With miles of moorland to explore, Martha Terry delights in the best a Dartmoor holiday has to offer
Vegas picks her way through a tumbling river. The little skewbald mare is up to her belly in fast-flowing water, but surges forward to scramble, catlike, up the bank. Next we’re cantering through the heather, the hessian hues of Dartmoor’s hills stretching ahead. It feels like we can gallop forever, on and on over the 368 square miles of moorland, but Vegas pulls up at the top of a climb as I survey the breathtaking 360° view.
Up to my left is Royal Hill, far off in the distance is Crockern Tor, while all around there’s barely a speck of civilisation to be seen, just the odd farm dwelling among miles and miles of yellow gorse, mires, purple heather and the occasional herd of Dartmoor hill ponies. This is truly a place you can empty your head of life’s clutter.
Vegas — and her stablemate Diamond, a flea-bitten grey — are Wydemeet B&B’s specialist Dartmoor horses, in skill set rather than pedigree, honed through years of negotiating the tricky terrain. The riding aspect of Wydemeet, “Door to Moor”, is a new venture for its ebullient hostess Mary Hadow, who’s been running the B&B side since 2013.
Both Bs of Wydemeet B&B are luxurious, with large, comfortable en suite bedrooms and a cordon bleu breakfast, but its charm lies in its humans and animals. Besides the sure-footed equine pair, there’s the adorably bouncy dog Twiglet, a “whoodle” — work that one out — and Mary herself, a charismatic raconteur and delightful hostess who does her utmost to ensure her guests, “my friends”, as she calls them, are having the time of their lives.
After a fabulous breakfast of poached egg on spinach, avocado, smoked salmon and Irish bread, we saddle up and head directly on to the moor, crossing the River Swincombe. The scenery is always magnificent, from the babbling brooks and green meadows near the house to the more barren expanses and dark peat bogs deeper into the moor, under a vast skyscape of rolling clouds and patches of wintry sun lighting up the moor’s hillocks and hummocks. Beside us capers our very own hound of the Baskervilles, Twiglet, as we venture on through Conan Doyle’s wilderness.
After an hour and a half’s ride, we reach the Plume of Feathers Inn, in Princetown, where we tie Vegas and Diamond outside. Mary had earlier brought down haynets and rugs to cover the horses’ quarters, while we enjoy steak and mushroom baguettes by the log-burner.
We amble home via another moorland route, and I leave Vegas to figure out her own way over the tussocky turf. Vegas is a sublime ride over the moor. She’s spritely without ever pulling, and so canny and agile, she never once stumbled. If you’ve never ridden on Dartmoor before, the temptation is to guide your horse on to what looks like the best path, but I quickly learnt that Vegas was far nimbler without my “assistance”.
A hybrid experience
While most riding holiday guests head out for a second day’s ride on the moor, I was given a hybrid experience, sampling both the trekking and hunting side, which entailed a joint meet of the Dartmoor with the South Devon up the road at the Forest Inn on day two.
Wydemeet is conveniently situated near to four hunts: Dartmoor, Spooner’s and West Dartmoor, South Devon, and Mid Devon. For those in need of a serious hunting fix, Mary provides an option to take in all four, mounted on hirelings.
The meet was a small but friendly affair, with copious supplies of port, sausages and fruit cake. As a visitor from the south-east and used to hunting in just a jacket, I’m ashamed to admit I was completely unprepared for Dartmoor’s weather. Earlier in the morning, Mary had taken one look at my scanty attire and doled out thermals, a thicker coat and a full-length mac. Mary’s 25 years of living on the moor have provided valuable intel.
Though spit-spot rain gave way to bright sunshine as hounds set off, menacing clouds conglomerating along the moor’s horizon alerted us to a bitter spell of wind, hail and snow. Meanwhile, Dartmoor’s natural amphitheatres provided an exhilarating view of hounds working.
When the blizzard blew in, the rest of the field seemed oblivious, cantering up and down the steep, slippery hills as if it were mere drizzle. I learnt the meaning of trusting your horse; the snow was driving into our faces like arrows, and I coiled my head into my neck, shielded my eyes from the icy assault with one hand, and followed the others blindly up hill and down dale with the other numb hand clinging to the saintly Diamond’s neck strap.
“My face is stinging!” I gasped to a more local rider, as we sheltered by a stone wall, our horses’ tails bearing the full force of the storm.
“Oh, it will pass; it’s only weather,” he replied kindly. And it did. I need to toughen up.
Back at Wydemeet, after buttered crumpets by the fire, I couldn’t quash Mary’s enthusiasm for a glass of bubbles in the hot tub. It seemed bonkers; to head back outside into a raw January night on the moor, but it was magical. In summer you can listen to birdsong and the river bubbling below, and watch bats circling in the treetops. In winter, with the contrast of the wind whipping through the bare branches and the hot Jacuzzi, the experience was equally memorable. And I could wallow in the joy of a day spent in the rugged elements of Dartmoor, knowing I’d had a proper adventure.
Riding holiday: Three nights’ B&B with two days’ riding, two pub lunches and two three-course dinners, plus tea, cake and sparkling wine: £799pp based on two people sharing; £150 supplement for single person.
Hunting holiday: Two nights and a day’s hunting (including one dinner): £799pp (£150 supplement). Five nights and four days’ hunting (including valet clothes service, three dinners): £2,500pp (£500 supplement).
Ref Horse & Hound; 13 February 2020