the hill and across a ford to Taw Plain. On the way, detour to visit the mysterious Nine Maidens stone circle, climb Winter Tor, take a river dip and enjoy the views from Cosdon Beacon. Leave plenty of time if you are planning to do all of these.
This is a proper moorland walk that starts on tracks but includes some indistinct and boggy paths, as well as two fords. You will need a map and compass, as well as a good pair of walking boots.
1. Village to moor
Park in the car park and walk through Belstone village. Keep right past the green then left just after the old Telegraph Office. At the top of the hill, head through the gate on to the moor.
After 500m, keep left at the fork and continue along the track for one mile. Keep your map handy; this track passes below the Nine Maidens stone circle and Irishman’s Wall.
2. Spring dip
Just past Winter Tor on the right, take the left fork and follow the grassy path and track down to the ford.
This wide ford can be slippery but is not usually deep. There is potential here for a river dip if you are so inclined but be warned: rivers are at their coldest in spring.
After the ford head east and uphill for 600m until you meet the bridleway. The path here is indistinct on the ground so keep a careful look out and use your compass where necessary.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about a skylark’s song is its sustained nature.This apparently effortless outpouring is melodic but also free-flowing. Its shrill but delicate tones rise and fall like the babbling of a tiny brook.
Often your only clue to a skylark’s location will be its song as it flutters directly over its territory. Rising up and up until they are just specks, these endangered ground-nesting birds can abandon their nests if disturbed, so please keep dogs under close control and walk on paths where possible.
3. Along the leat
Follow the bridleway north, avoiding the boggy ground to the right. By the trees cross another smaller ford; after this, the bridleway crosses a disused leat then follows it. Look out for low, grass-covered walls to use as navigation clues, leaving the bridleway to the left 850m after the ford.
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4. Into the cleave
Head downhill towards the wall corner. There are tracks in the grass here to help you.
Head west and downhill for just under a mile until you reach a footbridge that crosses the River Taw again before it spills into Belstone Cleave. A word of caution; this beautiful, steep valley is ripe for exploring but the slippery and uneven path runs right next to the river.
Immerse yourself in spring birdsong with an episode of our podcast, recorded by nature writer and angler Kevin Parr back in 2020.
Kevin then takes us on his favourite local walk onto a local hill to hear find singing skylarks and stunning views of the Jurassic Coast. Listen out for the surprise finish when Kevin discovers fantastic beasts in his very own garden… It’s a perfect escape into the countryside when you can’t get there yourself.
5. Drink at the inn
Climb the hill back up to Belstone village. You have reached your destination, but don’t forget to call in at the fabulous Tors Inn – 300m above sea level – for a well-earned Dartmoor treat.
Fi is an outdoor instructor and writer. She teaches navigation and expedition skills, and specialises in route finding and location story telling.
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