I made it, and had a very good time. A good amount of time I found it a challenge. Upon mature reflection, I'm not quite so sure what I should’ve found challenging.
For the entire first day and night I had 50 then 30, then 10 meters visibility: Surely 10 meters is better than none!
I was only 500 m in variance with my planned location on the map for 3 hours: At least I knew where I should’ve been!
It only rained heavily on Sunday night: I had blue skies for a part of Sunday!
My feet only really gave out on Sunday afternoon: They could’ve gone on Saturday morning!
I guess all the small challenges mount up and make things a bit of a struggle at times. However, I find that struggles struggled through provide the basis of accomplishment and reward. So, in hindsight, I had a very good time.
Saturday 1400 - Ivybridge to Eylesbarrow Tin Mine
I had caught the train down from Basingstoke, through Reading to Exeter. The train was delayed and I was going to miss my connection at Plymouth for Ivybridge, so I changed at Exeter for commuter line and made it down to my starting point; Ivybridge Railway Station by about 2pm.
Things did not get off to an entirely auspicious start. I am usually a bit excitable at the beginning of a trip. This was most obvious as I crossed the platform flyover three times in search for the exit to the road. I found my way and headed west towards the Two Moors Way starting point. I would be following the Two Moors Way for the first couple of hours, and it headed up onto the Moor from the road through a bridleway. Finding the bridleway, and then having opportunity to consult my map, was a delight. I instantly fell in love with 1:25,000 scale maps.
Let me talk about 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. They are beautiful. They are accurate. They are a delight. They have 10 meter contour lines. They show you a tiny 100 meter dogleg in a bridleway as four whole glorious millimeters. I love 25,000 scale maps. There is so much detail on them. I’m sitting here regarding my torn, stained, worn map. My gaze is drawn to one grid square and contained within it is:
2 blowing house remains
2 non-roman settlements
Some tussocky shrub
60 meters change in elevation.
I walked up the bridleway, a short little climb to warm up the legs, had a chat to a friendly old man with an unfriendly spaniel and acknowledged his warning about the fog. The fog was closing in, it was high cloud half an hour ago, now it was definitely foggy mist. I walked up off the bridleway and onto the Moor proper. I was instantly reminded of that hard, wet and windy west bloc of the North Island on New Zealand, proper sheep and beef country. Just substitute the Limestone for Granite. I waved a cheery “hullo” at some Lycra and plastic clad campers and walked on. The path was a dismantled tramway and now stone and dirt road you could drive an urban warrior 4x4 over. Visibility was dropping and it was starting to get a bit chillier so I put on my beanie. I had about 15 kilometers to cover before I wanted to set up camp, so I carried on, conscious it was nearly 3pm already.
I enjoyed walking the well worn path. The closing mist added to my sense of privacy and aloneness, something I had been craving for a while since moving to a country with 254 people per square kilometer, as opposed of my native land’s 41. Belted Galloway Cattle loomed and appeared in the mist and regarded me with a disinterested but astute gaze while they chewed their cud. The evidence of tin mining and industry on Dartmoor was a strange juxtaposition against the bank and bleak expanse, a grated drain system appeared alongside the path, a broken viaduct spewing foaming peat water was almost surreal and hard to make out in the mist. Square outlined ruins with low broken down walls provided shelter from the rising wind for a snack and a drink.
I broke away from the Two Moors Way and veered NE directly west Buckfastleigh, I wanted to stay on the Moor away from creature comforts for the night. I bore NW on the Abbots Way, unsure of exactly where I was headed, but looking for a place to pitch camp in that general direction. The weather was getting worse, it wasn’t totally awful, or utterly abysmal, but just constantly wet and shapes in the mist ghosting in front of me looked like they’d be doing at least 65 km/h if they were cars at a crossing. I followed the well worn path, with freshly turned hoof marks down the hill towards a ford. It is at this point things got a little trying as I became: At-odds-with-my-intended-location. As the path approached the river it became scattered and spread, so I chose the easiest crossing point and hoped to pick up the path on the other side. A well intentioned plan, which did not go so well. I couldn’t find the path, so instead took a bearing from the track I was supposed to be on against where I thought I was and hoped to cross the track at some point.
I have a bad habit of always erring to my right when I walk. If when found, dead of dehydration and of the heat in the Outback of Australia after walking in circles trying to find a way out after getting my camper-van stuck (trust me: this will never happen)... The Aboriginal tracker will report to all that I was found dead from exposure after completing 5 clockwise circuits of the area, when if I’d just managed to go straight I’d’ve found Wonga-bonga-coola-murooch-a-whompa-dor-gatta and its excellent pub. Even with a compass, I still veer right. Maybe I have one leg longer than the other. A Chiro-magician told my mother she had one leg longer than the other once. Maybe it’s hereditary? Maybe I gimp limp my way veering right everywhere I go? Maybe that’s why I keep stubbing that one poor assaulted big toe? Maybe...
Anyway, I erred about half a kilometer east of where I should’ve been. It was tough going. Boggy, wet, marshy, mired, wet and increasingly worried that it was getting late. I found my way to a prominent cairn and took stock. In a fit of worry induced lunacy I spent 20 minutes trying to pitch my fly in the lee of the cairn. What was I thinking? It was the highest point between the rest of the Moor and the direction the wind was coming from. In the wind-shadow of a pile of rocks? Mental. I packed back up, it was nearly 8pm and I was going to go west and importantly - down - until I found shelter, or civilization. I fancied a night on the floor of a manger, with fresh straw and an understanding farm-mum who would tut over me and cook bacon in the morning when I was found spooning Daisy, the prize winning British Blue. Daisy and her double muscled rump.
I was really moving now, in a hurry and when I picked up a very obvious path heading west I was ecstatic to find it. Moments later I was delighted to find the ruins of Eylesbarrow Tin Mine. Low stone walls and grass. No peaty bog. Shelter from the now howling wind and a grass floor which was not a peaty bog, or mire. Thoughts of wrapping myself in my groundsheet against some gorse or in a dryish bull wallow evaporated as I stalked the perimeter of the stone walls and found one which provided a perfect opportunity to pitch my fly as a lean-to. Those walls were probably erected in the early 1800s. 60 men worked here, cutting underground workings into the granite to extract tin. I mused on their lives as I set up my fly. 5 guy ropes and 10 pegs later it was 9pm and I was in my sleeping bag, exhausted not so physically, but just glad to be in bed. I ate croissants and jam for dinner and fell soundly asleep.
I woke at 4am and had an opportunity to remark that the wind was gone, but the mist was heavier. I really couldn’t see a thing. I had a chuckle at remembering my work mates quoting An American Werewolf in London, adopting awful old-man-west-country-accents and warning me to stick to the paths. My 1980‘s horror is a little limited. My sister forced me to sit through The Night of the Living Dead when I was 5 then chased me around the house screaming “Brains, Brains!” until I became a slobbering catatonic mess behind my bed. From that day until I was 20 I needed a night light. I called it a Lava Lamp in my late teens... That early introduction to the horror-genre meant that scary movies were strictly off limits and quotes like “stick to the path” or “it puts the lotion...” meant nothing to me until I met my horror loving spouse. Something lurked in the mist and that was the entire motivation needed to get back into my sleeping bag and zip up tight, Were or Sheep I cared not, I had my headlamp around my neck and into the sleeping bag I went.
Sunday 0545 - Eylesbarrow Tin Mine to New Bridge
I re-awoke at 5:45 and started some breakfast. Then a magical thing happened. The mist started clearing. For the first time in 15 hours, I had a vague idea where I was, and just how stunning it all was. It was New Zealand’s Central Plateau. It was gorgeous, a lake, a forest. Gasp worthy scenery was all there. As I sat eating my porridge, Dartmoor Ponies frolicked in the distance. I sat very still as a stallion and foal came to graze the bit of grass I was camped on. The sun rose in the south east and blue skies dazzled.
I had packed up and was ready to move by 8:00am and took a sanded and cut track north, running parallel to boundary stones marked PCWW 1917. I paused by a granite cross - Siward's Cross has been there at least 850 years, marking the monastic Maltern Way. No plaque. No visitors centre. No nothing. Just a stone cross with a rusting iron repair. The path was busy with dog walkers and runners as I got closer to Princetown and its imposing prison, built by POWs for POWs of the French and American wars. I sat outside the High Moorland Visitor Centre at 9:45am waiting for it to open, downstream of the strong smell of bacon and eggs coming from the Inn across the road.
The visitor centre was excellent and penciled a route on my map for me to get north towards my goal of Okehampton. They filled my water bottle for me, I bought two postcards and headed across the road to the local convenience store and post office to scribble on them and send them. I’m not at all used to popping out into civilization in the middle of a walk, so standing scribbling my postcards I became acutely aware of my personal hygiene. I moved on.
The route north started at Two Bridges, so I walked the road between them and then turned back onto the Moor at the gated entrance to Wistman’s Wood. The short climb on to Longaford Tor had me sweating under the warm sun, I followed the ridge to Higher White Tor. It was noon, everything in my pack was damp and heavy from the previous day, I felt like a cooked meal. So I stripped down to my pants and sunbathed as I cooked Camp-Bolognese and let my gear dry scattered in the sun. A short nap was interrupted by the unmistakable expression of some poor kid stopped mid-sentence by my dazzling and sprawling whiteness under midday sun. I dressed and packed hurriedly as showers came in from the west. The helpful folk of the visitor centre had warned of rain getting worse to be quite heavy that night and it showered on and off for the rest of the day.
My route took me down to Lower White Tor then to the waterfall on the East Dart River. Tumbling peat-brown water over the rocks the waterfall was postcard perfect and I crossed it, stone hopping to the other side, stopping to change film and take some photos in a break in the showers. For the first time in documented history I didn’t veer right... I wish I had. Instead I slogged straight across a shin deep mire. Forty-five minutes of grumbling to myself about the bronze age munters who’d felled everything and ended up just making a peat swamp more effectively than the Taupo eruptions ever could. I picked up a stone wall which led NE to Sittaford Tor and had been to my east the whole time across the bog and then followed the fence line down to Little Varracombe. I crossed the Teign River whilst in its infancy and headed uphill to Quntin’s Man, the cairn and the Army observation huts which mark the border of the Okehampton Range. It was a guaranteed nil firing weekend, so I would be heading through the range for the rest of my trip.
The walk across the eastern border of the range was rewarding and the highest ground I would cover during the trip. Large parts of the area are so wet and boggy that they are nearly impossible to cover on foot. I headed north from the cairn to Peat Pass south of Hangingstone Hill. The peat pass was a cut made through the peat into granite bedrock by Frank Phillpotts. The cut was made so that farmers and hunters could travel this area with becoming mired. A plaque on a stone bears the forthright inscription: THIS STONE MARKS A CROSSING THROUGH THE PEAT, WHICH MAY BE OF USE TO HUNTING AND CATTLEMEN. I like that, which may be of use. May. It was a great use to me and I made sure I pointed that out to a lovely couple I met on Hangingstone Hill. They had just ascended and were heading for Postbridge, we discussed routes, I was about to descend on my way to Newbridge.
I picked up a gravel and tarmac Army ring road and covered the last few kilometers to Newbridge with very sore feet. Spending two days wet and then pounding down hard road had been too much for my sedentary banker feet. I was very glad to make it to Newbridge, as the dark clouds which had been chasing me from the south, all day, finally broke and the rain started proper. The comedy began. My 3 x 3 meter fly had been easy to string over a wall as a lean to the night before, But now faced with no trees, no wall, nothing except a sheep poo covered pile of rocks and ground I had nothing to work with. I had carried some lightweight universal aluminum tent poles with me and intended to fashion a structure with these. I started with a high pole front sloping to ground level rear design, and failed. I moved to a large hoop front to grounded rear, and failed. Then I tried a high pole front to low pole rear centre line, and failed. Finally, as the rain pounded I built a Shangri-La of nylon, rope, poles and pegs. It was a low pole front and rear with closed back and open front design, it was wonderful and doubled as a handy portable bomb-shelter. The rain became torrential during the night and the newly built Hilton Dartmoor - Newbridge, didn’t even quiver in the rain and wind. As the squalls swung 180 degrees during the night I simply lay east-west under the fly instead of north-south and moved to the rear of the fly, dry(ish) and happy.
I had set up the fly quite close to the Black-a-ven Brook and woke up a few times during the night to the noise of the brook going from babbling to busy to bustling to bullish to bursting. I think it rose a meter during the night but was still a good meter or two low of my camp site. I boiled water and then under attack from expertly trained 2-para-commando-marine-SAS-green-beret-SF MF-midges I retreated hastily into my sleeping bag liner for cover, with a bag of chocolate buttons for dinner.
Monday 0700 - Newbridge to Okehampton
By the morning the midges had given up and I lay and relaxed and reflected as the rain and wind carried on. I was in no hurry. I was only 5 kilometers short of Okehampton and had plenty of time to get there. So I meticulously untied knots and coiled ropes, cleaned tent pegs had a hearty breakfast and messed about in the rain, bone dry and warm under my new army-surplus smock.
The last hour out of the Moor was a quiet plod, musing on things like how proper sheep looked with a bouncy long tail. I walked into Okehampton about 10am, bought some fruit and caught a bus to Exeter, offending everyone on board with my eau-de-moor-nautrale. After the startled gasps of passengers exiting the bus as they caught a wiff of me going past, I thought it was probably best to have a wash before the train-ride back to Basingstoke. So, a quick chat with a woman at the ‘i’ spot (always a lower case I?...) I walked down to the Pyramids Leisure Centre, by way of a Poundland for £1 shower-gel, deodorant and a towel. I had an excellent swim, stretched and enjoyed a good soak. Then I showered and changed into what stunk the least. Which were my long daggy camp trousers and a hole ridden woolen thermal top. I was unable to face putting my wet and putrid boots back on I put on my jandals and did my best impersonation of a homeless man as I made cheese and salami snacks with what was left over in my pack, sitting on a park bench, unshaved, unbothered by the showers.
I slept on the train back home, able to chuckle to myself, as I am now, that in the comfort of a train or your home, a bit of rain and mud on Dartmoor all seems very insignificant. Whereas at the time, you’re adamant that if you find the really boggy bit with the red grasses one more time you’re just going to sit down and call your Mum for advice and help. To her credit, I did that once, I got to work on a very cold morning, fingers frozen with frost and grumpy that I was out of peanut butter, called Mum, had a moan and mittens and peanut butter arrived from the courier at noon. Not sure what she’d do with a whinging son half way across Dartmoor stuck in the mud, just nice to know she’s just a phone call away. Funnily enough, as I turned on my mobile as I got to Okehampton, I had voicemail, just Mum checking in that I was ok, from 20,000 kilometers away. Dartmoor, done.