It’s been a while since I spent time on Dartmoor. I’m not sure why as I’ve always very much enjoyed the different scale and challenges of the moor compared to the more dramatic upland areas where I have typically spent my leisure time. Anyway, with a few days spare, and slightly misbehaving knees to mollify, I decided on the gentler gradients of the north moor.
Which is how – on a mid-to-late Thursday afternoon in early July – I came to be leaving the car at Belstone and heading out through the village and onto the path towards Taw Marsh. I had no particular plan in mind: just a few potential campsites marked in Viewranger from previous visits, and an intention to join some of the dots in a configuration to suit the weather, my knees and general fitness level.
I’ve always been a slow starter on backpacking trips, and the first couple of miles were halting – punctuated by frequent faff-stops to adjust boot lacing, weight distribution, length of walking poles and a dozen other things that distracted me from putting one foot in front of the other. But it was a lovely, warm afternoon and I had no particular destination in mind, so slow progress was fine by me.
After crossing the ford and feeling like I had made it onto the moor proper, I started looking for a camp site. The obvious spots by the Taw path were consistently spoiled – in my eyes at least – by an industrial scale proliferation of cow dung wherever a tent could otherwise rest. Rejecting one promising site after another I gradually worked my way around the southerly fringe of the marsh.
Finally I settled on a spot amongst the tell-tale lumps and bumps of old workings by the south-east corner of the marsh where a tent-sized patch of flat grass provided an ideal, largely crap-free, camping spot.
It was a good choice. Far off the usual tracks for the dog-walkers and joggers in and out of Belstone, it felt quiet and remote. With the tent pitched and a brew on the go, just enough breeze to keep the midges at bay and the warm sun dropping slowly towards the tors on the other side of the marsh, it didn’t seem like there was any good reason to be anywhere else but here. It was a perfect evening.
The following morning was perhaps less inspirational. Overnight, clouds had lowered themselves onto the tors and dampness in the air promised an uncertain outlook.
After eating and packing, I set off up the flank of Metheral Hill. The peat on the hillside was dotted with shallow scrapes – dug, maybe, by squaddies finding what shelter they could from fierce weather on a training exercise. A dismal way to spend a winter’s night, I imagined.
Before I got to the top of the hill, the weather gods made up their mind what the day should be like. Fortunately, my waterproofs were easily accessible.
As I emerged from the shelter of the hillside, strong blustery, south-west wind joined the rain and set the tone for the rest of the day. The elements gathered pace and flow-rate as I crossed Wild Tor and headed for Hangingstone Hill. After stopping in the shelter of the Hangingstone Hill OP for a snack and some map-gazing, and continuing to Whitehorse Hill, I decided to veer west aiming for East Dart Head and Black Hill. Not especially bright as plans go, as it meant walking straight into the wind-driven rain as I crossed cloud-covered peat hags and marshy ground significantly more trying than I recalled from previous visits.
At the top of Black Hill, and not keen on forcing the passage which would be necessary to reach Cut Hill through more peat hags and gullies, I decided instead to drop down westwards towards Cut Combe Water. Emerging below the mist, I followed a marshy route (no longer a problem given the already saturated state of my boots and clothing) along the northern bank of the brook. I detoured briefly, crossing the stream and climbing a surprisingly un-cloud laden Fur Tor before returning to the route and continuing past the junction with Amicombe Brook.
Sadly, with day and night firing scheduled on Willsworthy Range, Tavy Cleave and Watern Oke were out of bounds. I toyed with the idea of continuing north-ish for a while instead. But lack of ambition, and a growing preference for not being so wet, got the better of me. I stopped to camp a couple of hundred yards short of the range markers. Showing surprising kindness, the weather gods relented briefly, allowing me to put up the tent, collect water and shed wet layers (ie all of them!) in comparative dryness.
They soon renewed their assault – this time on the tent rather than me. I like being in a tent in bad weather. So, warm and dry(ish), I settled in for the evening. Tea and cooking consumed an hour, by which point I had discovered that poor radio reception meant that my listening options were limited solely to World Cup quarter finals on Radio 5 Live. I put the radio aside and pulled out my Kindle instead. And so the evening passed.
The rattling of rain on flysheet diminished slowly overnight. By the time I was ready to pack up, the cloud was lifting and the air was dry. Putting on wet socks and boots was the usual trial, but I was soon heading northwards up Amicombe Hill in improving weather with clear lines of sight as I emerged from the gorge. Flanking the hill and dropping down towards Kneeset Nose, I crossed the West Okement River and started the climb towards Dinger Tor.
This was a lovely bit of walking on a gentle upwards gradient, passing Lints Tor with views emerging in all directions.
From Dinger Tor I turned briefly north-west to take in High Willhays before heading south-east to pick up the track to Okement Hill. I’m not a fan of Dartmoor’s metaled tracks, but this one made for quick progress as I passed Okement Hill and crossed the Taw ford before reaching Ockside Hill and turning north towards Steeperton Gorge.
I caught up with a group of teenagers practising for their D of E Gold award. Chatting with them as our paths briefly coincided, they bemoaned the weight of their packs, the length of their day and anything else that occurred to them about being outdoors and away from a wifi signal. To be fair, I’m not sure I blame them. Standard D of E kit seems designed to put teenagers off backpacking for life. How do they learn that there’s more to it than the pain of massive, heavy packs, soaking clothes and loosely-attached rolled foam mats enclosed in flapping bin bags?
Taking a mid-afternoon stop for a brew at the ford below Knack mine I noticed a small, sheltered patch of grass nestled under the rocks below the path. It was still early, but the site seemed too perfect to move on. So I decided to pitch the tent and make my camp there. With the tent up, I pottered around for a bit, laying out clothes to dry on the surrounding rocks, treating an emergent hot spot on my heel, and generally just enjoying my last afternoon of the trip.
So close to the path on a warm Saturday afternoon, it was inevitable that a few folks stopped to chat. After three days of seeing almost no-one, I was happy enough to pass the time of day. There was a guided party exploring local tin mining history, and a couple of groups of letterboxers, searching around the rocks and hidey-holes near the tent (after the first one, I knew where the next should be looking, but I was sufficiently self-disciplined not to tell.) And a really nice chap, who broke away from his spouse and friends briefly to talk about backpacking gear. I’m always happy to talk kit, and especially so when my conversee turns out to have the same nostalgic affection as I do for the old Phoenix Phreeranger tent. So we were happy to agree that someone should revive the design before the rolling eyes of his companions became too insistent to ignore and he departed.
By late afternoon, the flow of passing travelers dried up and I had the Gorge to myself.
A bit more pottering, some cooking (well, adding hot water to dry, powdery stuff to make mushy, edible stuff) and photography were excellent ways to pass the time. I explored Knack mine a bit, and pottered some more. As the sun started going down, the midges came out to play in significant numbers in the calm of my sheltered camp site. Smidge and a head-net kept them at bay reasonably successfully until the light and the views disappeared.
The following morning was fine, still and quiet. Simply lovely.
I took my time with breakfast and packing. No point hurrying when my destination was the car and the drive home. The morning’s walk up to Oke Tor and northwards along the ridge was a real delight.
But it was over all too soon and the final descent into Belstone beckoned.
Note to self: don’t stay away from Dartmoor for so long next time.