I’ve had a couple of damp days in some bleak parts of the moor recently. So Martin and I changed our plans to walk on the north moor (live firing was scheduled for most of it anyway) and headed for something quite different. The River Bovey rises to the west of Moretonhampstead and part way along its course it flows through a steep sided, wooded valley between Lustleigh and Manaton. Our plan was to walk the length of this and back – at times following the river and at others climbing to the hilltops on either bank.
The parking spot gave us a great view of the valley ahead, with the east bank rising steeply to a high point of over 300 metres at Hunter’s Tor, but we started by dropping down an easy, gently angled track, to the first crossing of the river via a cobbled hump-back bridge. Much of this woodland forms part of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve and is owned and sensitively managed by the Woodland Trust in collaboration with Natural England. Today there were a couple of foresters working with chainsaws on the hillside above us; a sign on a post explained that they were thinning out shade-casting holly trees, to allow light to penetrate to the fragile lichens growing on the historic oaks in this area.
Having read this, we continued up a broad track, gently uphill, through Hisley wood – old trees festooned with lichens and ivy, with mossy granite boulders scattered among them. The path gradually narrowed, threading a path between the trees and, after a couple of forks, steepened appreciably; we were removing layers as we headed on upwards, past Hammerslake and on, further up, before arriving at the start of the broad ridge of Lusteigh Cleave. Here we got our first view since leaving the car an hour before – a silhouette of a distant Hound Tor, perfectly framed in a window of branches.
As we continued, the landscape changed completely, to open heathland dotted with silver birch trees, their leaves just starting to turn gold. The path continued, through thickets of gorse and as we gained height along the ridge, more and more of the eastern edge of the moor came into view; Houndtor, Greator Rocks, Easdon Tor, Bowerman’s Nose, Hameldown and finally Low Man and Haytor appearing over the horizon. Behind us, the view stretched out to Teignmouth and the sea. We stopped at a high point to catch our breath and look around. ‘It’s great,’ said Martin ‘And we’ve been lucky with the weather so far as well.’ Predictably, this resulted in the first heavy shower of the day arriving within seconds, on the most exposed part of the walk.
It didn’t last long though, and we continued towards the high point at the end of the ridge. There was a real contrast in outlook here; high moorland looming to the west and arable farmland rolling away to the east. This changed again as we reached the tor, with long views north to the very top corner of Dartmoor – Cosdon Hill, Kennon Hill and Rippator. Hunter’s Tor itself is a granite outcrop overlooking the valley and today a group of 15 or so ravens were using it as a take off and landing spot, launching into and hanging on the strong breeze before whirling and tumbling away downhill over the aptly named Raven’s Tor.
We crossed through a gate in the wall and the landscape changed abruptly again – now we were walking steeply downhill through bracken and then farmland; passing Peck Farm (complete with EU flag) and picking up a track towards the bridge at Foxworthy. As the track ended at a cobbled lane, we found ourselves in a different world – chocolate box Devon. Foxworthy is a small cluster of buildings by the river; thatched cottages, outhouses and a beautifully converted long barn. All set in gardens and lawns, covered with window boxes and hanging baskets, and all surrounded by numerous ‘No Public Access’ signs. We’d intended to stop here for lunch, but chose to push on.
There’s a choice of routes back along the valley from here. We set off along the east bank of the river, before dropping – in a heavy shower of rain – to a crossing at Horsham Steps. There’s no bridge or set of steppingstones here; instead, a pile of enormous, mossy, granite boulders fills the bed of the river and you cross by hopping or clambering over them to the steep far bank. After the shower, it was treacherous going and we were careful on the slippery rocks. The river wasn’t high today – whether this would be possible or not after prolonged rain I don’t know – it would certainly look spectacular in heavy water.
We headed on uphill, through dripping beeches and along narrow paths to arrive at Horsham itself – less a hamlet than a couple of isolated cottages into one of which two women were unloading a sofa from a 4×4 – and on towards Water, passing more beautiful and expensive looking houses. Here there are many possible ways to continue; we headed into the village itself (lured by a pub sign on the map – if it was there, we didn’t find it) before a very brief section of road led to another footpath through the woods.
This led us along Becka Brook to a stile and a sign welcoming us to Becky Falls Estate. Becky Falls is a tourist attraction, not normally accessed from this direction, and the sign made it very clear that the waterfall, café and ‘other attractions’ were only open to paying ticket holders. We were directed to follow the yellow arrows only, as these indicated the public footpath. So we followed them to a point where one could easily diverge and take in the falls and other attractions without the need to pay (we didn’t of course – after all, another sign had made it very clear that we must carry straight on at this point), passing enticing red and blue arrows alongside a long fence there to separate those on the footpath from the paying ticket holders below.
Eventually, another gate marked the end of the estate and we continued into Houndtor Wood which was initially coniferous – enormous and well-spaced pines rising straight up, and shafts of sunlight filtering between them. A brief left turn took us past the rather small remains of Houndtor Fort, back into ancient deciduous woodland and a series of single-track paths plunging steeply downhill to reach the river again at Clam Bridge. There are actually two bridges here – a sturdy wood and stone modern bridge and, alongside it, a couple of enormous split log;, slippery but with a handrail bolted to one side and a sign saying that it was to be used at our own risk.
Today though, we didn’t need to cross, and turned right to follow the west bank of the river. This turned out to be a beautiful path; slippery and muddy underfoot, but following a delightful stretch of peat brown river, past numerous small rapids and through minimally managed, dripping and fecund woods. Gradually, the path became more level and wider, leading through beeches with the sun streaming through their leaves, until the sound of chainsaws in the distance let us know that we were almost back where we had first crossed the river this morning.
A quick chicane took us round the foot of Houndtor Ridge. All that remained now was the easy, gently angled track which had marked the start of the walk. Unfortunately, this was now uphill rather than down and after almost 10 miles of rough and hilly walking, it felt anything but easy and gently angled. So, like the grumpy old men we are, we puffed, grumbled and complained all the way back to the car.