Each year I am honoured to be asked by COUNTRY LIFE to contribute to their West Country issue (Just out, 26th May). In this I feel I am humbly following in the footsteps of Henry Williamson and Charles Kingsley.
This year's essay was to take both Exmoor and Dartmoor and see if I could come up with the nigh on impossible task of finding in favour of one over the other. I am fortunate in having friends on both moors, have hunted on both pretty frequently over the last twenty years and been to not a few of their splendid inns.
The COUNTRY LIFE article has been beautifully illustrated by Hannah Firmin. Quite apart from my own offering, there are plenty of other fine articles and houses to gaze upon. But this, below, is what I have written (although in the published version it has, as always, been tweeked brilliantly by my editor at COUNRTY LIFE, Kate Green):
Exmoor vs Dartmoor:
To be asked to prefer Exmoor or Dartmoor is like having to choose the hand in marriage between two beautiful, wistful and almost identical twins. Both have solitude and remoteness, deep combes, high-banked lanes, ancient villages and inns and, not far off, cliffs and coves and a certain detached grandeur. But underneath their skins, bathed in rainwater, clad in heather and cloaked in black-faced sheep, differences do appear. Dartmoor has the rouge of granite, a chilling prison and the verse of Ted Hughes, Exmoor the russet of the stag, high bird pheasant shooting and ‘Lorna Doone.’
Which of the two is preferable is not up to either of these noble moors, both of which I can see from the top of my farm which lies tantalizingly between them. It is what the resident or visitor expects from them which is where their differences lie. LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK?
Anyone who has attended the Dunster summer show, with views from a verdant plain to the castle above will hold forever the meaning and magic of the moor. Hounds, ponies and cattle parade here, with shining silver trophies and the smell of sea salt and old Barbours in the air.
Although 80 per cent of Exmoor is in Somerset, I view it as a Devonian and have difficulty in believing that Dulverton, with its butcher, bookshop, church and inn is not in Devon. Since 1954, Exmoor’s 267 square miles have been a National Park and a small one at that, though, on a horse lost in the mist following hounds, you could be forgiven for thinking it was anything but that.
Beech trees atop steep banks stoop from the wind like grandparents, and the population of 3,000 native red deer stand or scatter across such inkily named places as ‘The Chains’ or Dunkery Beacon. As a child, I was taken by my father to skim stones on the Barle beneath the Exmoor Forest Inn at Simonsbath. Years later I had several happy days hunting with Captain RE Wallace when he ruled ‘The Stars of The West’ and he is buried here, in St Luke’s Church, not far from the Exmoor kennels.
For staghunters, the mecca is Exford and the ‘Dalesman’ bar of the White Horse hotel or dinner at the Crown on the green.
This pretty moorland village is home to the Devon & Somerset staghounds and gnarled figures in their flat-caps, with stoic and singular stares, can still be seen trotting through the lanes. Tarr steps is another grail, where children can paddle and take pleasure in surrounding woodland. Once this too was a hotel but is now the happy home of the Carews, an ancient Devon family who continue their forebears sporting heritage.
Shirley Toulson’s excellent ‘Companion Guide to Devon’ says that Exmoor is best visited in Winter, and anyone drawn to the high bird shoots here will agree with her. Of them, Lord and Lady Arran’s Castle Hill and Christina Williams’s Molland shoot are exceptional.
Exmoor has been a great draw in the last decade or so of those with young children who have moved here from London. They have thrown themselves into the way of life, polo at Taunton, pony shows, village ‘dos’ and cricket matches. At Parracombe, David and Louise Grobb have restored a beautiful manor, and their terrier followed them up the aisle on their wedding day in St Petrock’s church.
Artist Pandora Mond has made a fine home of her Exmoor long house and author Stanley Johnson must be credited with imbuing the Mayor of London with a love of these parts, bringing him and his siblings up on an old-fashioned Exmoor farm.
Much is made of RD Blackmore’s novel ‘Lorna Doone’ but I am not convinced it is now much read. Exmoor’s less well remembered literary legacy is that Coleridge wrote ‘Kubla Khan at Porlock and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was inspired by Watchet harbour.
An undiscovered gem is WNP Barbellion’s ‘The Journal of a Disappointed Man’. Were I to have one more day on Exmoor without a horse or gun, I would take it in my hand and walk out having stayed at Tom and Lucy Barlow’s Wolsey Lodge at Emmet’s Grange, and follow in the footsteps of this unsurpassed Exmoor essayist.
Dartmoor, at 368 square miles, is a good deal larger than Exmoor and lies wholly within her native county. More than 400 tors of granite symbolise the place and their names, such as Hound Tor, Haytor or Beardown neither disappoint the visitor or the imagination.
At Cranmere Bog, six rivers meet, two Darts, two Ockments, the Teign and the Tor. This was a favoured spot of the Late Poet Laureate and fisherman Ted Hughes, and a memorial to him lies on the moor he loved. Other writers, Freya Stark, Mary Wesley and my own forebear JW Knight Bruce lived on the moor at Chagford. His book ‘Dartmoor Days with the Forest Hunt’ can still be found on the bookshelves of naturalists and Devonians.
Like Exford, Chagford is really the gateway to the moor. Unlike Exmoor which is bereft of top class hotels, many come to Gidleigh Park nearby and soak in the mist and magic of the place, grazing on the superlative cooking of award winning chef Michael Caine and visiting the National Trust’s Castle Drogo. An alternative is to stay at the intimate White Hart hotel in Mortonhampstead and play golf or swim at nearby Bovey Castle, once owned by Peter De Savary but retaining much of his panache.
As children we all learned by heart at our village school the story of Widdecombe Fair and Uncle Tom Cobley. To see the church of St Pancras with its soaring tower is to know why it is called ‘The cathedral of the Moor.’ Much of the moor is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall who offer unrivalled access for walkers and foxhunters alike who get on well together.
Last year, I was flying two Harris hawks on the moor when I met a girl walking with no shoes with a young son in a batman outfit and a tame wolf. It reminded me of lines from the acclaimed modern poet Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’:
‘Who’s that moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
Does he fully intend going in over his knees off
The military camp from Okehampton…?
If I am mildly biased towards Dartmoor, I learned to ride here, from a little stable at Skaigh (near Belstone and its famous fox) which, almost fifty years later, is still there with the same owner, Rosemary Hooley. She used to have an annual donkey derby which, for us as children, was the highlight of the summer.
Many of the young families that have come here from London have moved home. They too are following in their parent’s footsteps, helping with the Chagford Show, hunting and farming. They are less formal than their Exmoor counterparts but still know how to have fun. Two Mid Devon joint masters, Paul Ridgers and Anthony Loveys- Jervoise, epitomise to me the future of this place. They have knowledge, a respect for tradition and farming, send their children to Mount House and still enjoy eachother’s company enough to go ski-ing together.
In a hundred days hunting over the last twenty years on Dartmoor I have never ceased to marvel at its beauty or shown caution to its changing moods of weather. I can name its farmers as friends like ‘Widdicombe Fair’: Alford, Geering, Jordan, Littlejohns, Watsons and many, many more. Plenty have spared me from a bog or helped me out at least.
Then I have sat in the Three Crowns in Chagford or the Northmore Arms at Wonson, with terriers on the benches, a fire and faded photographs of farm horses on the wall. And I have taken comfort, as so often, from Ted Hughes, and ‘Hawk Roosting’:
‘Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.’
The fairest thing about Exmoor and Dartmoor is that there is no rivalry between them. Each has its own pride and identity. Those wishing to witness this harmony did so at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where the Two Moors Garden designed by Christina Williams won a brilliantly deserved Gold Medal. Just don’t mention that she lives on Exmoor.
Hugo de Ferranti: Chagford
Sir Charles and Lady Carrie Lawson (Samford Spiney)
HRH The Prince of Wales (The Duchy own much of Dartmoor)
Adrian Edmonson (actor) and Jennifer Saunders (actor): Chagford
Andrew Younger (just bought the White Hart at Mortonhampstead ) son of the late politician Viscount Younger
Francis and Kishanda Fulford, Great Fulford on edge of the moor
Wood, near Okehampton
Lewtrenchard Manor, once the home of writer Sabine Baring Gould, now a hotel
Fishing for sea trout or salmon on any of the Dartmoor rivers
The Fulford’s of Great Fulford, still in residence after 900 years, had the last licensed jester in England. In 1780, rushing out to tell the Squire Fulford of the day his latest joke he was run over by his master’s carriage by a drunken postillion, and died.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ was inspired by the life of the hard hunting Squire of Buckfastleigh, Richard Cabell, who it was said murdered his wife. A ghost fox and pack ran to his tomb