A willow artist, painter, potter, silversmith and shoemaker are among the traditional craftspeople working along the Dartmoor Artisan Trail, which, depending on how intrepid you’re feeling, can be explored by car, bike or on foot.
Launched in March 2017 by photographer Suzy Bennett, the trail offers the chance to gain hands-on experience in a variety of traditional artisan crafts.
I recommend taking at least a long weekend for your visit, or, better still, a week; with time on your side you can experience the trail at a leisurely pace, take part in longer workshops and even have time to enjoy moorland walks to some of Dartmoor’s most spectacular tors.
You can start and finish the self-guided trail wherever you like, but for this route we began at the pretty village of North Bovey in south-east Dartmoor. Sitting two miles outside of Moretonhampstead where several of the artisans are based, you can walk or cycle along the country lanes, follow the footpath between the two villages, or, as we did, hop in your car. Driving is advisable if you’re heading on to visit other artisans further afield, as public transport is limited in much of rural Dartmoor.
A great way to start is in North Bovey with woodturner and spoon-carver Sharif Adams. Employing ancient woodturning techniques, some that date to the Iron Age, Sharif uses a pole lathe powered by a treadle to turn his locally sourced sustainable wood into bowls or cups. Drop in free of charge, or join one of Sharif’s courses: from £75 for a one-day spoon-carving workshop. sharifadams.co.uk
Our second stop on the trail was to visit potter Penny Simpson for a short pottery demonstration at her cosy ceramics studio and shop. Using a traditional potter’s wheel, Penny creates beautiful rustic earthenware pots with nature-influenced designs inspired by her time honing her craft in Japan. After a tour of the studio, Penny and her apprentice demonstrate a couple of basic pottery techniques. As part of the Artisan Trail, Penny offers workshops (from £30 for a two-hour tile-making workshop) or a chance to see inside her working pottery studio. pennysimpsonceramics.co.uk
From Penny’s studio, it’s just a short stroll along the main street to visit traditional shoemaker Alison Haite at her workshop Greenshoes. Creating colourful shoes, sandals and sturdy boots for children and adults, Greenshoes first opened in 1981 in Totnes. We had a tour of the workshop and learned more about the shoemaking process. Greenshoes offers one-day (£325) or two-day (£650) workshops where you can craft your own leather shoes. greenshoes.co.uk
Next door to Greenshoes you’ll find a 150-year-old Victorian forge, where blacksmith Greg Abel continues the tradition of hot forging. After visiting the forge to commission a curtain pole for a renovation project, photographer and Dartmoor Artisan Trail founder Suzy Bennett was inspired to photograph local artisans for an exhibition, which then developed to become the Dartmoor Artisan Trail.
Greg runs half and full-day workshops, which offer a taster of traditional blacksmithing techniques plus a chance to design and make your own item (from £90 for four hours). Alternatively, pop in for a chat and a tour of the forge (£40 per group). Booking advised. moretonforge.co.uk
We drove just over 7km along narrow Devon lanes to the small market town of Chagford to meet silversmith Miriam Boy. If you’re feeling energetic, it is possible to cycle this leg of the route, but be prepared for steep inclines. Miriam’s small studio is just off the main square; here she designs and creates jewellery inspired by Dartmoor’s rugged moors and wildlife. We have just enough time to craft a simple ring, using traditional techniques. You can book a two-hour workshop to make your own ring (£60); see silverandmoor.blogspot.com
Chagford is the perfect place to pause for victuals, with cafés and restaurants selling delicious food and drink, such as locally grown fruit and vegetables and Devon cheese.
The willow artist
From Chagford, it’s a short two-mile drive to meet willow artist Katherine Miles at Stone Lane Gardens on the edge of Dartmoor National Park. Katherine recently created a huge T Rex sculpture for Canonteign Falls in the Teign Valley; her studio is crammed with willow cattle, hares, birds and stags. For a taster session (half-day, £35), we made a willow dragonfly.
To craft our dragonfly, we snipped the thinner ends off each willow branch before bending and weaving them together to form a sturdy body shape. The wings proved trickier to weave into place, but it wasn’t long before a dragonfly emerged. The sculpture can be displayed indoors or out and is a fitting memento to take back home. Katherine runs longer workshops (from £85) with several at Moretenhampstead in 2019. artisan-willow.com
The landscape artist
On the edge of the national park and just a 10-minute drive from Okehampton is Kigbeare Studios and Gallery, where landscape artist Sophie Berger has her studio. Sophie’s inspiring half-day art walks (from £45) on Belstone Common involve stopping to sketch the landscape, before bringing it to life in watercolour at the studio. sophieberger.co.uk
Eat: Ring of bells
To end your tour, return to North Bovey and head to the 14th-century Ring of Bells Inn for a well-earned drink. The owners tastefully restored the pub after it was ravaged by fire in 2016. There’s a good lunch and evening menu, with local Dartmoor craft ales on tap. ringofbells.net
Stay: Moorland View Cottage
You won’t find a more romantic place to stay than beautiful thatched Moorland View Cottage in the 13th-century village of North Bovey. Just outside the main trail hub of Moretonhampstead, this comfortable cottage sleeps four and has been tastefully restored, retaining many of the original features. With a lovely rose garden, the cottage has stunning views of the surrounding countryside, which can be easily accessed via the walking path from the village. moorlandviewcottage.co.uk