CHAGFORD, ENGLAND – The ancient wooden doors of St. Michael the Archangel Church were left wide open the day we stopped to tour this former tin mining town.
So we poked our heads inside but recoiled almost immediately - shielding our noses from the musty smell inside. The Reverend Anthony Geering watched our reaction from the sidelines and motioned us to enter the lovely old church.
“You’ll get used to the smell,” said the charming pastor. “You can’t expect a church this old to smell fresh and new.”
St. Michael dates back to the 13th century and is the place that inspired one of England’s most romantic novels, the story of Lorna Doone, from the pen of noted author R.D. Blackmore.
Few people know about St. Michael’s. Fewer still know anything about charming Chagford, one of the delightful towns that dot the rolling landscape found in beautiful Dartmoor National Park, the 365 acre natural beauty that is the highlight of this area known as Devonshire.
“Come closer and I’ll show you where she’s buried,” said Rev. Geering as he led us to the front of the wooden-beamed church. “There she is. Mary Whiddon, the woman the world knows as Lorna Doone.”
Mary Whiddon was a local girl shot and killed in 1641 outside St. Michael’s by a former lover as she emerged from the church after marrying another man. She was put to rest beside the main alter and lay there until author Blackmore rechristened here Lorna Doone. The rest is history.
But it’s not the only history you’ll find in St. Michael’s. The church graveyard is filled with ancient headstones; most so old they’ve been wiped clean by time. The church’s beams are lined with an intriguing “three hare symbol” - brought back to England by traders who traveled the ancient Silk Road through Asia. The bishop’s house located nearby dates back to the time St. Michael’s was built and the small thatched cottages that surround the impressive-looking church are among the best preserved in England.
Chagford is a fantasyland of flowers – its gardens are overflowing with flora and its streets are lined with quaint shops like the one selling pickled onions and old spot sausages.
Above: Be prepared to share the charming English back roads with some regulars.
What’s amazing, though, is that Chagford is not unique – at least not to this area of the world. Devonshire, or Devon as it’s known by locals, is filled with similar little villages featuring English gardens, castle ruins, small pubs and old prisons, like the one in Lydford where people were ordered hung by a ruthless judge back in the Middle Ages.
The prison ruins at Lydford Castle are a stark reminder of the brutality carried out here during the time of a hanging judge named Francis Jefferies. The last hanging there took place in 1640 but at the town’s low-beamed pub named the Castle Inn and Hotel, a short walk from the prison, they still make light of those days.
“They would have the hanging in the morning and the trial in the afternoon,” one man tells us before suggesting we spend the night in the town’s historic Dartmoor Inn, a 16th century relic that has been refitted with a lot of 21st century upgrades.
Other villages and interesting places you’ll come upon during a drive through Dartmoor are:
- Okehampton, where the half brother of William the Conquerer once built a castle that still sits perched on a granite hill overlooking the town.
- Tavistock, the hometown of English explorer Sir Francis Drake; another handsome castle, this one belonging to the 7th Duke of Bedford; and the Church of St. Michael de Rupe, which sits atop a rocky hilltop just outside Tavistock.
Above: The drive is littered with lots of historic landmarks like this one.
- Princetown, home of infamous Dartmoor Prison, where some of England’s most notorious criminals have been jailed.
- Powder Mills, where gun powder was first made in England and where a bridge named Hairyhands has a haunting past – legend has it that when a carriage approached the small stone bridge, a pair of hairy hands would appear and knock the carriage and its occupants into the bordering stream.
- The Warren House Inn, located in an isolated part of the park, where a fireplace in the local pub has apparently been burning continuously for the past 200 years.
- The Sandy Park Pub, just outside Chagford, where British television star Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous fame has been known to hang out. Saunders lives close to the charming 17th century pub where here brother Simon is a co-owner.
And in just about every small town you pass, you’ll see small inns all bearing the same name – The White Hart Inns – which are holdovers from the time of King Richard II. They were used as stopovers for people traveling between Plymouth – Devonshire’s major port – and London. They’ve all be well preserved and still welcome guests today – at very reasonable prices, we might add.
One of the beautiful things about traveling through this part of England is that accommodation is fairly reasonable and pub stays cost in the neighborhood of $60 a night – which includes a fabulous breakfast.
But then again, everything in Dartmoor National Park is absolutely fabulous!
- Getting to Dartmoor National Park is easy from London onboard BritRail. It’s a two and a half hour journey from London’s Paddington Station.
- For room rates and information on the White Hart Inns go to whitehartdartmoor.co.uk
- For information on the Castle Inn go to castleinnlydford.co.uk
- For information on Chagford, go to chagford-parish.co.uk
- For information on Dartmoor National Park and Devon go to visitbritain.com