Fabulous views on the road to nowhere
BASIC WALK: From Whiteworks south of Princetown around the side of Foxtor Mire to follow path north-east, before reaching Sherberton turn west over Royal Hill to Tor Royal, then back along road to nowhere.
DISTANCE AND GOING: Five miles, easy going unless wet and muddy.
SOMEONE should write a book about the Westcountry's great roads to nowhere. There are many byways that fit the bill – roads you can drive up which weave their way deep into countryside, then simply stop.
Exmoor National Park has the amazing North Hill road that ascends out of Minehead to run along five miles of hilltop glory before stopping, abruptly, at a place where you get one of the best views in the Westcountry – the dramatic vista of Porlock Bay and half Exmoor's vertiginous coast.
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On Dartmoor my favourite road-to-nowhere starts right in the middle of Princetown and climbs over a low hill to the east before swinging south at a place called Tor Royal to wend its way past South Hessary Tor and a cosy remote little place called Peat Cot.
In its dying moments this road-to-nowhere veers east again to descend the contours and cross a young Devonport Leat to cease operations close to a couple of old cottages called Whiteworks, one of which I think is now some kind of outward bound centre.
Anyway, where does all this nowhere-ness leave you? I'll tell you – for this is a very special place indeed.
We are on the very edge of mighty Foxtor Mire – a place not to be messed with. The moor is full of bogs and mires – as Arthur Conan Doyle so dramatically defined in his novel Hound of the Baskervilles. He called his bog the Grimpen Mire – perhaps after the local name Grimspound – but is believed to have been inspired by Foxtor Mire.
Today you will see the tell-tale flags of the moorland's natural no-go areas – the little "cotton" buds that waft in the breeze at the top of the cotton grass.
If you were to cross the mire – and on this walk we don't – you would also see a grave, which will send a chill down your spine. It is said to be the reconstructed tomb of a hunter called Childe, who was caught in a storm in this desolate place many moons ago. Childe knew he was losing his battle with the snow so he slaughtered his horse, cut out its innards and buried himself inside the warm carcass for protection.
It was a bad move – he'd have been better with a live horse than a dead one. He was found, by a group of monks, frozen solid. It is said that from time to time the rare visitor to this remote corner might still catch a ghostly glimpse of these holy fellows carrying a bier across the wilderness.
There was a chill in the air, but I wasn't looking at any of the local cattle with any kind of yearning for warmth as I strode out along the path which leads north-east along the shoulders of the low hills above the Swincombe River.
This is the waterway which the mire empties in to – and it weaves its very lovely way up to a point where it passes between the village of Hexworthy and the hamlet of Sherberton.
I turned left up over the flank of Royal Hill before I reached his corner of civilisation.
The empirical sounding hill took me westwards to Tor Royal.
It was recognised in the early 1900s that an excellent strain of polo pony could be bred from the original pony stock on Dartmoor and the national park's official history takes up the tale. "Dwarka was an Arab stallion, born in the Middle East and of noble stock. His potential was recognised by a Major Broome, who worked for the Government in India, and Dwarka was shipped there. Following success in India, both as a gymkhana pony and in racing, he was brought back to England.
"On arrival in England he was registered as a polo stallion and, in 1914, arrived at Tor Royal, where he was put to a local Dartmoor mare. The result was a bay colt called 'The Leat'. The Leat was to become one of the most famous Dartmoor stallions."
The pure-bred Dartmoor, as it is known, can even claim a Royal connection. Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) visited Dartmoor frequently in the 1920s and bred Dartmoor ponies in Princetown, where he crossed them with Arab ponies to try and produce a finer polo pony.
Today lovely old Tor Royal is a bed and breakfast establishment and riding centre, but the place was originally built by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1785. That optimist was planning a farming empire on Dartmoor – and while he was about it Sir Thomas also built Dartmoor Prison among many other now historic man-made features of the moor.
His dreams of taming the uplands for agriculture didn't really come to anything, despite all the effort he put into it. I can't bear to think of the wide open featureless prairie Dartmoor would be today if Sir Thomas had had his way.
I turned south once I reached the aforementioned road-to-nowhere and walked along it, noticing as I went the Devonport Leat weaving its way through the moors. It was opened in 1793 and was constructed to supply water for Plymouth Docks. It now empties into Burrator Reservoir.
The road crosses the leat at a point close to Whiteworks – in fact I'd recommend leaving your car at a little pull-in on the left just before the leat as there's not much room down at the point where the asphalt gives way to bog.
That description of the road's end doesn't do it justice – it is one of the best roads-to-nowhere in the region, as you will see when you do this hike.