Haytor Down and Buckland Beacon
I’m standing on a small tussock of grass and reeds. Ahead of me the ground is vivid yellow and green; sphagnum moss, oozing water and interspersed with other dry tufts like the one I’m standing on. Behind me and all around is the same. I’ve found from experience that this kind of ground is hard work – hopping from one dry islet to another and where that’s not possible, trying to work out which is the least saturated track to follow. Progress in any sort of straight line is impossible. I know this, because I’ve been moving across this bog for over 10 minutes to reach my present position. I’m wearing a pair of superbly waterproof, gore-tex lined shoes which are useless for this kind of walking – the water simply oozes over the tops and in – both my feet and my trousers to mid shin are soaked. Needless to say, this is not where I intended to end up when I set off…
I’d parked on the edge of Haytor Down, away from the worst of the crowds. It was a muggy, humid and grey afternoon and I was walking out to Smallacombe Rocks to check whether they were submerged in bracken yet; a friend was visiting the following week, and we thought we might visit to go bouldering. The path out is lovel – soft, green, level turf with ominous views towards Hound Tor today; when the bluebells are out in May the whole of the hillside ahead turns purple, swathed in flowers.
I reached the rocks to find the bracken was already very high; moving between them meant pushing a way through shoulder high foliage. Given the number of sheep around on this part of the moor, this meant a strong probability of picking up a tick or two – never pleasant, and potentially dangerous – so not a place to visit again until the Autumn.
I started to head back and realised there was now just a hint of sunshine trying to break through – perhaps it would clear? So, giving the weather a chance, I veered right, and took the faint track over to the granite tramway, past a remarkable set of points in the stone rails and down to Holwell Quarry. If you know where to look, you can drop off the embankment here and find, intact, a remarkable bee-hive shaped hut set in the spoil heap; there are lots of suggestions as to its exact purpose. Neither workmen’s shelter (too small) nor tool store (too elaborate) seem likely to me, so I prefer the suggestion that it was an explosives store – the depth of the roof and walls certainly make this plausible.
Back on the track the tramway soon ends and becomes a faint path heading south below Holwell Tor, threading between bracken and boulders. After a little while it turns left and heads more directly up the hillside; this way leads, via Haytor itself, in a neat loop back to the car. But it would be busy – I’d seen the hordes in the carparks and on Haytor as I’d driven past earlier – and the sun had now cleared the clouds, so I pushed on directly.
I’d been this way a couple of times; in the midst of one of the most popular parts of the moor it still feels remote – the ground underfoot is a mixture of brambles, heather, boulders and the occasional bog; as on each previous visit, there was no-one here. There’s no real path, but if you choose the right ones, you can pick a way through on the sheep tracks that appear and disappear, apparently at random. I was lucky with this, and soon reached the course of another tramway, the crest of a hill and soft grass to walk on past more old quarries, towards Saddle Tor
The path reaches the road, and a different world, at a car park below the tor. People are milling about – wandering up and down and picnicking. There are ponies waiting to be fed, and a Dutch couple in a 2CV photographing a cow in a lay-by. This is another obvious place from which to loop back to the car, but I had remembered, on the drive onto the moor, that the 10 commandments stone on Buckland Beacon had been restored a couple of years previously so, without thinking too much about it, I decided to continue and check it out.
A short stretch of road, and then I headed up towards Top Tor and across to Pil Tor, looking east over the bronze age settlement below and West towards Hamel Down, before a track and path alongside Blackslade Water and a rather lovely plantation, led down to another road crossing. I was hot now – it was pushing 25 degrees and humid with it and I was wearing long trousers to avoid ticks. I dug around in my bag which held a waterproof, another jacket (neither of any use today) and a bottle of water I’d put in almost as an afterthought. It was not as full as I thought though – less than a pint – so I limited myself to a few mouthfuls before crossing the road and heading on.
This is lovely walk, a small, grassy path contouring then rising gently around the hillside before, at a small plantation, heading directly up to the Beacon. The views from here are great, out across South Devon to the sea, and I paused to look and to examine the 10 commandments stone. It’s actually 2 monumental slabs in a fabulous place just below the beacon, with the commandments (and a little more) carved on the flat faces. They were commissioned by a local landowner, one W.Whitely, to celebrate Parliament’s 1928 rejection of a new Book of Common Prayer – perceived as rather too ‘popish’ at the time, and were carved by a local mason (W.A.Clement) over 10 weeks during the Summer of 1928. There are some who see the stones as an act of vandalism and their subsequent restoration in 2017 as similar, but I think they’re a rather glorious folly.
Anyway, I realised I’d now walked away from the car for about two hours and the return wouldn’t be much shorter; my quick trip out was turning into a rather more substantial walk. So, I sipped a little more water and headed north, into the hot wind, across Buckland Common, and down to the road again at Cold East Cross. From here, I followed a grass path and wall up to the summit or Rippon Tor. This was more of a climb than I’d remembered and, although gentle, I was still hot and flustered by the time I reached the top and glugged the last of the remaining water. It was worth it though – what a view. The North moor laid out in the distance to the left and Haytor Rocks and Down looking rather lovely ahead. Even more lovely, in the distance, I could see an ice-cream van in the main Haytor car park – you can just make it out in the photo below.
I’d spent the afternoon being pleased that, even in such a popular area, it was possible to walk alone – indeed, I hadn’t met another person since leaving the Saddle Tor car park much earlier. Now, however, I wanted other people – more specifically, I wanted the ice-cream van; I had money in my bag and could buy ice-cream. Or a cold drink. Or both…
I thought I remembered that the vans left the car parks on the moor at 5:00, but looking at my watch, it was just past that time – perhaps they left later in the Summer at 5:30, or even 6:00. I checked the OS map on my phone, which showed a track heading north east and down, leaving a long walk back along the road. So given the time, and my thirst, I decided it would be quicker to head directly cross country, keeping the van in sight all the way and watching the time.
Which quickly brought me to my present position on the floor of the valley, standing on a small tussock of grass and reeds in the middle of a marsh. I should have known better – when the map shows a stream draining through a shallow basin, its going to be damp. Still, my only consolation was that the ice cream van was still there, so, bringing Macbeth to mind (“I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”) I pushed on damply, eventually emerging at the foot of a hill leading towards the car park.
As I climbed, the convex nature of the hill meant the van disappeared from sight, so I walked as quickly as possible, even more keen to reach it than before. If I were writing purely for effect, I would tell you now that, as I crested the hill and could see the car park again, I was able to watch the van drive sedately out of the car park and disappear down the hill. But that’s not what happened.
No, as the car park came into view across another unexpected stretch of marsh, the van was simply not there. In the 10 minutes it had been out of sight, at some time between 5:30 and 6:00, it had left. Dejected, I looked at the stretch of marsh ahead , which was short. A path led up to the left, crossed above the wet section and down to the opposite side. I was tired, I was hot – I went straight across.
Wetter than before, I stood in the car park, where the van had been parked, among lots of people. Despite my disappointment, my dampness and my thirst, it had been a great walk. Longer than expected but making the best (apart from the last bit) of a busy part of the moor, with a lot crammed into 10 miles.
In the distance, across Haytor Down, I could see my car on the horizon, alone in another car park – there appeared to be a direct way across to it.
I took the long way around, along the road.