Trail Running in Devon - Part Two
Last time I shared my local trail running routes in East Devon and a small taster of Devon's fabulous coastal running. In this post I cover the wonderful landscape of Dartmoor National Park.
Dartmoor is a beautiful rugged landscape rich in folklore and legends and in southern England you won't find a wilder place to run. The moor covers an area of 954 square kilometres and is perhaps most famous for its 160 or so granite tors that are all that remains of an ancient volcanic past. Dartmoor has countless stone circles, cairns, standing stones and other prehistoric sites scattered across the moor. It really is a wonderful place to run and along with Exmoor the only upland area in the south of England.
Running up a rocky track from Burrator towards Princetown.
The open moor is interrupted by deep river valleys, occasional woodlands and dry stone walls which criss-cross the land forming rock gardens for wildlife and rare plants. Windswept gnarly oaks and hawthorn trees are a common sight across the moor and amongst the granite tors Dartmoor ponies run freely. These hardy little hill ponies help to shape and conserve the landscape with their constant nibbling of the gorse. Running through this landscape is a real treat and I absolutely love it. Clambering up steep hills to bag a tor, running past ancient standing stones and seeing ponies running free makes Dartmoor feel so special. Whilst running you'll enjoy expansive views across the open moors and far flung parts of Devon and its neighbouring counties. There are lots of trails but on open ground it's advisable to have an accurate route in mind or head out with a local as this will help you enjoy a sensible run! By sensible I mean a run that sticks to the firmer and more run-able areas of open moorland. If you don't, you might find yourself confronted with an impassable area of gorse or a very wet and mucky bog to cross! Dartmoor has some large expanses of blanket bog that are important conservation areas due to the rare habitats and species they support but they're not the best place for maintaining good running form!
Passing a Dartmoor pony near King's Tor.
It can feel a little unnerving if the winds pick up and a thick fog rolls in, suddenly the moors feel less hospitable, but this holds a beauty all of its own and for me it's part of the appeal of this wonderful wild upland area. It's beautiful in sunshine but I also find it enjoyable on a cold, wet and windy day. In fact when the conditions are supposedly miserable I think it's more invigorating and can make for a more exciting run. You haven't truly experienced the beauty and wilder side of running on the moors until you head out in poor weather! Although you should always keep safety in mind and I wouldn't recommend this unless you're experienced at navigating or your'e running with a knowledgable local, as it's so easy to get lost! Because you're not as high up as say Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands it's easy to have a false sense of security on Dartmoor but it can be an unforgiving and dangerous place for unprepared and inexperienced hikers and runners. The weather can change very rapidly so checking the forecasts for severe weather before heading off is a good idea. A GPS device or map and compass could be a life saver if you're unfamiliar with the area as visibility can swiftly deteiorate and you can soon become disorientated.
Wet feet! All part of the fun!
Dartmoor's highest point is High Willhays, it's 621 metres high so it's classified as a Hewitt. It's the South of England's only mountain, although it doesn't look much like a mountain as you're already on high ground in this part of the north moor. The neighbouring summit is Yes Tor, and at 619m it's just two metres lower but perhaps a more impressive looking tor. The running in this part of the moors is a mixture of well defined trails, open moorland, rock covered slopes, deep valleys with lots of muddy bogs and further south you'll hit areas of blanket bog! In this part of the moor you'll also need to check the live firing times as it's used by the armed forces for military exercises.
The areas I mostly head to for running are the Merrivale and Princetown area and also the area around Widecombe-in-the-Moor. My husband Gav was born in Ilsington on the eastern side of Dartmoor and grew up in the area. He's been a keen runner from a young age and so knows some of Dartmoor's best running routes. Gav and I got engaged whilst hiking along Dr. Blackall's Drive, which is a track high above the River Dart near Poundsgate. It was a lovely romantic place to get engaged!
High above the River Dart.
We stopped briefly for a photo as this is where we got engaged in 1992.
We often run and hike near Dr. Blackall's Drive when we visit the moors and we love to drop down the steep valley slopes to the river below where there are some beautiful pools for wild swimming. When we were teenagers we often finished a run with a refreshing but very cold swim in the river! We now love to take the kids to the River Dart for wild swims. I have also aqua jogged in the river when I was injured! I had a couple of perfect spots where a gentle current meant that I was almost stationary whilst aqua jogging so it overcame the need for going back and forth.
When you finish a run the River Dart has lots of fantastic pools for a post run dip!
Our kids love swimming here too.
Wild swimming is hard work!
After her swim Emily was mimicking a foal taking a nap.
Combining a run with a family day out is one way I keep my training going without too much disruption to family fun. I love bringing the kids along for a hike, swim or outing on their mountain bikes. Perhaps the best area of the moor for combining a run with a kids bike ride is along the old railway trails near Princetown. We love our family hikes on the moor and I often fit in a shorter run before or afterwards whilst the kids play on a tor with Gav.
The Haytor Granite Tramway.
Strava route → Widecombe loop.
My first route starts from Haytor and goes through the lovely village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The loop follows an old granite tramway near Haytor quarry and then heads over to Hound Tor and up along the top of Hameldown before dropping down to Widecombe. Then there is a very steep climb out of Widecombe before the route heads back to Haytor via Rippon Tor and Saddle Tor. This is a nice little loop, and if you want to avoid bogs, scrambling over rocks or fighting your way through gorse, then this is the perfect route for you! A great option for this route might be to start and finish in Widecombe so you can grab some post run refreshments in the pub.
The climb up to Hound Tor with Greater Rocks in the near distance and Haytor on the horizon.
Crossing the top of Hameldown Hill with Haytor in the distance.
Passing Top Tor after finishing the very steep climb out of Widecombe and heading towards Rippon Tor.
Dartmoor is a landscape in flux as it is constantly battered by the elements and you'll see signs of this in the rocks whilst you're exploring. Some of the slopes of the tors are strewn with rocks that the locals refer to as clatter. These are tough to run through and often require some very easy scrambling in places. At Wistman's Wood you'll find moss and lichen covered clatter that protect the native oaks from grazing animals. These stunted oak trees are all twisted and their branches covered in mosses and lichens. It's stunningly beautiful and looks like something out of a Hobbit movie.
Strava route → Princetown loop.
Another favourite route of mine starts and finishes in Princetown. If you run this loop in an anti clockwise direction by heading towards King's Tor you'll be running along a former railway line now transformed into a really nice trail down to the Burrator Reservoir. On the way back from Burrator to Princetown you'll have a run-able but rocky path to negotiate up a long hill, however the final few miles to Princetown are on a really well maintained trail ending rather conveniently right next to a pub! Running the loop clockwise will obviously mean you get to run down the rocky track to Burrator which some runners prefer. I personally prefer really rough ground going up hill rather than down. Another good option is to start at Burrator so you get to finish running down hill. For post run refreshments Princetown has a couple of pubs and some cafes. 🏃🏻♀️🏃🏻🥟🍻
Reminders of a bygone era.
This trail was once the Yelverton to Princetown railway line.
A loop around Burrator Reservoir before heading back to Princetown.
It's a lengthy climb from Burrator towards Princetown and you have to pick your way through the rocky surface.
After the rocky climb the path back to Princetown is really good underfoot.
Princetown is probably best know for its famous prison, HMP Dartmoor, originally built to house Napoleonic prisoners of war. There's a great little museum that's worth a visit. Princetown also has its very own endurance running event, The Dartmoor Prison Break. The aim of this race is to walk or run as far from the prison as possible in either the 12 hour or 24 hour events. It's all for a great cause as the race raises funds for the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team Plymouth, who also organise the event.
Running up towards Yar Tor with Sharp Tor in the background.
Before finishing I'd also like to mention letterboxing which was how my parents introduced me to Dartmoor as a young child. Traditionally letterboxes were jars or tins containing postcards with stamps but modern day letterboxes are mostly small plastic sandwich boxes that contain a notebook and an ink stamp. If you find one you can get a stamp and write a short message. I think it's a fun way to get the kids out exploring the moors. My two love it. It's an old pastime too, as the first letter box was placed on the moor way back in 1854!
An example of clatter on the slopes of Great Mis Tor.
Dartmoor is also pretty good for road running. If I'm on the moor and I want a nippier run I have a few shorter out and back road routes I use.
Getting some 'moor' miles ticked off!
Gav running up the climb towards Princetown.
Gav is a bit of mountain goat!
He's always been good at steep climbs and rough terrain.
Nearing the end of a lengthy climb from Spitchwick up to Dr. Blackall's Drive footpath.
A visit to Devon isn't complete without a visit to Dartmoor but remember in the east of the county we also have the western part of Exmoor. This is another wonderful upland running area and has some lovely steep sided valleys. Exmoor has it's own distinct feel and I love running here when I get the chance too.
If you're ever visiting Devon I hope you get to experience running on the moors. Next time I'll write about some more of my favourite routes in Devon including the Grand Western Canal which is great for ticking off some miles on well maintained trails.
Thanks and good luck with your running, Jo