Savor the Scenic Moors of England's Devon

Favored with a mild climate, the county's interior remains remarkably uncrowded and unspoiled

It comes as no surprise that south Devon, tucked away in the southwest corner of England, with Cornwall on its left and Somerset on its right, and the English Channel lapping its long beaches, rates among the most popular vacation areas in all of Britain.

What does come as a surprise is that, despite the tourist onslaught on its coastal areas during the vacation season, the Devon interior, favored with a mild climate, remains uncrowded and comparatively unspoiled, a scenic landscape dotted with thatched cottages and high hedgerows. It's also laced with walking paths.

And yet, as one tours the area with its bewildering number of lovely old villages, historic landmarks, churches, markets, and the attractive and intriguing old Roman town of Exeter, Devon's capital, it is still the bare moors and the lush green belt surrounding them that remain in the mind's eye.

My wife and I spent a month late last summer ambling through south Devon. What we remember best, and still talk about, is the moor, a huge, hilly, barren plateau sitting in the heart of Devon. Parts of it rise to the highest elevation in all of southern Britain.

Nothing much grows on these gentle hills and yet, when the weather warms up, the vast area of sometimes soggy bog is largely covered with stubby heather and the luminous orange-yellow of the lovely bog asphodel under a vast sky.

Catching the eye, often from a long distance away, are the tors, strange outcroppings of granite that the winds and rains of centuries have sculpted into massive, twisted forms that loom above the moor.

Men have lived on the moors starting some 7,000 years ago. Up until the mid-13th century, the area was mostly covered with trees.

Reminders abound of the early inhabitants, including ritual stones that date back 4,000 years, outlines of early dwellings, and, of course, ancient graves.

There are a couple of oddities. Shaggy wild moor ponies, descendants of farm animals, roam the bogs and come up to the road to be fed. In 1950 there were still 30,000 of them. Today, their number has been reduced to a mere 3,000 from neglect and starvation.

Dartmoor prison, built during the Napoleonic wars to house French prisoners (and by 1812 some Americans as well) is a tourist magnet. Criminals were imprisoned there from 1850 and made to work in the granite quarries. The prison today houses 600 men.

The wildness and mystery of the moors inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his famous ''Hound of the Baskervilles.'' He first heard that local legend in 1901.

Visiting the moors is easy. Excellent roads run right through it, from Ashburton in the east to Tavistock in the west. There's also a very scenic north-south route from Moretonhampstead down to Yelverton (and from there directly into Plymouth, the tourist mecca on the south coast).

Going from east to west, one drives past the quaint Two Bridges and into Princetown, which offers an elaborate, modern, and very helpful information center covering the moors. It is full of fascinating details about their history and potential for the tourist, including the various walking trails and bird-watching.

Not to be missed is the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor with its impressive old church of St. Pancras. On its door is a sign asking visitors to be sure to close the door not only to keep the ponies out, but also to prevent the swallows from flying in.

We decided early on that we wanted to find a convenient base from which to explore the area. We wanted someplace comfortable and not too expensive, and found it just above the delightful little village of Lustleigh. We stayed at the edge of the moors in a roomy, tucked-away cottage that had once been a stable. All we heard were birds and the faint bleating of sheep. An inviting swimming pool beckoned just below us.

An efficient organization, called English Country Cottages (Fakenham, Norfolk, NR2 19NB, tel: 01328-864292) offers this kind of accommodation and provides a colorful brochure showing what is available.

Devon is honeycombed with bed-and-breakfast accommodations and hotels. What's more, the people are very friendly and the roads are excellent. Fast trains go from London to Newton Abbot and to Exeter and then down to the coast, but exploration by rental car is still preferable.

Of course, everyone drives on the left here, which initially presents a problem for the average American, and it certainly takes some getting used to.

Further, Devon roads - apart from the main ones - often are very narrow, winding lanes lined with tall and impenetrable hedgerows. A great deal of courtesy is shown by oncoming cars since passing, even at very slow speed, can be a breathtaking experience.

Lustleigh, a charming National Trust village, is the the hub of a large web of well-kept public walking paths. It's located some 14 miles south of Exeter, an attractive Roman town dominated by its magnificent 13th-century cathedral. Exeter is full of impressive landmarks ranging from Roman to medieval times. William the Conqueror besieged and took Exeter in 1068, two years after the Battle of Hastings.

Volunteer guides provide hour-long walking tours that are an absolute must if one is to appreciate the beauty and the history this splendid city - partly flattened during World War II - has to offer.

In the cathedral, with its exquisitely carved exterior, Millicent Buller - decades past retirement age - still works at the information desk twice a week. One of her ancestors, a British general during the Boer War, is buried in the church.

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