It’s not looking good.
I’m setting out for a longish day in some rather trackless parts of the North Moor and here I am, not 10 minutes from leaving the car, lost.
Well – not exactly lost. I know where I am, and I imagine I could find my way back to the car with very little difficulty, but I can’t find the path I want. On my map, there’s a permitted path shown contouring around South Down on the north west bank of Meldon reservoir. But I can’t find it and am not prepared to thrash through bracken and gorse to see if it’s actually there, so I contour along the down in the sun, following a well worn path, which suggests many others have come this way too.
The path leads, via a couple of gate hops and a footbridge (also well used) to public land again at Vellake corner; it’s clear the permitted path is permitted no longer. The next time I do this walk, I’ll walk the south east bank of the reservoir to this point and return to the car via the bridleway over South Down.
I’ve never been this way before, and it’s lovely; a track follows the West Okement river, which is quickly far below down a very steep bank, before the path and river re-join one another. After some waterworks, the path becomes less distinct, but follows the bank of the river closely towards some woods in the distance; as I reach these I meet the last two people I will see for some hours – one camping wild by the river, and one walking down.
I head on into Black a Tor Copse; this is now a nature reserve and is one of only three remaining high-altitude, ancient woodlands on Dartmoor – presumably once considerably more extensive. It’s a beautiful place – ancient oaks draped with moss, old man’s beard and other lichens, growing out of the clitter on the bank of the river. Today, the bright sun is filtered through the leaves and trunks, so the air almost seems to turn green; the track winds through and over the boulders, always in earshot of the river and it feels very special.
It soon opens out into smooth grassland along the riverbank, delightful, gentle walking past a series of small rapids and brown, peat-stained pools. Although I’ve only been walking for a little over an hour, I’m hot, and the temptation of the pools is too much and I stop for a brief dip, then sit in the sun and dry off.
Then it’s on up the broad valley, passing into the firing range, with the steep, rocky sides of the valley closing in gradually as height is gained; the river narrows to a stream and the path becomes indistinct and boggy. It’s been dry for a while, but there’s still plenty of water around – this would be hard, wet going after any rain, but today it’s not too bad. Coming up to Lints Tor on the left there’s evidence of tin working, and the stream has clearly been channelled for that purpose, and eventually I reach the dilapidated remains of a tinner’s hut – not much more than a few heaps of boulders really. Although beautiful today, this must have been a bleak place to work in poor weather, when the hut was still standing.
The hut also marks the entrance to a bowl of hills, with Great Kneeset Tor straight ahead, Kneeset Nose to the left and Kneeset Foot and Amicombe Hill to the right. The stream winds on, doubling back on itself a time or two, and can be followed all the way to its head in the mires around Cranmere Pool. But that’s for another time; today I use the hut as an arbitrary marker point for leaving the river and striking directly up and over Kneeset Nose. This is rougher going; there are occasional fragments of sheep tracks threading through the elephant grass, but never for long, and seldom in the right direction, so often it’s a case of high-stepping straight through the grass, stumbling regularly in the hidden holes.
Eventually I drop back down to the river, crossing it at the confluence with Brim Brook, and after this the going becomes easier. I’m able to climb quickly up a blunt rib of moor heading due south and up to the low rocks at the summit of Great Kneeset Tor, where the breeze, not evident for so long in the valley, is a welcome relief. Looking back, the steep West Okemont valley is laid out under enormous blue skies, with flat white clouds drifting across in the breeze. I’m high here, but the moor to the right of the valley is higher still, rising past High Willhays – the highest point on Dartmoor – and, marginally lower, Yes Tor. In the distance, there’s a glimpse of mid Devon between the framing valley sides.
Turning to look south the ground is startlingly empty – a great bowl of boggy moorland flanked on the left by Black Ridge, before rising to the gentle mounds of Little Kneeset Tor with a peat pass dividing them. These passes on the high northern moor (there’s another, longer example on Black Ridge) were cut by moorsmen at the instigation of Frank Phillpots around the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries; exposing the bedrock below the peat to facilitate the passage of mounted huntsmen.
I’d intended to head back here – cutting straight across to Amicombe Hill and north along the ridge. But the moor ahead was too tempting – rough looking cattle were grazing below Little Kneeset and skylarks were out in abundance; singing above, but also dipping down to the scrub and up again, flashing blue feathers under their wings. So I went on south, dropping down through scrub, rough grass and reeds, heading for the pass and directly towards the prominent outcrop of Fur Tor beyond. And after crossing a couple of minor streams I was able to walk up gentle, sheep-cropped grass to the rounded top of Little Kneeset.
It was tempting to push on further; Fur Tor is a remote and high spot, with views in all directions but I didn’t – it would have meant virtually retracing my track there and back through ground which I knew from previous experience to be very wet. So I dropped down west, crossed Amicombe Brook and headed on up the broad shoulder of the hill, following sheep tracks steadily upwards. Throughout the day, any cattle I’d met had disappeared as soon as I approached, but not the herd I met here; they chose to come after me – rather quickly. Although a little alarming at first, this quickly became rather comical; I’d walk on quickly for a few minutes then pause and look back – the herd would stop. I’d start up again and they would follow. This went on for a while with them getting closer each time – weirdly reminiscent of the children’s game, ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf!’ Eventually, they seemed to get bored of me stopping, shouting and waving my poles, so I was able to continue without their following any further.
There are tracks marked on the map here, but, as on much of Dartmoor, these don’t translate to anything on the ground. I picked my way onwards, pausing regularly to look back at Fur Tor gradually receding in the distance, to arrive at Kitty Tor, and the edge of the firing range again. From here you can continue directly along Corn Ridge passing the head of the Lyn river, but it’s quite trackless, so I turned west, towards Great Links Tor. The path through the mire is helpfully waymarked and has wooden walkways over the wettest parts, and leads to the end of the army track at some ruined buildings.
The track is brutal, grubbed out of the moor, with raw granite boulders littering the sides and a hard, stony surface to walk on, but it’s a quick way to cover distance and gradually turns north. It also, after passing through a cutting, gives the most astonishing views of the day. Great Links Tor stands out to the left, but north and east, past Great Nodden, I can see for miles and miles, across to the sea at Widemouth Bay on the North Devon Coast. And the skies above this view are equally enormous. I watch all the way, as I drop gently down, leaving the track at a turning circle, and following grassy paths and downland, with paragliders circling overhead, to the trig point at the summit of Sourton Tors, where Meldon Reservoir comes into view again
From here, the obvious way back to the car, as I mentioned earlier, would be straight on over South Down. But having missed the walk along the bank of the reservoir this morning, I went north and east across the down, intending to cross my outward path at Vellake Corner. As I did, I turned and looked back and saw, highlighted by the lowering sun, a series of unusual, parallel earthworks. I couldn’t work them out – they appeared to be a row of discontinuous terraces across the hill – very different from the fortifications I’d initially assumed them to be. I looked them up on the Historic England website when I got home – and was surprised by what I found out. The terraces are remnants of one of the few known industrial ice factories in the country; each terrace was subdivided, forming a row of ponds – 32 in total – fed by a system of leats. From 1875 to 1886, the ice which formed in these ponds during the winter months was harvested and stored in a building built deep into the ground for insulation, before being carted to the nearby railway station at Bridestowe and sent for sale in Exeter and Plymouth.
Anyway, my walk continued around the head of and then down a small valley; I missed the best path and ended up descending very steep grass – more reminiscent of the Lake District than Dartmoor – to cross the river at a waterworks bridge and pick up the path back along the bank of the reservoir. This too reminded me of the Lakes – steep hillsides; water on the left with a perfect ‘Swallows and Amazons’ islet and a shaley path undulating back to the dam, and the car park.
I’d been out for six hours, crossed some remote and beautiful moorland, and found some interesting archaeology. But the skies made it special today – enormous blue and cloud-swept skies adding an extra dimension to some already fantastic views. A day of big skies.