NORMAN MILLER visits the Devon national park in search of cinematic credentials that see it star in two upcoming films
HAVING cowered behind the sofa as the Hound Of The Baskervilles terrorised a bleak monochrome landscape, I used to think Dartmoor was a scary place.
Yet standing on a soaring tor gazing past Bronze Age standing stones towards a lush woody vale, I wonder if this isn't among England's most beautiful places.
Hollywood certainly thinks so.
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Two contrasting films have taken inspiration from the South Devon national park.
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the acclaimed book and stage hit War Horse is out next month, followed by Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in We Bought A Zoo, to be released in the spring.
My base is 18th-century Prince Hall Hotel, visited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he worked up his Baskervilles yarn.
Though as I sip aperitifs in a cosy, fire-warmed lounge, the only Dartmoor beast making its presence felt is an overly affectionate cat rather than a slavering devil-dog.
The hotel, near the crossing point of Dartmoor's two main roads at Two Bridges, is a rambling charmer with antique-filled rooms and a restaurant specialising in local produce.
Brixham turbot vies with Horrabridge lamb at dinner, while Devon duck eggs combine with moorland mushrooms for my huge breakfast omelette.
Following in Spielberg's footsteps I seek out one of the moor's abandoned farmhouses, Ditsworthy Warren at Hentor.
War Horse saw this granite beauty brought briefly back to life as a key setting for the First World War story and I poke about a walled garden with views worthy of the silver screen.
With the cameras gone, the house has been given back to time's slow erosion.
Next, it's on to the moor's southern edge to meet Benjamin Mee at his charmingly idiosyncratic zoo.
His book We Bought A Zoo chronicles his battle to rejuvenate this long-neglected home of big cats, bears and 200 other animals in the face of personal tragedy (his wife died soon after they bought the property in 2006).
It's a moving story given a happy twist by Hollywood's interest, which came as Mee struggled to boost visitor numbers to his out-of-the-way menagerie.
After the zoo, I take a lead from the War Horse crew and head to the village of Meavy for lunch at the 15th-century Royal Oak.
Named after an ancient tree on the village green where Charles I is reputed to have hidden from his pursuers, it's easy to see why it was a favourite with the film-makers, with its beams, old church pews and crackling fire.
I linger, enjoying a pint of Jail Ale.
The most famous pub fire on Dartmoor, though, is at the Warren House Inn.
Perched high on the northern moor near Postbridge, flames have reputedly burned continuously here since 1845.
It is one of England's most isolated pubs and was once cut off for 12 weeks in bad weather.
Distinctive villages provide perfect pit stops as we explore the high moor and meander down hedgerow-hemmed lanes.
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Ashburton is an oasis of sophistication on Dartmoor's eastern edge and I can't resist a few pre-Christmas purchases among antique shops and elegant boutiques that wouldn't look out of place in Chelsea.
Nearby Bovey Tracey is enlivened by the brilliant Devon Guild of Craftsmen gallery, while Widecombe draws tourists to its 14th-century St Pancras Church and the annual Widecombe Fair.
The largest town on the moor itself is Princetown.
It presents a bleak facade to the world but I unearth an enjoyable photography exhibition at the tiny Duchy Square Centre for Creativity, before heading to the Dartmoor Prison Museum for its chilling displays of jail memorabilia.
There are improvised weapons and other items confiscated from prisoners plus biographical items relating to infamous past inmates such as Forties serial killer John George Haigh, known as the Acid Bath Murderer.
Castle Drogo, which is near Drewsteignton, is more uplifting, a magnificent early-20th-century granite edifice designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and the last castle to be built in England. Outside, Gertrude Jekyll gardens provide grand views over Teign Gorge.
For my final night I opt for a change of scene at The Elephant's Nest, a 16th-century pub with rooms on the moor's western fringe.
Nearby, the 12th-century church on top of Brentor provides one of the area's most dramatic landmarks.
I walk off a fine dinner featuring Brixham scallops and Dartmoor lamb with a saunter down a hushed back lane beneath a starry night sky.
When asked about filming War Horse, Spielberg gushed that he had "never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty".
Who am I to argue with someone so steeped in fabulous visuals?
Prince Hall Country House Hotel & Restaurant (01822 890403/www.princehall.co.uk) offers doubles from £150 per night (two sharing), B&B; The Elephant's Nest Inn (01822 810273/www.elephantsnest.co.uk) offers doubles from £87.50 per night (two sharing), B&B.
Discover Dartmoor: 01837 52200/www.dartmoor.co.uk