“To his eyes all seemed beautiful, but to me a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside, which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed. The rattle of our wheels died away as we drove through drifts of rotting vegetation–sad gifts, as it seemed to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles.”
No rattle of carriage wheels for us, but we did have a suitably atmospheric arrival as we drove across the moor last month. We were spending a couple of nights at a country hotel to celebrate Bernie’s birthday. As a child, his birthday would have been in high summer. Having shifted hemispheres, it now lies entombed in deepest winter. And wherever in the world he is, it sits behind the detritus of Christmas, when the notion of celebrating is somewhat jaded, and the purse strings are tight. Not that he is bothered by this, but I feel it: come the New Year I’m generally out of energy and out of ideas for ways to mark the occasion. This year was different.
“The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you”
The mist was swirling across the road as we drove: nestling in hollows, shrouding the stunted trees in dank grasping tendrils. It certainly did feel that we were entering another realm. Patches of bright green algae spread across copious pools and puddles, clearly visible, and hard against the road. I thought of vanishing bodies sucked slowly downwards leaving just a hat floating on the weed…
It was the perfect way to arrive.
Beyond those splashes of sharp green, the tones were muted and no less beautiful for that. We’ve driven on Dartmoor several times and initially started our house hunting around its wooded edges. But I’d forgotten how bleakly beautiful it is.
Dartmoor has a haunting, melancholic beauty that is at its richest in the depths of winter. As we reached the hotel, the mists dissipated and by the time we reached our room, ponderous raindrops were falling. I gazed through the raindrops on the glass at the ancient bridge we had crossed on arrival and savoured the whisperings of legend and literature.
“It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a rising howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild and menacing.”
Originally a coaching inn built late in the eighteenth century, our hotel has been modified and added to over the years but still retains plenty of quirks. We heard no hound howling into the darkness, just the honking of the resident flock of geese.
And we saw no gigantic footprints, though there was mud a-plenty. On our first afternoon we watched a pair of dark ponies, motionless in the now relentless rain. They were so still in fact, that I’d decided they were fakes, positioned to add to the hotel’s charm. The sight of two dark-coated Dartmoor ponies running freely behind the hotel on the following day soon proved me wrong, and very glad I was too. It’s the first time I’ve seen wild ponies in full gallop. A wonderful sight but sadly not one I was able to capture.
Inside the hotel were winding passages, with short flights of creaking stairs up and short flights of creaking stairs down. I had entirely lost my sense of direction once we had reached our room. It was pleasantly disorienting. Tea beckoned.
Downstairs, huge fireplaces, comfy sofas, dark wood tables and refined leather wingback chairs filled the receptions rooms. Comfortably cluttered, warmly inviting, once we had found our way back we took full advantage. I confess to coveting those wingback chairs, placed of course, either side of the fireplace. But that’s another story. We were warm and well fed and enjoyed a very convivial evening.
And outside, the weather did its worst.
“A strong wind sang sadly as it bent the trees in front of the Hall. A half-moon shone through the dark, flying clouds on to the wild and empty moor.”
All quotes from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
Arthur Conan Doyle