“Dartmoor is the kind of place that bites you in the arse,” says Jules matter-of-factly over dinner at the Arundell Arms – a country sports hotel where your gundog can sit on the sofa without anyone batting an eyelid. “Getting lost here is a serious problem,” she warns ominously. Jules is a guide for the Dartmoor Derby, the latest long-distance riding challenge from boutique riding holiday specialists, Liberty Trails. A challenge which, despite her less-than-reassuring introduction, I’m set to undertake in the morning.
Her admonitions don’t seem to have much effect on the other riders either. The atmosphere at the Arundell Arms is one of boisterous excitement. Most of the conversation revolves around old saddle stories, with the tales become increasingly outrageous as the night goes on. One thing is for certain, none of the riders here are beginners. In our group alone we have a hunt master with 11 seasons under her belt and a horseback safari enthusiast whose last trip involved being kicked by a giraffe in Botswana. The neighbouring table full of Americans turns out to be an endurance team who have flown in from the US especially. Clearly novices need not apply.
The next morning, however, is a more subdued affair as the nerves kick in. At 9am sharp we file out the door, whips and hats in hand to go meet our guides and our horses. Guides for the derby come in various guises: some are local hunt masters decked in their smart A Hume tweeds, others are locals who have grown up in the saddle and call the moor home. Ours was the latter. Phil Heard, who runs Meldon Farm with his wife Mandi, is Dartmoor’s answer to Crocodile Dundee. Decked out in a white cowboy hat and full leather chaps, his knowledge of the moor is second to none.
Nor are his expertise when it comes to picking horses. Phil’s collection of beautiful bays were all faultless. Some were old hands at navigating the moor’s treacherous terrain, others new to the challenge, but all were perfectly forward going with soft mouths. My horse, a handsome five-year-old named Hunter, had only been over from Ireland for three weeks. “He hasn’t found his fifth leg yet – his Dartmoor leg,” explains Phil, yet he sails over ditches without a moment’s hesitation.
While Hunter is the kind of horse who makes everything feel comfortable, this is not an easy ride. 25 miles across Dartmoor is the equivalent of double that distance on any other country, and four of our horses lose shoes to the thick, oppressive peat. The landscape here is rocky, rugged, sparse – and then there’s the bog to contend with. Crossing it is tricky. Over one patch the horse in front of me stumbles and begins to sink. Lurching it sinks further, until its legs completely disappear into the bog below. We hold our breaths in tense silence. Finally, it clambers out with its rider still aboard, safe but stunned. The message rings loud and clear: Dartmoor is dangerous.
But on a crisp day like this, it’s hard to believe that it could possibly have a sinister side. Dartmoor is stunning in the very truest sense of the word. Every corner we turn brings a new sight to astound us, from rocky outreaches to picturesque babbling brooks, hillsides turned sunny yellow by the thickets of gorse to miles upon miles of purple heather. We canter alongside the moor’s resident wild ponies, a moving patchwork of bays, greys and roans that disappears over the hill’s horizon. Birds of prey circle in the sky above us, floating against the startlingly blue sky.
Yet there are moments when the moor feels ominous. We ride past a collection of eerie stone fertility circles, smaller yet older than their more famous equivalent at Stone Henge. Phil tells us that when the fog comes down the horses refuse to walk through them, their animalistic sixth sense registering what their riders fail to see. We ride pass abandoned powder mills and the ruins of roofless houses, trotting down a bridle path that emerges out onto a grave buried in the middle of the crossroads. This is Jay’s Grave, the nineteenth-century burial mound of a local girl who committed suicide to avoid the shame of falling pregnant outside of marriage. Always adorned with fresh flowers, no one is quite sure who still tends to it.
After our first hard day’s ride, we arrive at the picturesque farm which will be home for the night. Hay bales around an open fire provide a rustic setting for afternoon tea, while a collection of luxurious hilltop Mongolian yurts with views stretching across the valley below are our accommodation. There’s also, miraculously, hot water showers on offer, confirming that this is by no means your average glamping experience. Later we reconvene in the warmth of cosy dining tent, where a feast made from only the very best local Devonshire produce is served. After dinner, we stumble back up the hill to our yurts to collapse, exhausted, onto our comfy mattresses.
As luxurious as the camping is, after two days in the saddle our final stop – Bovey Castle – is a welcome sight. Waiting for you at the end of an impressively long and winding drive through its verdant golf course, Bovey Castle is undeniably luxurious. Suites here have views across Dartmoor National Park, so that you can soak those tired muscles in your freestanding bath overlooking the terrain you have just conquered. There’s also a tranquil ESPA spa downstairs for those in need of soothing hands, as well as plenty of quiet, oak-panelled rooms in which you can curl up in front of the fire and reflect on your recent achievement.
Not that you’ll have a moment to spare staying here – there’s so much going on that you’ll struggle to fit it all in. We rush to collect the morning’s eggs from the rescued battery hens, watch the daily falconry display featuring Rosie the American Bald Eagle who “will try to kill you” according to her handler, and play with the resident ferrets (an activity admittedly geared towards kids that we insist on joining) all before leaving the next morning.
On our way back to the station we drive the last time across the moor, weaving our way through its overgrown lanes. A Porsche whizzes round the corner towards us and, confronted with our 4×4, instantly stops in its tracks. We tuck into the hedgerow, and an intricate dance of inching and pausing commences. Grumbling behind the wheel, the Porsche driver insists he cannot pass. Another driver joins the fray – a local, we guess, from the way the grandfather in the passenger seat shakes his head at the scene before him.
It’s another ten minutes before the Porsche finally passes through, wing mirrors tucked in, face scowling. The car behind pulls up next to us and winds down its window. ‘Tourists!’ moans the woman behind the wheel, “No idea how to cope on the Moor.’ And together, we laugh.
The Dartmoor Derby will nest take place September 2016, with limited spaces for riders. Prices start from £1250. Visit liberty-trails.com/dartmoor-derby for more information.