Lost Marbles on Dartmoor

Production editor Maria Hodson is blown away by the delights of Dartmoor on a birthday getaway...

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You ain’t nothin but a Hound Tor, crying all the time…

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Dartmoor. Land of misty moors and a ghostly killer hound. Apart from those obvious charms, I had no idea what to expect.

I wanted to go away for my birthday, somewhere quiet, and had been recommended a remote wild hideaway called The Barn in Easdon. My source had told me it had the best bath in Dartmoor (is there stiff competition?) and I liked the idea of a tiny retreat in the middle of nowhere with an excellent bath.

The Barn is a lovely little place with one immensely comfortable double bed, a warm homely feel to its interior and a sense of escape from the wider world. This is partly achieved by the fact that it has no mobile signal, let alone wifi. A previous guest had coined the term “digital detox” and it’s very apt. There is something liberating about having no contact with the outside world – no browsing of Facebook to ‘like’ a photo of an inquisitive seal, no emails from car insurers, no texts from EE telling me about Pet Show Live! at the O2. Freeedom at last! Which left me with the present surroundings. A cosy shelter, a lovely bath, lots of reading material and, of course, the great outdoors…

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And what a great outdoors it is. I’d previously seen photos of Wistman’s Wood and some massive rocky outcrops and was intrigued, but beyond that I knew little. Many places in the south of England present a rolling, manicured land – often pretty but hardly wild. As a relatively unkempt person myself, I find I respond less well to pristine, manicured landscapes. I feel stifled at the idea of constraint or nature tamed. I like it free-flowing and unpredictable, majestic and slightly mad. And Dartmoor proved quite extraordinary. The woodlands are magical; the tors wild and ancient. I was instantly besotted.

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We set off on a long circular walk on the Saturday from Manaton via Lustleigh Cleave, to be met almost immediately with a stone monument announcing “The Lost Marbles Department. No Entry”, which seemed to spell the start of an Alice in Wonderland-style adventure.

And it was a fantastical trek, wending through watery woodland overhung by tangled twisted trees, crossing wooden and stone bridges over the River Bovey, padding through carpets of wild garlic and bursts of daffodil and passing a solitary wild pony, who stood stock still, considering us with neither fear or familiarity. 

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Constantly the sound of birdsong filled the air, multilayed and magnificent. I felt as though I was in an off-kilter Disney film, accompanied by an avian ensemble choir trilling delight at spring’s arrival. I was tempted to join in with my own singing, but didn’t want to terrify them.

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My one sorrow, halfway through the walk, was that I didn’t find the cream tea I so desperately desired. The recommended tea shop in Lustleigh has closed, a crying shame (it’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to). Still, we had coffee at The Cleave pub, felt refreshed and caffeinated, and were ready for the return route. More watery wondrousness was unveiled, and then a big surprise…

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A gigantic hill. The relentless incline was quite daunting – and nature kindly accompanied our uphill hike with a sudden downpour of hail. Lovely. Our climb was quiet as we silently cursed. According to a clever app, we walked up the equivalent of 92 flights of stairs. I work on the 9th floor at BBC Countryfile Magazine and complain about that, so 92 is a – to put it mildly – phenomenal achievement. I felt proud to have survived the slog, and was rewarded with birthday brownies back at the Barn. 

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Sunday was a whistling-wind day, grey and overcast with a subdued sense of drama. Hound Tor had to be explored as it was practically on the doorstep. So off we ventured to its strange hulking frame with overtones of Daleks and sci-fi landscapes. The rocks, otherwordly and ancient, were created when a pack of dogs were turned to stone. Well, according to local legend. Geologists say they were formed millions of years ago by molten granite that solidified – but what do they know. The tors also inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his gothic thriller The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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Disappointingly, I didn’t spy any terrifying mystical hounds on the weathered granite outcrop. But the wind did howl with gusto, and we tested its mettle by leaning into its jaws. We almost had lift-off… but I may need to shed a pound or two.

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Further fun was had clambering the rocky ramparts, but finally another downpour put paid to further exploration so we retreated to the barn for reading and relaxation. All in all, it was a wonderful weekend and one that went too fast. A stop at the House of Marbles in Bovey Tracey on the way back proved illuminating, as we were able to watch the hypnotic glass blowing and admire the beautiful glass vases, sculptures and dishes.

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They even housed vast quanties of colourful little glass balls that seemed very familiar…
Must be all the marbles lost in mad and magical Dartmoor.

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