UK wilderness adventures: discover a vanished world on Dartmoor

Walking on Dartmoor amid its bronze-age spoils and granite tors offers an evocative glimpse into the past and, thanks to a bylaw, wild camping is legal here so you can also spend the night

The view over the Erme valley and Piles Copse, Dartmoor. Photograph: Alamy

From stone rows to old settlements, cairns, hut circles and remains from several centuries of tin mining, our relationship with this picturesque part of Dartmoor national park is etched into the landscape. It boasts the largest concentration of bronze-age spoils in the UK, and historians believe the moorlands here were once among the countrys most populous. At one time the area would have been covered in trees, but many were felled to make way for farming.

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On Dartmoor, the result of this forest clearance has been to make the ground even more peaty and boggy, and now you cant walk more than a few metres without feeling the moors give beneath your feet. There is, however, one other noticeable feature of the landscape, and thats the granite tors. These summits were once merely exposed hilltops, devoid of the vegetation that surrounded them; they have since been sculpted by the elements into otherworldly shapes and have survived the tests of time rather better than the manmade ruins scattered around them.

Among the prehistoric structures that do remain, one of the most impressive is found on Erme plains: the Upper Erme Stone Row. Stretching in a line for over 3,320 metres, this is one of the longest stone rows in the world. Towards its southern end is a stone circle of 26 rocks. Its known locally as the Dancers, and legend has it that they were once local girls who came up to the moor on a Sunday to dance and were turned to stone as punishment for this sin and as a warning to others.

Spurrells Cross, with Ugborough Beacon in the background.

Now its not dancers that come here, but walkers. And there are no permanent homesteads and huts, only temporary shelters in the form of tents. Dartmoor, you see, is the one place in England where, thanks to a local bylaw, you can legally pitch up for a wild camp as long as you do so properly and respectfully (100m from a road, not on an archaeological site, and not in an area enclosed by walls). This opens the door for a real adventure, spent wandering among the ruins on the very plains where our ancestors used to smelt tin, shelter in stone huts and secure their animals, and imagining how it felt to be part of one of those ancient communities.

Be sure to watch for wildlife while youre up here. You might spy buzzards overhead, Dartmoor ponies trotting by, curious rabbits or badgers at your tent flaps, or adders and grass snakes on the wetlands by the river.

Pre-trip
Ivybridge is the best and nearest town in which to pick up supplies. There are a couple of supermarkets and smaller shops, not to mention a chippy, the Ivy Fish Bar, if you fancy something hot and calorific before your adventure.

Public transport
There is no public transport to get you to the start of this route. However, you could take a train to Ivybridge then a taxi for the three-mile journey to the start, or pick up the Two Moors Way national trail, which starts in the town and join this route at step 2.

Top tip
If you want to walk out by a different route from the one by which you arrived, you can continue south up to Stall Moor and pick up the path that runs alongside the west bank of the river Erme. It will take you back to the road that leads to Harford. The downside is a 1.5-mile road walk back to Harford.

The plan

The Dartmoor route

Day 1
1. From the car park head onto the open moorland in an easterly direction. You should soon find a path. Wide in places and narrow in others, it passes over mainly boggy ground and long grass. Follow this, ignoring any turnoffs or cattle tracks, until you get to the wide track of the Two Moors Way footpath, which cuts north to south.

2. Follow the Two Moors Way north, along Ugborough Moor. If its late, the land to the right of the main footpath, before the stone rows, can be a good place to pitch your tent. Otherwise continue, not being afraid to leave the track to check out the tors and cairns either side. Youll cut under the lower flanks of Three Barrows a high point of 464m but keep on until the path swings round to the right and you reach an old bridge.

3. This is a great spot to stop for a bite to eat and soak up what life must have been like working in the old quarry. Explore a little and you will see the old tracks that transported the spoils in and out. When youre ready, continue on the track until it takes a sharp turn north-east. As the track bends youll see a faint path that continues north-north-west. Follow this, heading for Erme plains.

4. Its here that you are presented with a wonderful collection of old settlements, stone circles and cairns. Follow the faint riverside path until the river narrows near some rocks. Then cross on the makeshift stepping stones. From here make a beeline uphill. Its hard going but soon you will reach what look like a few pieces of a stone row.

5. Look north and south and you will realise that this is no ordinary stone row; in fact its the longest one in the UK. Follow it south until you reach a stone circle. This is a magical place to pitch a tent.

Day 2
6. Making sure you leave no trace of your visit, retrace your steps to the point where you crossed the river yesterday. (It gets harder to ford the further south you go.) Then follow your outward journey in reverse back to the start.

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