WALK: Tramways round the tors
PUBLISHED: 13:56 18 July 2016 | UPDATED: 15:10 18 July 2016
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes a Dartmoor walk exploring old haunts where humans have left their mark on the landscape
The seeming wilderness of Dartmoor is enticing. It draws to its heart those who like a touch of excitement; a sense of accomplishment at the end of a good walk. It is a land of ever-changing contrasts, where mists descend rapidly to blot out landmarks and biting winds wail banshee-like around the tors.
But the remote wilderness has, over millennia, been shaped in places by the touch of historic human hands. This walk explores some of those touches around an accessible and much-loved area on the eastern side of the moor. For those not familiar with Dartmoor, this is a good ‘taster’. For those who already know and love it, one can never go back too often.
1 Dartmoor is known for its tors, the weathered heights where the mighty granite bones of the moor are exposed. The massive cragginess of Haytor is one of the most iconic. It looks down over the car park, a remarkable sight, and at 457m above sea level is visible from many parts of Devon well beyond the National Park.
From the vehicular entrance to the car park cross the road and bear left on the obvious grassy path ascending towards the bulk of Haytor’s eastern face, about ½ mile away. As you rise the view increases; listen for skylarks and the ‘cronk’ of ravens.
Arriving at the tor (grid ref SX758770) is rather humbling; it dwarfs walkers and climbers and the view is thirst-quenching. The nimble-footed make their way to the top; the more earth-bound circumnavigate its mighty foot, discovering the further, slightly smaller, area of rocks round the western side. In the 19th century a handrail was installed up Haytor to facilitate ascent but this was removed in the 1960s; it is surely better to leave it as untamed as possible.
2 From the north-east corner of the tor (the biggest, rounded end) head across the moor very slightly east (6 degrees) of due north. In 300m the perimeter fence of old Haytor Quarry is reached (grid ref SX759774). Turn left to circumnavigate the quarry in a clockwise direction with occasional glimpses down to the pond within it. The way is tussocky underfoot and there is evidence of old quarrying spoil nearby. Work your way round and down until you find the path leading into the quarry, crossing a stile to reach the pond. Glance up from the stile, the rocky pate of Haytor is keeping watch.
This tranquil place is a contrast to the loud industrial site that it once was. For about 100 years from 1820 there were many quarry workings in this area and granite from Haytor was used to build London Bridge. Today old machinery moulders peacefully away beside the pond and water lilies jewel the surface. The eagle-eyed may be on the lookout for geocaches or Dartmoor ‘letterboxes’ – the latter being credited by some for having given birth to the former. The first Dartmoor letterbox was placed in 1854 at Cranmere Pool on the north side of the moor.
3 From near the metal relic another path leads out of the quarry’s north-east side. Follow this, leaving the quarry through a gate in the fence. From here a path leads back to the car park but ignore that and head away from the quarry, its fence on your left and a large pile of grass-mellowed spoil also to the left.
The huge pile on the left soon comes to an end and you find a distinct crossing track. Turn left along this, heading north-west. This is one of the old granite tramways, constructed of the very material it was built to carry. These tramways served the various quarries and were traversed by horse-drawn wagons laden with granite for onward transportation by canal or, later, railway. They are a significant part of Dartmoor’s industrial archaeology and also make for unusually easy moorland walking.
Follow this granite way, the mound of tumbled granite still to the left, enjoying expansive views across the moor to the right with the bulk of Haytor over your left shoulder.
4 Within about 200m the tramway curves right and in another 130m a distinct junction is reached (grid ref SX761777) where a granite plinth denotes the Templer Way – George Templer held the lease for quarries on Haytor Down. Turn left here (generally west) following the Templer Way and ghostly trams, Haytor is away to the left.
In about 200m the tramway starts to bend left and Holwell Tor comes into view ahead, its more spread-out rocky appearance a great contrast to Haytor. The tramway passes a sky-reflecting pool on the right, a popular watering hole for Dartmoor Hill ponies. These hardy little people help to conserve the landscape of the moor by their grazing.
5 Beyond the pool, and just over 300m from the left bend (above), the tramway clearly forks (grid ref SX757777). Keep left (ahead), along the level path still heading towards Holwell Tor, which is now ahead and to the right,
As you continue Holwell Tor is more to the right, its cliff-end tumbling steeply down. Keep ahead on the tramway, Haytor still to the left. Closer to hand, ahead and just to the left of the tramway sits a lower rocky outcrop topped with some distinct upright boulders (grid ref SX753774) – this is about 400m after the fork.
As you approach this the tramway starts to peter out, leave it and strike out to the right, heading generally north-west towards the rocks of Holwell Tor – a fairly level approach from this angle through scattered boulders, with deep and distant views to the right across Haytor Down.
Once on the tor (grid ref SX751775) there are good places to perch and superb views westwards across the valley of Becka Brook, towards Holwell Farm. To the north is the distinctly white church tower at Manaton.
6 From the top of Holwell Tor seek out the well-trodden path at the north-east side that heads downhill in a north-east direction. It drops towards a distinct track below (the right-hand fork of the granite tramway in point 5, above). If the wind is in your face here it will be a jolly cold one. Descend to cross the tramway, joining the grass-and-stony path on its other side, still heading north-east. The path soon crosses a small stream (it may dry up) and the broad outcrop of Smallacombe Rocks is to the north (ahead and left), this is the next port of call.
The path continues north-east, hopping over damp bits, before swinging north through an area noted on the map for its ancient hut circles. Hut circles are a major feature of Dartmoor – the sites of prehistoric farmsteads and settlements. The one near Smallacombe Rocks is thought to have been populated over 3,000 years ago.
Pick your way through rocks and gorse as the path weaves its way up to Smallacombe, Haytor behind you. There are fine views to the left towards rugged Hound Tor with Great Tor Rocks below it. Hound Tor is the site of a deserted medieval village, there was once a settlement of 13th century stone farmsteads there.
7 At Smallacombe Rocks, with their bulk in front of you (grid ref SX755782), turn right to head along the front of the rocks in an easterly direction. Haytor is way over to your right (south). Join the clear grassy path heading east across the moor away from Smallacombe. This is the most glorious stretch of relatively easy walking; from time to time granite boulders flank the path as it heads generally east across expansive Haytor Down. Far to the left the village of Bovey Tracey comes into view. In just over ¾ mile you reach a lane.
8 Turn right, downhill, on the grass verge beside this very quiet lane, crossing the granite tramway by one of the moor’s many single standing stone, or menhirs, before arriving at the B3387. Turn right, still walking on the path adjacent to the road. Pass a turning left in just over 100m, then the entrance to the Moorland Hotel in another 100m. The Visitor Information Centre from which you started is 150m further on.
Start point: Dartmoor National Park Visitor Centre, Haytor. Grid ref: SX765771. Postcode: TQ13 9XT
Directions to start: The National Park Visitor Centre is on the B3387, three miles west of Bovey Tracey
Parking: Car park adjacent to Visitor Centre
Public transport: Limited, see travelinesw.com. Also a ‘Haytor Hoppa’ bus service, information from
Visitor Centre: 01364 661520
Map: OS Explore OL28, Dartmoor 1:25 000. Moorland tracks shown ‘on the ground’ do not always correspond to what is shown on map
Terrain: Open moorland – clear conditions are essential plus compass or phone app. Walkers need to be comfortable about potentially wild conditions and, sometimes, undefined and boulder-strewn paths
Distance: 4 miles/6.5km
Dog friendliness: Good, but animals grazing
Exertion: Moderate. Terrain rough in places, some ascents fairly steep
Toilets: Adjacent to Visitor Centre
Refreshments: Brasserie at The Moorland Hotel, Haytor, 01364 661407. And there’s nearly always a Molly
Macs van in the car park doing delicious ice cream and hot soup!