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A Different Dartmoor: Part I

9 April, 2010

The South of England is crowded. Even in the heart of the New Forest, it is impossible to escape the drone of traffic. For misanthropic Australians such as Oanh and myself, this can get a bit much to bear at times. Dartmoor is a good antidote to that: it’s big, empty and, seemingly, no one much goes there. After a great Easter break there last year, I spent the first three months of this year in anticipation of a repeat visit.

Easter fell a week earlier this year, and the winter has been significantly colder (daffodils that bloomed in February last year are only just appearing now). The weather forecast was, frankly, fairly appalling. But advance train tickets had been purchased, so we would take our chances. Our plan was to take a train to Ivybridge, on the southern edge of the moor, and do a full traverse to Sticklepath, a small village on the north edge: about 50-60 kilometres, depending on how direct a route we ended up taking.

As an exercise, we decided to go as lightweight as possible: smaller and lighter packs, less stuff and, hopefully, more enjoyable walking as a result. We managed to reduce everything down to a 40-litre pack for me (about 13kg) and a 30-litre pack for Oanh (about 7kg), including food and water. Achieving this involved a (very geeky) evening of weighing everything on the kitchen scales, making up spreadsheets, considering alternatives, and coming up with inventive ways of squishing things into smaller spaces. We could easily have shaved another couple of kilograms had the weather forecast been better, but we decided to take our larger tent with a porch area for cooking in in case of bad weather (a good move, as it turns out). A major saving turned out to be the packs themselves: our larger and more heavy-duty bags were each approximately 2kgs heavier than their smaller, more lightweight alternatives! Mind you, true ultralight hikers would still consider our loads unacceptably weighty, but we’re working with what we’ve got here.

Day 1: Ivybridge to Dry Lake (!)

Our journey didn’t begin well, as we turned up at the station to discover that our train had been cancelled. I’ve often looked up at departure boards to see trains other than my own be cancelled and thought “Gee, that must be a nuisance!” Well, this time it was us, and it was. The next train we could catch would be an hour later, involve 3 changes, and get us to Ivybridge about two hours later than planned. Nothing to be done, we picked up a newspaper and resigned ourselves to a shorter day’s walking than intended. To add insult to injury, one of the ticket conductors threatened to charge us for new tickets as we were not on the train that our reservations were for (i.e., the cancelled one), despite us having verified with staff in Southampton that our tickets were in fact valid. Boo South West Trains.

It was difficult to remain annoyed for too long as we entered Devon. The previously grey skies began to clear and we passed rolling green hills, the red cliffs of Dawlish Bay, and eventually, the looming hills of Dartmoor. A brief walk from Ivybridge station took us to the moor proper. We climbed rapidly into the hills, thrilled by the comfort and freedom of lighter packs, as well as the open spaces, fresh air and sunshine.

Oanh atop Butterdon Hill

Nic rests a moment on Butterdon Hill.

Much of our first days walking followed the course of the dismantled Zeal Tramway that was built in 1847 to carry naphtha, extracted from the peat, for use in mothballs. This particular venture apparently failed, and the tramway was later used in service of a kaolin mine. Now it served as a firm, smooth, albeit wet, walking track. Its main downside was an inclination to follow contour lines, leading to a flat, but somewhat winding route. After an hour or so, dark clouds began to approach from the south, and our view of the valleys was progressively obliterated by mist and rain. Making good use of the advance warning, we donned all our waterproof gear, rendering us fairly impervious and further lightening our packs (though does it still count if you’re wearing it?) The showers passed over fairly rapidly, but were a sign of things to come, and our waterproofs were rarely put away over the next few days.

As well as the tramway itself, various other signs remained of previous use and occupation: the foundations of buildings presumably associated with the various mining endeavours, a small aqueduct running alongside the path, various pits and unnatural looking piles of dirt. Earlier inhabitants had left behind boundary stones – straight rows of standing stones stretching over many kilometres to indicate parish (and other) boundaries – way markers and, down on the valley floors, the distinctive circles indicating prehistoric enclosures and settlements. Actually, I say distinctive, but really, I wouldn’t have a clue what they were if they weren’t labelled as such on the OS map.

One of the many boundary stones that we encountered.

Sheep meets aqueduct.

The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky when we finally left the tramway and diverted towards the head of the River Erme, where I hoped to find a suitable wild camping site for the evening. As we wended our way through the reeds (indicating boggy patches) alongside the river, I noticed a flash of orange several kilometres up ahead as another party pitched their tent. Coming to Dartmoor (particularly at this time of year) typically indicates a desire for solitude, so we stopped short of our original target and explored Dry Lake, a small tributary of the River Erme. Its name was something of a misnomer today, as it was neither dry, nor a lake, but rather a cheerfully babbling stream. Several patches of flat, dry grass presented themselves and we made our home for the night.

The wind, present throughout the day, grew stronger and colder as the sun departed and, after cooking dinner wedged into a small crevice between boulders, we retreated to the warmth of our tent to eat and sleep (or in my case lie awake idly wondering whether the incessant rain was likely to result in a tent-flooding deluge).

Continue to Part II!

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