England: Day 5: Dartmoor

We rose fairly early this morning to get a good start on our trip to Dartmoor, a wonderful 365 square mile national park near Exeter. As we drove into the moor, we were struck with the beauty of the place — the hedgerows gave way to stone fences, sheep littered the verdant fields (and the roads, at times), piles of granite called “tors,” placed thousands of years ago, loomed at the top of hills. I nearly drove us into ditches and livestock more than once as I tried to guide the car while drinking in as much of the scenery as possible.

I was again reminded of some of the fundamental differences in driving in Europe. Aside from the obvious issue of being on the left side of the road, getting from one place to another is by necessity a more cooperative venture than in the States. Many of the roads that accomodate two-way traffic were actually so narrow that the roadside bushes were scraping both sides of the car at once as we passed, and wouldn’t have been able to accomodate the SUVs and large pickup trucks popular in Texas at all. When we met oncoming traffic, one or the other of the drivers would have to pull into one of the semi-frequent, but very small, broadenings in the roadway and allow the other to pass. Most amusing was when a series of cars from each direction would meet, creating an impromptu Tower of Hanoi style puzzle as we all worked together to figure out how to move the two convoys past each other.

Our first stop in Dartmoor was Postbridge, a nifty little village situated along the East Dart River. We jumped out and ran around the banks of the river for a while, enjoying the natural scenery and the stone bridges that spanned the river at this point. The bridge known as the “Clapper Bridge” is made up of huge stone slabs propped up with piles of rock, and is thought to date back to the 13th century. (Once again, we’re startled by the richness of history of this place, since there are so few artifacts in America more than a few hundred years old.) I was delighted to see a few of the ubiquitous touring retirees nearby with easels and paints, diligently working on landscapes.

After we’d had our fill of Postbridge, we leaped back into our motley collection of vehicles and started off for Widcombe in the Moor. Along the way, we were startled to see that one of the sheep we passed was a startling shade of blue, rather than the more traditional off-white. Driving on a bit farther, we saw a few more blue sheep, and then an orange one, and some green ones. We initially thought this was somebody’s Dr. Suess-inspired practical joke, but eventually decided that coloring sheep served the same purpose as branding cattle — identifying the owner, and helping to keep one’s herd separate from others’ animals. Personally, I think cattle ranchers should adopt this practice too. It’s obviously more humane than branding, and it would bring joy to my life to crest a hill in Texas and see a field of bright blue cows.

Widcombe on the Moor was another lovely town. Larger than Postbridge, it had a beautiful green next to the “Cathedral of the Moor,” the local church with dual claims to fame: it’s one of the prettiest churches for many miles around, and it was struck by lightning during a church service in October 1638. One of the witnesses of the event wrote a poem about the event, now posted on huge panels at the church’s entrance.

We enjoyed a lunch on the green and then spent some time wandering about the town, searching for the wild ponies that purportedly were allowed to wander through the streets. (We didn’t see any, though a few of us did have our first experiences with stinging nettle instead.) We also enjoyed a few more culinary curiosities: Prawn Cocktail Potato Chips, which were suprisingly good, and ice cream with clotted cream on top — also a hit with those who partook.

P.S. Just in case it wan’t abundantly clear, since we weren’t in London at the time, we were unaffected by the latest round of bomb attacks.