I seem to have spent a lot of time following Dartmoor rivers this year: the Erme, the Yealm, the East and West Dart and, most of all, the Avon. So when Martin and I were looking for a walk on the western side of the moor, it made sense to head for an upper section of the Plym – particularly as I’d never walked the stretch below Legis Tor.
It was an unprepossessing day with low cloud and drizzle. Fortunately, our planned start time was pushed back by an unplanned vet’s visit, and the worst of the weather had cleared by the time we met up in the car park at Cadover Bridge. This is one of the honey pot sites on the southern moor being both pretty and easily accessible from Plymouth; on a sunny weekend or, worse still, bank holiday, it is crowded beyond belief but today it was empty.
We followed the north bank of the river away from the car park which was easy walking but a little tiresome; the bracken was still high making the path hard to follow and overgrown. The bracken was wet from the morning’s rain and pushing through it meant that, as well as increasing the likelihood of picking up a tick or two, we were quickly soaked to the height of our thighs. But we were through it relatively quickly, and by the time we were on the hillside below Legis Tor we had found a good track and were moving more quickly and starting to dry out. Ahead, flanked by tin workings, the river valley twisted and opened out, with views of Trowlesworthy and Hen Tors appearing and disappearing on our right as the cloud base shifted slowly up and down.
We headed north, crossing Meavy Marsh easily by a little side-step and were soon approaching Ditsworthy Warren House. Boarded up and remote, the house and surrounding land will be familiar to anyone who has watched the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. It’s a green and moody spot; the house dark, and boarded up with ruined outbuildings and fields marked out by massive granite walls surrounding it. Looking east towards Shavercombe Tor you can see extensive, ancient field systems spread out across the hill, and two enormous pillow mounds – their cropped grass standing out amidst the bracken.
A good, stony track led us to the base of Drizzle Combe (the first of a series of evocative names on the walk) and into marsh. It’s always wet here but seemed particularly bad today; we took a series of diversions, trying to avoid the wettest and softest route until, impatient, I attempted a direct hop, skip and jump across a wide section. Of course, it was both wetter and wider than I thought, and my left boot took on a good dollop of marsh water – typical…
It didn’t matter too much – we cleared the bog and headed into Giants Basin, and a complex of bronze age settlements and stone rows. The impressive stone at the southern end of of the east row – the Bone Stone – is said to be the largest on Dartmoor. It was re-erected in the late 19th century and is well over four metres tall. We paused for water here, before following the row of smaller stones north-east before branching off right and contouring round Hartor and then gradually descending to re-join the river just below Plym Steps.
From here, it’s possible to follow the river further northwards through Evil Combe and on to Plym Ford, before veering east to the head of the river. Not for us today – this was as far as we were going, so we planned to cross the river at its confluence with Langcombe Brook and have lunch in the spoil heaps and ruined buildings below Deadman’s Bottom. The Plym is narrow here, so we soon found a suitable spot to cross, and Martin was quickly over. I followed, stepped onto the first wet granite boulder, slipped, nearly overbalanced and only by hopping quickly and comically, managed to avoid diving head-first into the water; the laughter from the far bank said it all.
A brief pause for lunch, sheltering from the wind behind the low, ruined wall of a blowing house, and then off again; uphill, south-west away from the stream. We’re soon onto the great bowl of moorland – unseen from the river because of the convex hillside – which forms the east side of the Plym valley. Behind us, when the cloud lifts, are wide views of the upper part of the valley, looking pretty desolate in today’s weather. Above us, unseen, is the broad ridge which runs from Langcombe Hill to Shell Top – hard to believe that we’d walked along it the previous week, in shirt sleeves, with endless views in every direction. Today we’re pretty much following the 400m contour, which also seems to be the base of the cloud; occasionally it lifts a little, and Hen Tor becomes visible in the distance, then it drops and we can’t see much at all.
The ground underfoot is rough and wet; sometimes good progress can be made linking patches of short grass with sheep tracks, but most of the time it’s high stepping over endless boggy tussocks – hard work, but we push on quickly, picking individual paths a few metres apart. Distances in these conditions are hard to judge and, shortly after crossing Shavercombe Brook, Hen tor is unexpectedly there, looming out of the mist. We dither slightly about which way to go – the cloud is thick – but opt to drop down slightly and this works out well. The extensive clitter is hard work and needs care to cross, but this way we avoid yet more bog higher up and are soon heading up to the next low ridge.
Here the cloud finally lifts properly, and we can move more quickly down through more settlements and up to Great Trowlesworthy Tor where we make a sharp turn right. The moor between here and Little Trowlesworthy Tor is littered with granite and many examples of the stone working which took place here. Most notably a remarkable and huge cylinder of pink granite, which resembles nothing so much as a giant cheese. Apparently, this was intended, in the early 19th century, as the base for a flagpole in Devonport, but was never used (some say because, at the time, it was too massive to transport there). Once at the smaller tor, we scramble through extensive quarry workings, another testament to the one-time value of the unusually pink granite found here.
Finally, its downhill, picking up a good track over a leat, past a farmhouse surrounded by windbreaks of trees and down to the Plym again. From here it’s a flat stroll back long the bank, passing the remains of portable barbeques – endless regular burn marks in the grass – and fires. This spot is hammered by the number of people using it, in such contrast to the higher moorland not far away.
It’s a shame, but, as Martin observes, it leaves the rest of the moor undamaged for anyone prepared to walk for more than a few minutes. And that can only be a good thing.