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Dr John Hawkins

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Dartmoor Pub Crawl

Posted on 2016/03/30 22:30:08 (March 2016).

[Friday 25th March 2016]
The last time I'd had a bit of time to myself, when Chie and Erika were in Japan last October, I went on a bit of an adventure to Italy, and had a marvellous time of it. So this time round, having returned from Japan ahead of the girls, I wanted to take advantage of the long Easter weekend for another bit of a jaunt, albeit perhaps a bit less ambitious given the shorter period of time available.

I'd spent a while mulling it over, and eventually settled on an idea driven by the quest for quaint - some unfinished business since before Christmas. Andrew at work had demanded a quaint pub crawl in the run up to Christmas for the second year running, and on the most recent attempt we'd gone as far out as Oxford, only to then realise the pubs there weren't really hitting the top end of the quaint scale. Of course, to get to maximum levels of quaint, you need to go rural - and so since December I'd had a gnawing urge to get really out into the depths of the countryside to find some maximally quaint pubs.

And so I rose early this morning, and was on the 8am train out of Paddington, bound for Exeter. From there I took a surprisingly nice bus journey (it was a double decker, the views were very pleasant) in the direction of Okehampton, and got off just before we got there, at a middle-of-nowhere road junction called Tongue End Cross, which was the closest the bus went to Belstone, the first point of call on my meticulously planned route. It's actually quite a logistical challenge planning a pub crawl on Dartmoor - most of the pubs are of course pretty spread out, public transport is very limited, and hiring a car would of course rather defeat the object. However I found one handy corner in the North East of the moor - Belstone, Sticklepath and South Zeal - where in those three villages there are five pubs, and there's only about three or four miles of walking involved.

I had been to Belstone a couple of times before - most notably at the end of an epic cross moor hike with Dad, having started at Two Bridges, and camped wild somewhere in the middle. I was a teenager, so it must have been over 20 years ago. More recently I went with Chie (on a trip to Dartmoor in 2003), and from that visit I had an image in my head of the beer garden at the Tors Inn, with views straight out onto the hills which form the edge of the wild moor.

The Tors Inn certainly isn't the most attractive pub on Dartmoor in terms of the building itself, but the beer garden is spectacular, especially given the lovely weather we were having today (which, as almost everyone I heard commenting on it, was going be for today only - the forecast for tomorrow was dire). So I had my inaugural pint and a ploughman's lunch sitting on one of the picnic benches outside the Tors Inn, admiring the view, and enjoying the delightful spring weather.

From there, I followed the Tarka Trail along the Taw River, a section known as Belstone Cleave, which is a very pleasant wooded gorge, and on a day like today was rather idyllic. I think it's just under 3 miles, and took around an hour.

So at just gone 2 o' clock I arrived in Sticklepath, and once there headed straight to pub number 2, the Taw River Inn. I almost felt ever so slightly sorry for the Taw River Inn, it's a perfectly decent pub, with incredibly cheap beer (2.60 a pint!) but I somehow knew advance that the real star of Sticklepath - and in fact the whole day - was going to be the other pub, the Devonshire Inn.

And I was entirely right - I immediately fell in love with the Devonshire Inn as soon as I walked in. It can sometimes be a little difficult putting my finger on what exactly makes such a perfect pub. Absolutely the worst possible fate that can befall a pub is modernisation. The merest hint of a Farrow and Ball paint job and I immediately lose interest. However there are also places which have avoided that terrible destiny but didn't have a particularly appealing decor in the first place, have never had much care lavished on them, and now look rather run down and tatty. Somewhere in between though, or possibly existing on a different axis altogether, are pubs which have beautiful interiors that haven't changed for decades, or even centuries, and have clearly been cherished by landlords and customers alike. Unspoiled, but not unloved either. The Devonshire Inn exists on this magical plane of pub heaven.

I stood at the bar, and was served by a lady who could well be in her 80s. The beers are served directly from stillage behind the bar, and despite the glorious weather outside there was a roaring open fire. I immediately became ensconced in conversation with a couple of the regulars, and I'd have been very happy to just stay here the rest of the day, but eventually felt I ought to press on with the rest of the itinerary, so reluctantly headed back outside, in the direction of the next village, South Zeal.

Before I'd left Sticklepath though I had a call from Dad, to say he had now arrived at South Zeal. I originally said we were going to meet there, but having loved the Devonshire Inn so much I wanted Dad to see it too, so in fact I got Dad to come for another pint there. He of course loved it too, although there was by now was a "rowdy" group (of gents in their 60s and 70s) so it wasn't quite as idyllic as it had been when I was there.

From there we headed on to South Zeal, for the final two pubs - the Kings Arms and the Oxenham Arms. Both decent enough pubs in their own right (the latter being more of a hotel) but the Devonshire Inn was just a very hard act to follow.

We left South Zeal around 5:30 or so, and drove to Dad's house, where we had homity pie for dinner.

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