Back in England and in dire need to get out into the ‘Great Outdoors’, I set about finding new and interesting places to explore on my doorstep. I had seen Wistman’s Wood in an edition of The National Geographic Magazine, alongside a feature on Countryfile – I’ll admit now I have a fondness for the program, in particular the presenter Matt Baker! Unusually, I had made a physical note of Wistman’s Wood before heading off on my Canadian adventure, with the note cleverly left on my desk and starring right at me on my arrival home. Taking this as a sign, or rather, a welcomed excuse to put aside the boring post-holiday ‘life admin’, I hit the road.
Despite Dartmoor’s close proximities to my hometown, I had adopted a bias towards Exmoor and always ended up wandered the wild rugged moors of Somerset – something I question due to my undying patriotism to Devon (I even have a Devon sticker in my car!). Without doubt, this was due to the strong Stanbury family connection, with generations playing a huge role in the rural affairs and with our family base being the quaint historic town of Dulverton, also dubbed ‘Stanbury-Town’, but most commonly known as the gateway to Exmoor National Park.
I had taken part in several Duke of Edinburgh Expeditions across Dartmoor, forever etched in my mind as tough experiences consisting of blistered feet and crippling back ache due to carrying human-sized backpacks for days on end; yet it was hugely rewarding and, with the blood, sweat and tears quickly forgotten for the many laughs and achievements, I frequently look back on this time with huge pride. It just proves, with true grit and determination you can do anything you put your mind to. That said; I was a lot younger and needless to say A LOT fitter…
Wistman’s Wood is certainly one of Dartmoor’s best kept secrets. Nestled deep amidst the slopes of the River Dart, it is completely hidden and, at first glance, unassuming in appearance. It takes about half an hour to walk there from the roadside, along a footpath and over the moor lined with yellow guaze and windswept trees. Beautiful old dry-stone walls zig-zag across the moor, dividing up farming territories and acting as a strong reminder of a time long since passed. The walls were a work of art themselves, with huge stones carefully balanced on top of each other. Amazingly, they had successfully lasted decades, still standing strong today to showcase a valued skill no longer widely practised.
After a wrong turn and a quick detour through long swampy moor-grass, the once unassuming woodland suddenly came to life. Its famous twisted dwarf oak trees, covered in thick spongey moss and lichen stood amidst heaps of tumbling boulders, similarly carpeting in the abundant luminous green moss. The trees’ distorted, gnarled branches stretched out as if fingers, with ferns and a variety of grasses sprouted from its outstretched arms, spawning new life from these ancient creatures. A rich smell of earth and age added to the general feeling of magic. It felt like I had been transported into a mystical fairy land or something from Lord of the Rings.
Despite the typically blustery Dartmoor weather we encountered on the walk across the moor to the wood, upon crossing the woodland threshold and beginning to wander – or rather, climb- amidst the majestic trees, the wood fell eerily silent. No wonder it is known for its supernatural happenings, with numerous ancient folklore tales and writings noting its Druid connection and the ghostly goings-on at this sacred spot. The name itself refers to the old Devonshire word ‘Wisht’ meaning pixie-led or haunted. I certainly wouldn’t want to be there at night!
As one of the three highest oakwoods on Dartmoor (and the whole of Britain), Wistman’s Wood is a shining example of a native upland oak woodland, likely left over from the ancient forest that covered much of Dartmoor c.7,000BC, before Mesolithic hunter-gatherers cleared the wood until about 2,500BC. By the end of the Bronze Age, the trees had been largely felled and used for smelting, hence their scarcity today – even 2,500 years ago we were defacing our natural surroundings for economic gain!
For the history and archaeology enthusiasts (guilty!), the wood is surrounded by ancient stone circles and tors and is a unique example of a prehistoric woodland. For those interested in nature, the environment or walking, there is a vast open expanse to explore, as well as rare plant and insect species covering every inch of the woodland – the mere fact the trees are smothered in moss and lichen suggests a superior air quality. All in all, the Wood and the surrounding landscape is the perfect way to spend the Sunday, if not to indulge any hidden hobbies, but to blow out the cobwebs. It definitely satisfied my thirst for the great outdoors (and history) and I’ll definitely be heading back again soon!