Dartmoor is Britain’s largest wilderness – perfect for horseriding and camping.

Sarah Warwick explored for TNT

Windswept, rugged and moody, Dartmoor is the bad boy of all the UK’s national parks. Unlike the pretty Lake District or the proud, high land of the Peaks, Devon’s famous moorland is best known for its brooding skies and rocky, gorse-strewn wilderness.

Like any bad boy, it’s the moor’s edgy reputation and untamed looks that make it so alluring. Covering an area the size of London (but with 280 times fewer people), Dartmoor is the UK’s largest area of wilderness, chiefly known for three things: a prison, wild ponies and the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, where a hellhound chases people across the moor until they die of fright.

It doesn’t sound like the most welcoming place but visitors have been attracted here for hundreds of years. Its first inhabitants – up to 4000 years ago – made use of the large stones found here to build UK Bronze Age communities and there are more ruins here than in any other UK national park.

Dartmoor on horseback

In the saddle

I’ve come here to experience the eerie prehistoric landscape for myself, joining one of Skaigh Stables’ pub rides, which promise a hack of “about 20 miles, with a stop at a pub for lunch”. It sounds perfect, it’s just a shame that I’m halfway to Devon when I realise I can’t remember how to sit on a horse, never mind ride one.

Luckily, my group is more experienced than me and reminds me how to hold the reins and sit properly. It’s tricky at first and I spend the morning obeying countless instructions but it’s worth persevering as riding is apparently the best way to see Dartmoor’s scenery. You cover more ground than walking and the ponies are sure-footed and tire less easily than humans on the rocky terrain.

Booze break

We stop for lunch at the Northmore Arms in Throwleigh, a village that borders the moor and is straight out of Postman Pat.

After lunch and a pint or two of top country cider I’m in a stupor of good food and raring to get back on the horse. I’ve forgetten my nerves and just enjoy the scenery. Or so I think.

The other riders have decided I’m ready to canter. Fear makes my brain seize and I cling on for dear life. But it’s wonderful. The horse’s hooves pound the stones and my heart thunders as I throw my head up and feel the wind in my face. What a buzz!

The day flies by as good days tend to. As we turn back to the stables the sun comes out, almost as if it knows this is the finale. We spend the end of our five-hour marathon ride wandering the ridge of a hill, watching tiny patches of cloud cast shadows like handprints on the patchwork of fields below us. It’s the perfect end to my West Country romance with this moorland bad boy. 

Go riding on Dartmoor

Wild camping

To really get a feel for Dartmoor, try wild camping. A visitor’s right to bed down on the moor is enshrined in law, as long as you keep off private land and only ‘bivouac’ (the technical term) for a maximum of two nights.

The National Park Authority website (dartmoor-npa.gov.uk) has a map of the areas where wild camping is allowed. Responsible souls will already be familiar with the instruction ‘Take nothing, leave nothing’ but in addition the site warns campers to: ‘Take all litter home. Guard against risk of fire. Ensure you do not pollute streams or rivers and avoid disturbing wildlife.’

Apart from these hard and fast rules, the quality of the experience is up to the individual. Some people hike deep into the moor to pitch a tent, while others prefer to stay relatively near to roads or other civilisation.

Wherever you decide to pitch, it’s important that you have access to clean water and, for when nature calls, take a shovel.

Essential information

WHEN TO GO: Skaigh Stables is open for riding from March 31 until October 31.
GETTING THERE: Skaigh is a three-hour drive from London.
GETTING AROUND: Although there are local buses, it’s best to have your own car, or plan on walking long distances. Hire a car at easycar.com/tntmagazine for a 5 per cent discount.
GOING OUT: A beer costs £3.
ACCOMMODATION: Free for wild campers (see above). Just make sure you have a tent, sleeping bag, torch and shovel. The Barton, in Belstone, has twin rooms from £60.
GET MORE INFO AT: skaighstables.co.uk and dartmoor.co.uk.

» Sarah Warwick did the one-day pub ride with Skaigh Stables (01837 840429; skaighstables.co.uk) which costs £60. Shorter rides are available for £18 per person per hour.