We’re standing on top of Hamel Down – a great whaleback of a hill running due north from Wind Tor. To our left is the East Webburn valley, and beyond it a line of hilltop outcrops stretching from Honeybag Tor in the north to Pil Tor in the south. Behind and in front of us, the ridge we are walking along stretches out – wet, boggy and atmospheric in the louring clouds.
But to the west we can see black sky with steep, white lines of heavy rain dumping on the north moor. The forecast for today had been awful; we’d set out from Widecombe more in hope than in expectation, but so far had remained dry. Now, on the highest and most exposed part of the walk, that was clearly about to change; the wind was gusting at over 40 miles per hour and driving the rain we were watching directly towards us. Without discussion we dived into our packs and threw on full waterproofs. Just in time – the squall was exhilaratingly savage when it hit – hail and icy rain driven horizontally by the buffeting wind numbed our faces almost immediately and rattled loudly off our jackets. Conversation was impossible, and forward progress difficult.
We’d left in bright sunshine, with a steep farm track leading up to Kingshead and the open moor. Even as we reached this, the weather was changing; a wall of black cloud was rushing up from over our shoulder, but somehow we stayed dry – this first squall scudded below and past us. We were following a faint track through the bracken – fortunately dying off by now – which contoured along the east flank of Hamel Down and inevitably it wasn’t long before we lost it, and were stumbling around on steep, rough ground. However, a check of the map showed us we were too low, and a warm 5 minutes uphill landed us back on course.
Below us, in the valley to our right, were a succession of prosperous looking farms and houses in a beautiful, secluded corner of the moor. The track we were following dipped downhill and across a stream, overflowing into boggy ground after days of rain, then back up, weaving through gorse to the East Webburn, and on up to Natsworthy. Here a second storm of wind battered us, and we sheltered behind a wall in a stand of beech trees to eat our lunch. The rain held off, but the sound of the wind roaring and soughing through the branches above us was tremendous.
When it eased a little, we headed north, along a broad, grassy, gently inclined track heading up between Hameldown and King Tors. After a while this degenerated into a boggy, stranded path; we pushed on, with the freshening wind blustering straight into our faces, and arrived at the south entrance to Grimspound, framing Hookney Tor to the north. I’m always impressed by this settlement; it’s bronze age, extensive and well preserved – it’s humbling to realise that people were living in huts, in this remote spot, over 3,000 years ago. It’s a great place to linger and look around, but today the weather was clearly worsening, and we knew we were already pushing our luck, so after a quick pause for breath, we turned sharply left and climbed steeply onto the crest of Hamel Down and into the storm from the west.
Fortunately, the violence of the squall passed after a few minutes, and we continued in steady rain, over Two Barrows and Hameldown Beacon, before starting to drop down to the southern end of the ridge. The rain finally moved on as we reached a track junction at the narrowest part of the hill; it’s possible to carry on across Bittleford Down from here, but that would leave a road walk back to the car. So, dripping, we headed back down and left.
Ahead of us, the cloud was trapped in the valley, making it dark, while all around us was in the bright sunshine that follows rain. As we dropped steeply downhill and off the open moor, heading back to the village and the car, half a rainbow appeared briefly in the blackness over Bonehill ahead of us – it summed up the afternoon really.