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Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

Background Information

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50°34′N 4°0′W

Protected Area
High Willhays, the highest point on Dartmoor and southern England at 621 m (2037 ft) above sea level, with Yes Tor beyond
Country United Kingdom
Part England
County Devon
Highest point High Willhays
 - elevation 621 m (2,037 ft)
Lowest point Doghole Bridge
 - elevation 30 m (98 ft)
Area 953 km2 (368 sq mi)
Animal Dartmoor Pony
National Park of England 1951
Management Dartmoor National Park Authority
 - location Bovey Tracey
Visitation 10.98m
IUCN category II - National Park

Dartmoor is an area of moorland in the centre of Devon, England. Protected by National Park status, it covers 953 km² (368 mile²).

The granite upland dates from the Carboniferous period of geological history. The moorland is capped with many exposed granite hilltops (known as tors), providing habitats for Dartmoor wildlife. The highest point is High Willhays, 621  m (2,037  ft) above sea level. The entire area is rich in antiquities and archaeology.

Dartmoor is managed by the Dartmoor National Park Authority whose 26 members are drawn from Devon County Council, local District Councils and Government.

Parts of Dartmoor have been used as a military firing range for over 200 years. The public enjoy extensive access rights to the rest of Dartmoor, and it is a popular tourist destination. The Park was featured on the TV programme Seven Natural Wonders as the top natural wonder in South West England.

Physical geography


Dartmoor is known for its tors – large hills, topped with outcrops of bedrock, which in granite country such as this are usually rounded boulder-like formations. There are over 160 tors on Dartmoor. They are the focus of an annual event known as the Ten Tors Challenge, when over a thousand people, aged between 14 and 21, walk for distances of 35, 45 or 55 miles (56, 72 or 89 km) over ten tors on many differing routes. While many of the hills of Dartmoor have the word "Tor" in them quite a number do not, however this does not appear to relate to whether there is an outcrop of rock on their summit.

The highest points on Dartmoor are High Willhays ( grid reference SX580895) at 621  m (2,037  ft) and Yes Tor ( grid reference SX581901) 619  m (2,031  ft) on the northern moor. Ryder's Hill ( grid reference SX690660), 515  m (1,690  ft), Snowdon 495  m (1,624  ft), and an unnamed point at ( grid reference SX603645),493  m (1,617  ft) are the highest points on the southern moor. Probably the best known tor on Dartmoor is Haytor (also spelt Hey Tor) ( grid reference SX757771), 457  m (1,499  ft). For a more complete list see List of Dartmoor tors and hills.


River Erme at Ivybridge

The levels of rainfall on Dartmoor are considerably higher than in the surrounding lowlands. With much of the national park covered in thick layers of peat, the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so that the moor is rarely dry.

In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, up to 12 feet (3.7 m) across and topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as "feather beds" or "quakers", because they shift (or 'quake') beneath your feet. This is the result of accumulations of sphagnum moss growing over a hollow in the granite filled with water.

Another consequence of the high rainfall is that there are numerous rivers and streams on Dartmoor. As well as shaping the landscape, these have traditionally provided a source of power for moor industries such as tin mining and quarrying.

The Moor takes its name from the River Dart, which starts as the East Dart and West Dart and then becomes a single river at Dartmeet.

For a full list, expand the Rivers of Dartmoor navigational box at the bottom of this page.

Kayaking and canoeing

Dartmoor is a focal point for whitewater kayaking and canoeing, due to the previously mentioned high rainfall and high quality of rivers. The River Dart is the most prominent meeting place, but the Erme, Tavy and Plym are also frequently paddled.



The majority of the prehistoric remains on Dartmoor date back to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Indeed, Dartmoor contains the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the United Kingdom, which suggests that this was when a larger population moved onto the hills of Dartmoor.

The climate at the time was warmer than today, and much of today's moorland was covered with trees. The prehistoric settlers began clearing the forest, and established the first farming communities. Fire was the main method of clearing land, creating pasture and swidden types of fire-fallow farmland. Areas less suited for farming, tended to be burned for livestock grazing. Over the centuries these Neolithic practices greatly expanded the upland moors, contributed to the acidification of the soil and the accumulation of peat and bogs.

The nature of the soil, which is highly acidic, means that no organic remains have survived. However, by contrast, the high durability of the natural granite means that their homes and monuments are still to be found in abundance, as are their flint tools. It should be noted that a number of remains were "restored" by enthusiastic Victorians and that, in some cases, they have placed their own interpretation on how an area may have looked.

Beardown Man, Dartmoor

Numerous menhirs (more usually referred to locally as standing stones or longstones), stone circles, kistvaens, cairns and stone rows are to be found on the moor. The most significant sites include:

  • Beardown Man, near Devil’s Tor – isolated standing stone 3.5 m (11 ft) high, said to have another 1 m (3.3 ft) below ground. grid reference SX596796
  • Challacombe, near the prehistoric settlement of Grimspound – triple stone row. grid reference SX689807
  • Drizzlecombe, east of Sheepstor village – stone circles, rows, standing stones, kistvaens and cairns. grid reference SX591669
  • Grey Wethers, near Postbridge – double circle, aligned almost exactly north south. grid reference SX638831
  • Laughter Tor, near Two Bridges – standing stone 2.4 m (7.9 ft) high and two double stone rows, one 164 m (538 ft) long. grid reference SX652753
  • Merrivale, between Princetown and Tavistock – includes a double stone row 182 m (597 ft) long, 1.1 m (3.6 ft) wide, aligned almost exactly east-west), stone circles and a kistvaen. grid reference SX554747
  • Scorhill, west of Chagford – circle, 26.8 m (88 ft) in circumference, and stone rows. grid reference SX654873
  • Shovel Down, north of Fernworthy reservoir – double stone row approximately 120 m (390 ft) long. grid reference SX660859

There are also an estimated 5,000 hut circles still surviving today, despite the fact that many have been raided over the centuries by the builders of the traditional dry stone walls. These are the remnants of Bronze Age houses. The smallest are around 1.8 m (6 ft) in diameter, and the largest may be up to five times this size.

Some have L-shaped porches to protect against wind and rain – some particularly good examples are to be found at Grimspound. It is believed that they would have had a conical roof, supported by timbers and covered in turf or thatch.

Many ancient structures, including the hut circles at Grimspound, were reconstructed during the 19th century – most notably by civil engineer and historian Richard Hansford Worth. Some of this work was based more on speculation than archaeological expertise, and has since been criticised for its inaccuracy.

The historical period

The climate worsened over the course of a thousand years from around 1000 BC, so that much of high Dartmoor was largely abandoned by its early inhabitants.

It was not until the early medieval period that the weather again became warmer, and settlers moved back onto the moors. Like their ancient forebears, they also used the natural granite to build their homes, preferring a style known as the longhouse – some of which are still inhabited today, although they have been clearly adapted over the centuries. Many are now being used as farm buildings, while others were abandoned and fell into ruin.

The earliest surviving farms, still in operation today, are known as the Ancient Tenements. Most of these date back to the 14th century and sometimes earlier.

Some way into the moor stands the town of Princetown, the site of the notorious Dartmoor Prison, which was originally built both by, and for, prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars. The prison has a (now misplaced) reputation for being escape-proof, both due to the buildings themselves and its physical location.

The Dartmoor landscape is scattered with the marks left by the many generations who have lived and worked there over the centuries – such as the remains of the once mighty Dartmoor tin-mining industry, and farmhouses long since abandoned. Indeed the industrial archaeology of Dartmoor is a subject in its own right.

Myths and literature

Dartmoor a.jpg

Dartmoor abounds with myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of 'spectral hounds', and a large black dog. During the Great Thunderstorm of 1638, Dartmoor was even said to have been visited by the Devil.

Many landmarks have ancient legends and ghost stories associated with them, such as Jay's Grave, the ancient burial site at Childe's Tomb, and a rock pile called Bowerman's Nose.

A few stories have emerged in recent decades, such as the ' hairy hands', that are said to attack travellers on the B3212 near Two Bridges.

Dartmoor has inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

Ownership and access

Over half of Dartmoor National Park (57.3%) is private land, much of this owned by the Duke of Cornwall, a title held under a charter of Edward III by the Prince of Wales. The Ministry of Defence owns 14% (see below), 3.8% is owned by water companies (see Dartmoor reservoirs), 3.7% by the National Trust, 1.8% by the Forestry Commission and 1.4% by Dartmoor's National Park Authority. About 37% of Dartmoor is Common land.

Dartmoor differs from some other National Parks in England and Wales, in that since a 1985 Act of Parliament much of it has been designated as 'Access Land', with no restrictions on where walkers can roam. This Access Land remains privately owned land.

There are still almost 450 miles (720 km) of footpaths and bridleways on Dartmoor, but they are for guidance and convenience – they do not have to be kept to, and in fact footpaths in these sections of the Park are generally not waymarked. This is not connected with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which has established similar rights in other rural parts of the country. Dartmoor is largely unaffected by this legislation because of its existing arrangements. In 2006, this Act opened up much of the remaining restricted land for walkers – a topic much disputed amongst the landowners and the councils.

Use by the Ministry of Defence

There is a tradition of military usage of Dartmoor dating back to the Napoleonic wars. There is still a large British Army training camp at Okehampton – also the site of an airbase during the Second World War.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) uses three areas of the northern moor for manoeuvres and live-firing exercises, totalling 108.71 km² (41.9 mile²), or just over 11% of Dartmoor National Park. Red and white posts mark the boundaries of these military areas (shown on Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale maps). Flagpoles on many tors in and around the ranges will fly red flags when firing is taking place. At other times, members of the public are allowed access. Blank rounds may also be used, but the MoD has no obligation to alert the civilian population of this.

Those wishing to walk in the firing areas are advised to check the firing times for the coming week by calling the MoD on 0800 4584868. Further advice is available at the National Park website.

Some "challenge" and charitable events take place with assistance of the military on Dartmoor including the long established Ten Tors event and the more recent Dartmoor Beast.


The clapper bridge at Postbridge

Throughout human history, the landscape has been exploited for industrial purposes. In recent years, controversy has surrounded the work of industrial conglomerates Imerys and Watts Blake Bearne, who have used parts of the moor for china clay mining. Licences were granted by the British Government but were recently renounced after sustained public pressure from bodies such as the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Many of these licences predate much of the heavy machinery which is in use today. Imerys were singled out for particular criticism after work at Lee Moor destroyed a number of archaeologically significant sites.

The British government has made promises to protect the integrity of the moor; however, the cost of compensating companies for these licences, which may not have been granted in today's political climate, could prove prohibitive.

The military use of the moor has been another source of controversy, such as when training was extended in January 2003. The National Park Authority received 1,700 objections before making the decision. Objectors claimed that Dartmoor should be an area for recreation, and that the training disturbs the peace.

Those who objected included the Open Spaces Society and the Dartmoor Preservation Association. During her lifetime, Lady Sayer was another outspoken critic of the damage which she perceived that the army was doing to the moor.


The definitive guide to hill walking on Dartmoor was written by the Victorian era walker William Crossing. He states that a Dartmoor guide placed a bottle for visitors' cards at Cranmere Pool on the northern moor in 1854. This would seem to be the origin of letterboxing. In 1938 a plaque and letterbox in Crossing's memory were placed at Duck's Pool on the southern moor.

This pursuit has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Watertight containers, or 'letterboxes', are hidden throughout Dartmoor, each containing a visitor's book and a rubber stamp. The original intention was for walkers to leave a letter or postcard, which would then be collected and posted by the next person to visit the site. Today visitors take an impression of the letterbox's rubber stamp as proof of finding the box and record their visit by stamping their own personal stamp in the letterbox's logbook.

Until the 1970s there were no more than a dozen such sites around the moor, usually in the most inaccessible locations. Today there are thousands of letterboxes, many within easy walking distance of the road. Today there is a club called the "100 Club", membership of which is open to anyone who has found at least 100 letterboxes on Dartmoor. Clues to the locations of letterboxes are published by the "100 Club" in a bi-annual catalogue. Some letterboxes however remain "word of mouth" and the clues to their location can only be obtained from the person who placed the box. Some clues may also be found in other letterboxes or on the Internet, this is however more commonly for letterboxes in places other than Dartmoor, where no "100 Club" or catalogue exist. Letterboxing has become a sport in itself, with thousands of walkers gathering for 'box-hunts' – an in some areas of the moor is particularly popular amongst children, some of the more difficult to find boxes and tougher terrain are however better suited to more experienced adults.

Such letterboxes have also been placed in various locations around the world, with a more recent variant known as geocaches. These caches are usually much harder to find, and often require GPS coordinates to locate.

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