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A Dartmoor Tonic


Personally I love reading accounts of tours and trips upon Dartmoor from centuries ago, it’s fascinating to read about the landscapes, the soundscapes, along with the smellscapes and tastescapes (if there are such words?). What these writers experienced in many cases has long since been consigned to history’s lost property department and so in some cases its good to reclaim them. Here is but one example from over a century ago of a horse-drawn charabanc excursion around the Haytor area. It’s perfectly clear from the author’s words that he was a true Dartmoor lover and one that really appreciated the restorative properties a day on the Moor can provide. I would say that the magical ‘Dartmoor Tonic’ is just as efficacious today than it was in 1894.

I think I can name a certain specific for most troubles which arise from the worry, excitement and headwork of this bustling age, which so frequently results in depression, insomnia, and such disorders as emanate from over-strained brain and nerves. Like my medical friend I give it gratuitously to my readers. I will not write it in Latin although there would probably be a more professional appearance about it, and although there was a deal of ‘aqua para’ (water for) about it when I last took it, it is quite as effective without. One word constitutes this valuable prescription, to wit – Dartmoor. Try it ye sleepless ones and I will warrant you will have no difficulty in gaining rest; fill your lungs with its invigorating air ye depressed and worried ones and you shall return to your labours like giants refreshed.
My last dose of this physic I administered to myself on Tuesday, and in order to take it in comfort I joined a party – some of whom, like myself, had faith in the Dartmoor Tonic – in one of Mr. Walter Cawdle’s coaching trips.
It was by no means a perfect summer’s day. Sombre looking clouds racing up from the South, and patches of blue sky no sooner appeared than they were blotted out by those moisture-laden, lead-coloured masses. Still, who that is on pleasure bent is not bouyed up with hopes of change, and I am one of those who look upon Dartmoor very much as I regard the sea. Like the ocean, it has varying moods which one is never tired of studying. I have seen it when it is clothed in purple heather, and again when it is yellow with the gorse. I have enjoyed it under scorching sun when the atmosphere was so clear that Torquay could be distinguished from Haytor, the hoary old sentinel of the moor, with the naked eye; I have tramped over it when the mists hung low – mists that soak to the skin – and I have looked upon it when huge masses of sullen clouds have rolled up and spread over the sky like a pall and suddenly opened their floodgates in a manner which is most awesome.
Amply provided for Dartmoor’s most angry mood, I took my seat beside Mr. Percy Cawdle, behind his four handsome ‘nags’ and with sundry blasts of the post horn, ably blown by Bob, the conductor – of whom more  anon – our hopeful little party rattled away over the road to Newton, which road, after the previous night’s rain, was in splendid condition, the couple of inches of dust which covered it last week having entirely disappeared. Leaving the flourishing little market town, the route lay along the Ashburton road for some distance, and then a sharp turn to the right through a typical Devonshire lane brought us to the quaint little village of Bickington, with its charming old church and rose-covered cottages. Hitherto the rain had kept off and there were occasional glimpses of the sun, which gave the recently rain-refreshed country a delightful appearance; but on approaching the moor the storm-clouds gained the mastery over His Majesty, and, without the usual preliminary drops as  a warning, they appeared to burst and drop a perfect deluge upon us. Mackintoshes were hastily donned and umbrellas brought into service, but they were no match for such a downpour. The horses had no liking for a cold bath, and quickening their pace they rapidly left Ramshorn Down behind, and in a very short space of time were drawn up in front of the Rock Hotel, Haytor. No sooner had we alighted than the rain ceased as suddenly as it had commenced, and the remainder of the 38 miles was accomplished under the most perfect conditions.
Appetites had been whetted by the perfect Dartmoor air, and ample opportunity was given at ‘The Rock’ of satisfying them. Luncheon was laid in readiness for us in the cosy parlour, which by the way boasts of a rather remarkable picture which hangs over the mantleshelf. The waiting maid who when questioned by one of the party, gives us some details about it. It was originally the sign-board of an inn, for on the top are the words -‘Good Stabling,’ and at the bottom ‘Speed the Plough,’ which would signify that it orramented the entrance to the ‘Plough Inn.’ The waiting maid explained that on the reverse was a second picture, and seriously informed us that the hotel keeper had been offered £500 for this work of art, but he would not spare it. As a heirloom it may be worth that sum to the owner, but as an artistic effort it certainly lacks in merit.

The Rock Hotel

Prior to start on the walk up the hill to Haytor Rock I had an opportunity for a chat with Bob the conductor, who is quite a character, not only on account of his famous blasts on the post horn but by reasons of his geniality, humour, and willingness to render service. The post horn is a difficult instrument to master, but Bob’s ability is remarkable – he is a veritable genius. he informed me that he learned his numerous blasts at Aldershot, amongst them being ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ ‘Buy a Broom,’ ‘Coming thro’ the Rye,’ ‘After the Ball,’ ‘Tantivy,’ ‘Post Horn gallop,’ and the various bugle calls. He has had three years coaching experience at Weymouth, and the great worry of his life at the present time is the Torquay crossings, which he jocularly informed me, had almost rendered it necessary for him to go in for a set of artificial teeth. frequently on the journey, and especially during the heavy fall of rain, Bob kept our spirits up by startling with a blast, the sleepy looking horses and cows in the fields on either side of the road, and sending them scampering off at express speed.
The majority of our party scaled Haytor Rock, although a very stiff wind was blowing on the summit, and it was difficult to keep one’s foothold. Joining the charabanc again at the foot of the hill, we were soon bowling along past Leighon, the residence of Prebendary Wolfe, towards the famous Becky Falls. Only ten minutes were permitted to see the beautiful torrent flowing down the gorge; but after the heavy rain the sight was one not to be missed. Short as the time was, it allowed me to have a few words of conversation with Mr. Percy Cawdle, who told me that the coaching service necessitated the use of about 20 specially selected horses – picked for hard work and reliability, for the roads of the Moor would soon make wrecks of highly-bred, spirited, and unduly free animals. The journey that day, which represented about 38 miles, he regarded as a good day’s work, and was a thorough test for a horse required for coaching service.
Mr. Percy Cawdle is an admirable whip, steady and careful, and he has due regard for the welfare of the team he controls; he uses the whip only when necessary, and has not that fault of some professional drivers of perpetually endeavouring to perform some such remarkable feat with his ‘thong’ as flicking a fly off one of the leader’s ears.
Leaving the falls we once more entered the moorland road, and the prospects opened up with an exquisite one. Gleams of sunshine lit up the vast expanse of landscape on all sides, and as far as the eye could see the country looked fresh, bright, and beautiful. A warm, balmy breeze blew, and, in fact, the surroundings were so much to our taste that without exception the whole of the party lapsed into silence in order to fully admire the lovely scenery and breathe in the pure air. Unfortunately, this pleasure did not last long, for we were now descending and the horses were travelling at great pace.
Skirting Bovey, we were soon on the high road to Newton. A short stop for a cup of tea, then once more to the conveyance. The team, recognising that there was a comfortable stable and a  good feed of corn at the journey’s end, quickly got over the last six miler, and we landed in Torquay about 6.15, somewhat tired it is true, but with the knowledge that after a night’s rest we should fully appreciate the effects of our delightful drive over Dartmoor.”The Torquay Times & South Devon Advertiser – June 23rd, 1899.

I would dearly love to know where the Plough Inn and its sign was once located and so any suggestions would be gratefully received.

Today sadly there are no guided horse-drawn charabanc tours on Dartmoor but there are plenty of opportunities for motor tours and walking tours to be had. There is for instance the various guided walks which The Moorland Guides provide or the services of Unique Devon Tours. If you want someone with a family history of leading Dartmoor tours then you need look no further than Emma Cunis, AKA Dartmoor’s Daughter. Emma Cunis’ grandfather was the renowned Dartmoor author and guide – Eric Hemery whose magnum opus has to be his tome – High Dartmoor. To this day, in my opinion this book has to be one of the most comprehensive and enthralling Dartmoor books ever written. If you hanker for a tour with associated equine power the n personally I would suggest Adventure Clydesdale. These folk give novice and expert riders the opportunity to explore some of Dartmoor’s landscape on a noble Clydesdale horse, sadly I’d have to drop a few pound before I could go, oh, and probably learn to ride a horse.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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