Visiting Devon's Creepiest Woodland: Wistman's Woods On Dartmoor

By Steve Higgins
August 20, 2021 1:00 AM

Home to a ghostly pooch, the Devil's pack of spectral hellhounds, and the scars of ancient druid rituals, this unearthly woodland in Devon has to be one of the most mysterious and magical places in Britain. I had to go and check it out for myself.

Wistman's Wood, Devon
It's been called the most haunted woodland in the UK and the creepiest spot on Dartmoor, so as a lover of all things unusual and weird, I had to visit the infamous Wistman's Woods in Devon.

The first thing you realise as you approach the small carpark is how remote this popular beauty spot is. Coming from the M5, at least the last half hour of the drive is along small country lanes and across moorland, which itself is famous for its folklore and legends of ghosts and pixies.

The carpark is situated across the road from the Two Bridges Hotel and the footpath to the oakwood forest begins here. It's a fairly easy 1.2 mile walk, it shouldn't take longer than 30 minutes even allowing for stepping over boulders and climbing stiles.

It had been fairly dry around the time of my visit, so there is a chance that the path might get muddy at other times of the year, so some sensible footwear is advised.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

The first half of the walk was reasonably flat and followed a gravel path which runs through the valley parallel to the West Dart River. About a third of the way through the walk the path ends but a trail continues the rest of the way to the woods.

In the last half of the walk there are some stretches where there are small boulders to look out for. It's still pretty flat and the stones are easy to traverse, but you've got to watch your footing to some extent.

However, the path is a doddle compared to navigating in the woods themselves, where you'll find yourself scrambling over rocks. This is because the entire forest floor is covered in a blanket of moss-covered boulders, so every step you take needs to be done with care. This is one of the unique features that make this oak woodland, which is one of only three remaining high-altitude woodlands on Dartmoor, so unusual.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

This collection of trees is thought to be what remains of a much larger forest that would have once covered much of the moor, before early human settlements cleared it around 7,000 years ago.

The unusual woodland, which itself looks like it belongs in a different time, is much longer than it is wide as it stretches along one side of the river. The wood follows the fairly steep gradient of the valley across its longest axis, but despite covering 35,000 square meters, the woodland is lacking in height.

The trees are only seven meters tall on average, with some growing to around 12 meters at most. Compare this to a normal oak tree which averages 20 meters but can grow up to 40-45 metres and it's plain to see why Wistman's trees are called dwarf oaks.

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What makes this ancient forest in Dartmoor National Park so unique and dream-like is the shape and appearance of the trees. The branches are oddly twisted and contorted, stretching out and intertwining and twisting together like the crooked fingers of a witch.

The trunks and limbs are covered in moss, lichen and ferns which gently flutter in the breeze giving the impression that the whole wood is alive, despite the fact the forest floor is devoid of the normal vibrant vegetation you'd expect to see on a stroll through the woods.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

Instead the spindly and gnarled trunks of the trees, some of which are as old as 500 years, zig-zag skywards from between a bed of granite boulders with a blanket covering of evergreen moss. It's said that a large population of adders slither amongst these rocks.

On a misty day these woods look mystical and magical, like something out of a fairytale or storybook. It's easy to see why it's said that Wistman's Woods inspired the dark and sinister Forbidden Forest as seen in several of the Harry Potter movies.

But this isn't the only movie inspired by the stunted oak forest, which was described by a local reverend in the 18th century as "grotesque".

A 2011 found footage horror film, which has been dubbed the British version of the 'Blair Witch', is set in the woods. 'A Night In The Woods' plays on the wood's sinister look to tell the story of a fictional local legend of the Huntsman, who carves crosses into the foreheads of sinners before killing them.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

There are a lot of conflicting claims about the woods, which have been written and inspired artists, poets and photographers for hundreds of years. Even the origins of its name is disputed. Some say that Wistman's Wood means "wood of the wisemen," while other say the name derives from the word "wisht" meaning eerie, uncanny or haunted.

There are also conflicting claims about the dwarf oaks. Some say that the trees never produce acorns, while other oddly specific stories rooted in folklore claim that carrying an acorn from the woods will protect you from rheumatism.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

Forget the woods being a site of Special Scientific Interest since 1964, they're fast becoming a site of Special Paranormal Interest. It's claimed that locals refuse to enter the woods at night due to its reputation of ghosts and hauntings.

Wistman's Woods' most famous ghost is a phantom pooch known as Jumbo. It's said that he died while in the woods with his owner after being bitten by one of the many adders found there. Walkers have reported seeing the ghost of the small dog running around the boulders and his cries and whines have been heard echoing down the valley in the dead of night.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

Another paranormal hotspot in the woods lies at the northern end where the tree line meets Lych Way. Today this is a popular hiking route, but historically it's been known as "way of the dead" or "corpse road", as it was once a major route for the transportation of the deceased for burial.

The ancient track linked the remote communities of Dartmoor to the small village of Lydford, situated about seven miles away. The village was once one of the most important towns in Devon, complete with cemeteries that had burial rights.

Locals and hikers say they've seen a ghostly procession of phantom monks in white robes walking slowly along the ancient pathway.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

In case ghosts aren't enough, there's also the diabolical hellhounds to look out for. These supernatural wisht hounds are said to belong to the Devil himself. The woods are said to serve as the kennels for the pack of large red-eyed jet black dogs with huge fangs and a hunger for human flesh.

It's said that these terrifying beasts roam the moors at night with their master, especially on Sundays. Often they're said to be breathing fire or glowing, but they're always on the hunt for lost souls, unsuspecting travellers and unbaptised children.
Wistman's Wood, Devon

The woods also have mysterious links to ancient pagan rituals and was one of the last remaining ancient druids' groves in the country. In one area in particular a stone stands, larger than those around it. It's known as the Druids' stone or the Buller stone and has a spiral carved into it. It is here that pagan rituals supposed to have been performed.

The spiral is one of the oldest, most sacred prehistoric symbols found in human history. There are other geometric symbols carved into other boulders. Many of which are still visible to this day, possibly because current day visitors scrape the moss away from these carvings.
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