It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve been out on the moor; bad weather and other commitments have kept us in. There’s lots more bad weather on the way, but it looks like a few hours will be dry on Thursday, so Martin and I plan to get out and explore the northern edge moor, above the Dart valley.
We park at Hexworthy; it’s cold and windy and we add extra layers before setting off quickly – heading west and walking fast to warm up. We’re quickly at Fairy Bridge – the path here continues over the river, through extensive farm ruins and old fields and on to Princetown and Dartmoor Jail. We meet a couple of dog walkers here – the only people we’ll encounter for the rest of the walk – and then head left, on a good track, up the valley of the River Swincombe. I’ve never been here – it’s a lovely broad valley at this point, dropping down steeply to join the West Dart behind us, and with signs of extensive past works by the water authority.
The track leads us easily to a tiny dam and an equally small reservoir – it’s rather neglected and a forlorn spot, so we push on up the valley, which starts to close in and steepen on both sides. It’s very rough and boggy going and gets worse the further we go. After getting wet feet in the Plym valley recently, I’ve dug out my gaiters and stay dry, despite going in up to my shins. Martin, following, has not been able to locate his and the cursing from behind lets me know that he has not been so fortunate.
It is possible to pick a way through though, and after a while we find ourselves on firmer ground, heading up to Wheal Emma Leat, which is contouring the hillside above us to the left. As we reach it, we pick up the small but dry path following its raised bank – in retrospect, cutting straight up to it from the reservoir would have been both quicker and dryer. Ah well…
The valley below us is beautiful; the ground has steepened and the river – quite full after recent rain – drops through a series of small falls and then strands, dividing into five or six separate streams which flow around and over many tiny islets, before re-joining a few hundred metres downstream. There’s also a tiny tree – no more than two metres tall, anciently twisted and gnarled and the only one visible anywhere around.
The water authority had plans to build a large dam hereabouts, flooding this valley and the great bowl of Fox Tor Mires out of which the river drains. After much objection, the application was rejected twice by parliament and was finally shelved at the end of the 1970s. Had it gone ahead, this would have been a very different and tamer place, with its empty beauty hidden under water – I didn’t know about the plans until Martin told me about them today, but I’m very glad the flooding didn’t happen.
All too soon the leat, and with it the good path, come to an end at the confluence of the Swincombe and Strane rivers. We’re right on the eastern edge of Fox Tor Mires here and, although pushing on looks pretty straightforward, we’ve both made the crossing before and know that its anything but; it rapidly turns into a wet maze, full of blind alleys and almost guaranteeing soaking feet if not worse. The mire is widely believed to be the inspiration for the setting of The Hound of the Bakervilles by Conan Doyle so, discretion being the better part of valour and all that, we turn hard to the south east, to follow the Swincombe to its head.
This looks equally bad underfoot, but actually there always seems to be at least a sort of path, heading in sort of the right direction, so we move quickly up the valley, through extensive tin workings. Before long, we are able to head up to some ruined buildings and fields on slightly higher ground on our left. These are all that is left of Fox Tor Farm. It was built in 1812, by Thomas Windeatt (gentleman,) who believed that this parcel of land could be improved sufficiently to provide both a living and a profit. Not only were cattle grazed and quartered here, but crops, including potatoes, were planted. Looking out across the great, empty bowl of the mire bounded to the west by Fox Tor itself, to thenNorth by Whiteworks (then a tin mine, and now the nearest road) and to the north east by the remote valley up which we’ve just walked, the optimism of this belief seems incomprehensible – particularly given that the only access was via a rough, wet track from Whiteworks or another over Ter Hill. Indeed, no occupant of the farm ever seems to have been successful, and fifty or so years later the farm fell into disrepair and was abandoned. *
For us, it’s on up the valley. We stop for lunch at the point where the last two streamlets forming the Swincombe diverge and sit and watch a herd of Belted Galloways slowly converge on the ruins below us. Then on up the left fork – not actually leading to the true head of the river, but the water gets smaller and disappears underground so it can be heard but not seen and then even this disappears as we head up onto the gentle col between Naker’s and Ter Hills.
There are no real paths now, but we thread through reddish grass rippling in the fresh breeze, picking up views to the south east across the head of the Avon with Eastern White Barrow clear in the distance. Then, as we move over the crest of the slight south eastern summit of Ter Hill, yet another aspect opens up – this time to the north and east – with the central bowl of Dartmoor and the Dart valley in the foreground, and the great whaleback of Hameldown beyond.
We drop down, into the huge tin scar of Skir Gut which we follow until we can break right to Hen Roost – a deep cleft where tin has been mined leaving a mini lost world valley of greenness and trees clinging to outcrops of granite. From here, its tempting to head across to Hooten Wheals mine, and follow the O Brook down to the road at Combestone Tor. This is another lovely valley to walk, but following it would leave us with half an hour back along the road to the car and anyway, the sky, which has been threatening rain all day, is getting steadily darker.
So we follow the track which contours back around the hillside before dropping back down to Hexworthy. The views across the Dart valley from here are lovely, particularly the field systems around Combestone, but a brisk shower lets us know what’s coming so we don’t linger. As we reach the road the rain comes back – harder this time – and it’s a quick dash back to the car before waterproofs are needed.
And that’s it – it’s pouring down by the time we get home. A day snatched from the weather in a lonely and bleakly beautiful corner of the moor.
* Much more detail about the farm and Thomas Windeatt (including his despoiling of the nearby Childe’s Tomb) can be found here: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/fox-tor-farm.htm Legendary Dartmoor is a fascinating site for those interested in the moor and its history.