A day on Dartmoor

 It is a real effort to get out of bed early, make the fish paste sandwiches and the the thermos of hot sweet coffee – not forgetting to collate all this with a new, fresh packet of fig rolls. It has to be done. It had been too long since I visited and said hello to all my old friendly tors who had been waiting to greet me; and I them.

The M5 South is fairly quiet, such that I can choose to cruise at my speed without weaving from lane to lane. These are all working drivers, not Friday holiday changeovers to D & C – Devon and Cornwall in case you are wondering. The car’s warm, music  playing, the joy of listening to Schubert and Pergolesi while internally debating where to go – all Dartmoor beckons. Spoiled for choice. Should it be Fernworthy and Sittaford Tor with its echoes of the past with the stone circles in the forest and the twin Grey Wethers past the wall on the moor, the keening wind searching through the groaning pines? Should it be Sticklepath with its boardwalks across the swamp, through lichen-covered dwarf trees? No, it will be the circle walk from Belstone today. I savour the decision and look forward to the delights in store.

Exeter comes and gets left in my wake, the M5 fades out to the  A38 and A30. I choose the route to North Devon, through the red Devonian cliffs at the junction. These 420million year old deposits are slowly turning green over the years as the cutting is colonised by plants and grass. Now to follow the A30 as it swoops along through the hills of Devon. The usual names come and fade behind, ‘Pathfinder Village’, ‘Crediton’, ‘Oakhampton’ until ‘Whiddon Down’ looms and I know I need the next turn off. There it is, ‘Belstone and Sticklepath’. I slow and adjust to Devon speed, take the slip and then turn away, reluctantly, from the ‘Okehampton’ sign – no Meldon today. I pass the garage and the Little Chef lookalike cafe then turn right onto the Belstone Road. A little lane to the cattle grid, a rumble then slow for the turn into the car park before the village.

The car stops with a sigh, the music off – replaced by birdsong as I open the door. I don walking boots, check the rucksack for food, drink, map and compass. Lock car, zip, keys into pocket, hat and gloves on, belly band and chest strap tightened then start walking. Through the timeless village, past the stocks, seven Dartmoor ponies grazing on the village green by the pub. Granite houses, slate roofs, curls of smoke from chimneys. No people, all quiet. A blanket of peace hangs over the village. Past the giant beech trees sheltering the many seats overlooking the common, Belstone Cleeve and further across the valley to Cosdon Hill.

A little further on there is a cottage with a lot of rusty farm machinery outside,  including my favourite piece, a very old tractor that looks as if it is growing out of the tarmac by the wayside. All the tyres are flat, it has been standing there for at least forty years in my memory. The mud guards can just been seen as grey but there are now ventilation holes along them, dissolved away by the continuous dampness in the combe. Veer to the left at the fork – a stern sign commands ‘No turning beyond this sign’. I assume it only applies to cars and as I am a pedestrian, I do no worry too much. The range board appears warning of all sorts of range firing. It is only the Army so I do not worry about that either. Of more concern are the many signs about sheep worrying tacked up on fenceposts and tree trunks. Haven’t they called in a woolly psychiatrist yet?

 

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‘Giant’ granite – Feldspar crystal

The tarmac fades out to be replaced with great slabs of granite. It is the ‘Giant Granite’ judging by the huge feldspar crystals – up to two inches long. I pass through the gateway, carefully closing the gate behind me – don’t want those sheep any more worried than they are already by a draught through an open gate.

I stop, relishing the fact that I am now on the moor. I look up in the direction of Belstone Tor. I start the climb My legs hurt at first in protest but they soon warm to the task of getting this lump of protein and the rucksack up the hill. I stop at the break of slope as the gradient eases off. I stop, for the view of course, my laboured breathing has nothing to do with it. I start again, determined to get to the top this time. I navigate the grey granite clitter as I approach the Tor and then the final scramble up the rocks to the top. I briefly stand on the highest point, exulting in the cold wind and the hazy view across North Devon – a few new windmills turning lazily in the distance, harvesting the power of the wind – at the cost of a few minced birds no doubt. I drop a few feet to my favourite spot in the lee of the rocks to shelter from the Westerly. I shrug off the rucksack and extract the gardener’s pad to sit on to insulate me from the insult of the cold, lumpy rock. I gronf one sandwich and two fig rolls as I allow myself half a cap of coffee. From my seat I can see right across Devon – Laird of all I survey.

I tune my ears away from the wind whistleing through the gaps in the rocks, I hear birdsong, I tune in further and separate two skylarks rising in their blithe soaring into the steel grey sky.

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Typical Dartmoor horizontal weathering of granite tor.

The only fly in the oinkment – sorry sheep not pigs was the foul miasma arising from the moor. It was covered in sheep pellets, there are sheep everywhere The complete moor is sheepwrecked ( Thanks to George Monbiot for that excellent descriptive word. ). I have seen the fenced off old tin mine shafts ober towards the South West where the moor has been allowed to flourish without the killer sheep destroying every seedling that has the temerity to pop its head above the surface. The ground there is covered in lush grass and blueberry bushes, green and beautiful. Imagine if the complete Moor was rewilded and just allowed to grow and develop as it wanted. How much more beautiful – and sweet smelling – it would be.

I don’t really do economics but if you read ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot, you will find that there is no economic justification for the sheep. I would like to hear a counter argument from you – if you can come up with one. I’ll bet my 300 million years against your ‘hundreds of years of history’ if you try and use the devalued ‘ Justified by history’ argument.

I feed my soul with the view and the sound for a few minutes longer, until I feel the chill of the wind finding its way to my core. Pack up, sweep the area for left-behinds and then head down through the South facing clitter to the pass between Belstone and Higher Tors. threading through the gap in Irishman’s wall created by many feet of man and sheep. Easy walking across the stiff grass to Higher and then follow the ridge towards Oke Tor. Halfway there, is a small outcrop of horizontally emplaced granite. I know from previous walks that there is a small plastic jar secreted in a crevice beneath a slab, closed by a couple of rocks with some wisps of grass to camouflage it. I carefully remove the grass and the small rocks. There it is, still there after six years. I open it and read it again. It is a message to ‘who ever passes this way’ and talks from the heart of Pippa whose husband, Russell died. She left this note here after his death as it was one of their favourite spots. She also named the tor, ‘Russtor’ in his memory. She moved to Cambridge after he died. I always check and read it every time I pass this way. A memory to lasting love encased in 300 million year old Cornubian Granite.

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Feldspar, biotite mica and Quartz crystals

Time to move on to Oke Tor. A wild and windy spot on top of the ridge, just inside the Army Rangle. No flag up on Steeperton so no firing today. The Army must be on leave but I hope the Navy isn’t, in case another Spanish Armada threatens Devonport. It is best here in a Dartmoor mist when the crags of the Tor look up just like the figures on Easter Island. I carefully search along the Eastern side until I find the Elvan Dykes. These were emplaced in the harder, coarser granite that surrounds them. The Elvans are softer so have been quarried for building stone. Their squareness as they just out from the side of the Tor make them look unnatural but they are not – just later, fine-grained granite. Time for another quick gronf of a sandwich, fish paste again – unsurprisingly as I made them, a fig roll and a half cup of coffee.

Now for the first real downhill part of the walk, down to the ford across the River Taw, just before it flows down into Steeperton Gorge. Now there is a choice, whether to scramble up the steep but short shoulder of Steeperton or take a the longer but leisurely stroll up from the ford to the saddle between Steeperton and Hangingstone Hill. I take the scramble, knowing that I can rest at the top of Steeperton, in the shelter if it raining or too windy. From the top it is a drop to Steeperton Brook, a leap across the stream and then head for Metheral Hill. A sharpish drop again and then a long slow climb to the summit of Cosdon Hill.

No time for a rest, I have a destination in mind, a target, an objective.  I headed North down the unpathed slope of Cosden, unable to see the footbridge over the Taw because of the steepening drop. I picked up a path, followed it through the clumps of gorse that remain after the burning. The path drops steeply and becomes more stoney as the footfall has worn through the thin grass and soil.

There is the footbridge with the latched gates at each end. The water rushes under at speed. The river is still in its mountain torrent stage. It shortly turns to the East and follows the deep green gorge of Belstone Cleeve before heading across North Devon to the sea near Barnstaple. I cross the wooden bridge on the non-slip chicken wire before starting the struggle up the steep hill back to the common and then a slow wander through the village back to the car. I seek a warm cup of coffee from the thermos but it is nearly cold so I give up and start the car to head for my objective.

I park around the back then  gratefully enter and take a seat, enjoying the warm smell of frying bacon. I salivate and change from ‘just a coffee; to ‘a coffee and a bacon sandwich.’ I chew the bacon gratefully while reviewing the day, with a touch of feeling that I wish I was still up among the great, grey friendly high Tors.

I’ll be back there soon.

© Richard Kefford 2016                                                                                                Eorðdraca

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2 thoughts on “A day on Dartmoor

  1. Interesting about the sheep having no economic viability. I can never understand why lamb (meat) is so expensive when there are sheep literally everywhere in the UK?

    I love those granites. That big crystal in the first one is very satisfying.

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  2. I think the issue is with sheep farming on marginal land and hill sheep farming in particular. No hill farmer can make a living without the subsidies. It is a lot cheaper for the UK to import sheep reared on the fertile lowlands of New Zealand than it is to produce it on Dartmoor! Dartmoor has always been (mis) used over the years. Tin mining tore up the landscape. It is a very fragile area that would prosper beautifully if it was left alone with just a few cattle and horses allowed to graze it.
    Have you ever seen and listened to the song of a lark as it spirals up in the sky to distract you from its nest on the ground? What is that worth in economic terms? The discussion continues…
    The granites are wonderful. The photo at the top of the blog is of an Elvan Dyke – the same rock that Truro Cathedral is built from. The huge feldspar crystals show just how deep the cornubian granite was when it was emplaced. C. 13km.

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