Hiking and History in Southern England

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15615A, International


  • Explore the depths of Dartmoor National Park
  • Experience 4,000-year-old standing stones at your fingertips
  • Visit Plymouth and the departure site of the Pilgrim Fathers


  • All on-trip transportation and lodging
  • All entrance fees, gratuities, and most meals
  • British friends will join us for walks and hearty conversation in traditional English pubs


DatesMay 24–Jun 3, 2015
Price$2,295 (11–14)
$2,695 (or fewer)
StaffDeirdre Butler

Trip Overview

The Trip

Dartmoor National Park provided many of the stunning locations for the filming of Spielberg’s 2012 blockbuster, War Horse. This largely remote and inaccessible location also inspired Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles. A wild and lonely setting, Dartmoor is steeped in history with evidence of habitation 4,000 to 2,600 years ago (Bronze Age) from stone circles and standing stones to mining of tin and granite. The rolling moorland and hills topped by tors -- contortions of granite on the summits -- are flanked by wooded valleys, twisting, narrow lanes and grey farmhouses, with their patchwork of green fields.

Sir Francis Drake --sea captain, privateer, navigator -- was born outside Tavistock, Devon. Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in April 1581 and was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe in the Golden Hind. In September 1581 Drake became Mayor of Plymouth and under his watch four years later, an Act of Parliament was given royal assent to allow fresh water from Dartmoor to be brought to Plymouth. In 1590 construction started on a leat (in-ground aqueduct) -- 17 and a half miles long, 6-foot wide, and 2-foot deep -- which was finished about one year later.

In September 1620, 102 passengers were chosen to travel aboard the Mayflower for America. A memorial stone, commemorating their departure is inlaid into the dock at the Barbican, Plymouth.

From our base on the edge of Dartmoor, we will hike sections of Drake’s leat, visit Drake’s country estate, Buckland Abbey, experience remote sections of Dartmoor, and explore less traveled paths known only to locals and Dartmoor ponies. At the end of the day, we will enjoy the relaxed companionship to be found in traditional English pubs. A visit to Devon would not be complete without experiencing its Devonshire Cream Teas. There is evidence that clotted cream, the essential ingredient, was being made by the monks of Tavistock Abbey in the early 1300s.

Local ramblers will accompany us on several walks, sharing their knowledge and personal experiences of life in rural England. Our coach will transport us to trailheads and bring us back to our hotel where we will be based for the duration of this trip. On occasion we will use public transportation. The following is our planned itinerary, but it could change due to weather conditions or other circumstances beyond our control.

Plan to spend the night before our trip in the market town of Tavistock, in south Devon. We'll meet for an hour or so before dinner to talk about our trip and daily schedule, and then adjourn for a no-host dinner and a chance to get acquainted.


Day 1: Our trip officially begins after breakfast with a 5.5-mile day hike encompassing the moors surrounding Burrator Reservoir. The growing population of Plymouth and increasing demands on the fresh water supply led to the creation of Burrator Reservoir in 1891 -- 300 hundred years after the construction of Drake’s leat. Flooding of this valley resulted in loss of sections of Drake’s leat, but parts feeding water to the reservoir are still working today. Pending a clear day, views from the top of Sheeps Tor are spectacular. Our reward for our first day of hiking is a scrumptious Devonshire Cream Tea accompanied by a talk on field archery. Tonight you are free to relax, stroll through the market town, and, if you are still hungry, have dinner on your own.

Day 2: Homeland Defense: At the beginning of WWII, an airfield (RAF Harrowbeer) was constructed adjacent to the village of Yelverton as a fighter station for the air defense of Devonport Dockyard and the Western Approaches. The layout of the airfield is still visible under the grass and the protective bunkers are still in place. Our 7.5-mile hike follows parallel sections of Drake’s leat and Devonport leat, the latter constructed in the 1790s to bring fresh water to the expanding dockyards at Devonport. We will enjoy our sack lunch along the way and build up an appetite for dinner at a pub in Tavistock, followed by an evening stroll through the back-streets.

Day 3: Drake’s Drum: Our destination today is Buckland Abbey, former country home and estate of Sir Francis Drake. Buckland was originally a Cistercian abbey founded in 1278 A.D. It remained an abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1541. Buckland became a National Trust property in 1948. Among its collection of fine art and period costumes is “Drake’s Drum,” which Drake had with him when circumnavigating the world. We’ll sample another Cream Tea in the Abbey’s café, followed by a walk through the extensive kitchen gardens and woodlands. Tonight we have dinner at a 16th-century free-house -- a 30 minute walk from Buckland Abbey.

Day 4: Domesday Settlements: Today our 7-mile hike starts in the small village of Mary Tavy, mentioned in the Domesday Book entry of 1086. We take a combination of quiet country lanes, ancient footpaths, and moorland trails, passing remnants of lead, tin and copper mining from the 17th century. Tonight we dine in a charming 15th-century pub in the small village of Peter Tavy -- mentioned as a separate settlement in the Domesday Book.

Day 5: A Taste of the Two Moors Way: The start point for our 8.5-mile hike into the heart of Dartmoor is an intact 13th-century clapper bridge that was built to enable pack horses to cross the East Dart River at the hamlet of Postbridge. Our trail follows the watershed of the East Dart and North Teign rivers and passes many hut circles and stone circles before we head east into Fernworthy Forest. We join the route for the Two Moors Way on our homeward stretch toward a pub that has been serving travelers since the middle of the 18th century, where we too will enjoy dinner.

Day 6: Dartmoor Crosses: In the lee of Black Tor, we pass a Bronze Age stone row and cross the River Meavy by an old aqueduct that diverts water to Devonport Leat. Our cross-country route follows the leat passing Crazywell Cross and onto Siward’s or Nun’s Cross, the largest and oldest recorded cross on Dartmoor -- most likely erected during the time of Edward the Confessor’s reign (1042–1066 A.D.). After passing evidence of former tin mining activities, our 6-mile hike ends at Gutter Tor. From there we are taken to a 15th-century pub named after the oak tree on the village green, which is reputedly some 800 years old.

Day 7: Forts & Castles of Plymouth Sound: Our 6.5-mile walk today starts with a short ferry ride from the Barbican in Plymouth where, in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers finally departed for the New World aboard the Mayflower. An important naval port for many centuries, Plymouth has a selection of defenses to protect its port, which dates from the Bronze Age through the 1650s to the 19th century. Our circular hike takes in these historical monuments as well as splendid views of Plymouth Sound. A selection of restaurants and pubs along the waterfront and the cobbled streets of the Barbican present a variety of choices for dinner on our own.

Day 8: A Dartmoor Export: London Bridge, formerly of London, England and now of Lake Havasu City, AZ, was taken piecemeal to Merrivale Quarry to be trimmed before being transported and re-assembled in the USA. Close by the quarry, evidence of Bronze Age activity can be seen in the menhir (standing stone), stone rows and stones circles. With the quarry behind us our 5.5-mile hike today takes us through the secluded Walkham valley to Sampford Spiney and onto Horrabridge, where we will enjoy a homemade Devonshire Cream Tea -- what a treat! The evening is free for you to enjoy on your own -- have an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s open moorland adventure.

Day 9: Ancient Woodlands: Wistman’s Wood, consisting mainly of stunted pedunculate oaks, is a rare example of the ancient high-level woodlands of Dartmoor. It is mentioned in records dating from 1620 and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest. We take a detour from our route to visit the source of the Devonport Leat before continuing our 8-mile hike, which includes The Lich Way -- used in the 13th century by local residents to transport their dead for burial at Lydford parish church. The word “lich” has its origins in Old English meaning “body." At the end of our hike, our coach will transfer us to an old coaching house (inn), which has been serving its customers since 1785.

Day 10: Our 4-mile hike today follows the River Walkham to its confluence with the River Tavy, aptly named Double Waters. In the 1800s this area was mined for copper. We’ll see an intact chimney, but otherwise nature has thoroughly reclaimed this picturesque valley densely wooded with oak, hazel, and hawthorn trees. Returning to our hotel, we have time to relax before our farewell dinner and evening's entertainment.

Day 11: Our coach will arrive in the morning after breakfast to transport us to Plymouth, where we will say goodbye after our moorland adventures and immersion in the rich history of Devon.



Getting There

Our trip begins in the town of Tavistock and ends in the city of Plymouth. Getting to our starting point of Tavistock is the responsibility of each participant. The leader will provide additional information to registered participants.

Accommodations and Food

We will be based in a comfy country hotel in a small market town on the edge of Dartmoor for the duration of this trip. Rooms are double occupancy with same-gender roommates arranged for those who are traveling solo. The trip price includes all breakfasts, all cream teas and most dinners, many in historic pubs along our way. Vegetarian options are available at most locations. Lunch supplies can be purchased at local markets or sack lunches can be purchased from our hotel. Drinks, including bottled water and soft drinks, are not included in the trip price with the exception of breakfast, where coffee, tea, and juices are included. You may choose to purchase snacks to enjoy while hiking.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is designed for the moderate active hiker. The route will vary in difficulty with walking distances between 4–8.5 miles and elevation gains up to 600 feet. The terrain is varied -- from quiet country lanes to uneven rocky trails to grassy sheep paths to non-existent as we forge across open moorland. Some sections are steep and others will be boggy. Agility is needed to climb stepladder stiles over stone walls and fences. As with all active trips, you will enjoy yourself much more if you are in good physical condition. If you have any questions regarding your abilities, please contact the leader before signing up for this trip. Throughout the trip there is the option to forego the day's hikes and simply chill out at our hotel to relax and explore the town and marketplace.

Equipment and Clothing

We can expect warm weather (by British standards!) of 54F to 72F, though on Dartmoor elevation and the nearby coast can combine to produce wet and swiftly changing weather -- including fog and wind. Daypacks are needed to carry food, water, an extra sweater, rain-pants and waterproof top. Hiking poles are encouraged. Casual, comfortable clothing is key -- your leader will provide a detailed packing list prior to the trip.



Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

– The Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We tend to think the availability of fresh water for drinking is a 21st-century issue. On this trip we will see firsthand the measures past generations took to obtain this most precious commodity. Distribution via leats following the contours of the land and apportioning by a one-inch hole in granite blocks is both ingenious and simple. Climate change however is taking a toll in the southwest of England with an environmental drought status being declared in April 2012 subsequent to two successive historic dry winters. We will discuss environmental and conservation issues related to water -– an extensive topic -- arguably almost anything and everything and everywhere in the world.

Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers, aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad. 



Deirdre Butler refers to herself as a "local." She grew up hiking and horseback-riding in Dartmoor National Park and is excited to share her old home-country with you. Being surrounded by tangible evidence of human history and human endeavors over the millennia is awe-inspiring, as is seeing how nature, undisturbed and given time and space, is able to heal itself. Deirdre has trekked in the Himalayas, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, walked across England and enjoys backpacking in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. At home she barters her labor for organic vegetables on a local organic, community-supported farm and enjoys a bucolic life with her husband, dog, cats and chickens.

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