Walking in south Devon with On Foot Holidays

A Tale of Two Rivers

There is something innately satisfying about a linear walk, travelling from place to place each day, across timeless landscapes and through history, arriving on foot each afternoon at a welcoming village and at a small B&B or inn, in which to rest your weary bones and refuel body and soul. Somehow you feel mentally connected to nature and to the terrain, and for Silver Travellers the physical load is certainly lightened by the knowledge that your luggage is being transferred for you every day!

On Foot Holidays have designed a delightful new self-guided walking route in south Devon, entitled ‘A Tale of Two Rivers’. Arrive in Exeter by train, start the walk the following morning from the nearby village of Dunsford and for the next 7 days enjoy a rewarding, varied stroll across the high moorland of Dartmoor, Dartmoor near Totnes before heading south towards the softer chocolate-box villages of South Hams and arriving at the coast, in the photogenic naval town of Dartmouth. The Teign and Dart rivers will guide you most of the way, apart from when you escape to the high eastern end of Dartmoor, close by charming Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

This ancient community will be one of the many highlights of the walk, especially if you’re here on the second Tuesday in September, the day on which the Widecombe Fair has been held almost every year since the early 1800s. It’s also when you can meet Uncle Tom Cobley on his famous grey mare, and enjoy a day out with moorland folk, their livestock, folk songs, ale and scrumpy! The Fair has expanded over the years, but still remains faithful to its 19th century roots. Read my separate article about our wonderful day spent at this year’s Widecombe Fair.

Some other highlights of this rewarding journey:

Walk through history

Just south of Chagford, as you crest the ridge by Hookney Tor (defined by distinctive double stacks of granite), look down on the stone circle of Grimspound, Grimspound round house surrounding the remains of 24 stone roundhouses and delineating a famous settlement from the late Bronze Age.

On a much smaller scale, on the next leg of the walk after leaving Widecombe leave the quiet lane to explore the remains of the medieval settlement of Hutholes, the site of six buildings dating back to the 13th & 14th centuries on the peaceful 1 acre field.

Castles, abbeys, churches and mansions

On the first day, between Dunsford and Chagford, take a short detour to visit Castle Drogo. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for wealthy food retailer Julius Drewe, it took 20 years to build – from 1911 to 1931 – and is reckoned to be the last castle built in England. Made from locally quarried granite, it incorporates design elements from Norman, Tudor and Georgian periods.

Buckfast Abbey Later in the walk, on the section from tiny Scorriton to Dartington, you can explore Buckfast Abbey and its surrounding gardens and buildings. The beautiful Abbey was established in 1018, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century, subsequently abandoned and repurposed as a Gothic mansion, before being bought by French Benedectine monks in 1882. On the day we visited, complex bell-ringing rang out as we strolled through the gardens on a heavenly, sunny morning.

Close by, 13th century Buckfastleigh Church of The Holy Trinity is an eerie ruin after the most recent arson attack in 1992, but still shrouded in myth and mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle allegedly based The Hound of the Baskervilles on Squire Richard Cabell, whose huge mausoleum stands close by the ruined church wall.

Dartington Hall Further on, Dartington Hall, close to the “alternative” town of Totnes, is an exquisite manor house built in the late 1300s. Wealthy American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst acquired the almost abandoned property in 1925 and set about restoring the infrastructure and creating an enlightened community, to provide education and job opportunities for the local people. The walk takes you into the sprawling estate from the Dart river, past the Deer Park and into the manicured quadrangle by the main Hall. Take time to wander around the spectacular gardens and look for Henry Moore sculptures.

Towns and villages

Chagford is a lovely place to rest your head after the first day’s walk of 19 km. Sitting on the north-eastern fringes of Dartmoor, it bursts with character, independence and a foodie vibe. Pick up a packed lunch of local goodies from lovely Blacks deli to see you on your way to Widecombe.

Totnes Totnes is another picturesque and proudly independent community, straddling the River Dart and embracing alternative lifestyles. You’ll pass through here on the penultimate day’s walk, en route from Dartington to Tuckenhay (or Ashprington), with plenty of time to explore. There are now 49 places to get your caffeine fix in Totnes, and none of them are from the empires of Costa, Starbucks or Nero. Enough said?

Dartmouth is a fitting end to the walk, hoving into view as you head south on the Brixham peninsula to Kingswear, before re-crossing the Dart estuary by ferry. Stretch those weary legs along the quayside, and soak up the town’s rich naval history before celebrating with a drink or two in one of its centuries old inns.

Other highlights

The walk itself offers ample reward, but a couple of unexpected moments along the well-designed route surprised and delighted us, and give a flavour of how well On Foot animate your holiday.

Situated between Ponsworthy and New Bridge, heading back up onto the high moorlands after leaving Widecombe and aiming for the lower and more inhabited South Hams, you’ll find a little piece of heaven. Dr. Thomas Blackall thought so too, for in the late 1800s – when he owned nearby Spitchwick Manor – New Bridge he loved this stretch of the landscape so much that he had a new track built. No words will be necessary as you walk along the 2 km of Dr. Blackall’s Drive, between Stumble Corner and New Bridge, high above the dense tree canopy shielding the Dart Gorge and with distant views across the moors, just as the Doctor did in his carriage.

On the final day’s walk, from Ashprington or Tuckenhay to Dartmouth, you’ll have a choice to make: from ridiculously pretty Dittisham, on the banks of the Dart, you can either take a boat along the estuary to Dartmouth or you can summon a much smaller ferry to chug you across the water to Greenway. Now owned and managed by the National Trust, this was Agatha Christie’s holiday home for more than 30 years, until she died in 1976. Take time to look around the house and sprawling estate, and you’ll uncover some fascinating information about one of our best loved, and most prolific, authors.

The walk

We were lucky to walk the full 7-night route of A Tale of Two Rivers, spending an extra night in Widecombe to enjoy the Fair. This meant walking between 3-6 hours each day, covering 11-19 km. Fit Silver Travellers will enjoy the physical challenge of the high moorland and the undulating South Hams, but there are options to shorten most days if you would rather linger longer over a Devon cream tea, and there are also 6-night and 5-night routes.  

South Hams We have walked with On Foot Holidays before, through the little known volcanic area of La Garrotxa in Catalonia. We love their ethos of independent self-guided walks in interesting parts of unspoilt Europe and can’t speak highly enough about their customer service, attention to detail and accommodation choices.

And if you’ve been on group walking holidays before, but are nervous about a self-guided route, don’t be! On Foot’s notes for each day’s walk are detailed and accurate, and there will always be a local contact should you need help. They also provide their famous “Blue Book”, crammed full with other interesting information to bring the walk to animated life, and other useful booklets about the area. For this Devon adventure, for example, read about Dartmoor’s geology, the indigenous ponies, local myths and legends, places of interest along the way (including the information above on Dr. Blackall’s Drive), where to eat, practical advice on what to take and much, much more.

This article has hopefully given you a flavour of what you can expect from the walk in this enticing corner of England, but it is no substitute for throwing on your trusty walking boots and getting down there. I know Silver Travellers will enjoy it. And take an Agatha Christie book with you.  

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Andrew Morris

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