I counsel you by way of caution to forbear
from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.” So said Hugo Baskerville in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
As the days shorten and the evenings draw in, the bleak and rugged landscape of Dartmoor takes on its more familiar mantle – that of an ancient and spiritual land that has been moulded by generations of stories of dastardly deeds from its troubled past. Tales of wandering monks carrying corpses, of the Devil’s pack of baying hounds roaming the bogs and mires, and the cloven-footed customer drinking in a local pub chill the heart of even the hardiest visitor. Of all the places in Britain, the mist-shrouded moors of Dartmoor must surely rank among the most haunted and atmospheric places to visit – for those who have the nerve.
1. The Experience: Dartmoor Prison
Built for French and American Prisoners of War in 1809, this famous gaol is home to numerous ghostly phantoms of convicts who have died within its grey walls. One notable prisoner was David Davis, The Dartmoor Shepherd, who committed a series of petty crimes (jailed for 55 of his 80 years) – each time being sent back to Dartmoor to tend to the prison’s sheep.
2. The pub: The Castle Inn, Lydford
The Castle Inn is adjacent to the prison remains at Lydford. Supposedly the original building served as the gaolers’ quarters and one of them seems not to have left. Described as being a “broad muscular” man, dressed in “workman’s clothing”, his nightly ghostly perambulations take him from room six, along the creaky corridor and out of the building.
3. The Walk: The Lych Way
During medieval times, the village of Lydford was one of the largest parishes in the country. Those who lived in the centre of Dartmoor were therefore taken to Lydford for burial when they died, and the route across the moors was known as the Lych Way – the way of the dead. It is said that ghostly funeral processions can still be seen on moonlit nights. The route from Lydford to Bellever is 12 miles; for a shorter stroll, walk west from Bellever to Longaford Tor, before returning via Wistman’s Wood.
4. The view: Powdermills
The beauty of the Powdermills gunpowder factory hides the secret of one of Dartmoor’s best-known legends: the Hairy Hands. Nearby Cherrybrook Bridge has witnessed numerous accidents caused by two ghostly hands ripping the steering wheel out of drivers’ hands, causing them to lose control of the vehicle and die. The hands are supposed to belong to a gunpowder-worker, blown up in the factory.
5. The Village: Chagford
Chagford church contains the tomb of Mary Whiddon, shot by a jilted suitor as she left following her wedding in 1641. It is said this story forms the plot of Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore. Traditionally, brides who marry at the church leave their bouquets on Mary’s tomb. As well as interesting local shops, keep an eye on the Jubilee Hall for markets.
6. The local landmark: Kitty Jay’s Grave
In the past those who committed suicide were not afforded a church burial but were laid to rest at a crossroads. One such suicide was the pregnant Kitty Jay, who took her own life and is buried at a crossroads near Manaton on Dartmoor. Flowers are still left on her grave by locals.
7. The haunting: Okehampton Castle
Following the deaths of her four husbands and also her son in the 1600s, Lady Mary Howard is said to have been sentenced to spend eternity doing penance for her evil ways by travelling each night from Tavistock to Okehampton Castle in a carriage made from the bones of her four dead husbands, driven by a headless driver in the company of a huge black dog with blood red eyes. The ruins are open daily 1 April-30 Sept; priced £3.70 for non-members.
How to get there
Dartmoor is flanked by the A38 to the east, the A30 to the north and the A386 to the west, and is well served by public transport. There are regular bus and train journeys to Plymouth, from where you can take a local bus to Tavistock. In summer, you can buy a Sunday Rover ticket for £7.50 (£5 child), which let’s you hop on and off certain buses and trains.
Find out more
Dartmoor National Park
Simon Dell guided walks
Get up close and personal with the area on a guided walk from this official national park guide.
Fox Tor Café
Two Bridges Road, Princetown PL20 6QS
01822 890 238
This excellent café, just off the village square in Princetown, is one of Dartmoor’s hidden gems.
The Bedford Hotel
1 Plymouth Road, Tavistock PL19 8BB
This comfortable hotel is located in the centre of Tavistock, so it is ideally placed for exploring the area.
The Two Bridges
Two Bridges PL20 6SW