Long walk to incarceration
Few towns evoke the spirit of Dartmoor quite like Princetown. Lying between Yelverton and Two Bridges on the main east-west road, it is the highest settlement on the moor at 1,427ft (435m) above sea level. A keen wind is invariably blowing, and the surrounding moors are of the damp, brooding kind. Visitors entering from the main road are greeted by the town’s most famous sight: HM Prison Dartmoor. The long and low granite buildings, often mirroring Dartmoor’s heavy skies, are arranged like fingers around a square. Above the central arch of the thick outer gateway is the Latin inscription, Parcere Subjectis, meaning spare the vanquished. It would have been little comfort to its first inmates. The prison was built between 1806 and 1809 to house prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815. Thousands of captured soldiers were being held in appalling conditions in ships moored at Plymouth, and Dartmoor prison was designed to relieve the strain on these ‘war hulks’. In May 1809, prisoners were marched in groups of 250 at a time up onto the moors and straight into a snowstorm. Many of the men undertaking the 15-mile journey were already suffering from severe injuries and disease, and the record books show that the first inmate signed into the prison was dead by the time he arrived. One American prisoner, called Perez Drinkwater, later wrote home to his brother: “This prison is situated on one of the highest places in England, and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time”. Approximately 10,000 men were held here during the wars, and it is thought 1,500 died. Two obelisks within the prison grounds, one to the American and the other to the French prisoners of war, now commemorate the dead, many of whom were buried anonymously. The stories of these prisoners, and the ones who have come to HMP Dartmoor since, are now told in the Dartmoor Prison Museum, immediately opposite the jail. Princetown grew up around the prison. Some of the prisoners of war were drafted in to build St Michael and All Angels Church, which lies approximately 437 yards (400m) away from the prison, on the road into town. One of the few buildings to pre-date HMP Dartmoor is the Plume of Feathers Inn, which bears the date 1785. In the centre of town, it still trades as a pub and restaurant, retaining many original features, such as slate floors, wooden beams and granite walls. Immediately opposite the pub is the Dartmoor National Park Visitor Centre, which, in its former life, used to be the Duchy Hotel. In 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here on one of his many visits to Dartmoor. The famous crime writer was captivated by the moors and their legends, and would spend hours on end exploring the tors by coach and on foot. One evening, he sat down with pen and paper in the old hotel’s smoking room and poured the wild and enchanting Dartmoor landscape onto the page. This was the start of the book that would become The Hound of the Baskervilles.