Once upon a time there used to be a public right of way running to the east of Dartmoor Prison, passing not far from the French and American War Cemeteries. Sometime ago, I can’t remember whether it was in the 1970s or the 1980s, it was officially closed at the request of the prison authorities.
I was one of the few who argued resistance to its closure. I was at the time a member of the Devon Area Council of the Ramblers Association. I tried to get the RA to oppose the closure, but I was outvoted.
Interestingly, it was the one occasion when I found myself on the opposite side to that great Dartmoor Preservationist (Lady) Sylvia Sayer. Sylvia argued that walkers might be alarmed if they saw prisoners. I thought she was wrong at the time. I still do. Walkers are tougher than that – they certainly were then! Many years later, I sat with her over a cup of tea and she conceded the point, when for some reason the topic came up.
The prison authorities argued that the right of way might be used by escaping prisoners. Several council members at the RA echoed their argument. I thought they were wrong. Convicts fleeing jail seldom stick to public footpaths. Another great Dartmoor man, the late Joe Turner, thought there should be some apparatus for temporary closure, so that the path could be re-opened if the prison ever shut down.
I’ve never forgotten the path, and have had some pleasure in re-opening it – at least fictionally. I’ve spent the past several months writing a novel set on Dartmoor, Dangerous Game, and needing to set a scene by the war cemeteries just outside the prison wall, I brought the path back into existence. That gave me a great deal of satisfaction.
By the way, the war cemeteries – the French and American War Cemeteries – were constructed after Dartmoor prison closed as a war prison.
Many French and American prisoners – captured and locked up during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 – died during their incarceration, from disease or being shot by British guards. After the war their bones were dug up, one lot declared American and the other lot French – though there was no real way of defining their true nationality by then – and buried in two cemeteries. One was called the American Cemetery and the other the French Cemetery.
Sadly, these cemeteries are out of bounds, though you might be granted permission if you have a good reason to go in. You may see pictures online. I’ve been round to see them several times over the years. The Americans and French buried there deserve the proper respect of having visitors. Perhaps the Ramblers Association might make up for its previous failing by negotiating an access policy? Eden Phillpotts wrote a rather good novel about those times, The American Prisoner. Well worth a read.
One day I hope to see the public footpath re-instated.
I’ve enjoyed writing about Dartmoor in my novel (it’s published already in paperback and comes out this Sunday as a e-book). My novel is set in 1937, so there was no difficulty in bringing the footpath back into existence. I’ve had fun as well in picturing Dartmoor as I first knew it, a quieter place with more traditional farming and fewer walkers about. More like the place I first knew. 99% of the book is set there, though the seaside resort of Teignmouth on the Devon coast gets a few scenes as well.
I’ve tried to capture the wildness of Dartmoor…
Always a Dartmoor Preservationist!