Imagine an enchanted woodland where pixies play by day and ferocious hell hounds roam at night. A mystical forest with twisted pygmy trees, gnarly branches and moss-covered boulders. This may sound like the setting for an otherworldly folk tale, but according to Devon folklore such a place exists at Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor. We took a family walk to Wistman’s Wood to discover the magic for ourselves.
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Where is Wistman's Wood?
Wistman’s Wood National Nature Reserve is an ancient woodland on the outskirts of Princetown in Dartmoor, South Devon. At 9 acres, it is only small, but has a unique, magical charm that has attracted visitors for centuries.
You can park in the small, free Wistman’s Wood car park opposite the Two Bridges Hotel in Princetown, Dartmoor. The postcode is PL20 6QF. This is a popular spot and can get busy, but there are more parking bays along the main road.
However, our luck was in, and we found a space straightaway. Managing to resist the urge to head straight to the pub we set off to find Wistman’s Wood.
The walk to Wistman's Wood
From the car park, you can’t go wrong. Just look for the signpost with an arrow pointing to Wistman’s Wood.
It really is a straightforward out-and-back route. The trail is about 1.5 miles (2km each way) and takes just over an hour in total.
Follow through the gate onto the gravel path which will lead to the pretty Crockern Cottage. The trail is fairly flat but can be uneven in places and is not suitable for buggies or wheelchairs. There is one stile, which crosses a stone wall. As you progress, the path will become rockier and less even.
The trail to Wistman’s Wood is a pretty route, with far-stretching views of the Dartmoor hills and valley. On either side of the path, you’ll see sheep, cows and possibly ponies grazing in the gorse.
Eventually you’ll find yourself on open moorland for the remainder of the walk. However, you’ll see Wistman’s Wood in the distance, so you’ll know where you’re heading. Just follow in this direction until you arrive at Wistman’s Wood.
Exploring Wistman's Wood
Wistman’s Wood is one of only three remote high-altitude oakwoods on Dartmoor. Yet, the oak trees are not the regal, solitary giants we normally see. In Wistman’s Wood the oak trees are stunted, with gnarled mossy branches that intertwine and twist down to the ground. Here lichen-covered granite boulders blanket the forest floor.
It really is different to anything else I’ve ever seen, apart from at Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean. It’s a real-life enchanted forest!
As it is so unique, this beautiful forest received protection as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1964.
It’s advisable not to go deep into the forest as the moss and lichen are so precious and fragile.
Some of it has taken hundreds of years to grow and there are now over 100 types of lichen in the wood. Some of the lichen is so rare (Horsehair lichen ) that it is only found here and one other place in Britain.
The legends of Wistman's Wood
This miniature woodland is extremely old and believed to date back to an ancient forest thousands of years before.
As you’d imagine, there are plenty of myths and legends associated with Wistman’s Wood. Some believe it was an ancient druid grove and venue for pagan rituals and you can still see a huge boulder “The Druid’s Stone” there.
Others talk of ghostly sightings on the Lych Way and a pack of Wisht hounds that would roam at night, looking for unsuspecting travellers. Either way it’s easy to see why the woods are shrouded in mystery.
One of the reasons the landscape in the woods is so unique is the lack of grazing. The animals are unable to access the woods, which has created a landscape quite unique to the rest of Dartmoor.
Unfortunately, an increase in visitors during lockdown has resulted in some significant damage to the lichen and moss. Natural England advise that visitors “walk around” the woods, rather than go deep inside.
We skirted the edge of the woods and were very careful not to stand on any boulders or touch the trees.
Afterwards, we made our way down to the West Dart River which runs along the valley and returned that way.
You will have to double back to get up to the path, so take care as some bits are rather boggy. (I found out the hard way!) Once back on the path we retraced our steps back to the car park and crossed to the Two Bridges Hotel
The Two Bridges Hotel, Dartmoor
The Two Bridges Hotel is an 18th Century hotel with inside and outside seating. We started with a much-deserved pint of local Dartmoor beer.
Afterwards we indulged in a Devonshire Cream Tea, which was delicious. The kids opted for the cake of the day which was a rather tasty chocolate cake.
What else can you see at Wistman's Wood?
If you continue to the north-east of Wistman’s Wood, you can see the ruined walls of over 100 prehistoric huts hidden among the moorland plants.
You could also do a longer circular walk, which returns via Longaford, Littaford and Crockern Tors. This walk is 5 miles.
Getting to Wistman's Wood
The wood is just outside of Princetown in the Dartmoor National Park. This is in the English county of Devon in South West England. You can access it from the B3357.
Have you been to Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor? We’d love to hear your comments below.
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