Devon

Wistman’s Woods

For thousands of years, this dwarf oak forest, rising no higher than 20 foot above your head and sprawling over 90 acres, has been shrouded in myth and legend and has been connected to ancient druids, hell hounds and even pixies. Today, it lures many a visitor to explore its moss-strewn trees and granite boulders, where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another world.

The best way to find this lovely spot is by making your way to the Two Bridges Hotel in Princetown, so that’s where we found ourselves early one autumnal morning. We easily found the small car park opposite – I imagine it gets filled up quickly on a summer’s day, but as it was a Monday morning in November it was relatively quiet. The weather changes quickly on the moors, so we put our boots and waterproofs on before making our our way through the gate and following the gravel path that led us along a valley, with the fast-flowing West Dart River at its bottom. We’d had plenty of rain the night before, so the roar of the thunderous river rose up to greet us, mingling with the baaing of the sheep that grazed around us.

It’s about a mile-long walk to the woods, and lovely it is too, with the towering hills of Dartmoor all around us, wild heathland and the autumnal hues of the woods nestled in the valley ahead. The way isn’t difficult, except for the odd puddle or two and muddy spots.

Arriving at the woods it’s as if their canopies are huddled over to protect itself from the outside world, but peer underneath the low-hanging canopy and you’ll discover a verdant, emerald green world to explore. If you dare to step inside, take care underfoot as there isn’t anywhere that isn’t covered in moss-covered granite boulders and rocks, which may account why the woods haven’t been decimated by roaming cattle.

Even in November when the trees are pretty much bare except for hanging lichen and mossy limbs, Wistman’s Woods exudes a greenish glow that makes you feel as if you’re in another time and place. Climb carefully over the rocks, and you’ll discover strange swirls and markings on the rocks, with an atmosphere that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s not surprising then that mystical world is swathed in myth and legend and it has been called the most haunted place on Dartmoor. Druids are said to have originally planted the woods (‘Wistman’ is said to derive from the word ‘wise man’, another name for a druid), and the Devil, hell hounds in search of lost souls and ghosts have all said to have been seen here - and locals won’t venture to the woods after dark!

Supernatural residents aside, Wistman’s Woods is a hugely important site.  It’s one of the few remaining parts of the old Dartmoor Forest which covered the entire moor around 7000BC that was cleared by hunters and settlers around 5000BC. It’s important for flora and fauna too; there are more than 100 different species of lichen to be found here. Probably the most eye-catching is the bearded lichen which grows on the branches of the trees and floats ethereally in the wind. It’s also home to a large adder population, the rocks forming a perfect protected place for them to live and breed.

Wistman’s Wood is a stunning, living relic of old Dartmoor, and most definitely a place that should be visited by those who have an interest in wildlife and mythology or for those seeking a simple yet fascinating walk back in time.

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