Since the mid 1800s people flocked to Dartmoor in order to partake of the rugged romantic scenery and bracing air. Regular horse-drawn (in later years these became motorised) charabanc parties were taken to the various beauty spots and many businesses held their works outings (know as Wayzgooses) on the moor. At that time one of the more popular places to visit was what then was known as the Buckland Drives. These carriage drives wended their way around Buckland Woods and followed the river Dart through some spectacular scenery. At the time the lands were owned by B. J. P. Bastard the Lord of Buckland Manor who kindly allowed public access to his property on certain days. Notices informing people when the Drives were open appeared in local newspapers such as; “Buckland Drives – The carriage drives through the Buckland Woods. the property of B. J. P. Bastard,Esq., will be open to Visitors (not pedestrians) on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, in each week from this date until further notice. All carriages will enter the property by the Upper Awswell Drive, and leave by the gate at Holne Bridge. N.B. – to prevent disappointment, Hotel-keepers and others are requested to take particular note of the days above mentioned, which will be strictly adhered to. May 18, 1868.” Similar notices would be published when the Drives had closed for the season. Such excursions soon became very popular and highly lucrative for the local tour operators and hotel owners. With the coming of the railway to Ashburton their was an ever increasing demand for these trips. In the May of 1872 the Ashburton ‘Tourist Board’ published the following; “One has but to pay a visit to Ashburton, peep but even slightly at the beautiful neighbourhood surrounding it, and listen to accounts of the mineral treasure that are said to lie buried in the district, to at once come to the conclusion that incalculable advantage will result to the place by easy communication with the outer world. Everybody has heard of the wondrous beauties of Holne Chase, the Buckland Drives, of the upper waters of the river Dart, but how few have had the opportunity of rambling amidst their glories? This railway will bring tourists within a reasonable distance of the delightful spots, and it requires but little spirit of prophesy to foretell that lovers of Nature will not fail to take advantage of it.” In 1932, Mr. W. Whitely the then owner of the Buckland Drives refused vehicular entry to his estate despite requests by the Ashburton Urban Council to keep them open. Whitely’s reason for the closure was; “that he regretted that he was unable to grant their request because several years ago the Drives were found to be in a condition not suitable for modern traffic. He had made an application through the local unemployment agency for 20 men to carry out the necessary work. In reply about 8 men turned up and, when they were offered the standard rate of pay, declined to work, and, in spite of this were able to draw the dole. He further stated that he had no objection to pedestrians going through the drives, but individual application must be made to him, when keys would be provided. In the whortleberry season women and children and in certain cases old and infirm men, had been allowed in the woods to pick the fruit.” To this day little has changed and to gain access to the drives permission must still be sought. However, below is an account of a ramble through the drives which was written in 1879:
“The question is often asked, “When is the best time to visit Holne Chase?” By Holne Chase the public erroneously understand that lovely series of drives thrown open on certain days of the week by the kindness of Mr. Bastard of Buckland Court, which commanding a view of the chase, is confused with it, although on the opposite side of the Dart… It is said there are generally twenty-five days in October, when Summer foliage ripens into all the glories of the Indian Summer, when the wild fruits of the woods hang in clusters from every bush, and the dark green pines seem to to twist the forest trees around them on their changeableness. Let a visitor to the Valley of the Dart then make the pilgrimage as suggested by the late Mr. Richard King, “and traverse the paths and drives which are formed at various heights above the bed of the Dart.Let him where he can struggle through the dense undergrowth of fern and whortleberry and climb to points like Auswell Rock or Benjay Tor – huge masses that break upwards in the midst of the woods – and follow along the stream until he reaches the solitude of the remoter hills, where a shattered ruin of granite bears witness to the work of an age of glaciers o or to countless centuries of slow decay. Such a pilgrimage will here and there be laborious, but it will be full of delight, and will not soon be forgotten, for there is nothing in Devonshire finer than all that upper course of the Dart, which extends from Ashburton into the heart of the Royal Forest, far up toward the sources of the river… The Dart scenery, however, is, on the whole more highland in character, and recalls the ‘Lady of the Lake’ country where the mountains send out their spurs on the cultivated lands below.
A visitor leaving Ashburton by North Street, crosses the bridge (Great Bridge) on the left, ascending a steep hill for about a mile, when a gate admits him into the first series of the Auswell Drives. The road still ascending, leads through fields and commands an extensive view of the Dart Valley below as far as Buckfast Abbey. The rich colours of the beech trees which fringe the river in its course through Holne Park, give a life to the whole landscape, whilst the broken water, as the river tumbles over boulders into a long deep pool enlivens the scene. The higher drive is entered through the right hand of the two gates, and soon dives into a dense wood of fir, beech, oak, and mountain ash, now covered with clusters of berries. The old ash tree at the gate is worth noticing, it is a fine specimen of the Fraxinus ornus or Sicilian ash, which exudes as a gum the manna of the druggist. Early in June it is covered with a mass of white feather-like flowers.
The drive soon makes a sharp turn, where a ridge of rugged rocks is seen rising crag above crag on the right, while on the left, at a lower elevation projects the Raven Rock, which overhangs the valley with a sheer precipice of some 400 feet. By going a few steps outside the road, onto a sort of plateau, a very fine peep of the valley is obtained, as well as of Holne Chase, around which the Dart is seen to wind, forming a promontory on which the foss and rampart of the Roman British fort known as Chase Castle can be distinctly traced.
Below to the right, is the long straight of water flowing among the boulders of Lover’s Leap. Proceeding on the drive and passing through some fields with Buckland Beacon towering 600 feet above in front, and the distant tors near Dartmeet on the left, he again enters the wood where the road has been cut through a clatter of granite boulders, which are seen on either side completely buried by luxuriant ferns, enormous dark green Lastrea dilatata four or five feet high, rich yellow Pseudo mas, and green male fern in every direction, the rocks themselves clothed with rich lichens, moss and wood sorrel. Entering another filed a magnificent view is seen on the left of the deep gorge along which we came, having the ridge of rugged rocks from Auswell on the top to Raven Rock below, like the teeth of a saw on one side and the wooded and steep slopes of Holne Chase on the other with the rushing Dart between them; far off in the distance, perched on its rocky eerie, we see the spire of Buckfastleigh Church among the fields and pastures of the South Hams. Buckland village is soon reached, consisting of just a couple of pretty cottages under large gnarled and moss-covered trees, with a sparkling brooklet flowing between them and soon losing itself among mossy stones and large ferns in the apparently dense jungle below. At the top of a sharp pinch of hill is the entrance to Buckland Court, a roomy comfortable brick mansion, commanding the finest of views through vistas which converge from every direction.
The tiny church, which by the bye, is well worth inspection, is passed by a gate on the left, entrance is gained to the Webburn series of drives. Going down the steep road the eye strives to penetrate the thick foliage and look into the deep, rugged chasm on the left, from whence comes comes in gusts with the wind the sound of the foaming stream. Soon a more open part of the drive permits the valley of the West Webburn to be seen, with the chapel and school of Leusden perched on the height above. The next turn brings the deep valley of the East Webburn in view, along the side of which the road runs. In the fork between these two streams are the thick and rugged plantations of Lizwell, and above them the old farmhouse nestling among ash and sycamore trees and surrounded by green meadows, and beyond again the hills of Dartmoor. Descending gradually to the side of the stream and following the valley, the way is hidden by luxuriant foliage, and the brawling Webburn on the right, here and there lost between the moss-clad boulders or overhung with richly coloured shrubs, and the eye attracted by still brighter bunches of the wild Gadder rose’s ruby berries or the flesh-coloured ragged berries of the Spindlewood, with their orange seed just bursting through.
Passing Avychurch Bridge (Lizwell Bridge?) the Webburns’ Meet is reached, and by going a few yards off the road to the actual confluence, a pretty view is obtained of the other valley. The drive gradually rising, soon commands the whole valley, and overlooks the point where the roaring stream makes a sharp turn almost at right angles. This is perhaps the finest of the peeps, and much resembles some of those deep wooded valleys in the Black Forest, about the source of the Danube. Looking up the stream the valley is spread out like a model, the junction of the two brooks forms the letter Y, the silver thread of water being shaded with the autumnal-coloured hill sides. Looking upward, the side of the hill opposite is very rugged, and almost perpendicular for a couple of hundred feet in height; then comes some stunted copse, consisting of oak, birch, hazel, and maple bushes, which gradually give place to patches of Alpine-like herbage, with sheep grazing here and there among the rocks. Towering above all is the granite height of Blacky Tor, which commands one of the finest prospects, combining valley, stream, and tor, to be found on the Moor. From this gorge the valley widens, but appears to be blocked infront by the rocky ridge of Holne Chase, overhanging the Dart, into which the Webburn here flows. Buckland Lodge, so well-known to picnic parties, is situated at this part, where there are stables for horses, and other accommodation for parties is provided by the good lady Miss Smeardon. Leaving this picturesque little building, the lower drive is entered, which passes by the deep pool known as “Stag’s Well,” crosses the Buckland stream at its outflow into the Dart. This brooklet since leaving Buckland village, where it was last seen, forms one series of small waterfalls over huge moss-clad rocks into clear, sandy pools, over-hung all the way by ferns and bushes bearing bright red berries, with here and there stately larch or oak trees towering far overhead.
Passing ‘Lover’s Leap,’ where the road is carried on a ledge cut in the cliff, some seventy feet above a deep foaming pool, the drive passes at the foot of Raven Rock, which seems to overhang the road; in front Cleft Rock stands hard against the sky. The Cleft was formed by old mining operations, and gives a peculiar appearance to the scene, (an old copper mine, see HERE for a photo from 1891).
Descending a steep hill, we have a wall of rock on the left, and a precipice, only protected by a few half-decayed oak trees on the right, below which, at a great depth, the Dart forma a deep pool, fringed with gigantic Royal Ferns, some of the fronds being upwards of eight feet in height, and overhung by a row of beech trees, now in a blaze of colour. At this point more than one accident has happened. A couple of fields passed, Holne Bridge is reached, which ancient structure, with its surroundings of wood, rock, coppice, and meadow, forms one of the most attractive objects in the neighbourhood, and well deserves to have some minutes spent on it. Two miles more brings the visitor again to Ashburton, passing in his way the raised beach at Lent Hill, and two or three comfortable family residences. This pilgrimage through the Buckland Drives has enabled him to – “Catch the last smile of autumn beaming o’er the yellow woods.” – The Western Times, October 28th, 1879.
Auswell Woods were owned by Fountain Forestry but the 138.21 hectares were sold for around £1,700,000 in the July of this year (2018). In the case of the previous owners permission had to be sought to enter the woods and presumably this will still be the case. Personally I have never ventured into the woods but there is an excellent photographic exploration of them on the Moorland Walker’s website which can be found HERE. Likewise the sales brochure for Auswell Woods can be found HERE for as long as the agents deem fit to leave it posted.