Dartmoor sunsets and a sunrise

Autumn provides the best sunsets on Dartmoor

Autumn provides the best sunsets on Dartmoor - Credit: David Phillips

I love watching the sun setting, especially over the hills of Dartmoor.

In my humble opinion, there is nothing more beautiful in nature and you get to witness it everyday - in theory! 

I find that autumn provides the best sunsets, especially after a particularly sunny and cloudy day.

You need the clouds to give the sunlight something to bounce off and this can make for some stunning photographic opportunities.

The timing also helps, when the nights start drawing in and the sun sets between 7pm and 8pm, that usually coincides with the end of my letterboxing hunts and allows me to concentrate on taking pictures.

During the summer months of more daylight hours, I find later sunsets harder to catch as that makes for a much longer day’s walking, plus cloudless skies don’t provide such good results.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to capture some stunning displays. The best ones coming from the western fringes of the moor, with no hills in the way, as the sun sinks into Cornwall!

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I once waited on the top of Gibbet Hill - yes, there used to be a gibbet there with a cage in which convicted felons were placed and left to die and rot, allowing the local witches to come and scavenge various body parts for use in their spells and rituals, the Hand of Glory (a human hand with candles replacing the fingers) being a particular favourite - and managed to capture the sun’s rays bouncing off the metallic top of the trig pillar there.

On another occasion my partner and I had been out for an afternoon drive and we decided we would be in time to catch the sunset from a suitable vantage point.

We ended up in a car park on the higher ground on the way to Moretonhampstead. We had a wonderful unobstructed view looking north west... but we were not alone!

As we sat in the car waiting for the sun to do its thing, a long-horned Highland cow strolled into the parking area, first one, then another, then another.

Long-horned cattle in the car park at sunset.

Long-horned cattle gather in the car park at sunset. - Credit: David Phillips

A whole herd was standing around waiting for the setting of the sun, to tell them it was time to go to sleep, maybe... on several occasions I’ve encountered the same herd of long-horned cattle in the same car park at sunset.

It must be their favourite place to watch from. Good to know even cows have routines!

In the same way I love sunsets, others prefer to watch the sunrise. Not me!

In recent years, largely due to a change of lifestyle brought on by lockdowns, I’ve become almost nocturnal, finding I do my best work at night.

Whether that be writing, puzzling or painting, after falling asleep in front of the telly around midnight, I wake up feeling energised and ready to crack on with whatever task I’ve got on at that time.

So sometimes, especially during the summer months, I might be going to bed just as the sun is rising, but I wouldn’t purposely head out to watch it.

However, there was one memorable occasion when I did witness the sun rising over Dartmoor, an experience I will never forget.

It was many years ago now on Midsummer’s Eve, a group of TIP members and myself went to spend the night in Wistman’s Wood.

The wood is one of only three remaining copses of stunted oak tree that used to be native to Dartmoor - in Celtic, Dart means oak making Dartmoor the moor of the oak - the other two being Piles Copse in the south and Blackator Copse in the north.

Sadly, the vast majority of native oaks were removed when the moor became a royal forest, to improve the hunting.

Wistman’s Wood has a reputation for being a bit spooky, for it is said that the Devil himself kennels his Whist Hounds, or hunting dogs, undercover of the trees during daylight hours, before collecting them at night to join him in his hunt for lost souls across the moors.

Woe betide anyone who stumbles across the Devil’s Hunt.

Now I’ve visited the woods both at day and at night, and I’ve still to hear or see anything that makes me want to steer clear of the place.

On the contrary, after my experience on the night in question, it only serves to make me want to visit.

We started the evening by visiting a few pubs, for some Dutch Courage, then, after kicking out time, we made our way along the track from the Two Bridges Hotel towards the wood.

We weren’t camping, the plan was just to sit on the rocks among the trees, and, as long as we were warm and comfortable enough, to stay there until the sun came up.

We got there just after midnight, the first thing I did was take out my camcorder and do some filming.

No sooner had I started when something flew passed the camera lens.

It was small, too small for a bird, more the size of a dragonfly, except they don’t fly at night, but the most curious thing about it was it seemed to have legs that flapped up and down like they do when you swim.

As it was Midsummer’s Eve, is it possible I captured one of the wee fairy folk on camera?

Sadly, I’ve lost track of this piece of footage, besides it was on analogue film so not as easily shared these days in the way that digital is.

Excited by this possibility, we settled down to see if anything else was going to happen - and nothing did, absolutely nothing!

Not a leaf rustled nor a twig snapped - we were left with the impression we were the only living things present.

A fox cried on the other side of the valley and when dawn broke, birds sang on the hillside above us but in the wood itself there was nothing, complete silence, it was one of the most magical nights of my life.

Once it started to get light, we set off for nearby Merrivale stone row and circle to watch the sunrise over the surrounding tors... this, too, was a special moment.

Once we had had our fill, it was time to make the journey home, which was easier said than done, for moorland sheep like nothing more than sleeping on warm tarmac, so we had to gingerly weave our way among them as they were too sleepy to move for us!

Once back home, it was time to flop into bed and sleep the day away dreaming of all things wee and fairylike!

Sadly, such opportunities may be denied us in future, for, thanks to the thoughtless minority who spent lockdown visiting the wood and removing bits of tree and foliage, the powers that be have declared Wistman’s Wood a no-go area, so for now it’s a case of look but don’t touch...