“It is hardly possible to conceive anything of the sort so grotesque as this wood appears,” the local Reverend Swete declared about Wistman’s Wood in 1797. Gazing into the twisted and gnarled branches of the stunted oak trees entwined with each other, grotesque isn’t really a word I’d use to describe this place. It is odd-looking, but it is beautiful.
Feeling the warmth of the morning, I wanted to plunge my face in the cool, spongy moss and inhale the damp, spicy smell of rotten leaves and ancient granite beneath the tree roots.
Sun falls through the canopy of Wistman’s ancient oaks ©Getty
Wistman’s Wood is an easy ¼-mile walk on a waymarked path from the Two Bridges Hotel. It sits like a dark, tangled mound on the slopes of the West Dart River. The oaks grow barely taller than 5.5m (18ft) high, and their tangled branches and the uneven rocky floor make it impossible for Dartmoor ponies and cattle to enter. This is the main reason why the wood still exists on the moor – its inaccessibility keeps it protected from destructive grazing.
There are more than 100 different species of lichen in Wistman’s Wood. On a single bough, Simon Dell, a local ranger and my guide for the day, identified 12. The most eye-catching of them was bearded lichen, which can grow up to half a metre long. It droops from the branches, making the trees look like writhing arms grabbing fistfuls of passing witches’ hair.
Zesty wood sorrel grows in the undergrowth beneath the oaks ©Getty
We climbed the valley of Wistman’s Wood to the summit of Longaford Tor, where we enjoyed a windy panoramic view of Dartmoor. We could see Princetown and its famous prison, Cut Hill – the furthest place on Dartmoor from any roads – and the ruins of the Powder Mills factory, which produced gunpowder.
Simon told me about nearby Cherrybrook Bridge, known as Hairy Hands Bridge. It’s said to be haunted by the ape-like hands of an immigrant worker who was killed in an explosion at the factory.
On misty days, the woods feel more haunted than ever ©Getty
Dartmoor is a landscape ringing with legends and myths. People say that Wistman’s Wood was planted by the druids (its name is said to derive from the words ‘wise man’, another name for a druid), and as Simon said to me that morning: “Surely there must be an element of truth in these embellished stories?” Maybe, but I wouldn’t like to think that there is any truth in the legend that hounds live in trees and come out at night, seeking the souls of those who dare to enter their domain.
Crime and punishment
South from Longaford Tor, on the way back to Two Bridges Hotel, we came to Crockern Tor – the centre of the Stannary Parliament – where the local tin miners came to meet between the 15th and 18th centuries. The miners were exempt from Westminster laws, and were governed by their own strict regulations. Severe punishments were handed out to errant tin miners – those caught using impurities in their tin would be forced to swallow a tablespoon of the molten stuff.
Despite being a sunny spring morning, I couldn’t help but shudder at these chilling tales during our stroll back to the hotel. I hoped I’d sleep soundly that night.
How to get there
The start of the walk to Wistman’s Wood is situated in the car park across the road from the Two Bridges Hotel on the B3357.
Find out more
HIGH MOORLAND VISITOR CENTRE
Old Duchy Hotel, Princetown, Devon PL20 6QF
Badgers Holt, Dartmeet
Devonshire cream teas and secret recipe scones.
Two Bridges Hotel
This 18th-century coaching inn is at the heart of Dartmoor, with oak beamed bedrooms and four-poster beds.
Main image ©Getty