The Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, 2 Pennsylvania Road, Exeter
On B3212 south west of Dunsford village and 9 miles from Exeter Map reference: SX805
2-mile long Reserve with bridle path, Fisherman’s Path, and Daffodil Walk in wooded river valley Information board at trail entrances; illustrated brochure from tourist information caravan on B3212 (about 250 yards east of trail entrance) or from Devon Trust, Steps Bridge Hotel, 100yds from trail entrance There is many a holiday-maker stuck in the bumper-to-bumper drudgery of the A38 in high summer who must wonder if there is not an alternative route to the delights of Cornwall. There is, of course, but the B3212, carving its way across the heart of Dartmoor from Exeter to Yelverton deserves more than a transitory glance. While the moors can be enjoyed through the windscreen, the surprisingly varied vegetation and animal life of this area of Devon can only be fully appreciated on foot.
Over the years, numerous Dartmoor walk-ways have been designated and run by enter-prising conservation groups, and the trail near Dunsford, developed by the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, is a fine example. The trail, situated in a 140-acre Nature Reserve on the steep valley side of the Teign, is in the north-eastern corner of the Dartmoor National Park on the B3212 between Dunsford and Moretonhampstead.
The eastern end and normal start of the walk is Steps Bridge, a natural beauty spot rich in flora and fauna. The bridge itself, as the inscribed stones reveal, was built in 1816 and marks the boundary of Dunsford and Bridford parishes.
The nearby Steps Bridge Hotel has a self-service restaurant and a large beer-garden -ample parking space makes it an ideal starting and finishing point. Wild ducks and deer breed in the hotel grounds and during June the gardens have an impressive display of rhododendrons. In somewhat simpler surroundings, there is a youth hostel directly opposite, across theB3212.
The trail, running the two-mile length of the Meadhaydown and Dunsford Woods which form the Reserve, is an existing bridle path, with deviations down to the banks of the Teign and the valley floor area which is called the Fisherman’s Path. Two short detours are named the Daffodil Walk for the sights they afford of this springtime delight. Dunsford’s
daffodils are, in fact, such an attraction that they are specially cared for by the trimming of the bracken in late summer. The fronds rot away and the daffodils grow up unhindered in the following spring.
Much of the Reserve’s woodland was cop-piced for many years to provide the wood for fencing, charcoal and firewood. Dunsford has a rich mix of deciduous trees including oak (predominant), birch, beech, alder, ash and sycamore and these are cut back every twenty-five years or so to sprout and grow again. Just a few trees were allowed to develop to maturity to provide larger timbers. The Devon Trust has now re-introduced coppicing to restore the woodland to the natural status it would have enjoyed for centuries. Good coppice management keeps clearings open from the encroachment of blackthorn, provides abundant material for the support of fungi and enables birds, insects and small mammals to colonise the stacks of cut wood.
Of course, it is the River Teign, forming the Reserve’s south boundary that dominates the environment. Flowing over the Carboniferous slates, shales and sandstone inclusions which characterise the Dartmoor fringe, the Teign has shed its load of loam over the water-borne gravel of the valley floor. It is in these damp conditions that mosses, lichens and fungi survive and thrive and the Trust is encouraging this aspect of the Reserve’s flora actively.
Snowdrops are another valley-floor resident which, it is hoped, will spread throughout the bank area. Marsh plants are found in profusion including marigold, meadow sweet, and the tall grooved stems of the poisonous hemlock, water dropwort.
Fishing on this part of the Teign is private but in a few quiet minutes spent on the bank you should see the brown trout holding its station, nose to the current and waiting for insect larvae and pupae to float into its orbit. The Teign has a fairly healthy autumn and spring salmon run, with migratory trout appearing in the late spring and summer. The Teign was unlucky enough to have the first known wild colony of the voracious mink, breeding from escaped mink farm animals -they are occasionally sighted in the Reserve. Otters might be present under the banks, too, but this rare and endangered water mammal has not been seen recently and the Trust ask visitors to report on sightings.
While keen entomologists will find that the weir at Steps Bridge is an ideal place to spot the many aquatic insects of the Teign, including may-flies and the pond-skater, Dunsford is not a great haven of insects due to the very dense nature of the woods and ground cover. There are some unusual colonies of wood crickets, said to be the highest and furthest inland in the county, and some twenty-six species of butterfly are recorded. Britain’s largest ant species, the wood ant which is about half an inch long, is living throughout the woods, the most immediate sign of its presence being the characteristic three-inch high mound, capped by woodland debris, which is just the iceberg tip of the underground colony.
Dunsford has a typical population of wood-land birds, including the wood warbler, missel thrush, five species of tits and three woodpeck-ers, including the rare lesser spotted species. You will really have to wait a considerable time to see these species against the wood’s dark
River Bovey is the major hazard, on a course made famous by Peter Alliss’s television series of instruction.
If after all this ruralism you care for a glimpse of city life, then Exeter is only nine miles away. Among the city’s many sights are the Maritime Museum, a very early Guildhall, the lovely cathedral and an underground labyrinth of mediaeval aqueducts which once supplied the city water. In the Drewsteignton area, Castle Drogo is a major attraction. It is a granite extravaganza which is possibly the last grand-scale country house to be built in Britain – it was designed by Edward Lutyens early this century. More Dartmoor granite can be seen in the nearby 400-year-old Fingle Bridge. Further downstream, overlooking the Teign is Preston-bury Castle, the earthwork ramparts of an Iron Age fort.
Dunsford is not the only reserve in this region of the Dartmoor fringe – Yarner Wood National Nature Reserve is of particular interest to bird-watchers. More energetic walkers may like to tackle the heights of the Fernwor-thy Forest Trail which climbs four miles over tors, reaching over 1600 feet.