Ben and I had been trying to find a time to spend a couple of nights wild camping on Dartmoor for a while; in the end, the only dates we could both manage were a couple of days towards the end of August. With this agreed, I planned a big circular walk out from Postbridge – up the West Dart and back down the East, with a loop to the north to avoid the marshes around Cranmere pool where three rivers have their heads within a kilometre of one another.
It’s a long drive down from Surrey for Ben, so we watched the forecast carefully; inevitably, the two days we had picked were the only two showing rain in weeks of better weather, but we decided to carry on – it was that or leave it until next year. We met up in the National Park carpark, much later than planned after the delays on Ben’s journey, and then spent a good deal of time moaning about the weights of our sacks, packing and re-packing, eating sandwiches and looking at the forecast, before finally setting off in bright, warm sunshine.
We tried to follow a forestry track to start with, but it rapidly petered out, and we were forced onto the road for the first mile, before turning off and following an easy track to Powder Mills – once a Victorian gunpowder factory and now an outdoor centre and pottery. We passed through the ruins and a gate and were out onto the open moor and, defying the forecast, it was hot as we set off past a herd of belted Galloways. We headed directly for Higher White Tor, steadily uphill, and crossing a high stone wall by a careful balancing act over a rather precarious stile. Ben suggested we had crossed despite the stile, rather than using it and that made sense – it was perched on boulders and really was very dilapidated.
At the top we sat down in the sun, pulled out sandwiches and water and prepared for a rest, only to discover that the grass, rocks and shortly the air were full of swarms of flying ants, which led to a rapid repacking and an escape northwards to a more peaceful spot. From here the view stetched out south and west, with Haytor and Ripon Tor clearly visible, and the South Hams and the sea beyond them. In the other direction we could see the West Dart valley twisting and gently towards the heart of the moor.
When we set off again it was thankfully and gently downhill to Lower White Tor, and then a splosh (still wet despite weeks of dry weather) across to the ruins of Brown’s House. This is a pretty bleak and boggy place to build a house, and there are murky and apocryphal tales about the history of the building that once, remarkably, stood here in isolation. In truth, a Dr Benjamin Brown of Withecombe began building a farm here in 1810, with the intention of enclosing and improving the moorland. Unfortunately, he failed to secure a lease from the Duchy of Cornwall before building, and they consequently set a rent significantly higher than normal, as well as requiring him to construct, at his expense, an access road nearly three miles long. As a result, the lease was rapidly sold and by 1829, the farm was disused and decaying.
After a brief rest we continued up the river, below the steep sides of Rough Tor, following animal tracks through the high grass, but making much better progress than I had anticipated. After a while we picked up the red and white marker posts which mark the edge of the live firing ranges (none planned while we were out) and a damp track which followed these, criss-crossing the West Dart, to the summit of the well named Flat Tor. From here, above the West Dart head, there were great views back along the river, with Longaford Tor prominent on the skyline in the distance. We also puzzled over a pair of fenced off areas of moor to the south east, complete with huts, but not marked on any map.
The weather was turning now – dark clouds and spots of rain warning us that we may have had the best of the day, as we continued across marshy ground, following the range markers, to reach Cut Hill Water. Here we paused again and filled our water bottles – we thought we would probably camp at Fur Tor – leaving a longer walk for the second day – and there was no water there. We were in a remote spot, between the two tributaries of the Dart, with ill-defined paths at best and we’d been enjoying the emptiness and isolation.
‘We haven’t seen anyone since leaving Powder Mills,’ I commented, as we looked ahead towards Cut Hill in the drizzle.
‘No,’ said Ben, ‘And I imagine that we won’t see anyone for the rest of the day.’
As he said that, I turned to put my pack back on and saw, not 100 metres behind us, a lone walker, carrying a large rucksack emerging from behind a spoil heap on a tributary of the East Dart.
We were feeling anti-social, so pushed on rather than wait to chat, laughing at the timing and heading for the North West Passage – a peat pass cut towards the summit of the hill. Pretty soon the rain increased to the extent that we needed waterproofs – while putting these on it was clear just how boggy the hillside was – with every movement we made, the ground under us was gently bouncing up and down for some distance around.
The weather got worse, and the cloud descended, making visibility very poor, so we were glad of the range markers looming out of the clag as we moved slowly on, checking our position regularly. Gradually, though, we moved away from these, following a wet track, and feeling, rather than seeing, the steep valley of Cut Coombe on our right. This would be an easy and bad place to get disorientated and lost, but we knew that, as long as we didn’t cross the faint ridge we were heading towards, we would be able to head – on compass bearing if necessary – directly toward Fur Tor to the north west. Nevertheless, it was satisfying to see the faint outline of rocks which could only be the tor looming out of the mist ahead, exactly where we thought they should be.
As we headed towards the outline of the rocks we sensed, rather than saw that the murk was lessening and as we dumped our packs at the base of the tor, it was obvious that the cloud was clearing. It was worth the earlier weather for what followed – the cloud started to clear slowly, then more rapidly, and soon the valley below us was filled with wind-rent cloud which gradually dissipated completely leaving a remarkable sight. Below us to the north was a great bowl of empty moorland, with Little Kneeset Tor sitting in the middle of it, behind the glinting waters of Amicombe Brook, the Tavy and their many tributaries. Further north again, beyond Great Kneeset Tor, was the deep defile of the West Okement Valley, flanked on the right by the clear outlines of High Willhays and Yes Tor. We turned to see Tavy Cleave to the south west and, far in the distance, Great Mis and Great Staple Tors on the western edge of the southern moor. Finally, we could see back the way we had come, skirting the head of the valley, and, in the distance, Cut Hill, with a lone figure outlined on the summit.
It was stunning, and we watched the ever-changing view for an hour, from all sides of the tor, before settling on a sheltered camping spot on the western edge, above a steep slope. Tents went up quickly, and, after a fruitless search for extra water, we set up for the evening. The luxuries that had contributed to the heaviness of our packs became bonuses now; fresh coffee and a flask of malt whisky were worth the effort of carrying them here. As we finished eating, the clouds, which had been threatening all evening, rolled back in from the west, filling the valley again, but leaving the higher tops – Hare Tor, and further back, Great Links Tor – silhouetted against the final rays of the sun; a better end to the day than we could possibly have asked for.
The cloud kept rising, and we spent an eerie evening leaning against a rock and chatting, surrounded by the shifting outlines of the granite. I’m not sure how much I’d have enjoyed it had I been alone.
The next day was different – cold and windy and the height and exposed nature of our camping spot was very apparent.Over coffee we looked at the BBC weather forecast and checked it – more in hope than expectation – against several other sites. Rain – heavy, long-lasting and starting mid-morning was the universal prediction. We talked it through, carefully at first, before each realising that the other had no real wish to spend several hours on the high moor, with heavy packs, in awful weather. So, relieved, we decided to head back to the East Dart, and so to Postbridge – we’d be back another day for the northern part of the planned walk.
We started by retracing our steps before heading to the summit of Cut Hill, with its panoramic views under heavy, grey clouds in every direction. Then on, due east, aiming for Cut Hill Stream, which led us through an alien landscape of deep, black peat hags, and past a remarkable table sized slab of flat granite perched on an eroded pillar of peat. Rough walking this, picking our way through depressions and long grass – it would be a nightmare after wet weather but was fine today, and we were soon fording the stream, and heading down to join the East Dart.
We followed the river, through endless tin workings, sticking as close to the water as we could; it’s beautiful in a stark sort of way – perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but we enjoyed it very much and took our time. On through marshes and Sandy Hole Pass, with the water clouded rusty red, until we reached the waterfall where the river turns due west. This is a beautiful spot (although popular) and, despite the threatening, spitting weather Ben took the swim he’d been hankering after all day – emerging in time to avoid startling the two pairs of walkers who arrived as he was dressing.
Finally, on down the north bank of the river with the promised rain, which had at least held off longer than predicted, giving us a good soaking for the last couple of miles back to the cars. A quick pint in the pub, and a drive home across satisfyingly rain lashed hills completed the day. We hadn’t walked that far (although it felt it); certainly not as far as we’d intended, but we had visited and stayed in some of the remoter parts of the north moor. Along with the remarkable sunset and weather conditions, and the time spent with an old friend, it all added up to a great 24 hours in the hills.