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Dartmoor Week: One – Keeping Dartmoor Wild and Free

November 17, 2010

Dartmoor – Keeping the Hills Wild and Free

“It is well understood that a proportion of people in this country are unable to feel the inspiration of the untamed hills, just as some people are tone-deaf to great music. They cannot help the lack of this particular endowment, and it is their own great loss. But there are others, many others, who experience a sense of liberation and renewal whenever they set food on wild land. Millions of quiet people do feel this. They are intelligent and perceptive people of every class and age group – and I repeat this: of every class and age group, for no error is greater than to suppose that the love of wild country is an upper class or elderly preserve; they are people who, forced to live a daily life of crowding and stress, find that escape to remote uplands is their great restorative of mind and body, and are willing to make a real physical effort to get out into the wild. National Parks are not just a nice but slightly unnecessary luxury for a fortunate few. They are in fact a vital provision for a very real human need.” (My italics). From Sylvia Sayer’s book Wild Country.

Lady Sayer’s book is out of print now, but is well worth seeking out. For those who don’t know, Sylvia was Dartmoor’s greatest champion, fighting reservoirs, the military, conifer planting, conversion of Moorland, and loss of public access – and all without compromise. She was, for many years, chairman of the then very effective Dartmoor Preservation Association. Sadly, in the ten years since her death, many of the “Sayer Values” have been abandoned by present day Dartmoor conservationists. Everyone must do much better in the decade to come.

A military hut disfiguring the highest ground on Dartmoor


In tribute to her work, I am dedicating the next few blogs to looking at Dartmoor issues and rambles. I am starting with one of my favourite Dartmoor walks – the wild journey out to the summit of Ryder’s Hill and Aune Head. In the next day or two, we will look at two areas of the Dartmoor National Park, where walkers are not welcome, and also at the vexed and controversial issue of the military abuse of Dartmoor. But first a Dartmoor walk …

Stillness beyond silence – At first there is an absolute stillness, stillness beyond silence, with not even the sound of water to break the peace as it seeps quietly from the great mire and into the moorland river. Then at last skylarks soar into the blue and a curlew cries as the walker becomes accepted as part of the landscape. This is Aune Head in the heart of Dartmoor, the most southerly stretch of lonely country in the British Isles.

In our urbanised and overcrowded southern England it is hard to imagine that there are still such places as this watershed mire – where you can linger for days on end and see nothing but ground nesting birds, circling buzzards and a scattering of sheep. Walkers are rare and shepherds come just a few times a year to check on their flocks, the calm broken by shouts and the barking of dogs.

This part of the Moor is a vast plateau with none of the steep slopes and familiar rocky tors of north or east Dartmoor. Sometimes the only movements that catch the eye are the cloud shadows chasing across miles of moor grass or the bog cotton blowing in the breeze. The quarter of a million residents crowded around Plymouth probably don’t realise there is such peace and solitude a dozen miles away; though it is waiting for them at the moment when they realise they need to lose the 21st century.

There is no better Dartmoor tramp on a still day than that to the moorland fastnesses around the long slopes of Ryder and the birthplace of the River Avon, the name the Aune takes as it tumbles a rocky course away from the great mire. It was on such an ascent of Ryder, the highest summit on southern Dartmoor, that I first discovered Aune Head so many decades ago.

Climbing the hill is the prelude to reaching the secret world of the mire. Ryder is vast, its shoulders and spurs covering a dozen of the wildest square miles of Dartmoor.  It was near to this line of ascent that twelve knights of King Henry III rode to delineate the bounds of the ancient hunting Forest of Dartmoor from the moorland commons of Devon in 1240. Not a lot has changed in the eight hundred years since. The ground is still as boggy, the moor grass as pale and the views over much of south Devon just as extensive. Beyond all that is a sense of space that is rare in southern England.

I have always been fond of this long slow climb into the wild from Combestone Tor, that strange huddle of rocks atop the deep gorge of the Dart river. It is particularly satisfying. Tramping up Ryder is a bit like being a fly on a gently inclining wall. You feel tiny in the great sweep of the landscape. On harsh winter days, with the cold air blowing from the north your feet crack down on the frozen surface and un-melted hailstones. There is scant shelter on this slope from the unremitting attentions of a fierce gale, except isolated hollows and banks where medieval tinners scratched for tin, or the occasional peat hag. Yet on brighter summer days you can sunbathe on this same hillside, almost feeling that you can reach up and touch the blue of the sky.

Given that it is the highest top on southern Dartmoor, the summit of the hill is undramatic and you might scarcely know you are there but for an abandoned triangulation post and two older granite stones marking the boundary of Dartmoor Forest. Beyond the top, two great ridges lead off to the cairn-capped subsidiary hills of Snowdon and Huntingdon, and the valley of the Avon. For miles around all is moorland, the great tors of the Dartmoor central belt and, beyond, the higher summits of the north moor and the great plateau around Cranmere. On sunnier days a patchwork quilt of red and green fields mark the cultivated lands to the south, worn out of old forests by Saxon settlers who would use this moorland for the summer grazing of their cattle.

I have always loved the airy feeling of space on the summit of Ryder. There are no great dramatic drops such as you might get in the Lake District or Scotland, instead the land peels away in great broad swathes, descending so gradually that you hardly sense the gradient. Perhaps because of this I always feel a peculiar sense of connection to the earth there, as though I am somehow rooted in the great swelling curve of the Moor.

It is interesting that while you may say you are “in” the Lake District or the Peak, you always speak of being “on” Dartmoor. Certainly this last great wilderness of southern England is not to everyone’s taste. Many find it bleak and unappealing and fail to see its subtle beauty. But to those who love the Moor, the sight of cloud shadows sweeping its heather acres is heart stopping.

A thread of narrow paths leads down from Ryder to Aune Head.  Even on summer days these give some indication of how wet the ground is, as boots squelch and sink slightly through the grass and into the peat. Then a wider track, or rather series of roughly parallel pathways, is reached – the Sandy Way, which skirts the head of the mire on its journey from Holne to Princetown. Two hundred years ago, when French and American prisoners of war were incarcerated at Princetown, a market was held just inside the gates so that the captives might buy or barter for food.  On market days a colourful procession of local farmers and traders would walk or lead pack ponies along this lonely route to the prison. Now only the occasional rambler follows in their footsteps.

A mile further north a line of crosses, markers on the bare moor, show an old monastic trail, almost the only man-made objects standing out on the great expanse of heath. Many years ago, waylaid by a mist returning from Aune Head, I discovered their usefulness finding the next before the one behind was quite lost from sight, handholds out of the wilderness.

Crosses at Ter Hill


Yet the travellers who took such a route in medieval times would have understood the solitude of traversing wild country in a way that we find difficult to comprehend. Only by being out in the wild for long enough do we cast off the unwelcome comfort of the crowd.

That is why places like Aune Head are not to everyone’s taste.  One walker I know was overcome with a physical dread at the desolation around, the miles of empty moorland, the great mire itself with its pools of water reflecting a grey sky, the bright and weird green of the sphagnum moss and, above all, the utter silence of a winter’s day when the birds didn’t cry.

Dartmoor is like that. You either feel at home in such a place or are overwhelmed and can’t wait to get away. The featurelessness of the Moor makes navigation difficult and some walkers have a genuine fear of getting lost. But for those in empathy with these wild surroundings, there are rich rewards; complete peace of mind and a sense of falling out of time – an uncommon feeling on this overcrowded island.

Sometimes we need to get a little bit lost in order to find ourselves. Aune Head, the real heart of the Moor, is a good place to start.

Only here is the tiny river called the Aune, for it flows scarce a mile before taking the name Avon, continuing a beautiful journey across Dartmoor and the South Hams of Devon, ending in a wide estuary on a lovely stretch of the Channel coast.

But at Aune Head there is little suggestion of a mighty river, just a great bowl of mire, dotted with hazardous patches of bright green bog. Your presence on its rim might cause a heron to flap clumsily skywards, for the sky is all about you, there is little ground higher; the only sound the sad and distant cry of a curlew, or the far trilling of skylarks.

There are the ruins of a hut on the very edge of the mire, just a square of granite now. This was the isolated home and workplace of a medieval tin miner who, even in an age when Dartmoor was more populated than it is today, probably saw no other human being for weeks at a time.

I can imagine something of how his life must have been, for I once camped near his hut for just a week, seeing no one and hearing nothing but the running of water, the bleating of sheep and the cries of the marsh birds. As night fell in my little tent I would imagine that I could hear the conversation of human beings coming closer and closer, but as I stepped outside there would be nothing and no one.

Such are the ways that solitude can play on the mind in lonely places. But I have found, from long experience, that being alone in remote countryside, away from the call of so-called civilisation, is one of the very best ways of healing a troubled mind.

Turning away from Aune Head, mostly following the tracks of sheep, or tramping through trackless heather, brings another of Dartmoor’s great mires into view. Fox Tor Mire, named after a diminutive clump of rocks on its southern edge is greater in size than Aune Head. It has a reputation for being treacherous, though I have crossed it many times without harm. It is said that it inspired the forbidding Grimpen Mire of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Tales are told of escaping convicts seen no more after attempting to traverse its boggy acres.

It is from here that the line of crosses marks the monastic route across the Moor. I like to stand where the stone crosses lead up on to the windswept Ter Hill and look across this to Fox Tor and the tomb of Childe the Hunter at the edge of the mire. It is said that Childe of Plymstock, caught by a blizzard one day when out hunting, perished there, despite cutting open his horse and crawling inside. Having once fought my way back to Princetown that way, in a whiteout of blinding snow, I can well believe the story, though the Childe’s Tomb of today is a recent restoration of what looks like a Bronze Age kistvaen. Everywhere on Dartmoor are such despairing yarns told, and there is probably an element of truth in many of them.

I followed the line of crosses to the tiny, though beautiful little river known as the Wo Brook or, with the perversity of Dartmoor etymology, sometimes just the O Brook. It tumbles down amidst old mine workings to join the Dart just below Combestone Tor, through a deep valley filled with rowan trees. I have always had fond memories of this little river, since camping near to its source as a boy. The mine track to Hexworthy from the abandoned Hensroost Mine was my favoured way to refreshment at the Forest Inn, which had a section at its rear for those of us too young for alcoholic beverages.

The Hensroost Mine Track winds around the side of Down Ridge through moorland and newtakes to the hamlet of Hexworthy. It is hard to believe that such an innocuous path could become the subject of a dispute that ended in the High Court, but so it did. In the 1980s the landowner (Prince Charles), and some of the Duchy’s tenants, summarily closed off the right of way.

JB trespassing on the Hensroost Mine Track


A public inquiry was held, legal points were taken to Court, but still the path remained closed. Some of us still used the way, despite confrontation, until the area was opened for walkers under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. I was honoured to be asked to lead a walk to celebrate its re-opening, in which hundreds of Dartmoor ramblers participated. I am thrilled that generations to come will be able to enjoy the path that many of us fought so hard to restore to public use.

The mine track crosses the Wo Brook by way of a charming stone bridge. I never cross it without recalling a day of thick mist when I wandered up the brook from the road at Saddle Bridge. It was a morning of great stillness with visibility down to just a few yards. Dartmoor mists can be a real challenge, but for the competent navigator they are often the best time to be out and about on the Moor. You feel the elemental presence of the wilderness, there is just you and nature. It is like being out of this material world.

On that day I followed the brook upstream without encountering a soul. I walked quietly, watching the birds flit from tree to tree, and the tiny trout in the river pools. But as I reached the old bridge I became aware of a loud splashing. I crept closer and was rewarded by the sight of an otter leaping from the bridge, then dashing up the bank and leaping in again, swimming for a while in the tiny pool, before clambering back to the bridge, shaking furiously, then diving once more. It was a privilege to be there, and it was probably only thanks to the mist that I got such a close view.

Such are the adventures that might be had in the wildest scenery in southern England.

A version of the above first appeared in the book The Call of the Wild (Rucksack Readers).




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