In the heart of Dartmoor is the grave of Kitty Jay. According to legend, she was a young village girl who killed herself sometime in the late 18th century after becoming pregnant. As a suicide she was buried at a crossroads outside the village of Manaton. There are always fresh flowers laid by the headstone and no one knows who puts them there. A film company once set up secret cameras to catch the mysterious flower giver, but a mist came down during the night; when it had lifted again, there were new blooms on the grave.
Dartmoor is like this: a wild country full of mists and stories, ghosts and traces of the far distant past (not to mention The Hound of the Baskervilles). There are neolithic stone circles, Bronze Age monuments, noble old buildings, mysterious standing stones and, of course, spectacular views in almost 1000 square kilometres of national park. But ho to see all of this? There are few roads, so travelling by car you’d miss most of the natural beauty, walking would only show you a tiny portion of the whole, and only a masochist would bike up to the top of those imposing granite tors. The obvious answer is to ride. And the place to go for that is Liberty Trails.
Elaine Prior, who runs the company, was born and bred on Dartmoor and has a deep love for the countryside. She also has a passion for horses, as well as quite liking her home comforts, having spent years living on the Côte d’Azur. As a result, her guided trails strike the perfect balance between adventure, culture and luxury. The horses she gave us to ride were eager and beautiful, exploring the glories of the national park with us all day, ears pricked forward, enjoying themselves as much as we did. There was plenty of galloping over windswept grassland, but there was also a lavish picnic at the end of a morning’s ride, laid picturesquely by the side of a stream and served by Elaine’s husband Bob, who offers his services as the perfect Carson. No wonder the Qatari royal family use Liberty Trails when they fancy exploring Devon.
I had come with my sister, who loves to ride as much as I do and with whom, before children and husbands tied us down, I had done week-long rides in the Pyrenees. I am not sure we’d have the stamina for those marathons now, but our two days with Elaine were a wonderful reminder of them. Riding side by side gives a feeling of fellowship, and the quiet, undemanding company of the horses makes for confidences.
The cosseting didn’t stop when we slipped wearily out of the saddle at the end of the day. We were staying at Hotel Endsleigh, which is a former hunting lodge of the Duke of Bedford and has a garden complete with its own witchy grottoes, created by Humphry Repton. Olga Polizzi took over this promising house more than a decade ago and transformed it into an 18-room hotel of surpassing tastefulness. We watched pheasants patrol the misty parterre at breakfast and then played croquet on the lawn as the sun set (after a bath and a muscle-relaxing gin and tonic, naturally). And at the end of the evening, the hotel’s imaginative and charming staff provided us with blankets so we could lie in the dark in the sloping garden and gaze at the stars wheeling above us in the inky sky.