Brooding moors filled with mystery
On the south-eastern edge of Dartmoor, a medieval street winds its way uphill towards forested hills. It is mid-morning, and blue tits and chaffinches chime in with the bell of the post office door, which is quickly closed to the brisk winter air. Stone buildings painted in white and pastel shades of blue, green and pink, lean in to face each other across the narrow route. This is Fore Street, the ancient road at the heart of Buckfastleigh in Devon. The town’s long and rich history is inseparable from the moorland landscape that rises to the north. Buckfastleigh can trace its origins back to the 1200s, but the town really found its feet in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when it thrived on the wool trade. Dartmoor farmers drove their sheep off the moors, down into the town, where their wool was spun in mills driven by the River Dart and its tributaries. It is this fresh moorland water that helps sustain the green and wooded landscape that distinguishes these southern reaches of Dartmoor from the sparse and windswept north. In winter, Buckfastleigh is a welcoming haven. At the low end of town, the South Devon Railway runs steam trains south into the Dart Valley, past old watermills and orchard fields. The 7-mile line between Buckfastleigh and Totnes was active from 1872 until 1958 and originally transported goods such as wool, coal and cider. Nowadays, it runs with a buffet car and trades off its bucolic views. The 10-minute walk from the station to the heart of Fore Street is lined with low, slate-roofed cottages spiralling wisps of smoke from their chimneys. The Valiant Soldier pub, at the south end of the street, closed its doors to customers in the 1960s, but now opens as a museum from Easter until the end of October, allowing visitors to see the pub exactly as it was left on the day it was closed, from the drained beer glasses to the invoices scattered around. The other businesses in Buckfastleigh are still going strong. Yvonne Payne and Liz Endy keep the wood-burning stoves roaring all through the day at The Singing Kettle tearoom. Built of local stone and painted in delicate pink, it sits in the centre of town opposite the post office. Dating from the 17th century, it is one of the oldest buildings in town. Yvonne and Liz have delighted in the history of the building since they took over the business a couple of years ago. “It was the inglenook fireplaces that did it,” says Liz. “When we saw them, we knew this was the one.” The two stone fireplaces are each topped by a solid timber lintel, and in the right-hand room, old meathooks hang in front of the stove; relics from the building’s former life as the local butcher’s. Yvonne and Liz pride themselves on serving up traditional, home-made food. Their menu ranges from full English breakfasts to afternoon teas made with
Free-standing, weather-worn rocky outcrops, or tors. The word is also sometimes given to Dartmoor’s hills themselves.
A train steams along the Great Western Railway branch line, hugging the River Dart.