DARTMOOR AREA: THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO SLEEP
To me the name Dartmoor conjures up images of vast rugged moors, the perfect stomping ground for energetic hikers, wild campers and grazing sheep, but as we recently discovered, the area also has a lot to offer the family who doesn’t even own one pair of walking boots between them. In conjunction with Dartmoor Accommodation and local attractions, carefully selected by the five of us for their family fun appeal, we set out on a five day trip to become better acquainted with this spectacular region.
1- RIVER DART COUNTRY PARK
With the car loaded to the rafters, our first stop is River Dart Country Park in Ashburton, Devon. Situated on the eastern edge of Dartmoor National Park and only about 90 minutes from Bristol, (most of it an easy drive down the M5,) as soon as we arrive I start to wonder why we haven’t been here before. It’s our initial travel day and it can be difficult to relax when you’re keen to check out your accommodation and offload the bags, but today we manage to make an exception. The setting is beautiful and with the help of the free map provided, we head to the play equipment near the car park where the boys can burn off some of that energy they’ve been storing up in the car. They’re soon tackling a long sequence of low ropes, shooting down the anaconda tube slide and attempting to stand up in the oh so wobbly giant spiders web.
Next we head down through the park to the main play area where every other age appropriate piece of play equipment is put through its paces. The assault course, mini zip wire and tyre swing are particularly popular in this section.
After lunch we rummage around in the back of our car for swimming kit and the boys head into the river for some watery fun. They immediately walk the plank to board the large pirate ship in the middle of the lake. Next the eleven year old braves the dam pool rope swing and manages to hold on for quite some time before being plunged into the chilly water below.
We decide to throw caution to the winds and ignore the sat nav’s suggested route via Plymouth, instead opting to drive westwards, right through the moors, so we can enjoy Dartmoor’s natural scenery en route to Woodovis Park in Tavistock.
Located in 14 acres in the tranquil surrounds of the Tamar Valley, Woodovis Park offers luxury holiday homes and camping pods as well as camping pitches. (You can read my full review of Woodovis Park here). The independently owned holiday park has been awarded a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for the third year running as well as the David Bellamy Gold for their commitment to conservation for the fifth year running. Onsite family-friendly facilities include an indoor heated pool, children’s play area, outdoor table tennis, games room and a Petanque court. The boys are particularly looking forward to the Sunday morning “water walking” (zorbing) session in the site’s heated pool.
Our home for the next two nights is a three bedroom Super Robin caravan and on arrival our first impression is that it’s immaculate and large. Just look at the size of that sofa! Oh yes, we’ve stayed in some grotty static caravans in the past so we fully appreciate the luxury on offer here.
During our brief stay we realise that as well as getting the basics right there are some lovely little extra touches at Woodovis too. For example, we’re greeted with a welcome pack which features a box of ‘naughty but nice’ West Country clotted cream fudge as well as the usual teas, coffees and milks. Fresh bread and croissants are baked to order. A combination of a warm-just out-of-the-oven batard loaf and the petanque court in the next field make me feel like I might have inadvertently stumbled into a Gallic campsite and let’s face it the French are masters of Le Camping!
2- INDOOR POOL AND ZORBING
3- MORWELLHAM QUAY
As soon as we arrive we realise we’re going to struggle to fit everything here into one afternoon and waste no time heading towards a talk about rope making which is about to start. Well, we thought it was a talk – in fact it’s a demonstration led by a living historian and as ours are the only children in our group they are lucky enough to be allowed to operate the machinery and make a length of rope which our guide gives us to take home. We go on to enjoy a number of other hands on experiences, including attending Victorian school complete with a strict, yet hilarious teacher and making our own giant chocolate lollipop before catching the train which takes us on a tour of a copper mine.
As expected we run out of time that afternoon but the children are so keen to return, we head back the following day to fit in all the things we missed first time round, like taking selfies in period costumes, hammering rocks for copper and a tour of the harbourmaster’s house where the BBCs ‘Edwardian Farm’ documentary was filmed. The husband and I are happy to sit in the sunshine enjoying the hospitality of the Ship Inn Cafe while the children opt for a second dose of lolly making and the six year old endures a caning in front of the class at Victorian school!
MOORLAND GARDEN HOTEL
For the second part of our stay we’re being hosted by the Moorland Garden Hotel on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park. Here’s our video tour and review of the hotel:-
(You can read my full review of Moorland Garden Hotel here).
As a fan of TV’s ‘ Dragon’s Den’, I’m interested to learn that the hotel’s owned by Deborah Meaden’s parents, Brian and Sonia, although this has no actual bearing on our stay!
We turn into the long drive which is an extension of the moors, with sheep and the occasional pony happily roaming free with an apparent lack of concern for passing vehicles. Situated in Yelverton the hotel makes a good base for exploring the untamed splendour of Dartmoor National Park and the Plymouth’s natural harbour. On entering the hotel’s grounds the rugged landscape magically recedes making way for attractively manicured gardens. The boys take a football outside and make use of the extensive lawned area as they’re well aware that I need to take photos of the beautifully presented bedrooms before they’re allowed to get their
grubby little hands on them.
Finding holidays to accommodate a family of five can be challenging to say the least. (If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I’ve set up a whole blog about Taking 5 on Holiday) so we’re very pleased to be staying in two of the Moorland Garden’s spacious interconnecting rooms which are ideal for our family.
An extensive refurbishment programme to restore the hotel to its former glory is underway, with the new owners having invested heavily in renovating the main reception areas and refreshing all 44 bedrooms but the hotel’s simple facade offers few clues to the quality of the internal decor. Each of our rooms is very well presented with its own en suite bathroom, television etc and each offers its own take on the garden theme introduced by West Country interior designer Nadine Judd. In fact every bedroom in the hotel has a slightly different garden inspired design, tying in with the hotel’s name. Original features have been maintained throughout with splashes of attractive fabrics and bold wall coverings adding a modern feel.
Having prevented the boys from overindulging too many berries, cookies and fudge from our delicious welcome package, we’re soon ready to enjoy a three course dinner at The Wildflower Restaurant overlooking the moorland garden. The restaurant prides itself on serving seasonal, locally sourced food and is very proud to have just been awarded an AA Rosette to stand alongside their commended status in the Taste of Devon category in the Devon Tourism Awards.
4- NATIONAL MARINE AQUARIUM, PLYMOUTH
On a more serious note we also learn that the Aquarium is a charity dedicated to conserving the marine environment and to getting that message across to others.
Joe explains that the aquarium is divided into regions. Our tour starts in ‘Plymouth Sound’ at a large tank beneath a window overlooking the harbour, home to all the marine life within that tank. What a great idea it is to put these sea creatures into a local context! As our journey continues, it leads us across the world’s oceans, from the shores of Plymouth to the coral reefs of the tropics and we see everything from seahorses and baby sharks to a splendid lion fish and a partially sighted turtle. Many of the larger creatures have distinct personalities and have been given names.
The whole tour takes us around three hours and we come away with lots of new found knowledge and a determination to avoid eating less sustainable seafood. If you visit you might like to add on a visit the cafe or shop but we find that three hours is just about the right amount of time to spend in the aquarium itself and fits perfectly with the times of the multi-storey carpark just around the corner. If you don’t manage to see it all in one day, there’s currently the option to return free of charge within twelve months (subject to conditions).
5- BIGBURY ON SEA
The husband knows that I find it difficult to spend time by the coast without feeling some sand beneath my feet so we leave Plymouth and he drives us to Bigbury on Sea beach in Kingsbridge. We carefully supervise the boys, who are playing a marvellous game of beach cricket, from the safe distance of the Pilchard Inn’s outdoor seating just above them. The pub is a historical landmark on well-known Burgh Island which is boringly accessible by foot at low tide but offers the exciting prospect of a ride in the unique sea tractor when the tide comes in!
After one more sleep and another hearty breakfast it’s time to say goodbye to the lovely, luxurious Moorland Garden Hotel and set off for our final stop, Cholwell Riding Stables.
6- CHOLWELL FARM RIDING STABLES
I haven’t been horse riding for years and apart from the odd donkey ride on the beach at Weston-super-Mare, our boys have never ridden at all. The six year old asked to go on a donkey recently, but as soon as his bottom touched the saddle, he begged to be taken off again. Whether he’ll participate today or not is anyone’s guess!
“That’s not a problem. We can lend you long trousers, boots and jackets.”
I’ve forewarned Diane that my nervous six year old wasn’t even happy to sit on a little donkey a couple of weeks ago. She busies herself kitting him out and he seems to go along with it but I’m ready for him to declare himself “out” at any moment. She leads him over to a mounting block, introduces him to his pony, Breeze and explains how he should climb on. He mounts him without hesitation and smiles down at his relieved and rather shocked Mother!
“I want to do that again”, he says, literally the second he dismounts!
It’s the last day of the summer holidays before all the children go back to school and eldest starts senior school. Riding across the vast moors has been a marvellous way to stay in denial for one more hour before we head back to reality.
The past few days have been an eye-opener for us. I knew very little about the Dartmoor area before we came away but we thoroughly enjoyed this trip and wouldn’t hesitate to return as a family.
Thanks to all those who invited us to review their properties, facilities and activities and hosted us free of charge for the purposes of putting together this guide. If you’re considering taking a trip to the Dartmoor area or any of the attractions listed, do take a look at their websites below as they provide helpful information and some offer special rates when you book with them on-line.