The Guy Who Walks The Moors

Avon Head Mires

Jul 24, 2019

Mention of the head of the River Avon in my last post made me realise that it’s been a while since I walked that way. So when an old friend, Martin, said he was keen to do some more walking, a circuit of this bleak part of the moor seemed a good idea.

We were at the start of another heatwave, with temperatures set to be in the 30s, and ominous new records predicted. Sitting with coffee in the garden before setting off, we were afraid we might fry – there was no shade where we were heading. Still, the hottest temperatures were due to be further east, so we headed off, leaving the car just below Lud Gate.

It was shady in the lane as we headed up to the moor, and pleasant walking, but as we passed through the gate, with its sign warning of extreme danger of fire, we came out into the sun. Fortunately, there was also a strong breeze, so the temperature was perfect as we climbed directly up Buckfastleigh Moor, heading for Inner Pupers, stopping regularly to look back at the gradually expanding view of the South Hams and the coastline behind us – one I never tire of.

One of the advantages of this starting point is that, with relatively little uphill walking, you are quickly up onto the long, gentle ridge running north, and the rest of the moor is laid out before you as you reach it. We were both in need of a little peace and solitude, and this was perfect – long rounded hills rolling off in three directions, and nobody in sight. We headed on – over Snowdon and up towards Ryder’s – I’ve never walked this path when it’s been anything other than sodden, but not today. Although still soft in places, the path was pretty much dry after weeks of hot weather and the walking was much easier for it. We passed a sizeable cairn, not apparently marking anything and in a part of the moor with no stones in sight for miles, and continued, speculating about why and how it had been built, to the top of Ryder’s Hill. This is the highest point on southern Dartmoor and is marked by a couple of leaning boundary stones and a trig point, surrounded by wild moors and stunning views in every direction.

We pushed on, heading due north along smaller paths through the rough grass, with the first proper view of the mire appearing on our left, until, at a boundary stone, we hit a path (called Sandy Way on some maps) heading east. We followed this, just above the northern edge of the mire, to an isolated heap of spoil where we stopped, pulled out sandwiches and admired the place in which we were having lunch.

It really is a remarkable spot. We looked out across the mire – a great, flat bowl of wetness surrounded by hills on all sides, with only a narrowing to the south marking the course of the new river. The colours were astonishing: greens – soft, brighter, some even lurid; patches of brown and yellow, and grasses, some almost orange. And all of it, grasses and reeds, was rippling gently, as the breeze blew through, creating an illusion of movement and a soughing sound which could have been the sea.

After a while enjoying this emptiness and beauty, we pushed on, finding sheep tracks which contoured round the mire and headed south along the edge of Naker’s Hill, with one rough, damp section to cross an inlet. This was easy walking in these dry conditions but would have been a different proposition after rain – as with much of the walk today.

The Avon became apparent very quickly below the mire, and we were soon able to follow its west bank, picking our way through the spoil of tin workings, crossing Fishlake Mire and following rough tracks south. These led us up and away from the river but, as the rough ground turned to shorter, greener grass, we were able to head directly down the valley below Red Lake – startling a young fox on the way – to pick it up again above Broad Fall.

It’s easy to cross here, and a good track leads up to the top of Huntingdon Warren, and the strangely named Heap of Sinners barrow, before leading directly back to the edge of the moor. But we continued south – a wet, trackless stretch of ground leading to an old blowing house below the falls and on along the river. Faint tracks lead through extensive tin workings, passing a lone tree and raven’s nest; there’s the remains of an ancient stone vermin trap in the path here, but it’s easily missed. This is one of my favourite lengths of the river to walk, through the narrows of Stony Girt, before arriving at a clapper bridge where we met the first people we’d seen since setting Lud Gate.

You can continue to follow the river from here, but we headed up Huntingdon Warren a little way, then walked south across easy, open hillside passing pillow mounds (built by the warreners to allow rabbits to construct dry burrows) before dropping down to Western Wella Brook. This is another beautiful and isolated stream to walk beside – there were walkers visible on the more popular and recently renovated tracks below, and on the Two Moors Way, but we had this shallow valley to ourselves. Unfortunately, we were completely sheltered from the breeze which had made conditions so perfect for walking up until now – the next half a mile or so was very hot indeed.

We hopped across the stream and up to the remains of a wheelhouse – part of the 19th century tin mine here – and on up to the outdoor chapel, complete with stone carvings and other inscriptions, hidden in the spoil above. This was constructed in 1909 by Rev. Keble Martin and friends and, although not recognised officially as a church, ceremonies were held here from that time until late in the 20th century. It’s a lovely, peaceful spot and we paused for a while to enjoy it.

Then it was on up the path, passing pools with trout darting into the shadows, through more tin workings, to pick up the track heading back east across the lower slopes of Pupers Hill. Looking back from here, the extensive remains of the warren, farm and fields are laid out on the hillside, with a striking lone tree. The original warren house burnt down in 1890, but a substantial farmhouse was rebuilt and was lived in and used as a farm until after the second world war – there’s a lot of history in this small patch of the moor.

Finally, the track leads steeply down and back to the car. It’s been a great walk. As I said earlier, we set out hoping for peace and solitude and we found it in the empty upper reaches of the Avon. On another, wetter day, this circuit would be a very different experience but today it was a delight.

July 2019

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