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Walking Dartmoor: The River Erme

December 26, 2010

One of the best views on Dartmoor is from the side of the steep valley of the Erme, below Sharp Tor. It is almost mountainous in aspect, as you look at the river so far below and then across to the mighty hill of Stalldon. On the banks of the river is the oakwood of Piles Copse, a strange intrusion into this wild moorland landscape. Downstream are the first of the enclosures above Harford and Ivybridge, with glimpses of the hedgerows of the South Hams. But to the north, some of the wildest country in England, miles of hill and heath, undisturbed by civilisation’s roads and houses until the weary walker nears either Princetown or Hexworthy.

But it was not always thus. In prehistoric times this was a busy landscape, the marks of habitation so clearly visible in the ruins of ancient roundhouses and pounds. The stone rows that accompany the Erme for much of its journey, the cairns and barrows on the slopes above, show that this was once a sacred land, a place of burial and ritual. There are, too, marks of industry, though these are modest infringements and have not caused the destruction of the lie of the land.

It can be a strangely quiet river valley, given the proximity of Ivybridge, once tagged, horribly, as “the fastest growing town in Europe”. I mind Ivybridge when it was quite a modest town. That said, the heart of Ivybridge has changed little since I roamed there first, and its old bridge is a delight. It deserves recognition as the southern gateway to Dartmoor, and it is pleasing to see trampers setting out from there, into the Moor’s hinterlands around the Erme or on the longer journey of the Two Moors Way.

You don’t have to go far for wilder delights. I have always liked the riverside footpaths north of the town, though I wish someone would negotiate a right of way, off road, all the way to Harford. This charming little place is too often missed by walkers in a hurry to park their cars at Harford Moor Gate, or the more distant New Waste. The little church is pretty, as is the scenery around Harford Bridge.

There are fine views over the vicinity from Burford Down and Tristis Rock, now access land under the CRoW right to roam legislation. I haven’t been up to this part of the Erme valley in springtime for many years, but the open moorland used to cloud blue with thousands of bluebells. I hope it still does.

An exploration of the Erme should really be made by travelling up one bank and returning down the other, for there are wondrous attractions on both sides of the water and the river is not always easy to cross. Piles Copse doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of some of Dartmoor’s other oakwoods, such as Wistman’s Wood or Black-a-tor-Beare, but is a pleasant place to halt, offering some shade on a hot day. The hillsides around seem to climb for ever towards the sky and are full of subtle colours.

Upstream on the west bank, hard by a little brook is Downing’s House, a miner’s cache, which legend tells us, has served another purpose as a secret stash for smugglers’ contraband.  North of here is the Bledge Brook, one of the tiny tributaries of the higher reaches of the Erme.

Just beyond is the commencement of the very long stone row which terminates on Green Hill. Many of the stones are small and indistinct and I know of many a rambler who hasn’t even noticed the thing as they stride across it. Its course is well worth following, adding to the joys of exploring these highlands of southern Dartmoor.

Close to the east bank of the river is Erme Pound. It undoubtedly started life as a prehistoric enclosure, though it later served a centuries-old role as a pound for estrayed moorland cattle, a purpose it enjoyed until the reign of Queen Victoria.

I can never visit Erme Pound without thinking of William Crossing, who often halted here on his Dartmoor explorations, resting in the little building with stone benches by the pound’s gateway. He gives a fine account of one journey to Erme Pound in Amid Devonia’s Alps, which deserves a read if you want a gentle introduction to the grand old man’s works.

North of Erme Pound, a number of small tributaries come down from the surrounding hillsides to add their waters to the Erme. Tongue in cheek, you could almost call it Dartmoor’s lake district, for there is the Red Lake, the Dry Lake and the Wollake – all streams of course and not broad stretches of water. The Wollake is probably the most important of these, taking the name of the Black Lane Brook in its upper stages, after the old moormen’s peat-pass out to near Fox Tor, giving access through the mires and watershed to Dartmoor’s central belt. Not far up its course is the tiny brook leading to Duck’s Pool.

I remember a night walk here, some dozen years ago. A long moonlit tramp from Cross Furzes to Princetown in aid of charity. There were just the two of us and despite the moon we seem to have got very wet feet as we discovered a number of stuggy holes in the ground and ‘feather bed’ mires. But coming to the Erme and then the Wollake to Duck’s Pool by starlight was almost a mystical experience. I recall that we passed a badger on the way, as he methodically plodded the bounds of his territory.

Very close to the source of the Erme are Erme Pits. We went there too on our night walk. I know Erme Pits of old, for I used to camp there in my early days of Dartmoor exploration. Even in daylight they are spectacular. These old mining works are full of wildlife and an interesting destination for a long moorland tramp. The Erme goes little further, swinging almost southwards for a few yards before issuing out of the watershed on the far northern slopes of Langcombe Hill.

These headwaters may be explored from the north for the walker who is heading in from Princetown, though there is greater merit in following the Erme all the way up from Ivybridge or, even better from the sea.

The Erme isn’t the best known or even the most popular of Dartmoor rivers, but it flows down through some of the wildest and most archaeologically interesting parts of the Dartmoor National Park.


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