Go on a Haunting Horseback Safari on the English Moors
A horseback riding holiday in England’s Dartmoor National Park reveals the area’s ancient secrets…
We had been riding our horses hard for six hours across Dartmoor National Park, in southwest England, when we came upon a circle of standing stones, one of 18 such enigmas scattered across the park’s 368 square miles. Not much is known about their purpose, but this one was assembled by the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age people a few millennia ago. Other, even older stone tableaus on Dartmoor are tombs that predate Stonehenge, England’s iconic megalithic site, by 2,000 years. And while Dartmoor’s circles, hewed from local granite, aren’t as large as Stonehenge, they are more atmospheric. A busy road runs right past Stonehenge, but Dartmoor’s circles are silhouetted against nothing but silent, fenceless bog and umber hills.
I picked up the history from books, but it was only when I walked around the park one spring that I felt the ancient texture of Dartmoor in my bones. The land has been worn by centuries of storms, trodden by sheep and wild ponies. Spring, summer, winter—on Dartmoor, the English weather is even more unreliable than elsewhere in the country. When the mist comes in, or the mizzle as it’s called there, the moor becomes as disorienting as it is haunting. If you see a rare daffodil, in a distant churchyard or beside a road, it’s like seeing a beacon out at sea, the yellow cutting through the mist and lighting up this landscape with its otherwise moody palette of heathery purple and peaty greens.
“I’ve been out riding on this moor and not been able to see past my horse’s ears,” said Phil Heard, a fourth-generation Dartmoor farmer who now guides for a new Dartmoor-based horseback safari outfit called Liberty Trails, “but drop down a couple of hundred feet, and the view might be completely clear.” I’ve ridden with Liberty Trails twice: the first time on a day-ride last July, which inspired me to return three months later on a three-night, 50-mile transect of the moors, bookended with comfortable hotels at the start and finish. On the second night, we stayed in a camp of white canvas yurts pitched on the banks of the West Dart River. The tents’ interiors were elegantly decorated with swags of embroidered Indian cottons. The horses grazed in the adjacent field. Picnic lunches with white tablecloths were waiting for us on the open moor. For tea in camp, we ate scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Dinner was homemade lamb curry.
“It’s not like trail riding,” said Mr. Heard, “You’ve got to be confident about galloping free.” For the first mile, on a rare sunny day, the way was sheltered on a bridle path through pretty woodland. Then we galloped over the swoops and folds of moorland, across whaleback ridges into hollows as black as inkwells. Where the moor had been drained by man-made leats—the local word for drainage ditches—the going was easy; where the wet pooled in bogs, we took our time. Mr. Heard said that there are pieces of ground that could suck an animal down to its belly, that once it had taken eight men to pull a horse out of the peat.
“Two years ago I was riding this part of Dartmoor when the fog came in,” said Mr. Heard as we approached the stone circle, in the middle of a pine copse: “We got to this point in the track, and the horses stopped dead. They slammed the brakes on, and for five, 10 minutes, wouldn’t move. They knew something about this place. I could feel it in the way they behaved.” He pointed out a curious depression in the ground, which dissected the stone circle as if it were once a path. These ancient ley lines—some interpret them as energy lines, others as the footworn routes of pilgrims and drovers—crisscross fields in southwest England. One of them cuts through the land above my rural farmhouse in neighboring Dorset. From my bedroom, I can almost see the grooves in the Earth, like the shadow of another time you don’t want to erase by putting up a fence or constructing a barn.
On Dartmoor that feeling of being in a sacred, uniquely wild place was reaffirmed the night we camped on the riverbank, on a farm belonging to Roger Winsor. Mr. Winsor and I got to talking around the fire. He pointed out his cattle barn, which caught the moonlight. He said the farm was listed in the “Domesday Book,” a land survey of England completed in 1086, and that our tents were pitched in a field with 300 species of wildflower—in June, orchids bloom among them. Mr. Winsor has twice sent seeds to Prince Charles who, he said, scattered them in his garden at Highgrove.
When I turned in that night, I listened to the river bubbling through the valley. I heard the warble of a bird, perhaps a skylark or a pipit—and the sound of our horses whinnying to each other in the darkness. As I dozed in and out of wakefulness sleeping on my bed of orchids, I wondered if this is how all wild places are meant to be experienced: at a horse’s pace, making us aware of the ghosts and ley lines that are far more indelible than the vapor trails of airliners passing overhead.
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