I’ll willingly admit that the moors of south-west England are not my natural territory. Mention the word ‘Dartmoor’ and my immediate thoughts are of scruffy, sturdy ponies and a giant bog. But then I boarded a train to Exeter to spend two days crossing said bog on horseback, and my whole perception changed. Yes, there were bogs (at one point my horse descended almost entirely into one — quite unnerving for those following behind) and plenty of wild ponies. But we also found standing stones that predate Stonehenge by a thousand years, spectacular granite tors breaking out of grassy hilltops, an unmarked (and allegedly haunted) grave and — most importantly — an ice-cream man mid-afternoon on Sunday, just when we were starting to flag.
So what had drawn me to Dartmoor? I was taking part in a test run of something called the Dartmoor Derby, a long-distance ‘riding adventure’. Having taken part in its namesake the Mongol Derby — a 1,000km endurance race on semi-wild ponies — in 2010, I couldn’t resist the chance to try out Dartmoor’s 80km equivalent. After five years, I decided that my knees had probably forgiven me, so I signed myself up.
On arrival, I discovered, alarmingly, that I’d been placed in the ‘Gung ho group’. Over dinner, we renamed ourselves the ‘Tally ho group’, which we thought sounded slightly less ominous. You would be forgiven for thinking that real cowboys didn’t exist in the UK. But think again — and enter cowboy Phil Heard in a cream Stetson and suede chaps. He doesn’t just look the part, though; he is the part. As Dartmoor-based cattle farmers, he and his wife Mandi are the only people in the UK to offer cattle drives to willing participants. So on Saturday morning, the Tally Ho-ers set out with Phil as our guide.
I can’t believe there’s a better way to explore Dartmoor than on horseback. The weather here is famously changeable, but our two days were blessed with glorious sunshine, and my waterproof remained firmly in its bag. You could see for miles — at one point all the way to the sea — and our horses (mine a thoroughbred/quarter-horse cross called Pebbles) knew the terrain like, well, like the back of their hooves, I suppose. And even if we did end up walking like John Wayne striding down the train platform the next day, the promise of a gin and tonic at the finish was enough to convince even the most saddle-weary to keep going.
Of course, there’s far more to the area than ponies. Before starting our expedition, I stayed at the family-run Arundell Arms to the west of the moor. If, understandably, the whole family isn’t keen on riding 25 miles per day, then fishing, shooting (including deer-stalking or clays) and less ‘extreme’ horse-riding are easily organised, and right on the doorstep. Bovey Castle — our finishing line, as it were — continues the theme of beautiful landscapes, but with the addition of a golf course, an in-house parrot, a spa, and egg-collecting every morning for children… and slightly overgrown children, too.
One word of warning. Don’t get on the train straight after cuddling the ferrets at Bovey Castle. Your fellow travellers won’t thank you — though it will probably guarantee you plenty of seating space.
The next Dartmoor Derby, organised by Liberty Trails, is in September 2016. www.liberty-trails.com/dartmoor-derby/