Land of the war horse

Michael Mor­purgo’s grip­ping tale was con­ceived in a 15th-cen­tury vil­lage pub and nur­tured in a land of rolling moors and val­leys, say Ali Wood and Joe Pon­tin

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Michael Mor­purgo’s Id­desleigh and Dart­moor, Devon

The and Devon’shills, coast­lines moor­lands land­scapeof have long pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for Bri­tain’s au­thors, po­ets and play­wrights, from Agatha Christie and Arthur Co­nan Doyle to Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen.

The county’s evoca­tive coun­try­side con­tin­ues to mo­ti­vate writ­ers, not least Michael Mor­purgo, au­thor of War Horse. The 1982 chil­dren’s novel tells the story of a horse, Joey, taken from a farm in Devon to serve in the First World War, and his owner’s quest to bring him home. Un­flinch­ing de­scrip­tions of war­fare and grip­ping plots por­tray the hor­ror of bat­tle and depths of hu­man­ity, mak­ing it a com­pelling read for adults and chil­dren alike. The book has been a re­mark­able suc­cess across the world, trans­lated into nu­mer­ous lan­guages since its pub­li­ca­tion.

Mor­purgo may be best known for War Horse, but this pro­lific au­thor has pub­lished many nov­els, in­clud­ing sev­eral oth­ers based in the Devon coun­try­side – most no­tably Pri­vate Peace­ful and War Horse’s 1997 se­quel Farm Boy. The au­thor has long-stand­ing links to the county, par­tic­u­larly the small, sleepy vil­lage of Id­desleigh, which lies among un­du­lat­ing green val­leys and bend­ing rivers, 10 miles north of the Dart­moor Na­tional Park.

When Mor­purgo and his wife Clare set up the char­ity Farms

for City Chil­dren in 1976, the first ur­ban kids to ben­e­fit came to Id­desleigh to stay at

Nether­cott House, a man­sion with views of dis­tant Dart­moor.

It’s a peace­ful place to spend a few hours. You ap­proach via a maze of wind­ing lanes through miles of green coun­try­side that feels a con­ti­nent away from the teem­ing Devon coast and honey­pot vil­lages of Dart­moor. Id­desleigh com­prises a clus­ter of white­washed cot­tages, a tiny church and a splen­did vil­lage pub, the Duke of York. It was here that Mor­purgo got the first inkling of the plot of War Horse, over­hear­ing wid­ows’ and vet­er­ans’ con­ver­sa­tions from nearby ta­bles about the war. From Id­desleigh, the Tarka Trail leads down to the idyl­lic River Oke­ment, with views of Nether­cott House and Par­son­age Farm – the in­spi­ra­tion for the farm in

War Horse, now styled as War Horse Val­ley Coun­try Farm

Park. There’s a farm trail, with rare an­i­mal breeds on show, and an ex­hi­bi­tion on the role of horses in the First World War, in which a shock­ing 10 mil­lion beasts lost their lives.


Suc­cess­ful as Mor­purgo’s novel was, the global reach of

War Horse owes much to Steven Spiel­berg, whose 2011 film was nom­i­nated for six Os­cars, in­clud­ing best pic­ture.

Spiel­berg set much of the film on Dart­moor, and there’s a fan­tas­tic walk that takes you to the farm­house where Al­bert and Joey live in the movie, and to the ad­ja­cent field you see them at­tempt­ing to plough. The high plateaus of the na­tional park, en­veloped in the sum­mer months with glow­ing gorse

blooms and deep-green bracken, are boun­ti­ful with wildlife. At lower al­ti­tudes, patches of an­cient wood­land are criss-crossed with rivers and arched bridges, some dat­ing back to the 15th cen­tury.

The bulk of film­ing took place out­side the vil­lage of

Sheep­stor at Ditswor­thy

War­ren House, used in Spiel­berg’s pro­duc­tion as the Nar­ra­cott fam­ily’s farm­house. But be warned, those ex­pect­ing to find a pretty farm cot­tage are in for a shock. With­out pro­duc­tion tricks, the derelict Grade II listed prop­erty is more evoca­tive of the bleak moor­land house fea­tured in Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s novel

Hound of the Baskervilles, also set in the Devon coun­try­side.

Pick up a map at the Na­tional Park Vis­i­tor Cen­tre in Prince­town and head out on a four-mile stroll through the hills, tak­ing in Ditswor­thy War­ren House, a Bronze Age burial site, the re­mains of a 19th-cen­tury war­ren­ing area and ma­jes­tic 360-de­gree views.

Steven Spiel­berg fa­mously said, “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.” On this walk, you’ll see ex­actly what Spiel­berg means.


The walk starts in the small un­sur­faced car park west of the vil­lage of Sheep­stor. The land next to the park­ing area was used to film scenes from

War Horse. Head south up­hill for half a mile, soon reach­ing the mod­est gran­ite out­crop of Gut­ter Tor.


Make a short de­tour south­south-west, over a stile to a con­crete pil­lar at the top of the hill. The 350m sum­mit is an old tri­an­gu­la­tion point. Re­turn to Gut­ter Tor to take in views of the Dart­moor Na­tional Park, in­clud­ing the stony crest of Sheeps Tor to the north and

Gut­ter Mire down to the east. Head south-east down­hill, pass­ing through an area of bro­ken rock where the rem­nants of me­dieval long­houses can be found. There is also ev­i­dence of early rab­bit war­ren­ing.

The grassy path soon joins a hard-sur­faced track, sig­nalling your ar­rival to Gut­ter Mire. The heaped ground and large gul­lies that sur­round you mark the re­mains of a me­dieval tin-work­ing site. Con­tinue on the track south-east, keep­ing an eye out for a pre­his­toric burial area – now a large pile of stones – 40m from the path.


Shortly, the way reaches Ditswor­thy War­ren House – dressed for film­ing with a tem­po­rary thatched roof and win­dow shut­ters. War

Horse’s pro­duc­tion de­signer Rick Carter said the lo­ca­tion’s panoramic views gave “it a sense of be­ing part of some­thing huge and im­pos­ing – the ex­panse of skies, the force of the el­e­ments – and that cre­ated a beauty be­yond what we had hoped for.”

Turn left be­hind the house and fol­low the track be­tween

Eastern Tor and Hen­tor War­ren. The way will soon turn north-east over a small ford be­fore as­cend­ing to the Stone Rows.


This spine-like line of stones, along with burial mon­u­ments and hut cir­cles, forms the

Driz­zle­combe com­plex, one of the best Bronze Age sites in Dart­moor. Con­tinue up­hill on a faint grassy path to Higher Har­tor Tor.


At 418m, this is the high­est point on the route. On a clear day, views stretch out across the Plym Val­ley to the west.

From here, head north-west to the Eyles­bar­row tin mine. The re­mains of the site are early 19th-cen­tury, though the area has been worked for tin for much longer. Turn left and fol­low the stony track south­west, back to the Royal Navy’s

Gut­ter Tor Refuge and the start of the walk.

Award-win­ning chil­dren’s Lau­re­ate Michael Mor­purgo (born 1943) has pro­duced over 300 lit­er­ary works. The ma­jor­ity of his 130 books were writ­ten in Devon, in­clud­ing The But­ter­fly Lion and Ken­suke’s King­dom.

ABOVE Ex­plore the land­scape that con­tin­ues to in­spire Mor­purgo with a walk down to the River Oke­ment

BE­LOW Par­son­age Farm near Id­desleigh has been worked by the same fam­ily for al­most 100 years

Just a few yards from Gut­ter Tor sits an old tri­an­gu­la­tion point. The sur­round­ing Dart­moor land­scape was used in the film adap­ta­tion of Mor­purgo’s chil­dren’s novel War Horse

Ditswor­thy War­ren House – used in the film War Horse as the Nar­ra­cott fam­ily’s farm­house – was orig­i­nally built as a res­i­dence for the lo­cal rab­bit war­rener

Ali Wood lives on the Dorset coast and en­joys beach­comb­ing with her three young chil­dren.

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