Driving Tour: A Dartmoor Road Trip

  • Start Tavistock
  • End Castle Drogo, near Chagford
  • Length 20 miles; one day

Driving on Dartmoor is like being inside a feature film, with compelling 360-degree views being screened all around. This scenic, west-to-east transmoor traverse sweeps up and through the wilderness, taking in a bleak prison, prehistoric remains, a rustic pub and a unique castle. Some of Dartmoor's lanes are maze-like; a good local map helps when driving this route.

Start by strolling amid the fine 19th-century architecture of Tavistock, perhaps dropping by its cavernous Victorian Pannier Market to rummage for antiques. If you fancy a road-trip picnic, find Warrens Bakery in adjacent Duke St, and one of Devon's best cheese specialists, Country Cheeses, on the east side of the Pannier Market itself.

Shopping done, take the B3357 towards Princetown. It climbs steeply (expect your ears to pop), crosses a cattle grid (always a sign you’re on the moor ‘proper’) and crests a hill to reveal swaths of honey-coloured tors. Be aware that much of Dartmoor is unfenced grazing – it's very common to find sheep, cows and sturdy Dartmoor ponies wandering about on the road. The speed limit is often 40mph, but it's wise to slow significantly when passing verge-side animals, as they sometimes dart into the road.

Soon you’re at Merrivale. Park up on the right, just after the Dartmoor Inn, and stroll over the rise (heading due south). Within minutes you'll discover two parallel, snaking stone rows, the longest of which is 260m. In the middle sits the stacked stones of a compact burial or 'cist' chamber. Carry on walking south (away from the road) for 100m and you'll encounter a small stone circle. Stroll for a further 40m, this time southwest, and you'll come to a slanting 10ft menhir (standing stone).

Back in the car, after climbing a short incline, take the turning right towards Princetown, and glimpse the brooding bulk of Dartmoor Prison. Don't stop here (it's prohibited): there's a much better (and legal) vantage point as you leave Princetown. Instead, call in at the Dartmoor Prison Museum to explore the jail’s grim story. Built in the early 19th century, the prison housed French and American prisoners of war, before opening its cells to convicts. The museum's displays include accounts of escape attempts, some of which were successful. The collection of weapons made by modern prisoners is particularly gruesome.

Motor into Princetown itself, stopping at the central car park to drop by the Higher Moorland Tourist Office, which doubles as Dartmoor's main visitor centre. It features displays focusing on the moor's heritage, environments, industrial past – it was once a significant quarrying and tin-working area – and its myths and legends. The latter helped inspire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you're peckish, Princetown's renowned Fox Tor Cafe will feed you in convivial surrounds; the good food and open fires of the nearby Prince of Wales pub are tempting, too – Jail Ale (appropriately enough) is the local brew.

Head out of Princetown on the B3212 – heading towards Two Bridges; the lay-by immediately after you leave Princetown provides prime Dartmoor Prison views. Next, pick up signs for Moretonhampstead. As you do, an expansive landscape unfurls. At Postbridge, park up and stroll to the 700-year-old bridge. Know as a clapper bridge, it's made up of huge flat slabs perched on columns made out of stones stacked together. It spans the chilly East Dart – more a stream than a river at this point – and has shallows suitable for dunking your feet.

Back on the road, the moor opens up again. A few miles further on, Warren House Inn is an atmospheric spot for lunch. A legendary Dartmoor hostelry, this inn has been serving moorland travellers for centuries; its fire has famously (reputedly) been lit since 1845. Expect a warm welcome, snug bars, well-kept ales and hearty local food – the homemade Warreners Pie features rabbit and is named after the men (warreners) who farmed the creatures here.

Around Lettaford take one of the signed lanes that plunges down into Chagford – keep a look out as it's easy to miss – then explore the town's quaint, thatch-dotted square. Finally head to Castle Drogo to discover a unique 1920s stately home that sits on the side of a plunging, forested gorge – a superb spot for an end-of day-hike.