While I am and always will be a devoted fan of London, on this trip we decided to leave its many charms behind and spend a few days with our kids in the southern counties of Dorset and Devon. As soon as the accommodation was booked, I contacted our fabulous guide Alex for some itinerary inspiration.
Alex, for the many of you who have not yet met this charming Englishman, is an award-winning guide based out of Devon County, England. His tours span everything from fossil hunting along the Jurassic Coast to following in the footsteps (paw prints?) of Dartmoor's Hound of the Baskervilles.
When I spoke with Alex, we decided the best adventure for my family would involve a friendly border collie rather than a demonic hound. We made arrangements to meet up with a local farmer named Ken, who had lived all his life on a Dartmoor farm. Ken would take us for a walk through his farmland, while his border collie Matt would show off his sheep-herding skills.
Dartmoor National Park is a jaw-droppingly beautiful part of Devon. Unlike much English countryside, it's less about blackberries, rose bushes, and manicured hedgerows, and more about wild vistas, open moorland and dramatic stone outcrops. Bronze age settlements have left evidence of their existence in the standing stones and circles scattered throughout the hills.
In the midst of all this wild beauty lies Ken's sheep farm, which has been in his family for generations. His grandparents and parents farmed the land, and he and his brothers continue to carry on the tradition. There's not much money in it, he tells us, as we walk alongside the stone walls and brooks that mark his farmland. It costs the same amount to sheer the sheep as he can make selling their wool, and the Dartmoor ponies he raises cost more to care for than he earns selling them at market. While our walk takes place on a fine, sunny day, for 10 months out of the year he's likely to be caught outdoors in driving wind and rain. But he can't imagine another or a better life.
We spend a couple hours with Ken and his sheepdog Matt, learning what it means to be a Duchy Tenant living on Prince Charles' land, and immersing ourselves in the Dartmoor landscape. Matt showed off his training and agility by keeping a flock of sheep in tight order as we made our way across the fields.
After we shook hands (and paws) with Ken and Matt, we left the farm and drove through the winding roads of Dartmoor, stopping to grab some lunch, and scampering on the stone tors that dot the hilltops. Tourist motor-coaches were a familiar site in many parking lots we passed. Witnessing these large groups filing on and off their buses, we couldn't help but feel a little bit special to have spent the morning making friends with a long time local, and gaining a slice of understanding about what life in this part of the world is all about.
Thank you to Alex for providing us with a truly local experience! We will definitely be returning to Devon, and I highly recommend Alex's Ultimate Dartmoor Experience to anyone else traveling to this incredible corner of England. (If you need further convincing, have a look through the photos at the top - and thanks to Alex for taking the best ones.)