Wild Dartmoor, August. 5.8 miles (9.3 kilometres). Clouds & full sun 25°. With lovely child and silly dog. This walk was also designed and plotted by lovely son, my very own Wainwright.
TL;DR Moors, tors, jungle and swimming. Uphill all the way home
It’s been the dryest hottest kiln of a summer, the ground is baked, the grass is parchment and tinder, the floor radiates the heat from a thousand suns. We crave green.
Dartmoor looks like it can handle itself, the stunted trees and gorse are still fresh and green and from the wasteland of gorse fire new shoots are juicily coming through. And we’re off to find a jungle.
We begin at Bel Tor car park again, and head downwards on the Two Moors Way towards Mel Tor on a most inviting path. It’s not long before we are given a beautiful view, as much green as you could wish for, the Dart river valley.
And on downwards. Lovely son walks ahead and it’s just me and the birds, absolutely loads of them. So many birds that I can’t identify. Skylarks are everywhere, some swallows or are they martins, a bird of prey, some stonechats I think? I’m no good at this any more. I check myself that I don’t need to know and that excuse will do me fine.
Near Aish Tor we come to a stand of gorse, charred and blackened from a gorse fire. It looks wicked and devilish. The new gorse shoots are already coming through at the base, but they are demonstrating the mythological meaning of gorse, or furze: optimism.
We reach Leigh Tor, the fourth easily rambled tor and its rocks are well worth it. Oak trees are growing out of the huge rock formation, like giant bonsai. It’s a Brobdingnager’s rock garden. I imagine I’m 20 metres tall.
I can see the path through the bracken and the path gets narrower as we go down. We’ve reached the jungle and now I’m a tiny beetle in a terrarium. This bracken towers over us, we can barely see the path. We’re drowning in green and it’s awesome.
Two black dogs come hurtling out of the undergrowth, but they’re lovely hounds. And still down we go, through the green into the quiet of wood. The sound of the river Dart sploshing over rocks grows louder and we can see pools to swim in, and hear some children yelling and splashing.
We scramble down at the road and naturally Shovell, not having shoes and clothes to remove, is in first.
The Dart is deliciously cool and inviting, not too cold. We’re a little way down from Spitchwick (or Deeper Marsh) and we have this spot to ourselves beyond the water shoot. It’s a little shallower but it’s a fair trade off to have it to ourselves.
The sun is out in full scorch now, our picnic has been scoffed, and sadly the rest of our slog is upwards. We walk up through a woodland towards Poundsgate. You can stop off here at the Tavistock Inn, where Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote a book about a hell hound on the moor (no doubt a great great relative of Shovell several times removed) or trudge on upwards, up and up (spoiler: it’s all up) back into the searing heat. A few hikers pass us, I don’t know how they manage to trot up without swooning at every tree with shade for another pint of water. It seems to me they must be phantoms, spectral walkers who roam the moor endlessly, never stopping, never weakening, their cries heard only at night under a full moon as they beg for rest and respite, howling into the night.
Or maybe they’re just a bit fitter then me.
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If you’re going to Dartmoor, or any moorland part of Britain, I strongly recommend this book by William Atkins, a beautiful portrait of this wilderness terrain. It’s also available in good independent bookshops
The GPX route is here. We started at Bel Tor car park where the path begins leading down away from the road. You can also drive to the wild swimming spot if you don’t have time to walk, there’s a car park at the bottom of Newbridge Hill.
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