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Walking the River Taw

December 17, 2010

I have always liked the tramp from Hangingstone Hill to Cranmere Pool, via Taw Head. A genuine piece of wild Dartmoor; at its best on fierce days of rain and mist, when modern intrusions become less visible, and you get the feeling that you are battling with elemental nature.

It was on a boyhood expedition to Cranmere, on just such a rough day, that I first encountered the River Taw, as I clung down into its valley head to seek respite from an angry westerly wind. I have sought out Taw Head on many occasions since, and enjoyed sitting by its tripping waters even on balmy days.

There is now, sadly, a real path from Hangingstone to the Pool. In those early days there was not, and you had to walk on a compass bearing in fog.

In the years since, I have often used the Taw as an approach to Cranmere, walking from Belstone. Like many Dartmoor rivers there are the delights of either keeping to the river banks – though those of the Taw are marshy in places – or looking down on the course of the waters from nearby high ridges. The moorland Taw is not a long stretch of river, and it is quite possible to explore both options in one long day’s glorious ramble.

After an initial deeper valley, the Taw flows through a wider plain, sadly bisected by a military track. Evidence of tin mining is all around and on the top of one tinners’ waste mound is the memorial and burial site of the ashes of the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. The immediate vicinity of the river is usually very wet and it pays to keep to the harder ground on the western side of the plain.

But as the river approaches Steeperton Tor, it regains much of the feel of a valley and the intrusive wide army tracks momentarily disappear from sight.  As the river runs along the lower heights of Steeperton it is worth exploring the remains of Knack (Knock) Mine on and above the western banks. A good challenge is to seek out the WV inscribed stone, reminding us that this was Wheal Virgin, finally abandoned in 1879, after several hundred years of mineral working on this site.

Despite the disfiguring army hut on its summit, Steeperton Tor is well worth a climb, not least because it offers excellent views over so much of the River Taw and all of Taw Plain. But a descent back to river level is a real must, so that you can walk down through Steeperton Gorge, one of the Taw’s more dramatic moments, as it tumbles down into Taw Plain.

The concrete structures on this wider valley are part of the scheme, initiated in the 1950s, to extract water from deep below the surface of Taw Marsh. The track up from Belstone was built about the same time. I recall that there were suggestions that Taw Plain might serve as the site for a reservoir, so perhaps we got off lightly with these less dramatic intrusions. The wide valley of the Taw would have been completely ruined by a concrete dam and the artificial shorelines of a pointless moorland reservoir.

Now a lot of walkers, following the line of the Taw to and from Belstone, stick rigidly to the line of the waterworks track, missing some of the best bits of the Taw itself. This is a mistake, for there are some delightful stretches of water, including several deep bathing pools. I once spent a lazy summer’s evening just lingering by one such pool watching a couple of brown trout feeding.

Some years ago, returning to Belstone from a long tramp to Cranmere and Fur Tor, I spotted an otter working these quiet reaches of the river. Not far away now, and using much of the lower reaches of the Taw, is the Tarka Trail. But in Henry Williamson’s novel Tarka the Otter, the eponymous animal travels right up the Taw to Cranmere and beyond. In the edition illustrated by Tunnicliffe, there is a charming picture of Tarka on a river that looks, to me, very like the Taw. It is quite possible, for Williamson brought Tunnicliffe to these moorland valleys so that the latter might have a better understanding of the Dartmoor scene.

The moorland Taw first meets habitation in the form of the stark moorland village of Belstone, though it is quite possible not to realise the fact from the heart of this tiny community, situated as it is so high above the banks of the river. Walkers heading south-eastwards towards the mighty heights of Cosdon, have to dip down into the steep river valley so that they might cross on a footbridge before making their long ascent.

But fewer ramblers explore the picturesque Belstone Cleave, through which the river flows in its seeming hurry to leave Dartmoor behind. It is worth taking a circuit of the river leaving either from Belstone or Sticklepath, for both sides offer grand scenery and splendid views of the Taw, either from the heights of Belstone Cleave, where the paths of the Tarka Trail might be followed, or the true right bank, which clings nearer to the river as it enters the lovely Skaigh Wood.

Perhaps the best place to end an exploration of the Taw is at Sticklepath’s old mill, which is now a museum dedicated to the subject of water power. My late uncle, Harry Bainbridge, and his students from Exeter College, helped with the initial restoration of the mill. It is a good place to leave the Taw, though it flows through some wonderful portions of mid and north Devon on it journey to meet its sister river, the Torridge and then the sea.


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