Stroll around Belstone on a summers day and it’s a perfect edge-of-the-moor village. Thatched cottages hewn from the local granite are sprinkled round the village green, where you can also find a set of stocks and a small enclosure where lost animals use to be kept until their owners were found. Just off the green is one of Dartmoor’s finest post-walk pubs, The Tors, whose greatest asset is its ‘infinity beer garden’ which stretches as far as is needed onto the adjacent common. There is even a cracking little cricket club just to the north of the village. Unsurprisingly, Belstone gets busy on summer weekends, when every car parking space and grass verge fills up with people attracted by the views from the top and the ale at the bottom.
It also has a rather unassuming church that alludes more to Belstone out of season. The first record of the church’s existence is from 1260 and it has a rather stocky, squat, unspectacular appearance. Where Widecombe’s church raises itself to the heavens, Belstone’s huddles out of the wind. The village is in a sheltered little coombe formed by the river Taw, which flows off the hills and down a little valley to the east. Go a little way in any direction on a rough day and your nose is probably going to be in the wind, and we certainly discovered this on our walk.
When we arrived, it was a typically overcast late autumn day. The car park was quiet, the cricket square in bed for the winter, even the pub closed due to Covid. Although we’d passed a spectacular rainbow at Sticklepath, the weather didn’t promise much, but we were determined to get out. The boys are getting conditioned to small doses of rough conditions, and at Belstone there are a few good valley walks if the tops get too much.
We strolled past the pub and headed up the steep hill at the south end of the village. It’s quite an intense walk for little legs, with lots of boulders and boggy ground worsened by the recent rain. Still, it wasn’t long before we were huddled behind one of the long ridges of rock that are found on the lower slopes of Belstone Tor. Geologically, they look like sills or dykes to me, though it wasn’t the day to be investigating. As we climbed, the drizzle blew harder into our faces and the wind rose with every step. By the time we reached the summit ridge, we were making slow progress across a slippery, bouldery landscape, with the conditions slowing us down even more. With hindsight, we were on the wrong side of the hill; if we’d stuck to the eastern side, we’d have been in the lee of the tor, but I had diverted to photograph a tree that had struggled against the wind even more than us.
The boys were fantastic in all this, holding our hands tight, and we all helped each other across the rocks. Before long we were back on a decent track, and had a good lunch out of the drizzle at Belstone Tor. On a clear day there is an incredible view from here, over Okehampton and mid-Devon to the north, but today we could barely see Watchet Hill a kilometre away. We were in a cloud and the weather all around was pretty horrible, but we tucked into our emergency marmalade sandwiches and hot chocolate and soon we all felt a lot better.
Just beyond Belstone Tor is Irishman’s Wall, which crosses the whole ridge from the Taw valley to the east to the East Okement in the west. It’s over a kilometre long and is the most famous wall on the moor. According to legend, it was built by a wealthy landowner back in the days when if you could enclose a piece of land it was yours, and he had his eye on the commons of Belstone and Okehampton. This landowner engaged a bunch of tough Irish navvies to do the work, and by all accounts they were a tough bunch – even apparently working barefoot on the moor. They had finished about a kilometre of it when, late one night, the men of Belstone and Okehampton descended on the wall en masse and pushed it over. Near the ridge line is a rock known locally as Rabbit Rock, which we all had a photo taken beside while making rabbity faces.
By now it was super cold on the top and we were wrapped up in all the clothes we had. We made a quick descent down into the valley to the west while the cloud came in above us once again. As we got down towards Cullever Steps, the sun started to burn through the cloud in patches. It was incredibly beautiful, though the moment passed quickly.
In the valley the weather was much gentler, the walking a lot more enjoyable. We had enough enthusiasm left for a little side trip to the Nine Maidens (or less commonly, the Seventeen Brothers) Stone Circle. The maidens (or brothers) were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath, and although there appear to be few witnesses it is said that the stones dance every day at midday. The low stones are the remains of a burial chamber; the cairn which would have stood over it has long been repurposed for local building materials, and the central cist is no more. It’s still an evocative place, with the ridge of Belstone Tor behind it, and it was particularly atmospheric with the wind and cloud swirling.
From the stone circle, it’s a gentle stroll back downhill into the village. We posed for snaps in the village stocks, then drank our remaining hot chocolate in the car with the heaters on full blast. It was just a shame that the pint in the sunny ‘infinity beer garden’ would have to wait for another day.