Well Dartmoor started off well enough with lovely, defined trails and well placed stiles that were taller than we are. For all intents and purposes, Dartmoor was a fucking doddle, despite the clouds looming closer, the kind of clouds you don’t really want to see when you’re just embarking on a three day hike with wild camping. This was all practice for the Hadrian’s Wall Path hike that we were doing in September though, not that you can prepare for a northern hike in the south of England. Our weather doesn’t freeze your eyeballs in quite the same way, and our hills are less, well, vertical. But any training is better than no training so we parked the car up shuffled around a bit taking pre-hike selfies, and then strode off towards North Hessary Tor which turn out to be quite the dramatic trig point, perched atop a tor. As the name would suggest. I’ve no idea why I was surprised.
Cramber Tor was next, another trig but not on a tor. Near a tor. Pissing distance from a tor. But very much in a bog. It was still baggable though so bag it we did, before heading back to the nice maintained footpath we’d veered off to get to it. It’s quite easy on the moors, it seems, to not actually be going in the direction you think you are. We’d come in along a slightly worn footpath which disappeared once we were in sight of the trig point and we thought we’d found it again to get back, but it soon became very apparent that we hadn’t, the dead giveaway being the fact we suddenly ended up in ankle-breaking tufts of grass that was exceedingly difficult to walk on.
We had a digital map though, we knew if we kept heading in this general direction that we’d get back to the path, but there was a cow looking at me funny. I had never considered myself scared of cows before. I mean, they’re very starey aren’t they. They all just sort of look at you like you walked into their local pub and asked for directions to the nearest steakhouse. It’s intimidating. But I’ve never actually felt threatened by a bovine until this fucker took three steps towards us and I immediately freaked out and walked rapidly back the way we’d just come as Tarrant laughed at me and told me the cow just wanted to get past us. Well she’s got the whole fucking moor to get past us! What’s she walking towards me for?? This potentially imagined stand-off continued until I managed a panicked wide berth around her and she scarpered off in the other direction.
My heartbeat returned to normal, we got back to the path and continued along the flat until we got to Nun’s Cross where we sat down for a cuppa because blood had started to enter my tea system. We intended to swing a left here and go along something both my digital maps and Tarrant’s actual paper map referred to as Abbott’s Way. It was a bit of a longer way around but we wanted the miles, and as we looked out towards it it certainly didn’t look as defined as the footpath we’d been on. But there were lines on these maps so fuck it, let’s do it. Turns out that just because there is a line on a map indicating a right of way it doesn’t mean that the actual ground will agree with it here on sunny Dartmoor. Fucking great. And you know how I previously mentioned that it’s easy to not be going the direction you think you are? Turns out I’m a veerer. I veer. A lot. To the right, apparently, and my veering took us well into some soggy terrain.
Dartmoor is very squishy in parts. We were lucky that a lot of places that looked like they had the potential to be squishy were currently dry. I’ve a feeling that after heavy rain or in the winter, Dartmoor is one big squish. We eventually managed to navigate around the mass of squish and get back onto something that sort of resembled a path, which promptly disappeared again. Seriously? We checked all our maps. This was definitely where we were meant to be. We pressed on, I kept my phone in my hand to keep an eye on our direction so we didn’t end up too far off the route but we still managed to end up ankle deep in marshland, long grass up to our arses.
“I’ll laugh if an adder slithers past us,” I thought. One did. I didn’t laugh. In fact my “I’m not scared of snakes” response was more along the lines of “AGHFUCKSNAKE!!” Tarrant nearly fell off a tuft of grass, my yelping gave no indication as to where the snake was so she had no idea where to step but it had already buggered off, probably pissed off that we’d disturbed it.
Eventually a path materialised. A sweet, sweet path. We followed it towards and over a small stream where it continued over the other side. I eyed it warily, not trusting it to not suddenly become a bog, but it actually led us all the way to a glorious section of the Two Moors Way which, I think, used to serve as a means to get shit to and from the old mine we were planning to camp at. Whatever, it was all but paved. It was flat and defined and it even seemed maintained which I doubt but I’ll take what I can get. It took us all the way to the old mine with it’s odd looking cone of what we thought would have been spoils. It doesn’t look like it belongs, this little hill, it just juts out of the moor. Miles and mile of flat land, then this beast just rising up out of it.
11.3 miles of hiking from the car, we finally reached our planned camp. We pitched in a little hollow where someone had obviously camped before and left a fire ring, although how in hell they managed to get a fire going on a treeless moor is beyond me. We were right by a lake too which meant I could put my Sawyer Micro Filter to good use for our dehydrated Summit To Eat meals. They’re not bad to be honest, I quite like them though the pasta bolognese does tend to remind you the next day exactly what you had for dinner through the medium of your arse. We were pretty knackered by this point, and fair enough. We’d driven from Brighton to Devon, then hiked through some really hard terrain to get here. We managed to climb up the weird little hill for some views before dinner, then we ate and pretty much crashed out.
On account of the fact I generally can’t function without breakfast we figured we’d need to plan this into our mornings for the Hadrian’s Wall Path and what better way to see how long it takes us to get our shit together than waking up on Dartmoor? Ninety minutes, it turns out. An hour and a half to get the tent down, pack up, drink tea and eat breakfast. I read about these humans that just break camp and get on with it, munching on cereal bars and snacks as they walk. I think my stomach would threaten me with mutiny if I even suggested this. I’m not even sure my legs would function properly if I tried using them in earnest before I’d sat down and consumed something my brain considered actual food first. My individual body parts are princesses.
Day two, and we’d mostly be walking along the Two Moors Way. Again, despite it being an actual thing which even had one, solitary marker sticking out from the ground, calling something the Two Moors Way doesn’t mean you get to expect a proper footpath. We made our way across bleak moorland, keeping a close eye on the digital map because despite Tarrant being a navigation ace, she’d forgotten her compass. As we hiked, features started cropping up on the landscape. Ferns, then trees, then a footpath we could trust, then we descended into proper woodland.
We walked through a tiny village at one point, and just before we got to Holne we swung a left to leave the Two Moors Way and follow the road towards Venford Reservoir. Turns out there’s a car park here with a toilet. An actual, real life toilet. See, as outdoorsy as I like to claim to be I cannot, except in the most dire circumstances, shit in a hole in the ground. My sphincter simply won’t permit it. You have no idea how happy I was when I realised I wouldn’t have to carry 24 hours worth of dehydrated backpacker food around in my colon. If you walk out the back of the car park and walk down a big hill to the river, you come to a lovely little place which is absolutely perfect for lunch, and if you walk a bit further along there’s a tiny waterfall which is less perfect for lunch on account of all the flies. We retreated back to the little stream and sat down for some noodles.
This is another thing I need. I need to know I’ve had lunch. Snacks won’t do it, my brain needs to think I’ve eaten something proper, but even brain will compromise on noodles. To be fair, for several years my brain considered noodles a perfectly viable sole source of sustenance, I have no idea how I’m not dead yet given that noodles have the nutritional value of a spanner, so it can fuck right off if it thinks it’s getting precious about what I consider lunch now.
So, without backtracking, in order to get back onto the Two Moors Way we’d have to do a loop through Dartmeet, and of course the River Dart runs through Dartmeet, and on account of the way the river flows we’d have to get over this river. The map showed way to get across so my naive little head decided it was a bridge. It was not a bridge. It was stepping stones. Fucking stepping stones. I fucking hate stepping stones, and you’d hate them too if you also had the balance of a badger on ketamine. We watched as DofE group jogged over them like they did it every day on the way to school, then it was our turn.
Fuck fuck fuck. This was terrifying. There were obnoxiously large gaps between some of them, no one with average legs could step between those fuckers, they weren’t stepping stones, they were “flail wildly, miss, and stack it into the river” stones. I got about three quarters of the way and froze. That was it. All the brave had been drained out of me. I was stuck here forever now. This was to be my life. I would live here and people would have to bring me tea and cake. Tarrant managed to get past me and helped me the rest of the way whilst I genuinely tried not to cry because yes, I’m that much of a pussy.
Once we were through Dartmeet and I’d overcome the trauma of the demon stones we had a choice; following the road back up to the Two Moors Way, or walking cross country. There was a line on the map. This should have set all manner of fucking alarm bells ringing. Tarrant wanted to stick to the road but I was wary of being that long on a road with all the traffic and the blind corners. We took the cross country route. Of course we fucking shouldn’t have. You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but nope. It wasn’t marsh land we ended up knee deep in this time, it was a field full of gorse. But again, it did the thing where it showed us what looked like a perfectly viable path, so we followed the path, the path abruptly stopped. We should have turned around and gone back to the road but of course we fucking didn’t we pushed on as the gorse got thicker and thicker.
We’d come too far by this point to turn around. The so-called right of way took us to a small wall which we stepped over and were faced by a blanket of seemingly impenetrable gorse bush. Oh for fucking fuck’s sake! Fine. We didn’t have much of a choice in this if we wanted to make any manner of progress so off we went, trying to find the thinnest sections of scratchy plant we could. We saw the road off in the distance and just headed for that, sod the right of way, let’s just get back to the tarmac. It was exhausting. Not the elevation profile or the distance, we’d both done longer and steeper hikes, it was the terrain. Same as yesterday, the terrain is bloody hard work.
We pushed on through the gorse back to the road and I could have kissed the tarmac if I thought for a second I’d be able to get up again. We slogged up the last little incline and rejoined the Two Moors Way. Just after Ponsworthy there were some woods with a river running through them so we figured now would be a good time to refill our water bladders because we didn’t have a water source at our next camp. We’d worked out that we needed just under half a litre each for dinner and a cuppa, and the same, of course, for breakfast. It was nice to actually just sit down by a river for a while as we filtered water, and not be hiking over stepping stones or through gorse. We’d smashed through nearly our entire supply too, we hadn’t thought about our water properly it seemed, luckily we could easily access this river.
We’d intended to camp at a trig point called Hameldown Tor tonight but we were knackered. Wind Tor was over three miles closer, we knew it was a permitted camping area, bollocks to any more walking, we just wanted to get pitched up and grab some dinner. We do not regret our decision, the views from Wind Tor are absolutely lovely. We put the tent up and were inside with the doors open sorting out our sleeping mats and bags when a group of ponies galloped past, saw us and stopped. They’re so curious, they’re probably used to being fed but we’d read you weren’t meant to so we’d brought nothing for them. Plus sod hauling pony food up all these fucking hills. Eat some grass, mate. One of them strolled right past Tarrant and up to the tent for a nibble before she shooed it off, and him and his mates cantered off down the hill. They’re so beautiful, these ponies, and they give no shits about the hikers that walk past them daily.
After dinner, Tarrant crashed straight out but I couldn’t resist staying up to watch the fiery skyball do the sinking thing. It was a stunner. We’d had perfect hiking weather all day, overcast but warm and dry, and now the clouds had started to clear. I took some photos, took some more photos, took even more photos then finally, just as the 16.3 mile hike along terrain that had made us question all of our life choices took it’s toll, as my basic motor function started to fail me, I crawled into bed.
We’d pitched right by a gorse bush for shelter but it still sounded like a windy night. Our tent is great but the lid was flapping around like a drag queen on crack and I couldn’t sleep though it. I also needed to pee. Just a little bit, not enough to force me out into the apparent gales. Eventually I thought fuck it, might as well tend to the needs of my petulant big bag of piss. I scrambled out of the tent about as gracefully as you can when your legs have started to seize up because you failed to do your fucking stretches again, and I’m so glad I glanced up before I switched my head torch on.
It was completely cloudless. I was standing under a perfect dome of hundreds of thousands of stars, the Milky Way dusting an unbroken line directly above me from horizon to horizon. I rustled back into the tent and rummaged around for my camera, tripod and 12mm lens, trying not to wake Tarrant up, and spent the next hour just enjoying this rare view. You know when you know you should go back to bed, because you still have a bit of a walk in front of you the next day? Yeah. Nah. Sod sleeping, this was way better.
Morning me, however, did not agree with that statement. Turned out Tarrant got about as much sleep as I did, not because the flappy tent bothered her though, but I’d let all the cold air in whilst rummaging for my camera. Oops! This morning though, all we had to do was get to Postbridge, an easy 5.5 miles walk which, it turned out, was mostly sweet, sweet defined path, once we’d argued about which way to get off the tor. we were aiming for Postbridge on account of the fact there were two buses a day to Princetown, only a couple of miles from where we’d parked. There’s a general store which also serves as a post office and a little take-away only cafe, but there are picnic benches outside. You can also get cash out unless the internet is down, which it was, in the whole damn village. Bugger.
The reason we needed cash was the fact we’d only brought a fiver and we didn’t know how much the bus would be. Plan B would be that I would catch the bus alone and leave Tarrant with the bags, fetch the car and drive back. We’d heard buses could be unreliable, plan C was to get cash out for a taxi but that was scuppered, plus there was no phone signal here. We’d just have to wait for the 13:26 bus and go from there. I wolfed a cream tea, Tarrant sipped coffee, we played cards, then we found out from the shop where we should wait for the bus; on the corner of the car park at the Tourist Information shop. Cool. No worries.
13:26 came and went. No way would we have missed it, buses are huge, we’d have seen it. The clocked ticked on, no sign of the bus. I jogged (in my head I was jogging, the reality was probably more like a lethargic hobble) to tourist information and asked if it was normal for the bus to be this late. He frowned in confusion and replied no, it was usually very reliable. He said he’d only seen it fail twice. Their phone lines were also down but he found the number for the bus company on a leaflet and let me use the emergency phone.
Yes, the bus driver had had some problems, the lady on the phone told me in a thick Devon accent, but she checked her system and told me he was in Tavistock.
“The arrow isn’t showing me which way he’s going, but yeah, he’s in Tavistock, ” she told me. I thanked her and hung up. Then realised, isn’t Tavistock the terminal? If he was having problems, and the GPS arrow wasn’t giving a direction, and he was still in Tavistock… yeah nah, this bus wasn’t coming. We were going to have to start walking and hitchhike along the way.
Fortunately the people of Devon are a lovely bunch and only three or four cars passed us before a wonderful couple in a Landrover stopped for us. Angels! The pair of them! They drove us into Princetown where we walked the last, planned, two miles back to our mercifully intact car. Dartmoor, you have been testing, but you have been wonderful. Apparently it’s rain and fog more often than not here, we were so, so lucky with the weather. It’s been searing hot recently, there would have been no way we could have walked in that heat, and whilst we would have walked in the rain it can get miserable. I won’t lie, I’m quite the fair weather hiker if given a choice.
But I’d come back here again. I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson and wouldn’t end up ankle deep in marshland again, but it’s a moor so I think that’s par for the course. It’s beautiful here, from the vast, featureless moorland to the hamlets and villages, the woodlands and streams. That lucky second night with the perfectly clear sky. This is definitely one worth writing up.
Dartmoor National Park, Devon, England
Useful shit to know…
- Despite Dartmoor being the last bastion of legal wild camping in England, you can’t just rock up and pitch anywhere you damn please. Make sure you check the permitted camping areas map on their website first.
- Leave no trace, not like the fuckers who’d previously been to our first campsite. Don’t set shit on fire and carry all your rubbish out.
- If you’re relying on public transport, always have a plan B. And C. And D. And if any of these plans require you having cash on you, don’t do what we did and wander off into the wilderness with only a fiver in your pocket.