I’ve been walking on the Moor a lot recently.
Partly to stay fit.
Partly because I can – it’s a beautiful and wild place which is literally on my doorstep.
But mainly for health reasons. I recently left a stressful job after 25 successful years and found I was suffering from burn-out, stress, anxiety. And walking the Moor brings some solace, some peace, some comfort at a difficult time, and when little else does.
So it’s great for all sorts of reasons.
Recently I’ve been joined on many of my walks by Dave – an old friend who’s also in a tough place temporarily. He’s good company – knows when to be silent, and when he does talk, it makes sense.
He’s relatively new to walking the Moor and we’ve had some great experiences. Standing on the top of Brent Hill, as the weather and snow flew past, changing every few moments and numbing our faces. A week later, spending half a day around the upper Avon valley, immersed in archaeology and overheating, in February, in t-shirts.
We both like connections – seeing how things interlink and fit together. So, I planned another big day out the following week – linking the Erme valley and source, with the river Yealm and its source. Dave likes standing stones too, so this walk would take in two rows.
Showers were forecast and we were pleased; we both like the Moor in poor weather as well as good. We parked below New Waste – such a shame that the old parking spot is no longer available, but, with care, you can leave a car or two a few hundred yards below the gate.
Up onto Stalldown Barrow to find the long north/south row of stones – apparently these are some of the most massive on Dartmoor – they were certainly impressively brooding in the overcast and windy day.
We followed them to their northern end and then headed NW over rough and boggy ground, dropping down into the Erme valley. This is probably my favourite river valley on Dartmoor – steep sides and almost mountainous at this point.
As we reached the river the promised showers began and we were slightly smug – bring it on, we like a bit of weather – and added waterproof trousers to the jackets we’d been wearing from the start. A short break for a snack by some soggy ponies made it clear that it was wet (and I was hungry, having forgotten breakfast). A nagging doubt set in; the old boots that I’d retired the previous year because they leaked had not, in the intervening months, magically become waterproof again – it wasn’t only doubt that was seeping in.
On we sploshed, along the river and up to the stone circle at the southern end of the longest stone row in Europe – Dave was soggily impressed – and then along this for a way before dropping down to Stony Bottom where it was still raining and both my boots were definitely leaking. Normally I’d cross the river here and continue on the east bank all the way to Erme Pits. But it was fuller than I’d ever seen it before, and my usual crossing looked dodgy; I wasn’t sure about it at all, particularly as Dave had already proved that crossing streams was not really among his many skills.
So we faffed – contemplating wading at several points – going backwards and forwards and generally wasting time. I was aware that, if we didn’t cross, we were committed to some pretty wild moorland to get back to the car, rather than slinking back via the Puffing Billy track to Harford. Eventually we gave up on the crossing and Dave pointed out the excellent path on the west bank, which I’d somehow missed for 20 years. This encouraged us so we pushed on – the showers had turned to steady rain and the wind was strengthening by the minute as we approached Erme Pits. I thought this an appropriate time to let Dave know that we were about as far from a road as anywhere on the South Moor – I’m not sure he was that impressed as, by now his jacket (which he’d bought second hand) was proving about as waterproof as my boots.
However, we were a long way from the car, the shortest way back was bleak and the weather was getting steadily worse with strong winds driving horizontal driving rain, as we headed up towards Langcombe Hill. Here, on the most trackless part of the walk, the cloud dropped, and somehow the wind increased so that we were stumbling about like a pair of drunks. The navigation wasn’t difficult, but visibility was so poor that we were walking on compass bearings – this would be a bad place to get lost. This was proving to be less fun than planned.
We reached the head of the Yealm and headed down what I remembered as a pleasant meander among the endless remains of tin mining. Not so today; although out of the worst of the wind, the visibility was still poor enough to make even staying in touch with the river difficult – but we did eventually find ourselves at Yealm Steps, where we drank the rest of the coffee. Dave asked, somewhat plaintively, how far it was to the car. ‘Not far – maybe 20 minutes,’ I lied.
On we went, across open boggy, moorland – much hillier than I remembered too – until, without warning, I ground to a standstill and sat down. Dave did the same, and we ate every chocolate bar and drank every sugary drink we had been saving to try and restore our energy levels. On again, and the 20 minutes stretched longer and longer until, finally, out of the mist, we came across the final track back to the road and so, stumbling and frozen made it back to the car over five hours after leaving.
Walking the Moor brings some solace, some peace, some comfort at a difficult time, and when little else does.
Cold comfort indeed.