England: Devon's big-screen gems

By Mark Rowe

The Dartmoor countryside inspired director Steven Spielberg, who used the area as the backdrop for several scenes in his movie 'War Horse'. Photo / Thinkstock
The Dartmoor countryside inspired director Steven Spielberg, who used the area as the backdrop for several scenes in his movie 'War Horse'. Photo / Thinkstock

If they've any sense, Dartmoor's residents are preparing for an invasion of tourists this year after the national park became a backdrop for several scenes in War Horse, Steven Spielberg's film which premiered earlier this month.

Spielberg fell in love with the moors while filming his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's acclaimed novel-then-play of a Devon farm horse, Joey, who is sent to France during the First World War.

Even allowing for luvvie hyperbole, Spielberg seemed genuinely awed, declaring: "I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor."

Some scenes were shot near Bonehill Rocks above Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and a walk between this and other tors, which feels a bit like connecting a dot-to-dot drawing, can give a good idea of just what pressed Spielberg's buttons. You may see the odd farm horse; certainly you'll see the delightful picture-postcard Dartmoor ponies.

Widecombe has long been the national park's official honeypot village - large coach and car parks and yellow lines everywhere - so winter is a good time to visit. Pick a clear day, as mist and hill fog will make for a dreary plod along paths that can be indistinct.

The hardest part of this rectangular walk comes first: the village is set deep in a bowl, surrounded on three sides by craggy hills and tors, as if tucked inside a fragmented volcano. I followed long, steep, meandering lanes and footpaths as they curled away, taking me high above the village to join the Two Moors Way, which drills north over Hamel Down.

Here, the scene was like an impressionist painting: smears of dark green grass covered the flanks of the lower moors; lumpy lichens protruded from trees while craggy, leafless woodland and brushwood formed a blur of brown and deep reds in the valleys below. Sheep grazed on the steep-sided hills, their dozy idyll disturbed abruptly by a fox that trotted confidently along my footpath, as if sizing them up for lunch. Apart from when they've been chased by hounds, I've never seen such a conspicuous fox in open countryside.

The path inched up the spine of Hamel Down, passing cairns and ancient landmarks. Rotting wooden poles pinpoint eerily the upper part of the down; planted during the Second World War to prevent enemy aircraft from landing, they have been abandoned in perpetuity. Spectacular tors lined up to the east: Chinkwell Tor, Honeybag Tor and behind them huge, tumbling, Hound Tor, and the snout-like Lower Man below Haytor Rocks.

Near the summit of the down I took a small goat track that swept east and downhill, keeping above the East Webburn river. In the middle distance stood a lonely, leafless rowan tree, tenaciously bent double against the elements. I could see for miles in each direction, but, thanks to the lie of the land, and strategically positioned woodlands, there was no trace of human habitation.

Footpaths then drilled across the head of the valley through bucolic beech woods. I passed Jay's Grave, built of stone and moss - Kitty Jay is said to be a young 19th-century woman who took her life after being ostracised by her community for falling pregnant. The grave is often bedecked with floral tributes and is the source of local ghost legends.

Hound Tor finally loomed close. This huge rock outcrop is thought - probably erroneously - to have featured in The Hound of the Baskervilles, though, even more oddly, featured in EastEnders when Ian Beale and Melanie hit the road to view the 1999 eclipse. Behind the tor, you'll see the fragmented traces of the medieval settlement of Hound Tor.

Heading back to Widecombe, I picked up a clear bridleway that cut between Chinkwell Tor and Bonehill Rocks, both of which feature in War Horse. The fields here are sprinkled with large piles of rocks: it's easy to imagine how such a sight would have spooked our Neolithic ancestors who must have thought these had been dropped from the sky by grumbling gods.

The bridleway joined a narrow lane and dived down into the valley. The distinctive rectangular tower of Widecombe's village church, St Pancras, punched up high from the valley floor. It's often described as the "cathedral of the moors" and is a gem of perpendicular design, original bosses and moulded oak arches.

But this was January and the village was all but asleep. Visit as soon as you can, while the tranquillity remains undisturbed.

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