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Charabancing on Dartmoor


The whip is held in superb style,
The reigns are well in hand,
The horses full of pluck and breed,
The coach is some what grand.
The driver studies one and all,
And does without tobacco,
Or he can smoke a nice cigar,
But asks permission first tho’.”

The above lines were penned in 1885 to accompany a newspaper report regarding the proprietor of the Dolphin Hotel and his charabanc excursion business which took visitors on trips on and around Dartmoor. But firstly what was a charabanc? The word derives from the French char à bancs and literally means ‘carriage with benches’. Charabancs originally were horse drawn vehicles which later were replaced by motor coaches. They basically consisted of rows of wooden benches and were used for taking large groups of tourists, village clubs and societies etc on sight seeing tours of Dartmoor. As can be seen from the photographs below they were not the most comfortable means of transport and certainly the early horse draw charabancs offered little protection from the elements or during dry spells dust from the roads. These excursions were held on an annual basis, taking place during the summer months when visitors were plentiful and eager to experience the ‘wilds of Dartmoor’ and its surrounds. For many coming from the smoke polluted industrial towns it was also an opportunity to enjoy and breath in the invigorating fresh air of the moor.

One of the early charabanc owners was Mr. Joll the owner of the Dolphin Hotel at Bovey Tracy who in the summer months ran trips around the Haytor area. In 1885 it was announced that he had purchased a purpose-made, state of the art coach for these trips. This new black and vermilion painted coach was drawn by four horses and capable of accommodating 21 passengers seated on front facing seats and was said to safe, strong and run lightly. Apparently he was a; “noted whip, if possible, who generally manages to take charge of the ribbons on these occasions, and being of a very agreeable disposition, is ever ready to point out any object of interest. He is also very attentive to the fair sex dispensing with the pipe, whose fumes are so annoying to those of tender years. It is no wonder then, that he is a general favourite among the ladies. Hence a more pleasant or inexpensive outing cannot be contemplated.”  By the following year Mr. Joll was running two charabancs called the ‘Original’ and the ‘Victoria’. The four horses pulling the ‘Original’ were called; Prince, Manaton Grey, Peter and Doctor the lead horse all it was said were easily capable of doing their 20 mile route with ease.  In the May of 1891 Messrs. Joll and Hillier  invited some important local dignitaries and members of the local press to experience one of their charabanc excursions. The day began with the group being given refreshments at the Dolphin Hotel after which they headed up to Haytor. From there the excursion trundled over to Saddle Tor and down into Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The group then moved onto Leusdon and Spitchwick followed by a stop over at New Bridge where there was an opportunity to wander around Holne Chase. The excursion then moved down to Ashburton after which it returned to Bovey Tracy via Bickington. Everybody knows there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ and the cost of this particular jolly were several glowing reports in the local press so a good marketing ploy seemed to have paid off. Just to give an idea of the numbers of people taking advantage of these excursions in the September of 1891 115 people were taken from Bovey Tracy on a ‘Dartmoor Experience’ on a single day. Such was the demand on this occasion that all of Mr. Joll’s vehicles were used along with some reinforcements that he managed to procure for the day. It did not take long for the various railway companies to realise that there was a great opportunity in taking advantage of this trade. Working in conjunction with the companies who provided Dartmoor excursions all around the moor they would time the train arrivals at the border stations such that visitors could literally step off a train and join a charabanc party.

By the late 1800s most of the Dartmoor towns and most of those just on its edges had excursions running from the various hotels and railway stations, in some cases with connecting lines from much further afield. One of the problems with using horse drawn charabancs was that once the holiday season had ended most of the horses were redundant until the following year. You can see from the advert below that in the case of Messrs. Grist of Torquay they sold their horses off due to the fact the season was over. Presumably it made sense to sell them as opposed to having to feed and tend to them when they were not working for several months. Gradually the horse driven charabancs were replaced by motorised vehicles which to some extent were more reliable and needed less looking after. As can be seen from the old photographs above they had a much larger seating capacity and with the added benefit of a hood that could be rolled out to cover the passengers should the weather turn nasty. Apparently it was customary for gentlemen passengers to assist with this operation when needed. An example of a 1920s Dartmoor excursion one would leave Exeter at 10.00 a. on a Saturday morning would visit Becky Falls, Manaton, Houndtor, Haytor and returning back to Exeter for 8.00 pm. would have cost 10 shillings a head. According to the Historical UK Inflation Rates 10 shillings would be about £20 at today’s value.

For those Dartmoor businesses associated with the tourism industry the income the charabanc excursions provided was a much welcomed boost, albeit seasonal, to there profits. However not everyone who lived or worked on Dartmoor were so pleased to see influx of visitors. One of the main problems was the the road infrastructure could not cope with the heavy increase in the large vehicles using it. From the late 1800s right up until today this has caused problems especially in light of the tight lanes which presented passing problems and narrow bridges which often suffered damage caused by the wide vehicles. In some cases the charabancs were a new form of amusement for some of the local boys, in the July of 1885  members of the Torquay Bungalow Bible Class were enjoying an excursion to Dartmoor. They had a wonderful time at Holne Chase where they wined and dined and then took in the sights of the Buckland Drives. However, shortly after leaving Ashburton they met with a group of young lads hiding in a hedgerow. As the loaded charabanc passed by they pelted the party with rotten eggs, stones and other missiles. Unfortunately as the vehicle was open to the elements one of the stones hit a lady passenger on the back of her head thus necessitating medical attention. In the August of 1920 the following letter appeared in a local newspaper; “May I be permitted to draw attention to a very dangerous practice and obstruction caused by thoughtless chauffeurs whose passengers desire to alight for a while at the foot of the hills at Dartmeet. These passengers dismount in the roadway (the cars afterwards being driven on to the grassy banks of the river), all other traffic coming from both directions being held up in the very steepest part of the hill. One shudders at the thought of what would happen were the brakes to fail. A lady resident in the house just at the bend in the hill approaching Dartmeet from Princetown, assured me on Saturday last that the practice is of frequent occurrence, and accidents on several occasions have only very narrowly been averted...” In 1927 another letter reported how a relation of their was driving to the local station to catch a train. Unfortunately they met a convoy of 38 charabancs in one of Dartmoor’s narrow lanes which delayed the traveller for more than half an hour while they sorted themselves out.  In the same year a resident of Lustleigh got caught up in a similar charabanc jam at the foot of Poundsgate Hill whilst they and other travellers waited for; “a charabanc of the latest luxury type, broad and bulgy,” to negotiate its way across Newbridge, scraping off the moss from the parapets as it did so.

Such was the concern about the amount of traffic using the Dartmoor roads that in 1923 the Ministry of Transport held an enquiry into the proposal that some of the roads be closed. It was estimated that in the summer months some of the main routes across the moor carried over a million passengers on roads that were alleged to be not fit for traffic. The County Council were recommending that any vehicle that had a seating capacity of more than 14 people (excluding the driver) be prohibited from using some of the roads. The surveyor for the Newton Abbot County Council stated his concern regarding the expensive upkeep of the roads running from Princetown to Plymouth and around the Manaton area. It was proposed that new routes be put in place to bypass some of the more vulnerable roads. In one case the suggested detour route would mean a 12 mile journey just to replace what normally would have been a 4½ mile trip, clearly this meant an increase in petrol consumption and a possible increase in fares. The enquiry was basically faced with a no win situation, on one hand you had the councils concerned about the huge cost in maintaining the roads used by fleets of charabancs. There was also the local farmers and hauliers complaining it was hard to drive livestock and farming equipment along the congested roads. On the other side the charabanc proprietors were no too happy about the proposed restrictions as too were some of the local attraction owners such as Becky Falls and Lydford Gorge who were concerned that some of the routes would bypass their businesses completely.

 As today not all visitors to Dartmoor are too particular about what evidence of their visit they leave strewn around or the damage they cause and this was another aspect of concern. Some of the excursions would visit some of the moor’s antiquities such as Grimspound and reports from the 1920s mention how fires were lit inside the ancient hut circles. Writing about Vixen Tor in 1926 Hugh Breton included a plead for visitors not to leave their rubbish around the tor, to emphasise this he quotes some lines from the Mr. Punch magazine:

Greatly the high gods wrought this granite tor,
Bold, black, bluff-fronted, bending shaggy brows
On dappled hills where bees in heather drowse.
They set it there to stand for evermore,
With dimness of pale purple set before,
Steeped in the pomp of silence – not to house
Beef bloated tourists in debase carouse
Upon its stony knees, it thymy floor.

They come by waggonette, a vandal brood;
They sprawl at leisure – a great herd of swine feeding;
And having fed they strew around
Paper, smashed glass and cardboard on the ground,
Leaving, where none but the gods might meetly dine,
Foul wrappings and the relics of their food.”
Breton, p.15.

By 1949 visitor numbers to Dartmoor had increased dramatically, so much so that the Director of Planning for the Devon County Council wrote a management proposal for what could be considered as a forerunner to the Dartmoor National Park policy. With regards to charabanc excursions and the visitors they catered for he pulled no punches; “The charabanc trip is indeed a feature of modern holiday life which is increasing rapidly and will need the most careful shepherding to avoid the introduction, in such an area as Dartmoor, of undesirable features. I mean litter, cheap tea-houses, souvenirs in shops, and all the rather trivial and dreary characteristics which follow in the wake of the modern, poorly educated, gregarious populations of the industrial towns…“.

Surprisingly it was not just road users who took exception to charabanc excursions as proceedings of the Tavistock Brewster Sessions demonstrated in 1924. The superintendent noted how he had received two complaints regarding landlords turning away charabanc parties. The first was from; “a respectable charabanc party, numbering 22,” who at 9.00 pm. called at the Dartmoor Inn at Lydford asking for tea and coffee. The landlord refused their request and suggested they tried a private house further up the road. In his defence the landlord, Mr. Heathman, stated that at the time the charabanc arrived his hotel was full of guests and had the party given prior warning he would have prepared tea for them. Another complaint had been received from another ‘respectable charabanc party‘ travelling across Dartmoor from Torquay. On this occasion they called at Hexworthy’s Forest Inn and were turned away by the landlord who stated he “did not care for charabanc parties.,” and sent the charabangers on their way to Princetown. On this occasion Captain Guy Alexander, the licensee of the Forest Inn stated how he had told the group that he was unable to accommodate them as there was ‘no room at the inn’. He also said how as he had many long term staying guests at the inn he never encouraged charabanc parties.

When man meets horsepower albeit four legged or motorised there is always the risk of accidents and charabancs were no exception. In 1891 a charabanc excursion from Torquay met with such an accident when the ‘vehicle parted’ and overturned near Manaton. Its occupants were all ejected from the charabanc but luckily apart from minor injuries nobody was seriously hurt. In the August of 1901 a party were enjoying their Dartmoor excursion from Bovey Tracy to Manaton. On approaching a sharp corner one of the horses shied and bolted off, as a result of this the driver was thrown out and run over. At the Becky Bridge the charabanc went into the river and overturned trapping two people underneath. Some local farmers heard the screams of the injured and rush to the scene to give assistance to the injured. Several adults and children suffered broken arms, one lady received a serious scalp wound and the driver suffered internal injuries.  In 1903 a charabanc belonging to Mr. Toms of the London Hotel in Okehampton was descending the steep hill into town. Suddenly the horses bolted and took off at speed, on reaching the centre of town the vehicle crashed into the wall of the White Hart Hotel where it overturned and threw all the occupants out. One passenger received life threatening internal injuries sustained when one of the horses trampled on him and the son of the owner received serious head injuries. There is a ‘tale’ that back in the 1920s a charabanc carrying some tourists along the B3212 between Postbridge and two Bridges had an unfortunate encounter with the ghostly ‘Hairy Hands‘. Apparently the vehicle was merrily speeding along when suddenly it swerved across the road and fell into a ditch. At this point of time seat belts were not compulsory and so several of the passengers were ejected out of the charabanc, one of which was seriously injured. Afterwards the driver reported that a pair of ghastly hairy hands had grabbed the wheel and forced him off the road. The incident was reported in the local press however there was no mention of the ‘Hairy Hands’ just merely that 14 passengers were in the contraption and the injured lady was taken to Tavistock Cottage Hospital with serious spine injuries. Oh and not wishing to spoil a ghost story but the cause of the accident was down to a broken spring which caused the steering to go out of control. In 1924 a charabanc party were travelling from Tamerton to Ashburton and on descending the hill near Poundsgate when the brake failed, fortunately the driver applied a second brake and managed to steer the vehicle into the hedge. However, this then effectively blocked the road and on trying to move the charabanc it rolled forward and trapped the driver’s leg between the hedge and the vehicle once again causing a charabanc jam whilst the injured man was taken to hospital.

Clearly today not a lot has changed regarding Dartmoor excursions and the modern versions of the charabancs, yes some of the roads and many of the bridges have been widened to accommodate the ‘charabancs’ of today. Yes there are now designated routes for the bus drivers which avoid congestion points and unsuitable roads and yes there is still plenty of wear and tear to the roads and damage top the bridges. But basically still bus loads of tourists enjoy excursions on Dartmoor thankfully in much more comfortable conditions than previously experienced by the early ‘charabancers’. Visit any of the Haytor car parks or Widecombe-in-the-Moor on a summer’s day and you will still witness the constant processions of buses, some of which come from foreign climbs, chugging up to Haytor.


Breton, H. 1926. The Heart of the Moor. Plymouth: Hoyten & Cole.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. I really enjoyed the article on Charabanc trips on the moor. We own Grey Cars, formerly “The Grey Torpedo Cars”. The torpedo bit was dropped during the First World War for obvious reasons!

    We are still doing day trips on the moors and often use a small coach so that we can access places like Jays Grave and Buckland in the Moor.

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