Words by Emma Hunter
Photography by Paul Quagliana
Inspired by the famous Mongol Derby across the rugged steppes of Mongolia, the Dartmoor Derby is a 50-mile weekend riding challenge traversing throughout the Dartmoor National Park in England. Following long days on horseback, riders camp in Mongolian-style yurts and enjoy delicious, locally-sourced food. This year’s Derby, held in late September, attracted 22 riders from three different countries and all walks of life.
The author, Emma Hunter, lives in the Cotswolds, England, with her horse, Duckling, and dog, Indiana, and works as an engineer for a Formula One team. She has ridden in two previous Dartmoor Derbies and is “ fully willing to admit that I have become somewhat addicted,” she says. “I love the thrill of riding out across Dartmoor on wonderful horses whilst in the company of like-minded people, and all the while being fuelled with exquisite food.” Emma relives her three-day excursion of galloping across the field of green.
DAY 1: The Dawning of Dartmoor
It’s always a ‘wow’ moment when Dartmoor starts to appear on the horizon, even more so when it’s bathed in sunshine and you are splashing through puddles. Puddles, because in the three-hour drive from the Cotswolds to Dartmoor, I experienced nearly the full range of weather being hurled at the U.K. – from glorious sunshine to sideways rain.
This year the camp was based on the grounds of the HM Prison Dartmoor at Princetown, though rest assured, we were a good distance away from the infamous blocks of prison which have housed some of the U.K.’s most notorious criminals! I love getting into camp on the first day; everyone appreciates the hard work that has gone into creating a cozy and welcoming base in the middle of a Dartmoor field. The smaller yurts arced around a large communal yurt, the location for pre-ride briefings and sumptuous meals.
We were split into coloured teams of eight people and introduced to our ground crew, but the most important introductions of the weekend came next: I was matched up with a striking 18-hand grey gelding named Inky.
There was a heady sense of expectation felt by equines and humans alike as riders mounted up for the first time. Whilst we’re all excited to be mounting up, we were also highly aware that we’re about to head out on difficult terrain on a new horse. This is where the guides come into their own; the confidence they exude (and their always-full hip flasks) takes the edge off any nerves, and once the signal came to leave, everyone was smiling.
The first climb up to the Princetown mast was a gentle introduction to the unpredictable terrain of the moor, with enough of an incline to temper the freshness of most of the horses. The group settled into a natural rhythm fairly effortlessly, with our guides simultaneously introducing us to the areas we were riding through and teaching us how best to avoid bogs.
It is always a wonderful moment when those new to Dartmoor crest their first tor and see a portion of the moor unveil itself, inviting all to ride ever onwards and to touch upon more of its secrets.
We covered 22 miles on our opening ride of the Derby. We took in grand tors (including the Foggintor Quarry, which supplied some of the stone for London Bridge), traversing uphill at a canter before picking our way back downhill. We could hardly catch our breath, so awestruck were we with our lush surroundings. On we went past Crazywell Pool – with its rumoured bottomless cold depths that the British military use for full equipment swims for recruits. The summit of Cramber Tor afforded us a view of glinting Burrator Reservoir, which we then wound our way down to.
After a quick refreshment stop and the opportunity to shed some layers rendered unnecessary by a blazing September sun, we climbed back up through forests and gorse land until all signs of civilization dropped away from us. A pleasant surprise en route was the ‘discovery’ of the house used in the filming of “War Horse”; in the remote location it doesn’t take much effort to momentarily step back in time.
Inky ate up the miles, quickly adjusting to mixed terrain of grass, granite, gorse, and the occasional small bog. I’m sure he marvelled at the Dartmoor Hill ponies and cattle just as much as I did. The final leg to Princetown gave us a taste of Dartmoor’s whimsical attitude towards weather; having ridden between the arches of multiple rainbows all afternoon, the blossoming evening brought forth a stinging hail shower as we trotted for home.
Evenings in camp are almost as good as the days spent on horseback. Riders are passed bespoke cocktails (different each evening) around the campfire before moving into the communal yurt for locally sourced food cooked by local chefs. There is a sense of disbelief that food so fine can have been produced in the middle of a field, but the plates are always sent back empty and followed by nothing but compliments.
DAY 2: Galloping Through History
And then the rain came. Waking up inside the warm yurt on Saturday was a little like waking up to a cacophonous round of applause; the rain which had threatened the day before had arrived in the night in angry waves. When the downpour halted, it gave way to another stalwart of Dartmoor: fog. The surrounding hills were all obscured by a fog so dynamic it felt as though we had been lifted up into the clouds. Despite this, spirits remained high – how could they not when they had been bolstered by such a hearty and decadent
The moor is atmospheric in bright sunshine, but when shrouded in fog, it’s easy to feel the forces which have inspired so many to write, sing, film, or simply create art around the spirit of the moor. Even the horses felt hushed, as if they, too, knew of the various mythical creatures rumoured to roam the moor.
We rode down Iron Age tracks, through ceremonial stone lines, abandoned quarries, and a stone circle; our guide said this circle was rumoured to be a fertility circle, and there were some hasty movements from those riders who had been about to ride through it!
As the rain began again, our guide offered us the option of an extra loop to our ride or to make a beeline for home. The decision to ride for home was perfectly timed, as a couple of miles out the rain began again. Saturday marked the 70th birthday of one of the riders, proof if anything that although the riding conditions are challenging, they really are achievable for any experienced rider. As soggy groups were welcomed back to the barn, they were met with a beautifully decorated birthday picnic. Fairy lights, blanketed straw bales, and fresh flowers festooned the centre of the barn; we all dried off and ate together with our horses.
With riding on hold due to the lack of visibility and the sheer quantity of water soaking the moor, some very agile project planning split the group across afternoon naps, tack store trips, and becoming patrons in a local pub. Nursing a pint of ale (or a large gin) the group were educated by Dartmoor pony campaigner and brewer Charlotte Faulkner on the history and future of the Dartmoor Hill Pony; such was the passion of our speaker that other patrons were also drawn into her talk. In a way, this is a perfect example of what the Derby does best.
DAY 3: Rest, Rejuvenate, Ride On
Sunday came around quickly for the late night inhabitants of the communal yurt, and with the omnipotent rain intent on saying some firm goodbyes, there was an opportunity to spend a leisurely morning with everyone. There were rambling chats over freshly brewed coffee, helping to cement new friendships even further, swapping of competition stories, time to read or write postcards, an opportunity to have a massage, and even a pre-ride stretching session.
The rain soon gave way to clear blue skies and a warm autumnal sun; tales from the previous night and memories of the views we had seen on Friday had ignited a desire in all of the riders to be out there drinking in as much of the moor as possible.
A day of energetic riding lay ahead for our group, which promised to cover a lot of ground and would give our horses a real chance to stretch their legs. The climbs up Little and Great Mis Tors seemed innocuous, despite glimpses across to the sea at Plymouth, but the view revealed the moor in a rush of sunlit majesty that felt as though we’d climbed to the top of the world. It was entirely impossible to capture the view with a camera, and an equally impossible task to capture it in words.
The horses never seemed to tire, the sun was always warm, and the terrain lent itself to fast riding. There were miles behind us, and miles in front of us, but at some moments it felt as though simply going to the next hill would never be enough.
Our ground crew met us beside Vixen Tor, the dastardly tale of which had been shared with us the previous evening. Moving onwards we crossed a river, scaled a few smaller tors and dropped into a lower part of the moor. Instead of gorse, our way was flanked by clumps of ferns, where hill ponies and cattle jostled over the small grassy clearings.
Photo opportunities abounded, and as the pace eased off, conversation flowed around the group.
Tors, tracks, and even a bridge were devoured by hungry hooves, and as the familiar mast of Princetown grew larger on the horizon, any opportunity to stay and linger a while longer was fully embraced.
When we wound our way back to camp, the mood was happy but with a touch of regret that our break from reality had so little time left to run. The campfire was now roaring, and riders were joined by ground crew to continue swapping stories of the day and from other adventures, the ease of conversation greased by rose infused gin. The glorious dinner of burrata, lamb, and gingerbread was accompanied by a dramatic retelling of one of Dartmoor’s most famous tales, that of The Hound of The Baskervilles, by Conan Doyle buff
Sylvia Agnew. Night drew further in around us, and although there were no chilling howls echoing across the moor, no one was keen to leave the communal yurt and accept that the end of a unique holiday would be brought to us by the dawn.
I hate leaving the moor. It pulls at me each time as if to say, ‘Can’t you stay a little while longer?’, and it’s even worse when I’m trying to leave the Derby. There’s something about the event that leaves a mark on you. Even now, sitting on a plane above Russia, I think back to the Derby and it brings an immediate smile to my face. We were all part of a shared story of an event made possible by the passion and dedication of all who are affiliated with it. Great care is taken to ensure that even in the face of adversity, nothing is left to chance; Dartmoor is respected by everyone on the team, and they acknowledge that it can be a fickle business partner. Time and time again the team ensured that everyone had an experience that they could look back on as a challenge they had completed with a smile on their face.
Will I be going again next year? Well, I am addicted after all…