A Journey Through the Heart of Dartmoor

Day One: South Zeal to Fernworthy Forest

The Moor appeared to have been bleached yellow as the unforgiving July sun burnt down upon us. We had set off from the village of South Zeal and after enjoying the temporary respite offered to us by an avenue of trees, we now faced the wide expanse of Dartmoor. We planned to walk from north Dartmoor to the south over three days, wild camping each night. Navigation would largely be down to us, though we would occasionally join up with the southern portion of the Two Moors Way. The prospect of our route not being governed by a designated path promised adventure and discovery. Within the first ten minutes of walking a large bird of prey, possibly a Buzzard, had been sighted on a stone wall just ahead of us, and of course, the iconic Dartmoor ponies were spotted resting in any shade they could find.

Following a rugged path in a southerly direction, we had fantastic views of the pristine Devonian countryside to our left, and to our right, the imposing Cosdon Hill, beaming in the early afternoon sun. We could vaguely see Cosdon Beacon on the crest of the hill, standing at a height of 550 metres above sea level. Around this impressive hill were occasional traces of prehistoric settlements, and after walking for about an hour we stopped for a rest amongst some sheep at a stone circle. The dramatic dips and curves of the moor to our west almost urged us to abandon our route and explore those hills. However, we noted on our map that this area was the Okehampton range, used occasionally by the Ministry of Defence and would be marked by red posts or flags. It was with some bewilderment when after another hours walking we somehow found ourselves to be on the wrong side of these flags. The area had either been shifted eastwards, or a more likely scenario being my compass and route finding skills were not up to scratch. Our confusion was added to with grey skies, ominous clouds and a strong wind appearing seemingly from nowhere to add to my feeling of disorientation. The notoriously quick shifts of Dartmoor’s weather patterns had struck again.

We hastily headed away from potential danger, and our thoughts turned to locate a water source. When preparing for a long distance hike, gaining the correct balance between packing as lightly as possible while simultaneously having the correct equipment and a good supply of food can be tricky. On this occasion we had only packed a small bottle of water each, instead aiming to rely on my newly purchased water filter to sustain us. This attempt at saving weight proved to be a foolish one. The heat of the day demanded almost constant hydration. Every pool or creek we passed had dried up or was nothing more than puddles of mud. Our map indicated we would soon reach the North Teign river. Prompted by our thirst, we cut down off a high ridge, nervously passed through a menacingly large herd of cows, and reached the river. Drinking our fill and feeling refreshed, we followed the river for a short way towards Fernworthy Forest. The forest was a combination of wetland habitats and vast swathes of orderly planted trees, concealing a large reservoir within.

On a slope to our right was the ruin of Teignhead Farm. From a distance, the site had an eerie appearance, but as we approached we spotted excited youngsters clustered around several tents. The abandoned farm would be an excellent camping spot to anyone passing through this area. Located near to a water source and providing a rare landmark on a largely featureless part of moorland, it was clearly a popular spot. Two other hikers emerged from the forest ahead of us, stopping momentarily in disappointment as they realised their quiet night’s camping would be disrupted by noisy students. I subsequently found out there was a very good reason that the farm was attracting hikers. The nearby Fernworthy Forest is one of the few areas on Dartmoor in which wild camping is prohibited. A visit to the Dartmoor National Park website or visitor centre is definitely recommended before camping on the moor.

We paused briefly again at the river to collect water and prepare a small evening meal before heading into the forest. A wide, smooth track took us between the tall trees. I eventually found a large clearing for us to camp in. The clearing contained a stone circle, and we passed through it with the sun slowly sinking behind the trees. What Dartmoor lacks in high mountain peaks it more than makes up in atmosphere and mystery. Finding as best a place we could to camp amongst the trees and battling a swarm of midges, we settled down for the night.

Day Two: Fernworthy Forest to Scurriton

We woke early to what promised to be another boiling hot day. Our night had been an uncomfortable one. We had constantly been awoken by a shuffling sound around our tent. I had bravely sent Lisa to investigate, and she concluded it was nothing more than a curious hedgehog. The night’s discomfort was immediately forgotten by the beautiful morning light and call of bird song. Packing away our tent as swiftly as we could, we hurried back to the path, eager to make considerable progress before the heat of the day took its toll. Today would be our longest in terms of miles to cover. We reached the Fernworthy Reservoir and followed a smooth road around its southern side. A free-flowing stream allowed us to fill our bottles, and the path left the forest on its eastern edge. Our map indicated we were near to the route of the Two Moors Way, which hugs the eastern side of Dartmoor. However, we desired to take a more central route, and instead followed a lightly trampled route upwards towards a cairn near to a raised embankment named King’s Oven. On the way we passed through a long stone row, a man-made avenue with a significance we would never discover.

Civilisation was reached in the form of Warren House Inn, and after crossing a road we assessed our route, overlooking a landscape gradually descending towards another orderly forest. We were tempted to follow the road south towards Postbridge and make our way over Bellever Tor. Instead, we decided to descend from our high vantage point towards the trees, and eventually take a path over Yar Tor. We wanted to reach the beautiful settlement of Dartmeet, before heading south-east towards Scurriton, where we would pick up the Two Moors Way for our final day’s hike.

A gradual trundle down the hill led us to a dusty track, and we entered the wooded area named Soussons Down for some well-needed respite from the sun. Leaving the cover of the trees, Yar Tor was approached initially via a track crossing Cator Common, then a narrow lane taking us towards Middle Cator, a small collection of farmhouses and stables. We passed by two ponies whilst entering a small field, sympathising with them as they attempted to relax in the shade with swarms of flies hovering around them. We reached a small spring and again drank for what felt like half an hour, before climbing up through increasingly steep fields and on to the exposed shoulder of the hill. Factor 50 sunscreen was once again reapplied as the sun beat down on us with a vigour we had not experienced since our travels in New Zealand.

Yar Tor rises to 416 metres at its highest point, and the East Dart river slides along the foot of its western flank before passing through Dartmeet. The small road that passes through Dartmeet carves through the Tor on its southern side, but we had no inclination of that as the track sloped steeply upwards, through thigh-high heather and brambles. A gradual, winding track brought us down to the road, and then on to Dartmeet. I felt the afternoon sun and heat were getting to me, which may explain why I bizarrely led us up an overgrown path following the West Dart River, rather than towards the Eastern branch. The path gradually became impassable so we had to stop, and as neither of us had a machete to hand, we paused and re-assessed the map. After this brief delay, we retreated back, crossed the river via some stepping stones and headed off on a shadowy path amongst the trees.

The respite from the sun was all too brief. Other walkers were out enjoying the paths between the two rivers, but all were sticking to the shaded areas. Climbing up yet again though steep fields, I becoming thoroughly drenched in sweat. It was completely worth the effort. The views at the top were magnificent. The River Dart had cleaved a deep valley between two high tors and was almost hidden by dense woodland. From our high vantage point, the trees in the valley looked dark and mysterious. We both agreed it looked like a scene from Jurrasic Park, a valley that time had forgotten.

The next landmark on this long day was Venford reservoir. Arriving at a narrow road at the top of some steep fields, it gently brought us down towards the reservoir. I had genuinely never seen Britain look like it did on this day. We could well have been transported to a Mediterranean island or a tropical Caribbean paradise. The green of the trees was so intense, as was the sun and the glow of the land around us. This was so far removed from my first experiences of Dartmoor years ago I could barely believe it was the same part of the country. Resisting the urge to swim in the reservoir, we continued onward towards the small settlement of Holne.

Passing down steep, shadowy lanes and through Holne, we were now officially on the route of the Two Moors as we reached Scurriton. A small pub provided us with a chance to have a drink, a bite to eat and to cool down. By the time we had finished the sun was setting, and we still had a short distance to cover before stopping for the night. Heading west out of the village, we would be camping on the edge of the moor at Chalk Ford. Rest was now at the forefront of my mind as darkness closed. Half an hour’s steady climb up a narrow lane led to a wooden bridge and a pleasantly flowing ford. A small clearing provided us with our camp for the night. Signs of previous night’s campers came in the form of a small bonfire in the centre of the clearing. Aided by our head torches the tent was erected and I fell instantaneously into a deep and well-earned sleep.

Day Three: Scurriton to Ivybridge

Astonishingly, we awoke to a misty and damp morning. The blistering sun of the previous day would not re-emerge until the afternoon. Climbing away steeply from our campsite, the path gradually cut through the mist to once again reveal bleak moorland. The spectral figure of a trail runner ghosted across our path as we climbed ever higher, past the rocky cairn of Pupers Hill, and towards a point on our map on Huntingdon Warren intriguingly named Heap of Sinners. What appeared to be the skeletal remains of two buildings, one large and one small sat on the slope, with a single lonely tree just above them. The top of the hill appeared to be crowned with heaps of rock and rubble. My knowledge of Dartmoor folklore was not good enough to offer an explanation to the name Heap of Sinners, but with the mist closing in ominously around us we quickly moved on.

The ground was uneven and riddled with potentially hazardous holes as I led us south along the foot of the slope. Reaching a shallow river that was littered with large rocks I briefly stopped for refreshment by the stone monument Huntingdon Cross. We briefly followed the flowing water westwards, before crossing and making our way up again into the folds of the hills. Despite being on the Two Moors way, the lack of visibility and disappearance of the path made navigation difficult. At the top of a hill, Lisa found the remains of an old stone structure, potentially to do with mining or the old railway line that used to run over the moor. Here we paused and tried to find our way back to the path. Gradually the mist was dissipating, the hidden sun now bursting through. After briefly heading north we saw a large, pyramid-shaped mound on the other side of the valley. This unexpected sight, twinned with the receding mist was a mysterious and disorientating experience. Later research led us to discover that the pyramid was, disappointingly, a large pile of clay, leftover from when this was a partly industrial location.

At long last, we stumbled upon a marker stone for the Two Moors way and felt relieved to be stepping on to a well worn, gravel path. Hiking directly over moorland can make progress slow, with patches of bog making walking arduous. Stepping onto the gravel path felt like we had entered a motorway. The track is known locally as the “Puffing Billy”, as it follows the old railway route that crossed this area of Dartmoor. We turned southwards and sped on, visibility now perfect as we left behind the confusion of the mist. After half an hour, we could even see the coast in the distance, the sea shimmering invitingly in the sun.

The rest of the days walking was pleasant and relaxing. Our pace became a steady one, and the gravel path began to ache our feet, so we often moved to the grass verge next to it. Ponies were a common sight now, grazing in large numbers and enjoying the day’s cooler temperature. To our right the land fell steeply away to a slender valley with a thin stream at its base. It gradually broadened as the stream flowed into the River Erme. On the other side, carefully cultivated fields and manicured farmland came into view, as the moorland came to a narrow point towards Ivybridge. We were nearly out of the wild. Large rocks and familiar features now appeared to us, and within two more hours our path was sloping down past Western Beacon. A familiar gate led us away from the moor and down a lane to Ivybridge, the end of our adventure. The Two Moors Way would continue on to its conclusion at the sea, but that trip would have to wait for another day. We were tired but thrilled with the three days of hiking. Wild camping is a fantastic way of experiencing a national park. A walker does not feel the detachment of leaving the wild for a nights rest. The walk was the final piece in the jigsaw converting me from a Dartmoor sceptic to an enthusiast. I already could not wait to return.

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