Saturday, 18 November 2017

Wistmans Wood

Although it can be a bleak and forbidding place on a dull cold day, I still like Dartmoor very much.

This is the big area of mostly open moorland in South Devon. In the middle of it is Princetown, a small town established early in the early nineteenth century, and famous for its grim prison. The town is now a tourism centre, for Dartmoor is a National Park, and the South-West's main inland outdoor-leisure asset. All year round it gets a lot of visitors. They come for sights both natural and man-made: the Moor has striking geological features, is beautiful in sunshine, and is rich in wildlife. It is an archaeologist's dream, with neolithic settlements all around. It is also a place for the industrial archaeologist, mining and quarrying being activities conducted over many centuries in the past. Walkers and backpackers love it, although one cannot wander everywhere. For nearly a hundred years much of the northern half of the Moor has been used for training purposes by the Army. Their red flags, forbidding entry, fly regularly throughout the year. The Moor has its legends, too: and I'm sure that the Hound of the Baskervilles, encountered by Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book of the same name, was based on one of these old stories involving evil passions, tragedy, and subsequent revenge-hauntings.

Standing by one of the many lonely and mysterious standing stones on the Moor, it's easy to let the imagination work in the direction of slavering hounds from hell. The Moor is no place to be in deteriorating weather, or with night coming on.

I'd had three major forays onto Dartmoor already, chronicled in my posts Standing Stones on Dartmoor (24th April 2014), Spooky Dartmoor! (4th April 2015) and An afternoon on the Okehampton artillery range (18th November 2016), which can all be found in my blog archive, accessible on the right-hand side of this web page. Now I was going to make a fourth. It was 2nd October, six weeks ago, and I wanted to walk into the Moor and see Wistman's Wood

Wistman's Wood is in the middle of Dartmoor, north of a small place called Two Bridges. It's a remnant of ancient woodland. It's always shown in Dartmoor videos and publicity brochures, because it looks so unusual, all twisted branches and moss-covered rocks: rather primeval. There are legends associated with it, of Druids, and witches, and it's believed to be the abode of red-eyed spectral hounds, hounds with a grudge. It's a Nature Reserve nowadays of course.

Here are some location maps, taken off Tigerlily, my phone.

On the day, I'd first lunched at Princetown (at the Plume of Feathers Inn, a bit grey and forbidding on the outside, but a warm and very friendly place inside, serving hearty food), then looked into the Visitor Centre across the road, which used to be a hotel - the very one that Conan Doyle stayed in when researching The Hound of the Baskervilles. There was of course a 'Holmes and Watson' room, which on my visit was also housing a collection of fine black-and-white photos by a photographer who clearly had a feel for the topography of the Moor.

And there was a video presentation, showing the best scenes on the Moor, with Wistman's Wood featuring.

There you go. A crazy jumble of moss-covered rocks; stunted trees covered in lichen. Well, let's see the real thing!

I drove out to Two Bridges, and parked Fiona there. The track northward to the wood was obvious. You hardly needed a map. As to footwear, I decided to change into my Alt-Berg walking boots. In the morning I'd made do with my Dubarry boots, really just luxury wellies.

These were fine for a wet-grass foray from the car park at Merrivale (west of Princetown) to see stone rows, a stone circle and a standing stone, all just up a nearby rise.

As you can see, it was breezy! But not actually very cold. At Two Bridges, the breeze was much less, and I could do without a hat.

But although the track to the farmhouse Crockern was a good one, I had an idea that the footpath beyond that would be pretty rough. So switching to the Alt-Bergs would be wise. 

And sure enough, the farm track was easy walking all the way, and then there was a sudden degeneration in walking conditions.

But after a brief scramble upwards through gorse bushes, the footpath turned into a more reasonable grass-and-stones track, though with regular muddy bits. Wistman's Wood could be seen far off up the valley.

It was clear from boot-markings in the mud that many people come to see the Wood, but for now I was very much on my own. I could just about make out two walkers far ahead, but whether it was two men, or a husband-and-wife couple, or indeed two girls, I couldn't tell. I'm normally unconcerned about daytime walking in lonely spots, but I was still aware that a woman on her own was vulnerable to the whims of any men she encountered, and, if something dodgy developed, there was no prospect of a successful flight to safety here. Not in clumpy boots, not when I wasn't in a good state of fitness. It would be a case of stand and fight, or give in, and trust to nothing unbearable taking place. So I kept on trying to discern who was up ahead. 

Not that I was really likely to turn back while I still could. I'd wanted to visit Wistman's Wood for decades, and wasn't going to be seriously put off by sightings of unknown people. Nor indeed signs that it might rain.

The Wood got ever closer.


There were a lot of large stones just off the footpath, some of them showing signs of having been shaped. Presumably they had once been connected to the neolithic settlements hereabouts.

The bods up ahead had disappeared, but new figures were now coming into view. The one I could see best looked female, which was reassuring. I pressed on. The southern outliers of the Wood began to get close.

These outlying trees seemed to be festooned with grey-green lichen, some of it threadlike and hanging like cobwebs. On the ground, moss-covered stones. 

I advanced to the edge of the Wood proper.

Here the stones were much larger. You could now call them rocks. And all jumbled. Had they been exactly like this since the last Ice Age, with the trees growing up between them as soil accumulated? It was time to find a way in, and have a jolly good look. 

I took a last glance back at the way I'd come. The farmhouse was completely out of sight. Two Bridges, and the entire outside world, might simply not have existed. How lonely and eerie this place would be at dusk. The trees had a brooding presence, as if they were a single large growth with a shared consciousness, one that resented casual visitors. I caught the odd glimpse of other people inside, two or three of them, clearly here to get a few pictures then depart. We kept well out of each other's way, and said nothing to each other. Each person clearly wanted a very private communion with the Wood.

Discovering a way to get into the Wood wasn't simple. There was no well-marked pathway. It was necessary to climb over the rocks, and risk overbalancing, or a trapped foot, or a bad fall. It was hard to find a proper place to stand upright. You were teetering on rocks. But I got some decent shots of what it was like.

Very twisted oaks. Contorted was the word. And really thick carpets of moss on those rocks, and the boughs.  

And what lurked in this hole?

Moss, ferns and lichen everywhere, in various forms; some of them vaguely beautiful, others less so.

The moss on the rocks was dry to the touch. The stuff that smothered the trees looked damper, and I didn't feel like touching it. Some of the trees were carrying so much vegetation that they seemed likely to fall apart with the weight of it. There must be a very special microclimate here. A bit like a rain forest. The air was still. It was all benign on a cool dry day in October. But I wondered what it must be like in a heavy mid-winter mist. Or in snow. Or in the dark. Not very congenial, I'd say. Not a wood to take shelter in. 

I'd spent twenty minutes inside the wood without slipping, or turning an ankle, or falling backwards onto a rock, but I felt my luck in that respect was running out fast. Let's go. 

I made it to the edge of the wood without mishap, and started back to Two Bridges. I'd seen only the smaller part of the Wood. The map showed a larger, no doubt less-visited, and even more primeval part a bit further on, but I had no appetite for going there. Besides, there was definitely now rain in he air. I'd be fortunate to reach Fiona without getting soaked. 

The rain came to nothing much for a while, but the way back seemed to go on and on without progress being made, as if the return journey had been made twice the length of the outgoing one. Perhaps I was just walking more slowly; but there was a sensation that Wistman's Wood wasn't easily letting me escape. 

It was mid-afternoon now, and half way back I met two men walking towards me, and then a husband-and-wife couple, who were starting out for the Wood even though a slight but definite drizzle had now set in. Yes, it was definitely best to have a companion if going to the Wood, just in case. Or if going anywhere on the Moor. I'd been chancing my arm a bit.

I felt really tired once back at Fiona, drained of energy, and it was an effort to get my boots off. At least I could flop into Fiona and refresh myself with some fruit. There was a bus stop nearby. Curious, I looked at the bus times. My goodness! Only one bus here in the morning, and one back in the afternoon. Tough luck then, if you missed it. I suppose you'd enquire at the hotel across the road, and summon a taxi at vast expense. Having revived, I drove off through Postbridge to Moretonhamptstead, and thence to Okehampton, to shop at Waitrose there. By then it was raining hard, and the light was getting dim. I wondered if anyone was still on the Moor. That wouldn't be any fun.

It took me forty years to get round to this first visit to Wistman's Wood. Would I return? I thought probably not. It hadn't been quite what I'd hoped to see. For some reason, I'd got the notion that a sparkling stream ran through it. But of course, this was nonsense, as it was on the side of a hill, not down in the valley. 

On the whole, I'd thought it creepy, and a very likely spot for an accidental injury. Not my kind of place. 


  1. Wonderful words about a magical place - the twisted boughs are very weird and give an enchanted feeling to the woods - you must go to the far side of the woods as the lichen is very different on the trees due to the different exposure to the weather.
    The pub/hotel at 2 bridges is very nice for coffee , lunches or a snack (and is TG friendly) and has a some fab rooms with 4 poster beds to stay in too

  2. This looks like the sort of place where I could spend a day or two searching for a perfect picture. Sadly think my chances have passed to chance my ankle on such a trip...


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