It was the end of the summer as we drove down to Devon, stopping at Okehampton station for lunch in the station buffet that could have been a film set for that post-war classic, Brief Encounter. The station has been restored to its full 1950s glory, with old fashioned locomotives to take you on a day trip on the Dartmoor Railway that runs at weekends to Meldon, where you can walk on the viaduct or up onto the moor. It’s a lovely place to stop for lunch and you can sit at a table on the platform among the hanging baskets and piles of leather suitcases, recalling Celia Johnson’s very British clipped tones, as you tuck into your home-made Victoria Sponge with a pot of tea.
Gorge Scrambling with Adventure Okehampton
Since we had three teenage boys to entertain that weekend, who were looking for a bit more adventure than a bacon buttie, we booked in with Adventure Okehampton who operate cycle hire and outdoor activities on Dartmoor from the Okehampton YHA hostel on the other side of the railway bridge. My son and his two friends met up with their group in the hostel, were kitted out with wetsuits and helmets and whisked off in a mini-bus with us in hot pursuit in the car. As they gathered outside the makeshift changing rooms in a shed on the moor, the fit looking instructors, John and Amy laid down a few rules. “Don’t jump in unless one of the instructors tells you it’s safe and follow the path – if you’re told to go a certain way, it’s for a good reason”.
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They helmets were double checked, the life jackets fastened and the group was off, scrambling down the bank and into the river. There were several families there, but Guy and I opted to watch from the bank, as the group waded up the river, jumping and splashing in the pools which became progressively deeper as they climbed higher. The boys bobbed around like seals and it really looked like such fun that I was almost tempted to join them, but I’m afraid it takes tropical heat to convince me to jump into an icy mountain stream, even with a wetsuit on. After a couple of hours of exhausting good fun, the boys were returned to us and we warmed them up with a hot drink and a few chocolate bars, then headed on to Woodovis Park, near Tavistock, where we were spending the weekend.
We had chosen to stay in a mobile home for the holiday weekend, as although my husband Guy loves nothing better than a night under canvas, I prefer the certainty of a roof over my head in the unpredictable English summer weather. We received a warm welcome from wardens, Julie and Leigh who were on duty in the shop and reception. Leigh walked us down the path to give us the full guided tour of our mobile home, pointing out all the features that previous damp weekends under canvas in England had made me come to value; a hot shower (no trips in the dark to the shower block), a well equipped kitchen and heaters in both the bedrooms. Even if the weather turned against us, there was no way we would be anything but snug and cosy. The table was laid out ready for tea, with a box of West Country clotted cream fudge that didn’t last long once the boys arrived and soon we had the kettle whistling on the gas stove for a nice cuppa.
Our “Super Finch” two bedroom mobile home was surprisingly roomy, with a double bedroom next to the shower room, which with the connecting door could just about count as “en suite”. Next door was the second bedroom with twin singles and as we had three boys with us, they took it in turns for one of them to sleep on the sofa bed in the sitting area. With a wardrobe in both rooms as well as cupboards over the bed, there was a surprising amount of storage and we had a TV and DVD player, gas fire and well equiped kitchen with full size oven and microwave.
The boys settled down to a competitive board game of Risk, a board game of world domination, spending the rest of the weekend plotting strategies and trying to annex each other’s countries with a ruthlessness that would have put Stalin to shame. My husband had visited Woodovis a couple of years before when he brought my daughter and a few of her friends down for some Dartmoor adventures and the good reports they came back with prompted me to book it again. A large proportion of the visitors are regulars who come back year after year, and with the safe and tranquil setting and incredibly friendly staff, we could see why this 5 star holiday park is so popular.
The owners, John and Dorothy told us how the season starts with the mobile homes filling up from March onwards and by Easter the family tents start arriving. They nearly always have a new baby camping for the first time with its parents in the springtime, and then from May onwards, the park is busy with mobile homes, caravans and larger tents. For those looking for camping without all the gear, there is a camping pod (a sort of wooden tent) or a tipi with a central stove, both of which are popular with newly-weds, especially for couples where he is trying to persuade her that camping can really be quite cosy and romantic. With hot croissants for breakfast on sale at the shop and the Copper Penny pub a brisk walk down the road, you really only need to bring your lilo and sleeping bag.
Woodovis Park has a friendly, family feel where children can wander around safely. The park is hidden down a long drive and becomes a compact, self-contained world in which the little ones can enjoy their independence with a trip to the shop to collect the fresh bread in the morning or spend their pocket money on an ice cream (just licking!). There’s a children’s playground and a games room with a pool table, air hockey and pinball machines, as well as a large map of Dartmoor on the wall and information leaflets to help you plan your days out and about. Another big attraction of Woodovis Park is the indoor swimming pool which features a jacuzzi at one end and the infra-red heat cabin where I spent most of my time warming my back on the heaters, which if you believed the signs would make me thinner as well as improving my circulation. There is wifi throughout the park for a moderate charge, and my only complaint was that it was frustratingly slow during our stay.
The Tamar Valley
The holiday park is close to the Tamar Valley, where there are a number of walking trails that take you past the old mine chimneys and other signs of mining heritage of this area. During the nineteenth century, the mines were the largest producers of copper in Europe and the ore was shipped from the quaysides that dotted the banks of the Tamar River. The Copper Penny Inn, just down the road from Woodovis Park was once known as the Chip Shop, where the local miners were paid in chips which they had to spend at the company owned Chip Shop. Just down the road is the Horn of Plenty, which was once the mine manager’s house, but is now a small luxury hotel with a gourmet reputation. Beside the Tamar Valley car park is the Tree Surfing which the boys hoped to try on our last day, but was closed due to high winds, as well as offering canoe trips along the Tamar River. We heard a tall fishing tale about one of the guests who took a Tamar canoe trip and was surprised to find a salmon leaping into his canoe; with swift thinking he knocked it over the head with his thermos flask and brought it home to eat for supper.
Walking on Dartmoor above Peter Tavy
The next day we made the most of the good weather with a walk on the moor, meeting up with some friends in the church car park at the village of Peter Tavy. The path took us up gently up the hillside, passing one of the granite tors on our left. As we neared the high ground, out of nowhere a quad bike appeared, startling us as it veered across our path. I assumed that it was another outdoor activity but soon realised that it was a farmer at work on the moor. From one direction came a flock of sheep with their fleeces stained in luminous colours, while from the other a herd of cattle was being rounded up by three agile sheep dogs and two quad bikes.
We continued along the ridge, playing hop-scotch on the stones over a rushing stream and descended a little until we reached a viewpoint where we could see down into the valley with the church spire of Peter Tavy in the distance. We stood for while with the wind in our hair, feeling on top of the world and then set a steady pace downhill across the turf dotted with yellow dandelions. Further down the path led us through waist high ferns with brambles that plucked at our clothes, then entered a wood of bent oaks, where the stream came rushing down the valley. “We won’t get lost?” asked the boys anxiously, but with our lunch at stake there was little chance of that. All the best walks on Dartmoor end with a good pub lunch and before long we were down by the church again and stepping into the Peter Tavy Inn.
Lunch at Peter Tavy Inn
It was the holiday weekend, but fortunately our friends had booked a table, as when as we walked in the place was absolutely packed. The inn was just what you might hope for in a country pub, with open fires, flagstone floors, good ale and smoke-blackened beams to knock your head on. The menu was chalked up on a blackboard featuring plenty of reasonably priced good pub grub. After a hearty roast lunch we were almost too full for puddings but were tempted by the plate of six Devon cheeses with names like Ticklemore Goat and Sharpham Brie, with little flags to tell you which farm they had come from.
The wet weather programme on Dartmoor
The next day, the changeable Dartmoor weather had set in with high winds and showers. We started the morning slowly, hoping that the rain would blow over, but then set forth from Woodovis Park, determined to find something that we could fit into our wet weather programme. Plan A was to try to the Tree Surfers down the road, where we hoped that the tree canopy would shield us from rain and the rope courses would keep our boys entertained, but when we got there we found it closed due to high winds. Undeterred we moved on to Plan B and drove on to the climbing barn at Milton Abbott which looked like fun, but the wait was rather long for an instructor to work with the boys who were all beginners. On to Place C then and with the boys kitted out with their waterproofs we drove past Princetown to Combestone Tor, one of the few where you can park very close to the tor. We skipped out of the car, with the wind whistling in our ears and the rain pouring down, for a quick run around the tor and scramble up on top, while peering into the mist in hope of a view.
Safely back in the car with the windows steaming up, we spotted a group of wet and miserable teenage walkers from a West Country school who were clearly doing their Duke of Edinburgh Award, in which they hike and camp in groups across Dartmoor. It prompted Guy to tell us stories of the Ten Tors exercise in 2007 when he was part of the army team looking after the safety of the event that is an outdoor challenge for schools in the West of England. For the first time ever, the weather was so bad and the rivers so swollen that 2400 teenagers had to be evacuated from the moor on foot and by helicopter and fortunately all were recovered safely. “Was the weather just like this?” I asked, watching the rain lash down on the windscreen – ” No, it was nowhere near as nice as this” Guy replied. After that, there was no Plan D except to return to our cosy mobile home at Woodovis to continue the empire building with the game of Risk.
The Dartmoor Tors and the letter boxes
On our last morning, we were headed back to Bristol, but the weather had brightened and we were determined to get up to another of the granite tors We stopped en route across the moor and walked up towards Great Staple Tor. Scrambling up on the granite tors we got a real sense of the wildness of Dartmoor and we even found a “letter box” – not the kind that you actually post letters into but the Dartmoor variety. These are a small plastic box or metal container that are hidden on the moor in the nooks and crannies of the tors, for letter box hunters to seek out and find. When you discover one, you normally find it contains a small book to write your name and a rubber stamp which you can stamp a book of your own to prove you were there, bringing out the collector in you. Our walk completed and a couple of hours later and we were back in Bristol which all seemed rather tame compared to our wet and wild weekend on Dartmoor.
Visitor Information for Dartmoor
Woodovis Park – Our base for our adventures on Dartmoor. Check their Facebook Page. This 5 star holiday park has won many awards and you’ll find mobile homes, camping pod and tipi to hire, or pitches for your tent, caravan or motor home. We highly recommend Woodovis Park as a green and tranquil base to explore Dartmoor National Park or head for the beaches of north and south Devon. The small size and friendly atmosphere makes the park especially suitable for families and those who want a quiet, rural break. A two bedroom “Super Finch” mobile home like ours would cost from £269 per week in low season to £659 per week in high season and is also available for short breaks. Our thanks to Woodovis Park for hosting our stay at a reduced rate.
Dartmoor Railway – operate a Heritage train service at weekends from Meldon via Okehampton to Sampford Courtnay. There is parking at the station and the station buffet is open to everyone for snacks, lights meals and teatime cakes. There’s also a small railway museum.
Adventure Okehampton – Offer adventure activities and holidays on Dartmoor. They are based at the YHA hostel Okehampton, beside Okehampton station and offer cycle hire as well as a wide range of outdoor activities such as kayaking, abseiling, raft building. The Gorge Scrambling that the boys tried cost £30 per person for a 2-3 hour session including transport, equipment and instruction.
Tamar Valley – Offers the Tamar walking trails beside the Tamar river where you can still see the old mining chimneys and buildings – this is where copper and arsenic were mined in the nineteenth century.
The Barn Indoor Climbing Wall at Milton Abbot – An indoor climbing barn with a range of different climbing courses where you can hire equipment and get instruction
Peter Tavy Inn – an old country inn in the village of Peter Tavy on the edge of Dartmoor with excellent pub food and real ales
Dartmoor Letter Boxes – more information about the activity of letterboxing on Dartmoor
Dartmoor Tourism website – Official visitor information site for Dartmoor with all the things to see and do
More fun in Devon and Cornwall
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