“Fairy-like, self-involved, rich in secrets … such inturned peace, such profound harmlessness, otherness, such unusing … all words miss, I know I cannot describe it.”John Fowles, ‘The Tree’. This section is quoted from the final chapter, which was written about Wistmans Wood.
Wistman’s Wood was probably the first place on the moor that I visited independently. Someone – I think it was Stu, though it could have been Kev or Gareth – came in to sixth form one day with a book. Well, I say ‘came in’ – we were actually at the old Tardis Cafe on Belgrave Road, where we used to bunk off and make our plans over massive brunches. Anyway, this book* was full of pictures of the most fantastic scenes, such as gloomy mountains with furrowed eyebrows and gaping mouths, or crashing waves inhabited by watery sprites. One in particular captured our attention: a picture of a dark, stunted, gnarly wood growing out of a rocky valley, with every fold in the bark or crack in a rock forming part of a face. It was creepy and spooky, the kind of place you want to seek out as a teenager. The caption on the page read ‘Wistmans Wood, Dartmoor’. I was probably 17 at this time but I had done plenty of walking on Dartmoor with school and cadets, so I was designated chief map reader and we all piled in Graeme’s mum’s Mini to find and explore the wood. It was the first of many great days out on the moors with friends and it set me up for a lifetime of exploring.
* I have no idea what the book was called or where it came from, I would love to know if it rings any bells with anyone.
Of all Dartmoor places, it seems to have an almost unique draw. If we ever have family or friends that have come down and fancy a walk, Wistmans Wood is always one of the first suggestions, and Kev and I still retrace our steps fairly regularly (in fact, these photos were taken on a family walk with Kev last October). It’s by no means a secret place, but it’s just one that you have to go to en route to becoming a Dartmoor aficionado.
So what is so special about Wistmans Wood? There has probably been a forest here for many thousands of years, and it’s considered to be a rare relict of the high-altitude woodlands which would have dominated the landscape until the Bronze Age. The trees themselves, almost entirely pedunculate oaks, grow through a large clitter of granite boulders and for the most part are quite low and contorted. Four hundred years ago, they were described as no taller than a man, but as the climate has warmed in the interim there are now a few that are 10m high or taller. This is still not particularly high for an oak and the understory can feel quite claustrophobic, especially as it is impossible to move quickly on the rocky terrain. Underfoot are mushrooms, liverworts and mosses, and epiphytes and lichens grow up above, while beneath the rocks there is reputed to be a large population of adders. The atmosphere is often dominated by the season and weather; on bright spring days it’s a very different place than you’d find in November, so every visit is different. But take care – the legendary Wisht Hounds are reputed to hunt unwary travellers through the wood. We’ve been lucky to avoid them so far…
Wistman’s Wood is an easy there-and-back walk, but the tors on the hill to the east are an easy diversion and make for a more interesting round trip.