I’ve been stuck inside working for a couple of days, but by 4:00 on the second day. I’d had enough. The sun was strong and I needed to stretch my legs, take in some air and get out on Dartmoor for the first time since returning from a trip away.
There wasn’t much time to go far though, so I headed out for one of my all-time favourite local walks; I’ve done it countless times, in all weathers, alone and with many friends. But I never tire of it, so a quick car journey saw me parking at Reddacleave Kiln Cross, changing into shorts and putting on walking shoes – no boots needed in this dry weather.
A stony track leads towards the open moor, before turning due north into fields. There’s a faint track worn across the first of these, and at this time of year it’s at its best, surrounded by meadow flowers, grasses and orchids; it’s a delight. The second field is grass, and home to some rather inquisitive cows and calves; I’m wary – I’ve been charged by frisky cattle here before, but nothing happens today, and soon I’m climbing the stile and onto the open moor.
The view behind has been getting steadily bigger, but here it really opens up ahead as well. Behind is the South Hams, with the sea visible at Teignmouth and out eastwards until it disappears. On a really clear day you can see the Isle of Portland, 60 plus miles away from here, but not today. Ahead are the tors above the Dart valley, and behind them Hamel Down, Bone Hill and the two lumps of Hatytor and Lowman.
So, on across rough grass, following the wall on the right. There’s what appears to be a grave site here – a long pile of rocks, with a small standing stone at one end. There’s no carving, and it’s not aligned with any significant points of the compass; no-one seems to know what it is, and several internet searches have also shown nothing, so it’s a mystery to me.
On further, with Lambs Down now to the right, before reaching the copse and striking dead pine tree at Water Oak Corner. You can carry on north from here, making the route as long as you like before looping back. If you go far enough, past Snowdon (a different one), you reach Ryder’s Hill – the highest point on the southern moor. That stands in some boggy, rough moorland above the Avon Head Mires, and is too far for today, so I turn sharp left, and head up a broad grassy track to a slight crest. The track I’m following is marked on the map as Abbot’s Way – apparently the track linked Buckfast Abbey in the east with the now ruined Tavistock Abbey in the west. While the image of hooded monks processing across misty, boggy moorland is undoubtedly an appealing one, there’s a good deal of doubt about the actual route taken, and even if such a path existed at all.
I’m dropping gently down now. This part of the path can get very wet indeed, but it’s dry today, and the Avon Dam reservoir comes into view below and left – there are ancient stone settlements drowned in this water, occasionally visible when the water is exceptionally low. I pause on the grass where the Brockhill Stream runs into the reservoir; it’s a peaceful spot, and perfect for a picnic – a slow-worm disappears into the long grass as I approach. From the south there’s a paved walk up to the dam from a car park, but few of those tourists who make it past the first beautiful rapids make it to the top of the dam, and fewer still get this far, so I’m alone.
I walk along the bank to the dam; it’s easy (but forbidden) to hop over the gate and onto the dam itself and, as always, I can’t resist. Its worth it because from the end, the view across the water to the north, and down the valley to the south, are better than from anywhere else. You can also look down the overflow on the face of the dam, which today has only a tiny trickle of water going down; when the reservoir’s fuller this is a spectacular sight – even more so from below – with fractals of water scudding down the stepped face in a constant roar and spray. In the winter of 96/97, it froze solid for a few days; after work for two night’s running a few of us walked up late at night, when it was coldest, and climbed up and down the icefall with ice axes and crampons.
But today I leave and walk south along the main track before heading off east, following sheep tracks winding across the open moor, threading through scrubby gorse and linking patches of open grass on the side of Gripper’s Hill. The views across to the south and west are of interlocking hillsides and valleys and are at their best at sunset, but they are still lovely today. I pick up firebreaks heading through the aftermath of swaling, and am soon at two cairns on a small top above Harbourne Head, where the views across the South Hams and out to sea re-appear.
From here it’s a short walk down to a standing stone at the end of the valley, and on to pick up the continuation of the lane I’d turned off at the start of the walk. May is the best time here, as it’s filled with bluebells and there are still bare trees swathed in grey lichen on the right. At the height of summer, the path becomes almost impassable because of high bracken and brambles, but it’s fine today, and all too soon I’m back at the car.
Once again, I remember how lucky I am to have such a great walk on my doorstep; only about 5 miles long – certainly less than two hours – but a walk I won’t get tired of repeating.