The first morning there was heavy mist across the moors and visibility was limited. What I could see looked exactly like I imagined a scene from Hound of the Baskerville’s or Jamaica Inn. Ghostly hedges revealed hidden farmyards, complete with thatched roof cottages and low barns.
We had come to Dartmoor National Park in Exeter, England to ride across the famous moors for a couple days before continuing onto Devon and Cornwall. Rosie Campbell, MFH of Bull Run Hunt in Culpeper, Virginia, her husband Chris Allen and son-in-law, Spencer Allen and my husband, Michael and I, had driven down to Bovey Castle from London on Tuesday. It had been cool, with some showers and by 4 Pm we met in the lovely sitting room for a traditional Devon cream tea. Delicious and decadent. We only had it once! Buttery biscuits, topped with berry jam and then the cream, which really looks like butter, is so good. Bovey Castle is a luxurious spa in the heart of Dartmoor and caters to hunting and fishing activites of all sorts. They have partnered with Liberty Trails, the equine brainchild of Elaine and Robert Prior, (www.libertytrails.co.uk) which offers riding holidays across these moors made famous by Sherlock Holmes and more recently, Stephen Spielberg’s movie “War Horse”.
I received an invitation from Liberty Trails to ride in their inaugural Dartmoor Derby in September 2015. Loosely based on the idea of the Mongol Derby, which I did in 2014, they were offering a 3 day “race” across the moors with more luxurious “camping” than the aforementioned Mongol Derby. As I believe I used several of my 9 lives completing the Mongol Derby I declined the race opportunity but asked for more information. The resulting brochure and descriptions of riding holidays sounded like a great way to explore a beautiful and remote part of England. I mentioned it to Rosie, who grew up in Devon, and she agreed it would be a lovely way to show her home to her husband and son-in-law. I contacted some fellow Mongol Derby riders, Chris Maude and Rob Skinner, who lived in Cheltenham and Exeter respectively, and told them they had to come and see me. I missed them. We were planning on 2 days of riding on the moor and then splitting up to do some sight seeing.
Elaine and Robert Prior picked us up the first morning and we headed to the yard for the horses. She had promised “eventing-type” cross country riding and Thoroughbred horses. She delivered on her promise and the six horses were all 15.3 to 17 hand English sport horse types. A friend of Elaine’s supplied all the horses and they were lovely. When hunting in Ireland I had learned to tell the livery people I was a mom of three and wanted a timid, slow, old horse. This insured I was not breaking in their latest 2 year old Thoroughbred. Since the Mongol Derby adventure I cannot get away with this ploy anymore. I was told I was given her best horse, Marco. He was a beautiful bay with a forward manner and I loved him. Elaine said he was her favorite with which to lead the rides. Two friends of Rosie’s had also joined us, so the range of riders from beginners to experienced would be hard for anyone to to judge unseen, but I thought Elaine did a good job pairing riders with suitable horses. Some changes were made the next day and Rosie had Marco. I was given another beautiful hunter type, named Matt. The owner said “He is young, a little forward, you’ll be fine.” I have heard this before and took one look at the full pelham and flash noseband and nodded OK. He definitely wanted to be up front but had lovely gaits and I enjoyed him too. Spencer Allen, the huntsman with Live Oak Hounds in Florida and his dad Chris, Rosie’s husband, seemed pleased with their horses and we were off.
We trotted along narrow, hedge lined lanes until splitting off through a farmer’s pasture to the top of the moor. Suddenly the mist cleared and we could see forever! I had no idea there was this expanse of rugged, wild land in rural England. Elaine said it was about 300,00 acres and the landscape varied from rocky outcrops to small pastures bordered with the famous English hedges. Bogs are infamous here and travelers are warned to be very careful. Elaine said to watch for little hillocks and small white flowers growing amongst the green grass as a marker for the bogs. However, we seemed to be in the bog before we realized it, and several times Matt, my young horse, did not like the “mushy” footing and seemed anxious to get out of the bog. All the horses were very sure-footed and careful. Everywhere we road there were wild Dartmoor ponies. Elaine said the many indivdual herds tend to stay within a 7 mile radius circle and the villagers all know whose ponies are whose! Twice a year they have a pony round-up, similar to Chincoteague in Maryland and sell some internationally. The ponies were not bothered by our horses and it was wonderful to watch the foals and mares. Several curious youngsters would follow us for a while before dashing back to mom.
The rocky outcrops on top of the hills are called tors and they number in the hundreds on the moor. Each is named and is a well-known local landmark. We would find one on the horizon and ride towards it as our marker. There were also very large piles of boulders, that were the rock wall remnants of what I would call prisoner “chain-gangs”. Nearby Dartmoor Prison has a long and notorious history as a prisoner-of-war holding. Starting in 1813, American prisoners of war from the War of 1812 , were held here and the prisoners did hard labor piling boulders to build the endless walls across the moor. It is at times a desolate, foreboding landscape under grey storm filled skies. The sun did come out our second day and then the beautiful green fields looked like a Jane Austen movie. Elaine showed us the small farm where Steven Speilberg filmed the plowing scene in “War Horse”. It was immediately recognizable by the shape of the field, if you remember Joey, the horse, trying to go up and down in straight lines.
We rode past Bronze Age stone circles and mysterious double rows of small standing stones. These paths are supposedly along “ley lines” across the moors, sometimes separated by long distances, but still in a straight line leading to some long forgotten sacred spot. Another unusual marker on these moors were single tall posts. They are the last of what Spencer Allen, a former marine, called Rommels’ Asparagus. To deter the German Luftwaffe from landing gliders or planes during World War II, the villagers “planted” these posts all over the top of the moors to prevent any landing strips. These posts are still standing and leaning into the wind 70 years later!
We followed small paths and rode beside low stone walls, occasionally crossing a road, heading mid-day to a old pub, where we were told the peat fire has burned for 200 years, never going out! The distinctive smell was obvious before we spotted the white washed, thatched cottage that definitely looked at least 200 years old. While some of us held the horses, watching the nearby sheep, some went in to get pints of the local beer. Wonderful and thirst-quenching.
After 6 hours we were heading back down to the country lanes and the horses’ farm. We had trotted and galloped and walked for about 23 miles in a very large circular route. Robert Prior had met us mid-day with sandwiches and tea which we ate on horseback, watching the wild ponies and the occasional sheep herd. It had been an awesome day, on windswept moors reminiscent of the Mongolian landscape I had ridden on two years ago. We were driven back to Bovey Castle for massages, tea and a 5-star dinner by a world-class chef. My husband Michael had opted to go fly-fishing with a reknown local gilly, Adam Fox-Edwards of the Arundel Arms Hotel and he was enthusiastically telling us about the brown trout and lovely secluded streams he had found.
The next morning we mounted and headed off in another direction. We were going to meet a local falconer and hopefully watch as he showed us his bird-of-prey. Because of the hunting ban in England the hunts are allowed to have hounds only when hunting with a bird-of-prey. This is a very rough analogy of a complicated situation but we were to have the pleasure of watching a beautiful peregrine falcon. We met the falconer at noon, high on the top of the moor. This was a testament to Elaine’s navigation and timing skills, which put 7 riders at the exact meeting spot, at the appointed time, after riding 10 miles across what looks like unmarked open moor ! The falconer’s Thoroughbred was completely unconcerned with the hooded predator on his arm as he galloped towards us. Our horses were not so sanguine, in fact almost all of them spooked a little and Matt, my young horse was ready to go the next county. This was one of the first times Elaine was trying to have a falconing showcase for her riders and after a few attempts to accustom the horses to the peregrine falcon we decided to take pictures holding the falcon on his Thoroughbred! He was looking for some ravens which he told us the young falcon would dispatch at about 70 miles an hour . Perhaps luckily for our untested horses, we did not find the aforementioned prey, but enjoyed listening to his hunting stories as he rode alongside.
The afternoon ended with a delicious and elegant picnic on the shores of a lovely lake. The horses were to be vanned back to their home as we had ridden for hours in a straight line away from the start this day. We had seen similar rocky hilltops and tors in the distance as well as cantered through lovely high pastures and fragrant pine forests. The picnic highnote was the wonderful creme brulee, which was an unexpected treat. Elaine and Robert Prior, of Liberty Trails, had outdone themselves to make us feel welcomed and privledged to see their remote and wild part of England. Elaine had grown up on Dartmoor and after 20 years as an ad executive, she has realized her lifelong dream of riding here and sharing her love for the moors.
The Priors joined my Mongol Derby veteran friends and ourselves for dinner that night at Bovey Castle. We had many equine adventures to share and compare and we assured them that we had thoroughly enjoyed our Liberty Trails ride. Between us we had ridden in many countries from Africa to Mongolia and many others. We told them the horses were first rate and the countryside was as beautiful as promised. We invited them to come fox hunt in America so we could reciprocate the hospitality and assured them we would highly recommend the riding vacation to our friends. It is a truly lovely part of England and the history and romance of the moor is unbeatable. We thanked them and promised to return. The next day we were going separate ways to sight see but we all thought our ride had been fantastic.