The granite upland dates from the Carboniferous period of geological history. The moorland is capped with many exposed granite hilltops (known as tors), providing habitats for Dartmoor wildlife. The highest point is High Willhays, above sea level. The entire area is rich in antiquities and archaeology.
Parts of Dartmoor have been used as a military firing range for over 200 years. The public enjoy extensive access rights to the rest of Dartmoor, and it is a popular tourist destination. The Park was featured on the TV programme Seven Natural Wonders as the top natural wonder in South West England.
The highest points on Dartmoor are High Willhays at and Yes Tor on the northern moor. Ryder's Hill , Snowdon , and an unnamed point at are the highest points on the southern moor. Probably the best known tor on Dartmoor is Haytor (also spelt Hey Tor) . For a more complete list see List of Dartmoor tors and hills.
The levels of rainfall on Dartmoor are considerably higher than in the surrounding lowlands. With much of the national park covered in thick layers of peat, the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so that the moor is rarely dry.
In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, up to across and topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as "feather beds" or "quakers", because they shift (or 'quake') beneath your feet. This is the result of accumulations of sphagnum moss growing over a hollow in the granite filled with water.
Another consequence of the high rainfall is that there are numerous rivers and streams on Dartmoor. As well as shaping the landscape, these have traditionally provided a source of power for moor industries such as tin mining and quarrying.
For a full list, expand the Rivers of Dartmoor navigational box at the bottom of this page.
The climate at the time was warmer than today, and much of today's moorland was covered with trees. The prehistoric settlers began clearing the forest, and established the first farming communities. Fire was the main method of clearing land, creating pasture and swidden types of fire-fallow farmland. Areas less suited for farming, tended to be burned for livestock grazing. Over the centuries these Neolithic practices greatly expanded the upland moors, contributed to the acidification of the soil and the accumulation of peat and bogs.
The nature of the soil, which is highly acidic, means that no organic remains have survived. However, by contrast, the high durability of the natural granite means that their homes and monuments are still to be found in abundance, as are their flint tools. It should be noted that a number of remains were "restored" by enthusiastic Victorians and that, in some cases, they have placed their own interpretation on how an area may have looked.
There are also an estimated 5,000 hut circles still surviving today, despite the fact that many have been raided over the centuries by the builders of the traditional dry stone walls. These are the remnants of Bronze Age houses. The smallest are around in diameter, and the largest may be up to five times this size.
Some have L-shaped porches to protect against wind and rain – some particularly good examples are to be found at Grimspound. It is believed that they would have had a conical roof, supported by timbers and covered in turf or thatch.
Many ancient structures, including the hut circles at Grimspound, were reconstructed during the 19th century – most notably by civil engineer and historian Richard Hansford Worth. Some of this work was based more on speculation than archaeological expertise, and has since been criticised for its inaccuracy.
It was not until the early medieval period that the weather again became warmer, and settlers moved back onto the moors. Like their ancient forebears, they also used the natural granite to build their homes, preferring a style known as the longhouse – some of which are still inhabited today, although they have been clearly adapted over the centuries. Many are now being used as farm buildings, while others were abandoned and fell into ruin.
The earliest surviving farms, still in operation today, are known as the Ancient Tenements. Most of these date back to the 14th century and sometimes earlier.
Some way into the moor stands the town of Princetown, the site of the notorious Dartmoor Prison, which was originally built both by, and for, prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars. The prison has a (now misplaced) reputation for being escape-proof, both due to the buildings themselves and its physical location.
The Dartmoor landscape is scattered with the marks left by the many generations who have lived and worked there over the centuries – such as the remains of the once mighty Dartmoor tin-mining industry, and farmhouses long since abandoned. Indeed the industrial archaeology of Dartmoor is a subject in its own right.
Dartmoor abounds with myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of 'spectral hounds', and a large black dog. During the Great Thunderstorm of 1638, Dartmoor was even said to have been visited by the Devil.
Dartmoor has inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.
Dartmoor differs from some other National Parks in England and Wales, in that since a 1985 Act of Parliament much of it has been designated as 'Access Land', with no restrictions on where walkers can roam. This Access Land remains privately owned land.
There are still almost of footpaths and bridleways on Dartmoor, but they are for guidance and convenience – they do not have to be kept to, and in fact footpaths in these sections of the Park are generally not waymarked. This is not connected with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which has established similar rights in other rural parts of the country. Dartmoor is largely unaffected by this legislation because of its existing arrangements. In 2006, this Act opened up much of the remaining restricted land for walkers – a topic much disputed amongst the landowners and the councils .
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) uses three areas of the northern moor for manoeuvres and live-firing exercises, totalling 108.71 km² (41.9 mile²), or just over 11% of Dartmoor National Park. Red and white posts mark the boundaries of these military areas (shown on Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale maps). Flagpoles on many tors in and around the ranges will fly red flags when firing is taking place. At other times, members of the public are allowed access. Blank rounds may also be used, but the MoD has no obligation to alert the civilian population of this.
Those wishing to walk in the firing areas are advised to check the firing times for the coming week by calling the MoD on 0800 4584868. Further advice is available at the National Park website
Throughout human history, the landscape has been exploited for industrial purposes. In recent years, controversy has surrounded the work of industrial conglomerates Imerys and Watts Blake Bearne, who have used parts of the moor for china clay mining. Licences were granted by the British Government but were recently renounced after sustained public pressure from bodies such as the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Many of these licences predate much of the heavy machinery which is in use today. Imerys were singled out for particular criticism after work at Lee Moor destroyed a number of archaeologically significant sites.
The British government has made promises to protect the integrity of the moor; however, the cost of compensating companies for these licences, which may not have been granted in today's political climate, could prove prohibitive.
The military use of the moor has been another source of controversy, such as when training was extended in January 2003. The National Park Authority received 1,700 objections before making the decision. Objectors claimed that Dartmoor should be an area for recreation, and that the training disturbs the peace.
Those who objected included the Open Spaces Society and the Dartmoor Preservation Association. During her lifetime, Lady Sayer was another outspoken critic of the damage which she perceived that the army was doing to the moor.
Dartmoor has a resident population of about 33,400, which swells considerably during holiday periods with incoming tourists. For a list, expand the Settlements of Dartmoor navigational box at the bottom of this page.
This pursuit has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Watertight containers, or 'letterboxes', are hidden throughout Dartmoor, each containing a visitor's book and a rubber stamp. The original intention was for walkers to leave a letter or postcard, which would then be collected and posted by the next person to visit the site. Today visitors take an impression of the letterbox's rubber stamp as proof of finding the box and record their visit by stamping their own personal stamp in the letterbox's logbook.
Until the 1970s there were no more than a dozen such sites around the moor, usually in the most inaccessible locations. Today there are thousands of letterboxes, many within easy walking distance of the road. Today there is a club called the "100 Club", membership of which is open to anyone who has found at least 100 letterboxes on Dartmoor. Clues to the locations of letterboxes are published by the "100 Club" in an annual catalogue. Some letterboxes however remain "word of mouth" and the clues to their location can only be obtained from the person who placed the box. Some clues may also be found in other letterboxes or on the Internet, this is however more commonly for letterboxes in places other than Dartmoor, where no "100 Club" or catalogue exist. Letterboxing has become a sport in itself, with thousands of walkers gathering for 'box-hunts' – and in some areas of the moor is particularly popular amongst children, some of the more difficult to find boxes and tougher terrain are however better suited to more experienced adults.
Such letterboxes have also been placed in various locations around the world, with a more recent variant known as geocaches. These caches are usually much harder to find, and often require GPS coordinates to locate.