Stephen Oryszczuk spends a weekend retracing his steps amid the beautiful scenery of Dartmoor
As the sun melted away one Friday night, Mrs O and I found ourselves heading way out west once again, on a journey that seemed delightfully familiar.
We’d first discovered Devon when we were young pups – visiting, living and eventually marrying there, and now, as the M4 became the M5, we once again felt that eternal bond. Work has drawn us east, but country bumpkins we remain, only lasting so long in a big grey city before we start gasping for green.
So it is that we’re heading back to Dartmoor, to the luscious Bovey Castle where, four years ago to the day, we spent the night before our wedding. We approach through the rustic village of Moretonhampstead, known round these parts for its standout butchers.
As we drive through, memories of our wedding day come flooding back, of joy and panic, and of trying unsuccessfully to relax while crisis managing all the last-minute hiccups. This time, thankfully, the florists are not calling, the caterers are not fussing and the relatives are not descending on us from all four corners.
Instead, it’s just the grizzly locals in their wellies and muddy 4x4s, waving us up on to rugged Dartmoor, where every twisting corner takes us further away from civilisation, as if drifting off into a dream.
Unfortunately, the weather is anything but dream-like. Rafter-rattling gales throw sheets of wind and rain at us, but it’s nothing the castle’s log fires can’t handle. And a castle this is too, with all the turrets, ghosts and galleries that go with the name.
But it is no tumbling down old tower. It is a five-star hotel in every respect. Informal but luxurious, it retains much of its period charm, without the need for deer heads at every turn. Four years ago, it was the undisputed king of Dartmoor. It’s quickly clear that it still is.
Originally built by the founders of W H Smiths, the moorland mansion is now a 64-bedroom country estate, comprising spa and championship 18-hole golf course. But it’s not all guns and grouse. This is a family-friendly affair. Egg collecting, chicken feeding, ferret fondling and owl stroking are all on the agenda, as are survival training, rock climbing and raft building. When all that’s ticked off, small ones can call upon the hotel’s Toy Concierge (yes, you read that right) who delivers Lego to your room.
We awake to the sardonic tones of Martin the Falconer. Mrs O remembers watching Merlin the Owl perform an exceedingly limited number of tricks hours before she walked down the aisle.
Fast forward four years, and the weather being as it is, the eagles and owls are brought indoors to show off their talons and talents. Merlin is still there, useless as ever, flying and squawking in the corridors. I’ll never forget that poor couple who – emerging late for breakfast, a little groggy from the night before – were greeted by a dozen cameras and Merlin flying at their heads.
Owls actually add to the oh-so-hopelessly romantic nature of Bovey Castle. Those tying the knot here can co-opt one of Merlin’s colleagues into helping them get hitched, with rings delivered by a tiny white-faced Scops Owl that flies down the aisle.
Over some spectacular food and wine, enjoyed in the Edwardian Grill, we reminisce about our own big day, about the student soul choir who sung their hearts out, about Mrs O’s dad getting blood poisoning the day before, deliriously dictating his speech from 200 miles away, about finding a replacement to walk her down the aisle, and about my best man passing out after his speech because he’d downed a bottle of whiskey to combat the nerves.
The next morning we walk breakfast off around the grounds, which include the usual bridges, barns, lakes and ponds – all good wedding photo fodder. But the hotel is set in a stunning valley, so stretch your legs a little further to see why Steven Spielberg shot War Horse here, or why Hampstead-born Jewish painter Robert Lenkiewicz (a portrait of whom is pictured above) relocated here decades ago.
To help get your country juices flowing, the hotel arranges archery, fly-fishing, clay pigeon shooting and guided walks, cider and sloe gin making, and crolf – an intriguing cross between croquet and golf. I’ve already told Mrs O that I’m coming back in better weather just to try it. She said nobody listened to the boy that cried crolf.
Away from the hotel, there are numerous attractions around Dartmoor. For us, this meant seeing our old house and having a pint in our former local, but for others it could include seeing the famous ponies (the Miniature Pony Centre is a couple of miles from the hotel) and/or getting some moorland action.
A short drive away from the hotel is Exeter, which as Helen Fry’s authoritative book, The Jews of Exeter informs us, is home to the second-oldest synagogue outside London (250 years old to be exact) and younger only than Plymouth’s. As Fry will tell you, Jews discovered the joys of Devon long before surfers and second-home owners – and it’s well worth having a look around this historic city.
But if, like us, you come here for the green and not the grey, head for Haytor (a ‘Tor’ is a peak), close to the nearby town of Bovey Tracey. It offers a beautiful walk up to the top and back (suitable for all ages). Follow it up with a fantastic meal in Haytor’s gastropub called The Rock Inn.
It’s the best goodbye Dartmoor could give to city-dwelling country folk heading back to the Big Smoke.