Belstone Tor

Belstone Tor

Dartmoor and Beautiful The Granite Tors

Brief overview of the Dartmoor landscape

As I stand atop one of Dartmoor’s iconic granite tors, the wind whipping through my hair, I’m struck by the raw beauty of this ancient landscape. Dartmoor National Park, spanning 368 square miles of rugged terrain in the heart of Devon, is a place where nature’s artistry is on full display.

Belstone Tor

The landscape before me is a tapestry of contrasts. Rolling moorland stretches as far as the eye can see, punctuated by dramatic granite outcrops that rise defiantly from the earth. These are the tors, the very essence of Dartmoor’s character and the reason I’ve embarked on this journey to explore and share their stories.

Dartmoor’s unique geology is the foundation of its allure. The park sits atop a massive granite batholith, formed over 280 million years ago. This granite bedrock covers an astounding 65% of Dartmoor’s area, shaping not only its physical features but also its ecology, history, and culture.

Importance of granite tors in shaping the iconic Dartmoor skyline

The tors themselves are more than mere rocks; they’re nature’s sculptures, each with its own personality and tale to tell. Over 160 of these granite sentinels dot the Dartmoor landscape, creating an unmistakable skyline that has captivated visitors for centuries. From the towering mass of Haytor Rocks to the whimsical stack of Bowerman’s Nose, each tor offers a unique perspective on this wild and wonderful place.

These granite giants serve multiple roles in Dartmoor’s ecosystem:

  • Landmarks for navigation
  • Habitats for rare flora and fauna
  • Focal points for human activity, both ancient and modern

As I begin my exploration of Dartmoor’s tors, I’m filled with a sense of anticipation. These rocks have witnessed millennia of history, from prehistoric rituals to modern-day adventures. They’ve inspired countless stories, sparked the imagination of artists, and challenged the skills of climbers and hikers.

In the coming sections, we’ll delve deeper into the geology, ecology, and cultural significance of Dartmoor’s granite tors. We’ll uncover the secrets they hold and the experiences they offer to those who venture into this remarkable landscape. So, lace up your boots and join me on this journey across Dartmoor’s rocky realm – there’s a whole world of wonder waiting to be discovered atop these ancient stones.

What are Granite Tors?

Granite tors are distinctive rock formations found on Dartmoor, characterized by exposed masses of granite that protrude from the surrounding landscape. Here’s a detailed look at their definition, characteristics, and composition:

Definition and characteristics of tors

Tors are rock outcrops that stand out prominently from the surrounding area, typically found on hilltops or ridges. On Dartmoor, these formations are specifically granite tors, shaped by various geological processes over millions of years. Key characteristics include:

  • Exposed granite masses, often with striking shapes
  • Usually located on high points in the landscape
  • Formed through long-term weathering and erosion processes
  • Frequently exhibit a jointed or blocky structure

Composition of the Dartmoor granite tors

Dartmoor’s tors are composed of granite, an igneous rock formed from cooled magma. The specific composition of the granite in these tors includes:

  1. Main minerals:
    • Quartz: Appears as translucent, slightly greyish grains
    • Feldspar: Forms white grains, sometimes stained yellowish or pink
    • Biotite: Present as dark brown, glistening flakes
  2. Textural variations:
  3. Additional features:
    • Xenoliths: Fragments of surrounding rock incorporated into the granite during its formation
    • Aplite intrusions: Fine-grained, quartz-rich veins found in some tors
  4. “Tor Granite”: Coarse megacrystic texture with large feldspar crystals (phenocrysts) typically 5-7cm in length
  5. “Blue” or “Quarry Granite”: Moderately coarse groundmass with fewer and smaller feldspar phenocrysts

The granite that forms Dartmoor’s tors was intruded about 280 million years ago when the area was located south of the equator. This granite batholith covers approximately 65% of Dartmoor’s area, creating the foundation for the iconic tor landscape we see today.

The unique composition and structure of Dartmoor’s granite have played a crucial role in the formation and persistence of these distinctive tor formations, making them a defining feature of the Dartmoor landscape.

Formation of Dartmoor’s Tors

The formation of Dartmoor’s iconic granite tors is a fascinating process that spans millions of years. As I explore these magnificent rock formations, I’m struck by the immense timescales involved in their creation. Let me take you through the key stages of their formation.

Deep weathering of granite (60-30 million years ago)

About 60 to 30 million years ago, Dartmoor’s landscape looked vastly different from what we see today. The granite was already in place, but the climate was subtropical – hot and often wet. This environment set the stage for the first major phase of tor formation:

  • Acidic water from decomposing plants seeped into the granite along joints and cracks.
  • This water primarily attacked the feldspar minerals, weakening the granite’s structure.
  • Areas with closely spaced joints experienced more intense weathering, sometimes to considerable depths.
  • The more stable quartz minerals remained largely unaffected, creating a contrast in the rock’s integrity.

During this period, Dartmoor was likely covered in dense vegetation, hiding the underlying processes that were shaping the future tors.

Effects of the Ice Age (2 million to 10,000 years ago)

The arrival of the Ice Age marked a dramatic shift in the tor formation process. While Dartmoor itself wasn’t covered by ice sheets, the harsh conditions played a crucial role:

  • Frequent freezing and thawing cycles caused mechanical weathering of the granite.
  • Water trapped in cracks and joints expanded as it froze, forcing the rock apart.
  • This process, known as freeze-thaw weathering, was particularly effective on the already weakened granite.

The Ice Age also introduced another important factor: solifluction. As the ground repeatedly froze and thawed, the surface layers became a wet mush that could flow downhill. This movement transported loose material, including large boulders, sometimes for up to a kilometre.

Erosion and exposure of granite cores

The final stage in tor formation involved the removal of weathered material, revealing the more resistant granite cores:

  • Erosion stripped away the weakened, weathered granite, leaving behind the harder, less weathered rock.
  • This process exposed the distinctive shapes we see today, from the towering mass of Haytor to the whimsical stack of Bowerman’s Nose.
  • The eroded material formed the “clitter” – fields of boulders surrounding the tors.

As I stand atop one of these tors, I’m amazed by the resilience of these granite formations. They’ve withstood millions of years of weathering and erosion, emerging as the defining features of Dartmoor’s landscape.

The tors we see today are the result of this long, complex process of differential erosion. Their shapes and sizes vary depending on factors like joint spacing in the original granite and local weathering conditions. Each tor tells a unique story of Dartmoor’s geological past, inviting us to marvel at the forces of nature that shaped this incredible landscape.

Iconic Tors of Dartmoor

As I explore Dartmoor’s rugged landscape, I’m constantly in awe of the magnificent granite tors that punctuate the skyline. These ancient rock formations, numbering over 160 across the national park, are not just geological wonders but also cultural landmarks that have inspired folklore and drawn visitors for centuries.

Haytor Rocks: A prime example

Haytor Rocks stands out as one of Dartmoor’s most recognizable and accessible tors. Its towering mass dominates the eastern edge of the moor, offering spectacular views that stretch all the way to the coast. As I climb its weathered surface, I can’t help but marvel at its geological features:

  • Coarse megacrystic “tor granite” with large feldspar crystals typically 5-7cm in length
  • Visible xenoliths, remnants of country rock incorporated during the granite’s intrusion
  • Clear megacryst alignment visible on the flat granite surface leading up to the western boss
  • Rock basins on the eastern boss, sculpted by centuries of weathering
Haytor Rocks

Haytor also boasts a fascinating industrial history, with the nearby Haytor Granite Tramway serving as a testament to its importance as a source of high-quality building stone.

Pew Tor: Noted for its microgranite composition

Pew Tor, while less famous than Haytor, holds a special place in Dartmoor’s geological story. Its unique microgranite composition sets it apart from many other tors on the moor. As I examine its rocks, I notice:

  • A finer-grained texture compared to the typical Dartmoor granite
  • Distinctive jointing patterns that have shaped its formation
  • Spectacular views across the western moor, making it a favorite spot for photographers and hikers alike
Pew Tor

Other notable tors

Dartmoor’s landscape is dotted with numerous other iconic tors, each with its own character and charm:

  • Bellever Tor: Rising prominently near the center of the moor, it offers panoramic views and is surrounded by a picturesque forest.
  • Longaford Tor: A striking landmark in the heart of the north moor, known for its distinctive shape and challenging ascent.
  • Bowerman’s Nose: This whimsical stack of rocks has inspired local legends and is a popular subject for artists.
  • Great Mis Tor: One of the highest tors on Dartmoor, it provides expansive views and has a rich archaeological heritage.

These tors not only shape Dartmoor’s physical landscape but also play crucial roles in its ecosystem. They provide habitats for rare flora and fauna, including up to 60 species of lichen on a typical tor and nesting sites for birds like ravens and peregrine falcons.

As I continue my journey across Dartmoor, I’m struck by how each tor tells a unique story of geological processes, weathering, and human interaction. They stand as silent sentinels, inviting us to explore, learn, and connect with this ancient landscape.

Geological Significance

Insights into Dartmoor’s geological history

Dartmoor’s tors provide fascinating insights into the area’s geological past:

  1. Granite formation: The granite that forms Dartmoor’s tors was intruded about 280-290 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period. This occurred when what was to become Dartmoor was pushed up through the Earth’s crust, with molten granite rising and distorting the surrounding rocks.
  2. Ancient landscape: The tors are remnants of former landscape surfaces, offering a glimpse into Dartmoor’s appearance millions of years ago.
  3. Weathering processes: The tors reveal a long history of weathering, spanning at least the last ten million years. This includes:
    • Chemical weathering during tropical and subtropical periods
    • Mechanical weathering through freeze-thaw cycles during colder periods
    • Ongoing erosion processes
  4. Climate changes: The tors bear witness to significant climate changes, from subtropical conditions to the harsh environment of the Ice Age.
  5. Jointing patterns: The exposed granite in tors displays both vertical and horizontal jointing. Vertical joints are thought to have formed as the granite cooled and contracted, while horizontal joints may have developed as pressure was released when overlying rocks eroded away.

Geological features

Dartmoor’s tors showcase several important geological features:

  1. Coarse megacrystic “tor granite” with large feldspar crystals
  2. Xenoliths – fragments of surrounding rock incorporated into the granite during its formation
  3. Rock basins on some tors, formed by repeated freezing of water in surface irregularities
  4. Clitter slopes – fields of boulders surrounding tors, created by weathering processes
  5. Growan – gravel resulting from the disintegration of granite down to individual crystal level

The tors also provide evidence of differential erosion, with their shapes and sizes varying depending on factors like joint spacing in the original granite and local weathering conditions.

Cultural and Historical Importance in Dartmoor

Role in local folklore and legends

Dartmoor’s tors have played a significant role in shaping local folklore and legends:

  1. Druidic associations: Victorian archaeologists often attributed mysterious features to Druidic practices. For example, the large rock-basin on Kestor was thought to be used by Druids for magical and sacrificial rites.
  2. Devil’s frying-pan: The rock-basin on Great Mis Tor is called the “Devil’s frying-pan,” with a legend saying the devil used it to fry the souls of sinners sent to hell. (Image below)
  3. Healing properties: Some tors are associated with healing powers. The Tolmen, a large rock basin worn through by erosion, is believed to prevent rheumatism if one climbs through it.
  4. Letterboxing tradition: Started in 1854 by a Dartmoor guide named James Perrott, this practice involves hiding small boxes with notebooks and ink stamps in rocky crevices of tors. It’s considered a precursor to modern geocaching.
  5. Sacred sites: There’s speculation that ancient people may have revered the tors as sacred sites, similar to how indigenous cultures view natural features like mountains and springs.
Devil's Frying Pan

Historical use of granite (e.g., quarrying for construction)

Dartmoor granite has been extensively used for construction purposes throughout history:

  1. Ancient settlements: Bronze Age remains of houses and field systems can be seen across much of the moor, utilizing local granite.
  2. Prestigious buildings: Dartmoor granite was used in the construction of many grand buildings beyond its boundaries, including:
    • The British Museum
    • Buckingham Palace
    • Nelson’s Column
    • Old London Bridge (now in Lake Havasu City, Arizona)
  3. Local artifacts: Remnants of granite carving can be found around the moor, including broken apple-crushers, millwheels, granite crosses, corbels, and troughs.
  4. Quarrying infrastructure: Complex systems were developed to quarry and transport granite, including:
    • Tramways for moving granite (e.g., the Haytor Granite Tramway)
    • Canals and ocean-going ships for long-distance transport
    • Facilities for quarry workers and their families, including food, shelter, and schooling
  5. Modern use: While large-scale quarrying has decreased, the historical importance of Dartmoor granite in construction is still recognized and celebrated.

The tors of Dartmoor have thus played a multifaceted role in the region’s cultural and economic history, from inspiring myths and legends to providing valuable building material for both local and national landmarks. Their enduring presence continues to shape the landscape and attract visitors, contributing to the area’s unique character and appeal.

Tors and the Dartmoor Ecosystem

Unique habitats for flora and fauna

Dartmoor’s tors create diverse microhabitats that support a wide range of plant and animal species:

  1. Lichen diversity: A typical tor can host as many as 60 species of lichen covering much of the rock surface. This remarkable diversity is crucial for the ecosystem, as lichens are often indicators of air quality and provide food and shelter for small invertebrates.
  2. Rare ferns: Some rare fern species occur on the rocks and stone walls near tors, including:
    • Nationally rare forked spleenwort
    • Lanceolate spleenwort
    • Beech fern
    • Wilson’s filmy fern
  3. Mosses and turf: Rocky outcrops are often covered in mosses and sometimes turf, creating additional microhabitats.
  4. Rare plant species: The nationally and internationally rare flax-leaved St John’s-wort can be found in its largest British population on the scree slopes of the upper Teign valley.
  5. Geological diversity: The varied rock formations and weathering patterns of tors create a range of niches for different species, contributing to Dartmoor’s biodiversity.

Importance for Dartmoor ponies and other wildlife

Tors play a significant role in supporting Dartmoor’s iconic wildlife:

  1. Bird habitats: Several bird species are closely associated with clitter slopes, tors, and quarries:
    • Ravens
    • Peregrine falcons
    • Wheatears
    • Ring ouzels (several pairs breed around the tors of the north moor)
  2. Rare species: Both ring ouzel and peregrine are considered rare, making the tors crucial for their conservation.
  3. Mammal habitats: While not specifically mentioned in the search results, tors likely provide shelter and denning sites for various mammal species.
  4. Dartmoor ponies: Although not directly mentioned in relation to tors, Dartmoor ponies are an integral part of the moor’s ecosystem. The open landscape shaped by tors contributes to the grazing habitat that supports these iconic animals.
  5. Ecosystem services: The diverse habitats created by tors contribute to the overall ecological health of Dartmoor, supporting a wide range of species and ecological processes.
Dartmoor Ponies

It’s important to note that these unique habitats face potential threats, including:

  • Recreational activity
  • Physical damage
  • Disturbance to nesting birds by walkers and climbers
  • High stocking levels damaging lichens and other plants through nutrient enrichment
  • Acid rain

The tors of Dartmoor are not just geological features but vital components of the national park’s ecosystem. They provide specialized habitats for rare and common species alike, contributing significantly to the area’s biodiversity and ecological importance.

Recreational Value to Dartmoor

As I explore Dartmoor’s rugged landscape, I’m continually amazed by the recreational opportunities offered by its iconic granite tors. These ancient rock formations not only shape the skyline but also provide a playground for outdoor enthusiasts and a wellspring of inspiration for artists and photographers.

Hiking and climbing opportunities

Dartmoor’s tors offer a diverse range of experiences for hikers and climbers of all skill levels:

  1. Hiking trails:
    • The Two Moors Way: This 102-mile route connects Dartmoor and Exmoor, passing several notable tors.
    • Haytor Rocks circular walk: A popular 3-mile route offering stunning views and geological interest.
    • High Willhays and Yes Tor: A challenging hike to Dartmoor’s highest points, rewarding with panoramic vistas.
  2. Bouldering and rock climbing:
    • Haytor: Offers a variety of routes for climbers, from beginner to advanced.
    • Hound Tor: Popular for its diverse climbing challenges and scenic setting.
    • Bonehill Rocks: A favorite among boulderers for its numerous problems and accessible location.
  3. Letterboxing and geocaching:
    • Many tors serve as hiding spots for letterboxes and geocaches, adding an element of treasure hunting to hikes.
  4. Navigation practice:
    • Tors serve as excellent landmarks for those honing their map and compass skills.

As I scramble up the weathered granite faces, I’m struck by the unique textures and formations that make each tor a distinct climbing experience. The sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit is matched only by the breathtaking views of the surrounding moorland.

Photography and artistic inspiration

Dartmoor’s tors have long been a source of inspiration for artists and photographers:

  1. Landscape photography:
    • Golden hour shots: The tors create dramatic silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.
    • Weather phenomena: Mist-shrouded tors offer ethereal scenes, especially in early mornings.
    • Seasonal variations: From snow-capped winter scenes to summer wildflower foregrounds.
  2. Wildlife photography:
    • Birds of prey: Capturing ravens and peregrine falcons nesting on tor faces.
    • Dartmoor ponies: Often framed against the backdrop of distant tors.
  3. Painting and sketching:
    • Plein air opportunities: Many artists set up easels to capture the tors’ ever-changing moods.
    • Abstract interpretations: The tors’ unique shapes lend themselves to creative artistic expressions.
  4. Literary inspiration:
    • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was inspired by Dartmoor’s atmospheric landscape.
    • Countless poems and local legends draw from the mystique of these ancient rock formations.

As a photographer myself, I find endless compositions among the tors. The interplay of light and shadow on the granite surfaces, the way fog clings to their craggy outlines, and the contrast between the solid rock and the soft heather create captivating images.

Sebastien Coell is amazing at capturing the essence of Dartmoor, as shown in the photograph of Emsworthy Red Barn below.

The recreational value of Dartmoor’s tors extends beyond physical activities. They provide a space for contemplation, a connection to nature, and a link to the area’s rich cultural heritage. Whether you’re seeking an adrenaline rush from climbing, the perfect photograph, or simply a moment of peace in a breathtaking setting, the tors of Dartmoor offer something for everyone.

Conservation and Preservation

Challenges facing Dartmoor’s tors

Dartmoor’s iconic tors face several challenges that threaten their preservation:

  1. Recreational pressure:
    • Physical damage from climbing and walking
    • Disturbance to nesting birds by walkers and climbers
  2. Environmental factors:
    • Acid rain affecting the granite and associated ecosystems
    • Climate change potentially altering weathering processes
  3. Agricultural practices:
    • High stocking levels damaging lichens and other plants through nutrient enrichment
  4. Natural erosion:
    • Ongoing weathering processes, including freeze-thaw cycles
  5. Loss of cultural knowledge:
    • Some tors that were once named and shown on older maps have lost their importance and are no longer represented, despite their ongoing presence

Efforts to protect these natural landmarks

Several measures are in place to protect Dartmoor’s tors:

  1. National Park designation:
    • Dartmoor National Park Authority manages the area, providing a level of protection for its natural features, including tors
  2. Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status:
    • Many rocky sites are designated as SSSIs purely for their geological interest
    • Others fall within larger SSSIs, offering legal protection
  3. Conservation projects:
    • Efforts to protect rare species associated with tors, such as the ring ouzel and peregrine falcon
  4. Educational initiatives:
    • Raising awareness about the importance of tors through visitor centers and educational programs
  5. Access management:
    • Balancing recreational use with conservation needs through designated paths and climbing areas
  6. Research and monitoring:
    • Ongoing studies to better understand the geological processes and ecological importance of tors
  7. Documentation efforts:
    • Projects like the Tors of Dartmoor database aim to locate and document both well-known and hidden tors, encouraging exploration while fostering understanding and appreciation

While specific conservation strategies aren’t detailed in the search results, it’s clear that protecting Dartmoor’s tors involves a multi-faceted approach. This includes legal protections, active management by the National Park Authority, and efforts to educate visitors about the importance of these unique geological features.

The challenge lies in balancing public access and enjoyment of these natural landmarks with the need to preserve them for future generations. As iconic symbols of Dartmoor’s landscape and crucial habitats for rare species, the tors represent a vital part of the national park’s natural and cultural heritage.


As we’ve journeyed through the rugged beauty of Dartmoor, it’s clear that the granite tors are far more than mere rock formations. They are the very essence of this ancient landscape, shaping its identity and captivating visitors for generations.

The tors of Dartmoor stand as silent sentinels, bearing witness to over 280 million years of geological history. From their formation during the Carboniferous Period to the ongoing weathering processes that continue to sculpt them, these granite giants tell a story of time, climate, and the raw power of nature.

These iconic landmarks are integral to Dartmoor’s ecosystem, providing unique habitats for rare flora and fauna. From the 60 species of lichen that might adorn a single tor to the peregrine falcons nesting on their craggy faces, the tors support a rich tapestry of life.

Beyond Geological Significance

Beyond their geological and ecological significance, the tors have woven themselves into the cultural fabric of Dartmoor. They’ve inspired countless legends, from tales of druids to stories of the devil’s frying pan. Artists, writers, and photographers continue to find endless inspiration in their weathered forms and the dramatic landscapes they create.

For outdoor enthusiasts, the tors offer a natural playground. Whether you’re a seasoned climber tackling the challenges of Haytor or a casual walker enjoying the panoramic views from Pew Tor, there’s an adventure waiting for every visitor.

As we face the challenges of conservation in the 21st century, the tors remind us of the delicate balance between human enjoyment and preservation. They stand as testaments to the importance of protecting our natural heritage for future generations.

I encourage you, dear reader, to venture out and explore these geological wonders for yourself. Each tor has its own character, its own story to tell. Whether you’re aiming to “bag” all 160 named tors or simply seeking a peaceful moment atop a granite outcrop, Dartmoor’s tors offer experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve descended from their lofty heights.

In the end, the granite tors are more than just features of the landscape – they are the heart and soul of Dartmoor. They connect us to the earth’s ancient past, ground us in the present, and inspire us to protect this unique environment for the future. So lace up your boots, grab your map, and set out to discover the magic of Dartmoor’s granite tors. The adventure awaits!

Sheepstor, Dartmoor by Chris Gilbert