At the northern boundary of Dartmoor, Okehampton is an agreeable town built from the local granite and defended by a once mighty castle.
The ruins of Okehampton Castle may be 500 years old, but still hold the allure that attracted painters like J. M. W. Turner in the early 19th century.
The arrival of the Exeter to Plymouth line in the 1870s gave Okehampton a shot in the arm and gave rise to imposing Victorian monuments like the Meldon Viaduct (1874), constructed with the cast and wrought iron.
The line was shut down in the 1960s, but you can ride a heritage service between Okehampton and Exeter on Sundays in summer.
Where the track has been removed you can also walk or cycle the Granite Way, an 11-mile trail carrying you over the Meldon Viaduct and into the beautiful Lydford Gorge.
Okehampton is in the wild heart of Devon, right on the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park.
Dartmoor’s uplands are Carboniferous granite, more than 300 million years old, and bursting through the moorland in rocky outcrops known as tors.
Lower down there’s blanket bog and spellbinding oak woodland in sheltered valleys.
From near Okehampton you can trek to Dartmoor’s highest tor the 621-metre High Willhays and return within hours.
On your journey across the moorland, you may see Dartmoor ponies, which are semi-feral and allowed to go where they please.
In spring the sight of foals frolicking against this wild backdrop will stay with you for a long time.
Dartmoor has been used as a firing range for more than 200 centuries, and there’s a large army training camp at Okehampton.
Red flags indicate live firing exercises, and the schedule is published in the Dartmoor Firing Notice.
2. Okehampton Castle
On a slender rocky outcrop above the West Okement River, Okehampton Castle is a motte and bailey castle raised by the Norman Sherriff of Devon, Baldwin FitzGilbert in the last decades of the 11th century.
Initially, the building had a purely defensive role, guarding the river crossing, but by the late 1200s, it had been turned into a comfortable hunting lodge by the wealthy Earls of Devon, the De Courtenay.
When Henry Courtenay was executed by Henry VIII for his Catholic ties in 1538, the castle went into decline.
Later, J. M. W. Turner and other Picturesque artists came to paint the ruins, which are now cared for by English Heritage.
Even after five centuries of decay, it’s easy to identify many of the buildings in the bailey, like the Great Hall, kitchens, buttery, chapel and priest’s lodgings, while the keep atop the motte survives in jagged stony shafts.
English Heritage has produced a free audio tour filling you in on the story of the De Courtenay and Baldwin FitzGilbert.
3. Dartmoor Railway
Okehampton is no longer served by regular trains but is on a preserved stretch of the London and South Western Railway’s West of Main Line.
This line shut down during the Beeching Cuts in the 1960s, but every Sunday in summer the Great Western Railway runs a service.
The Dartmoor Sunday Rover clatters through 15.5 miles of magical mid-Devon countryside between Exeter and Okehampton, curling around the north flank of Dartmoor.
There’s also a Heritage Shuttle Service on weekends and Bank Holidays from Okehampton Station to Meldon, officially the highest railway station in southern England and scene of the awesome Meldon Viaduct.
Check the Dartmoor Railway’s calendar for special afternoon tea services, a Peppa Pig train during school holidays and murder mystery experiences.
4. Meldon Viaduct
At the Meldon Dam, under ten minutes from Okehampton, you can park up and set off in search of this majestic industrial era truss bridge.
Traversing the West Okement River, the Meldon Viaduct (1874) is made from cast and wrought iron, rather than brick or stone, and took three years to build.
The bridge had an axle load limit, so only certain classes of locomotive could pass.
This stretch of the old Exeter to Plymouth Railway shut down in the 1960s, while traffic from the neighbouring ballast quarry stopped in 1990. Recently it’s been possible to walk the Meldon Viaduct’s 163-metre span on the Granite Way footpath.
You can also make your way into the valley to look up through the tangle of trusses and piers.
5. Museum of Dartmoor Life
At this old courtyard with a 19th-century mill and waterwheel, you can get in touch with 5,000 years of human history on Dartmoor.
You can find out what a Bronze Age roundhouse looked like, see how traditional cider was pressed, take a peek inside a Victorian kitchen and get to know a few traditional crafts like blacksmithing and wheelwrighting.
There’s also an informative exhibition about Dartmoor’s geology and the quarrying industry that continues today.
All of the displays are enriched with genuine artefacts like Bronze Age tools, agricultural and quarrying implements, as well as a rare early fire engine.
For a fitting end to your visit the Victorian Pantry Tearooms can be found on the museum’s courtyard.
6. Finch Foundry
Taken over by the National Trust in 1994, Finch Foundry is a working 19th-century water-powered forge.
The Finch Foundry is nestled in picturesque Dartmoor countryside, and at its peak produced more than 400 tools each day, among them scythes, sickles and shovels for farms and mines.
Every hour you can relive the foundry’s heyday, watching iron bars being flattened and cut by the tilt hammer, drop the hammer and edge hammer, all still driven by waterwheels.
The forge’s tearoom serves delectable cream teas and has a garden overlooking the River Taw and the high wooded moors.
7. Yes Tor
The car park at Meldon Dam can also be a launchpad for valiant hikes into Dartmoor, ascending the highest granite tors in the range.
Yes, Tor is at 619 metres, but the good news is that you’re already on high ground in Okehampton and the route to the summit is surprisingly light on a clear day, as it skirts the moorland on Longstone Hill on the way.
You’ll come across lots of granite boulders on the walk, and may not even be aware that you’re approaching the summit until you catch sight of the trig point and radio mast.
Yes Tor is on an arming firing range, so you’ll need to look out for red flags and consult the Dartmoor Firing Notice before attempting a hike.
8. High Willhays
Once you’ve tackled the second highest hill on Dartmoor you can continue to the highest, at the 621-metre High Willhays.
At its apex, you’ll be standing at the highest point in the UK, south of the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
You can scale this peak and get back to the car park in the span of a single morning.
But before you do, you might pause to take a few pictures of the mysterious moorland scenery and maybe build your own cairn from one of the many granite slabs scattered around.
9. Simmons Park
In 1905 the businessman Sydney Simmons, who had grown wealthy through a carpet cleaning patent, bought up a piece of meadow and woodland beside the East Okement River.
He funded landscaping, waterfalls, fountains and a Swiss-style chalet and donated the whole park the town.
Simmons Park opened in 1907, and its benefactor would recognise the park that is here today.
Later, in 1921, the council acquired the adjoining Kempley Meadows, and the 81-year-old Simmons funded a recreation area on the condition that the work is carried out by local residents in need of work.
As for facilities, there’s a pitch and putt lawn, a network of woodland paths, a bandstand, a rose garden for Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, a cricket pitch, the Parklands Leisure Centre (with 25-metre pool and gym) and a wildlife reserve at Platt Meadow.
10. The Granite Way
The Meldon Viaduct is one of the highlights on this relatively new 11-mile trail from Okehampton to Lydford.
Snaking around the north-west side of Dartmoor, the Granite Way is for walkers and cyclists, mostly on the trackbed of the former London and South Western Railway.
You can make a pit stop at Meldon, before continuing on past the Sourton Tors.
Unlike most of Dartmoor, these peaks are composed of hornfels, where ultra-heated granite intruded into the Carboniferous mudstone.
Towards the end of the trail, you’ll find yourself by the National Trust’s Lydford Gorge, the deepest gorge in the South West, coated with mosses and ferns, and with a 30-metre waterfall at its head.
11. Stone Lane Gardens
Inside Dartmoor’s northern boundary is a much-loved arboretum in five acres.
Stone Lane Garden has been more than forty years in the making and grows national collections of alder and birch trees in beautiful landscaping.
There are more than 1,000 birch and alder trees here, including exotic Asian species like Alnus Japonica, the black alder, the Chinese red birch and white Himalayan Birch.
Every year Stone Lane Gardens also stages the “Mythic Garden” sculpture exhibition, a showcase for West Country artists in this magical setting, running for over 25 years.
These works will add a little extra whimsy to a walk in the gardens.
12. Two Castles Trail
Okehampton Castle can be the first step on a 24-mile waymarked footpath in the peaceful countryside to Launceston Castle in Cornwall.
If you have the time to spare, the walk is broken up into four stages, each a day long.
The trail will carry you through mature woodland and overexposed moors and downs, once the scene of bloody battles, as you navigate the country with signs bearing the name of the trail in burgundy on a white background.
Your goal is Launceston Castle, first constructed just after the Norman conquest of Exeter in 1068, by the nobleman, Robert, Count of Mortain.
The castle was slighted after the Civil War in the mid-17th century, but big chunks of the shale-built stronghold are still standing, like the keep and high tower, as well as the Norman motte.
13. Roadford Lake Country Park
This reservoir was filled in 1989 and rests in the calming greenery of the Wolf Valley.
On the shores of Roadford Lake are woodland, orchards and old pasture, all supporting vibrant wildlife.
There are thousands of roosting lesser black-backed gulls in autumn, as well as breeding species like barn owls, great-crested grebes, coots, moorhens and Canada geese.
Walking and cycling paths weave around the reservoir’s shore and you can call in at the activity centre to see more of the lake on a paddle-board or in a canoe, or rent a boat to go fishing.
Tuition is available too if you feel like learning to sail.
Back on terra firma, there’s a tricky high ropes course for active older kids, and the much-loved Lakeside Cafe, which is open all year round.
14. Meldon Reservoir
More than a stepping stone to High Willhays and Yes Tor, Meldon Reservoir is in high open moorland, almost 300 metres above sea level.
At the north end by the car park, the Meldon Dam (1972) is a striking photo opportunity, while you can take a picnic by the water on a sunny day and watch fishers catching brown trout.
There’s a trail around most of the lake’s perimeter, and you should see ponies grazing in the fields on your walk.
15. Sunday Market
A community initiative, the Sunday Market was first set up in the summer of 2017 and is held in Okehampton’s Charter Hall from 10:00 to 14:00, June to August.
The market’s aim is to assemble small-scale local food producers, crafters, retailers, antiques sellers and alcohol producers.
As of 2019 there are 24 stalls for furniture, fresh fruit and vegetables, cakes, handmade gifts, flowers and lots of other arts and crafts.
You can also catch some live music and there are usually activities to keep children entertained.
All through November and into early December there are also “Festive Markets” in the build-up to Christmas.