As much as we would have happily stayed in our fantastic room at the Moorland Garden Hotel for our entire three night stay, we did actually take time to get out and about in Dartmoor. There’s so much to do in the national park and surrounding area and we really did only scratch the surface. That being said, you can see and get an awful lot done, even if you’re only able to visit for a night or two, so it’s the perfect place for a long weekend or short break. Here’s a short guide to just some of the things to do in Dartmoor…
Things to do in Dartmoor
1-Take a road trip
Winding roads, quaint villages and stunning views mean that Dartmoor is pretty much the perfect place to take a road trip. You just need to remember to drive carefully to avoid the sheep, who wander blithely along the roadside and like to take refuge on the relatively warm tarmac, especially during the cooler months!
Our route, which we found in the Lonely Planet Devon & Cornwall (Travel Guide), took us primarily along the B3212 which cuts diagonally across the moor, taking some of the main villages such as Postbridge and Princetown. And there’s plenty of spots along the way to park up and take a walk on the moor.
The route also takes you past the foreboding HMP Dartmoor. This notorious prison was built in 1809 to house French and American prisoners of war and now holds low-risk category C prisoners. The onsite museum tells the story of the prison’s fascinating history, including riots, hard labour and escapes and is definitely worth taking the time to visit.
2 – Buckland Abbey
The austerity of Dartmoor prison is in stark contrast to one of the other famous buildings in area – Buckland Abbey.
This former Cistercian monastery was owned by famous explorer/pirate Sir Francis Drake and is now managed by the National Trust. As in all National Trust properties, the historical interpretation is excellent – if a little Tudor heavy – and includes a clever representation of life aboard a 16th Century ship right inside the building.
The Abbey also owns a rare Rembrandt self-potrait and there’s a fascinating exhibition that uncovers how the painting was authenticated after many years of it being believed it was a reproduction.
3 – Morwhellham Quay
Morwhellam Quay is probably most famous for being the setting of the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series. Since that show is one of my history-nerd guilty pleasures, I was very happy to be able to visit!
The open-air museum focuses on the Tamar Valley’s mining heritage, with mineral and metal extraction one of the major industries of the Georgian and Victorian eras. Materials were extracted from these hand-dug mines and transported up the Tamar River for sale.
The buildings of the quayside give an insight into the day-to-day life of those that lived on the quay in its heyday and it’s worth spending a little extra to take a trip into one of the copper mines. These have been specially widened to accommodate a small train that takes you deep underground with knowledgeable guides who fill you in on all of the details of the very harsh existence below ground.
4 – Dartmoor Zoo
Have you seen We Bought A Zoo? It’s actually based on a real-life zoo in the UK – Dartmoor Zoo in fact.
It was bought by the Mee family in 2006, who rescued the dilapated zoo and saved the animals from being destroyed, all while dealing with the impact of the death of Katherine Mee from a brain tumour. Benjamin Mee wrote a book about the experience, which was then turned into the film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.
The weather wasn’t kind to us on our visit, with rain pouring the whole day, but there were still enough animals out and about to keep us entertained, and it was actually rather nice to wander around unhindered by crowds.
Knowing there is such a inspirational story behind it, and that the Mees and the rest of the staff are still working tirelessly to secure the zoo’s future, meant that it felt such a special place to visit and so much more than just another stop on the typical tourist trail.
5- Plymouth Gin
When you’re out on Dartmoor, it’s easy to forget how close to civilisation you actually are. It’s only ten miles from the Moorland Garden Hotel to Plymouth and even at the very northern edge of the park, you’re only around an hour away.
Plymouth, AKA Britain’s Ocean City, has a rich nautical history, closely linked to icons including Sir Francis Drake and the Mayflower. The Barbican is the area of the town where the sense of history is perhaps most prevalent and it’s here that you’ll find the famous Plymouth Gin distillery.
In one of the oldest buildings in the city, Plymouth Gin have been in operation since 1793. Family owned until the end of the second world war, and now owned by Pernod Ricard, the company makes all of its gin in one single still using a special mix of botanicals including juniper (of course!), lemon peel, cardamom, orange peel and coriander seeds. Unlike whisky, which needs to mature, gin is made in only one day and is then sent off to be bottled.
The 40 minute distillery tour covers the history of both the company and the distillery site and gives an insight into how the gin is actually made. Then, after a guided tasting you can head up to the gorgeous surroundings of the 500 year-old Refectory Bar to enjoy a complimentary G&T (or, if you’d rather, grab a miniature to take home with you).
I received complimentary entry to some of the attractions in this list for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. Many thanks to Visit Dartmoor for arranging some of these visits and to all of the venues for their hospitality.
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