Lydford is a small village of around 500 people situated right on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park between Tavistock and Okehampton.
It may be small, but it’s a place worth seeking out if you find yourself in this part of the world. It has an interesting history and some lovely scenery nearby, and I’ve never understood why so few people come here.
Along with Barnstaple, Exeter and Halwell in South Devon, Lydford was one of the four principle Devon burghs that Alfred the Great created to defend his kingdom of Wessex against the Danes, and it was from this period that the town became an important coin minting centre.
Silver was the metal of preference for coins at the time and Lydford was fortunate in having a rich supply of the stuff nearby. The mines provided the silver and the ‘Moneyers’ made the coins. These silver coins were known as ‘Lydford Pennies’ and an estimated one and a half million of them were produced: A few of these have found their way into the Castle Inn, but if you happen to come from Scandinavia I wouldn’t mention the fact because most of these coins were whisked away by the Vikings during a late 10th century raid, and you have a far better chance of seeing some in Stockholm than you do in England.
The Castle Inn is a genuinely authentic 16th century pub with flagstone floors, old settles and even a Norman fireplace, which probably originally belonged to the castle next door.
The first castle that the Normans built was a Motte and Bailey earthwork within the fortified Anglo-Saxon defences just after the conquest, but by the end of the 12th century the earthworks had been abandoned (but still remain) and a new stone keep built. This stone keep was also replaced in the 13th century by the one we see today, but it’s not as a military fortification that Lydford Castle is best remembered, but as the stannary court.
The word ‘Stannary’ refers to the mining of tin, which both Devon and Cornwall had a rich supply of. In Devon there were four Stannary towns – Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford, followed later by Plympton. These towns were responsible for assessing the weight and quality of the tin before stamping and levying a duty on it.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the tin industry was extremely important to England’s prosperity during the Middle Ages and these stannary towns were granted special privileges with separate legal jurisdiction. By now, Lydford had become the administrative centre of the Royal Forest of Dartmoor, and Lydford Castle became home to the Stannary Court.
It’s not difficult therefore, to understand the influence that this court was able to exert on the local population, and the castle was used as a prison as well as a court. Here’s an example – “the penalty upon any miner found guilty of adulterating tin for fraudulent purposes was that three spoonfuls of molten tin should be poured down into his throat”. In the 17th century a local poet by the name of Browne wrote: –
“I oft hear of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgement after.”
I did say that Lydford also had some lovely scenery nearby, and Lydford Gorge is a perfect example.
‘Lyd’ in Anglo-Saxon parlance meant ‘roaring stream’ and that sums up the River Lyd admirably as it passes through the gorge.
The Lyd is only a short river, rising on Dartmoor and flowing into the Tamar near Lifton, but the geology of the area assisted the melt waters of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) into gouging out the ravine and making it the deepest gorge in this part of the country.
Since 1944 the National Trust (NT) has accumulated 116 acres and 1½ miles of the river valley in order to look after and maintain this Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means that if you want to come and enjoy the experience for yourself, then you’ll have to pay for the privilege.
The fact that the NT charges admission may put some people off but this is no easy place to maintain, and they also provide facilities and free parking, both at the main entrance and the Waterfall entrance.
To do the full circular walk of about 3 miles should take approximately 2½ hours depending on your fitness. It’s steep in places, and muddy nearly everywhere, so come prepared.
If you prefer, you can do a couple of shorter walks, one from either end. The Waterfall walk will take you down to the 90ft White Lady Waterfall, and the other walk starting at the main entrance will take you down to the Devil’s Cauldron. Even if you don’t do the full valley walk (which is one way only), it’s worth making the effort to see the Waterfall and Devil’s Cauldron.
The best time to come is when the river is in full spate, but it can get dangerous at times, and when it does the NT closes the site to visitors, and although they do their best to cater for people with mobility problems, not all parts of the gorge are accessible. For more practical information it’s best to visit their website.
Lovely scenery around Lydford isn’t confined to the gorge though because High Dartmoor is not far away, and although I’m not taking you there today, I think it’s worth trying to make the effort to take a walk up to Brent Tor while you’re in the area.
Situated between Lydford and Tavistock, a short walk leads up to St Michael’s Church on top of this impressive outcrop of rock. The tor’s distinctive shape can be seen for miles around, and is unusual for Dartmoor as it’s made from volcanic lava rather than granite.
I haven’t brought you here for a geology lesson though, but more for the views, which as you can imagine, stretch for miles.
All this walking is bound to make you thirsty, and I’ve kept something special up my sleeve to the end.
Back on the other side of Lydford, on the way to Okehampton is the tiny village of Sourton, and here you’ll find a hostelry that has been named “Britain’s most unusual pub” – The Highwayman Inn.
You know as soon as you pull up into the car park that this pub is like no other you’ve been into. When I first set foot inside The Highwayman back in the 1970s, I’d never come across anywhere like it before – and I still haven’t.
As soon as you walk through the old ‘Tavistock to Launceston Stagecoach’, which doubles up as the front door, you’ll be amazed at what there is in here.
It was 1959 when Buster Jones and his wife Rita took over the pub and transformed it into an Aladdin’s cave of artefacts that would put the Antiques Roadshow to shame, but it doesn’t end there. If you think that the bar and the ‘Hideaway’ are unusual, make your way along the narrow passageway to Rita Jones’s Locker, where it resembles an old ship’s galley with all the nautical paraphernalia you could imagine. The bar top is a piece of timber dragged out of a nearby Dartmoor bog, with a ‘serpent’ on the end of it – and so it goes on.
Buster and Rita have now passed on, but the pub is run by their daughter Sally with her husband Bruce. A nicer person you couldn’t wish to meet and she follows in her parents’ footsteps with a quirky friendliness that won’t fail to win you over.
Over 50 years have passed since this unbelievable place was transformed, and as Sally and Bruce get nearer to the age of retirement themselves, I can’t help but think that the place won’t stay the same forever.
If the area around Lydford appeals to you, then you may be considering having an overnight stop; The Highwayman has a small number of rooms, but I have to warn you that the pub is haunted, and I strongly advise people of a weak disposition to think twice about booking a room on Halloween. They do have accommodation opposite the pub which is more “Private and Personal” called Cobweb Hall, but if all this sounds a bit too much, then the Castle Inn at Lydford also does accommodation, but that has a ghost as well, so perhaps I’ve just answered my own question as to why not too many visitors come to Lydford after all.