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If you are in any doubt about the capacity of rocks to shape relief, go to Devon. The county offers many good tutorials in geomorphology. South-west England is fabulous territory for rock jocks and Devon’s two national parks, Dartmoor and Exmoor, are good places to start.
Dartmoor is England’s most extensive area of upland landscape south of the Pennines. It rises to no great heights, yet the moor communicates a remarkable sense of wilderness — especially on dark nights and foggy days. Arthur Conan Doyle clearly appreciated the haunting power of the moor; he set one of his most celebrated Sherlock Holmes books on Dartmoor. Be assured, though, that you’ll not run into the Hound of the Baskervilles as you wander across Dartmoor.
Dartmoor is a great granite boss, the details of which have been shaped by millions of years of erosion and weathering. The summits (locally called “tors”) are fantastic jumbles of bare rock, shaped by wind and water. Settlements hunker down in the lee of the hills or take refuge in the valleys.
Dartmoor belongs wholly to Devon. The county’s other national park, Exmoor, which abuts the Bristol Channel on the north coast, is shared with neighboring Somerset. Here the igneous rocks of Dartmoor are replaced by soft sedimentary rock, giving very different landscapes. There are sandstones and limestones, shales and gritstones. Acidic soils support little by way of agriculture at higher levels.
Towards the north coast, the streams and rivers draining the moor have cut deep valleys that drop down steeply towards the sea. These valleys offer some of Devon’s most distinctive landscapes. The stretch of north Devon coast around Lynton styles itself Little Switzerland (trumping its Alpine cousin in being able to boast a coastline).
Britain’s natural heritage
Dartmoor and Exmoor are two of England’s ten national parks. Devon is one of only four English counties that have, within their territory, all or part of more than one national park. Next year, Exmoor will mark 50 years of national park status. It was designated in 1954. Dartmoor secured the coveted designation slightly earlier. That was in 1951, the year in which the United Kingdom kicked off its national parks program by naming its first four parks.
Looking at those early parks from the 1950s, one has a sense of a program that was designed by men and women who had a fine sense of the relationship between rocks and relief. That ensemble of early parks offers a feast of geomorphology, a symphony of fine landscapes. Like other national parks, Devon’s two examples present fine hiking country. In both parks, open expanses of wild moorland offer every opportunity for reviving city spirits.
Travel writers Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner have penned warm words about Devon three times this month here on EuroCheapo. See their comments on Devon’s serenity (13 November), a visit to Exeter cathedral (20 November), and ways to explore Devon by bus, train and boat (27 November).