Sunday, 25 January 2015

Swimming in Dartmoor

Not content with walking a full week, we left Wales and headed south to Dartmoor national park for a weekend of hiking in the moors.

Unfortunately, the weather conspired against us (finally!).  Overnight, the world turned into a raging torrent, and driving rains made the visibility nil.  While we were happy to walk in the rain, a raging storm was another story.  Dartmoor can be featureless, and it would be quite easy to get lost on the open moors once the fog rolls in.  

It started to clear, so we hopped in the car and drove to a nearby trailhead, passing raging rivers and washed-out roads and super puddles of hydroplane goodness.  By the time we got there, we were once again in the thick of it.  We napped in the car for a bit, then decided to take drastic action.  

We cozied up in the Warren House Inn, feasting on delectable rabbit pies and scrumpy, a hard apple cidre drink that was quite strong and warming.  Usually, we save the big meal for a victory post-hike splurge, but with nothing much to do, we decided to go for it.  

The Warren House is the best kind of pub: remote, ancient, low-ceilinged, roaring fireplaces, and a creepy poster in the women's toilet.

We stopped by one of the National Park Centres after our warming lunch.  The ranger was friendly and talkative and knowledgeable, and told us which hikes would be off limits as the streams were way too high to make crossings feasible.  He recommended a walk that was mostly in the forest up to Bellever Tor.  We got ambitious and turned it into a 5 mile loop. 

The tors here are iconic- large, free-standing rock stacks on the tops of an otherwise smooth hill.  

It was wet, and blowing.  These people were taking shelter in the tor, trying to eat lunch.  

But a place like Dartmoor is almost best enjoyed in bad weather.  It lends a certain sense of doom and gloom that you just can't get on a sunny day.  Even with my feet squishing inside my boots with every step, I was content to soldier on.

We continued on to Laughter Tor, then back to the car park through the moors and woods.

What is most remarkable about Dartmoor is how much stuff there is here, hidden in plain site.  Standing stones, hut circles, villages, stone circles, cairns, pillow mounds and mines dot the OS maps with so much information that it is difficult to get to point A to point B without wandering off to explore.  The helpful ranger had pointed out a few good ones to check out on the maps- entire villages of bronze-age settlements are still found, completely free for you to explore if you are so inclined.  Not one of them is signposted...the ranger said that "If we signposted one, we'd have to signpost them all,  we'd have nothing but signpost marring the moors".  So with a map and a compass, you can find all sorts.  This apparently was a very high-demand real estate area back in the day.  

 We hiked until dark, and then headed back to dry off and warm up- we got soaked even with waterproofs with the wind driving the rain, but we stayed relatively comfortable as long as we kept moving, and we were thankful anytime we were in the trees and a bit out of the wind.

The next day, we had less rain, but the fog was thick and eerie.

We left our tiny, warm cottage and headed back up into the moors.  Despite multiple changes of newspaper and leaving them in front of the radiator all night, the boots were still damp, so the socks were doubled.

We left the car park and started headed up to Hookney Tor, with thick fog rolling in.

Bennet's cross

Looking back, we could see the Warren House pub....

And then a few minutes later, we could not....

 From Hookney Tor, you can look across to Hameldown Tor, but snuggled in the little valley is something remarkable:


A prehistoric farming village, complete with 24 stone huts inside a stone wall.  

 A very pregnant pony....

The ponies running wild on the moor are a bit more refined and pretty than the ones in Wales and Cornwall, and they have their own breed registry.

Soon, we were back in the thick fog on Hamel Down, with a skewed sense of direction.  The ravens, also blind to their environment, were flying low and letting out loud grawks, mysteriously appearing and then fading back into the thick fog.  

The subtle colors were making me swoon- tiny closed buds of heather, juniper and wintertime grasses.

This, I loved:

In the middle of the moor, Warren House gets its own signpost.  It was a sign from above: after 8 miles, we were ready to turn back and get one more rabbit pie before heading back to London.

We did get distracted though:

A row of orderly standing stones, laid out by some ancient tribe.

Once again, Dartmoor revealed itself as the kind of place that I'd want to go back to.  There's so much to see and explore, you could entertain yourself for ages.

We did have a really nice parting pie and scrumpy, then hopped into the car and drove back to London.  I couldn't ask for a more amazing winter hiking week.

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