Dartmoor in Devon has several large areas of forest and one location that caught my attention was Wistman’s Wood, one of only three remote high-altitude oakwoods. A friend had read about the wood and suggested a walk. I’m not one to turn down a hike to a quirky location, that’s for certain.
Two Bridges to Wistman’s Wood
My OS Map showed a car park at Two Bridges, located at the edge of a small disused quarry. The weather was typical Dartmoor, cloud and the 50/50 chance of rain, sunshine, drizzle, blue sky, cloud. You’ll get used to it. Bring your coat.
The walking route to Wistman’s Wood is easy to follow, it leads north from the small car park; just follow the footpath fingerpost. You’ll pass by a small farmstead and then you’ll quickly be on open moorland as you walk towards Littaford Tors in the distance.
The West Dart River flows in the valley to your left as you walk north, the water catching the early autumn sunlight, a bright sparkle amongst the dark tones of the moor. Every season has colour on Dartmoor; even the darkest days reveal a certain glistening charm, a natural glint that catches the eye.
After a pleasant walk north of just over 2 kilometres the stunted oaks of Wistman’s Wood could be seen, clinging to the valley side and not soaring into the sky as we would normally expect from statuesque grand oaks.
Some of the trees are over 400 years old, forming part of what was once a vast forest, thousands of years in the making. Tin mining and industry saw a great clearing away of Dartmoor’s forests. Wistman’s Wood fortunately survived that man-made forest clearing.
The instant I walked into the over-sized bonsai wood I was transfixed, the dense oaks muffled all sound. Lumps of granite tumbled down in frozen animation; like a giant had thrown grains of sand from his hand. Patterns and textures leapt out at my senses. Visually it was almost too much; which way to turn your head first. Speaking in whispers, treading lightly, gazing eagerly.
Wistman’s Wood – The Mystical Oaks
I stepped from granite boulder to granite boulder, lichen, moss and ferns growing on every available inch of surface; above me, below me, all around me. Lush greens against gnarly oaks; Dappled light illuminating twisting underworld tunnels. Branches and boughs swooped low to the ground, shying away from the sunlight above, as though the weight of the moss was bending them downwards.
Such a contrast to the rugged open moor, just a few feet outside of this “Middle England”. Legends abound, hoards of adders more venomous than any found in England, Druids and devils; witchcraft and wise-men.
A delightful location during the waking hours, wickedly evil during the witching hours.
The patterns and shapes were reminiscent of images we create in our minds of fairytale landscapes, you wouldn’t be surprised to see wood-nymphs and fairies as the evening light faded to dusk.
Clambering through this alien underworld I took photos in every direction, if you have read Pratchett or Herbert this all makes sense. There really are locations where ghosts and goblins roam wild, unabated.
With photos taken and senses refreshed it was time to head out of the wood, leaving the stunted oaks in peace. Back to a tour of tors I headed. Wistman’s Wood is not the only enchanted place on the moor bit it certainly is one of most legendary.
Longaford Tor and Higher White Tor
Back once more on open moorland, the pace of life remained unchanged, just a quickening of our footsteps. Dave my border collie could once more run ahead scouting out the thin trails across the wild land.
At a height of 507 metres (1,663ft) the views from Longaford Tor are worth the walk north-east from Wistman’s Wood. Dramatic skies helped to set the lunchtime scene, stopping for a bite to eat and to study the map, I was in my happy place.
My friend had suggested a route from Longaford Tor via Higher White Tor and then down to the abandoned gunpowder mills and into Bellever forest and finally a climb up Bellever Tor. With the hiking route settled it was time to finish my snack and herd Dave along the next trail.
The cloud was slowly thickening, drifting in from the west, the wind as usual was strong, we didn’t stay for long at Higher White Tor, not because it wasn’t stunning but because we wanted to see Bellever Tor before the weather closed in. So without wasting any more time, I took my photos and we set off towards the powdermills and Bellever Forest.
From Higher White Tor the route to the gunpowder mills was not too strenuous but it did cross some protected wet moorland, so great care was taken to try to avoid destroying the delicate habitat off the obvious well walked paths. I followed the Lich Way as it is marked on the map to the powder mills.
Powdermills – Postbridge
In 1846 the now abandoned powdermills were completed and ready to manufacturer gunpowder. Explosive powder was used on Dartmoor not for military reasons but in the extensive mining industry. Landowners also used gunpowder to blast the granite and landscape areas level for agricultural use.
I walked around the various buildings and the chimney, one of two remaining. With lead grey skies I knew there wasn’t much time left in the day to be pottering about the site. Certain parts of the powdermills are fenced off because of the danger of deep water, in the mill wheelpits.
Bellever Tor, Postbridge Devon
A well walked path lead from the mills to a crossing over the B3212 road and into Bellever Forest, this time populated with coniferous trees of towering height. The Forestry Commission purchased the land here in 1930 and began a large-scale plantation.
Pine needles underfoot made for a soft cushion to walk upon, it was refreshing after miles of granite and bog. Memories of ‘childhood walks in the woods as rain fell‘ came flooding back; we have all enjoyed an autumn walk like that haven’t we.
The heat of summer long gone south, the bitter cold of winter north, not yet invited in.
Located around Bellevor Tor are the remains of several cists; stone-lined graves, consisting of a pit lined with stones and often having a lid of stone. The area has been heavily ransacked over the years and the conifer plantation destroyed much of the ancient heritage.
The forest cleared as abruptly as it started, man-made plantations do that. Trees on / trees off, like a computer generated landscape program. One more the sky came back into view, the wind blew unabated.
The walk to Bellever Tor is simple, exit the forest and follow everyone else southwards up the huge path to the tor. No explanation needed on that route! Not the location of choice if you are looking for that famous Dartmoor solitude I talk about but an ideal location if you want to sample your first easily accessible tor of the moors.
The few remaining cists are easy enough to find, located north and south of Bellever Tor. With the weather closing in fast, there was time to explore a stone row and large cist to the north of the tor and then take the sensible route back along the B3212 road to Two Bridges.
The moors were beginning to become shrouded in mist and with light fading I didn’t fancy a long map and compass walk back across open land at dusk. With Dave by my side and my walking friend calling out approaching cars from behind, the three of us set off back along the road to the car park and a nice cup of tea.
By the time we had reached Princetown by car, the visibility on Dartmoor was down to 20 metres or less, fog lights needed on the car. We took the right decision in walking back along the relatively safety of the road.
Route: Two Bridges to Wistman’s Wood, Bellever Tor and back.
Download Map of Route
Distance: 10 miles (16 km)
Two Bridges car park: OS Grid Ref: SX 60917 75066
Wistman’s Wood: OS Grid Ref: SX 61242 76859
Longaford Tor: OS Grid Ref: SX 61582 77851
Higher White Tor: OS Grid Ref: SX 61969 78571
Powdermills: OS Grid Ref: SX 62697 77401
Bellever Forest: OS Grid Ref: SX 63772 77654
Bellever Tor: OS Grid Ref: SX 64464 76446
Cist: OS Grid Ref: SX 64529 77604
B3212 road: OS Grid Ref: SX 63427 77029