Return to Dartmoor – A Wild camping adventure

September 2023

As I drive the 4 hours to Dartmoor to rendezvous with my long time camping companion Rich, I try to get myself in the mood by listening to a podcast about the Yeti. I allow my mind to wander and before long, the hills and valleys of Dartmoor merge with the steep mountains of the Himalayas. 

That is until I arrive and pop into the nearest Morrisons to grab a sandwich, some bottles of water and a box of tea bags. Yes, it’s once more time for a bit of wild camping and our aim is to stay on the move for two nights. Our starting point is a hillside carpark with an excellent view into a forested valley below us and of the more sparse moorland that rises above us to several different hilly peaks.

We consult the map over a spot of lunch and decide to aim for the top of one of the tors to our north for our first night. If all goes to plan, we discuss then circling round to the South again the next day, with a stop in the village of Widecombe before finding somewhere out in the wild once more for our second night. Before we leave, I set out one of my camera traps to see if anything of note happens while we are away. 

Had there been a crane available, I would have used one to raise my rucksack onto my back. Alas, no such luck so I make do with sheer strength and grit. We crack on, leaving our parked behind us. 

It’s a heavy start up a steep incline and after mere yards, I’m concerned about my heart rate. Not wanting to show Rich any sign of weakness though I plough on, delighted that he seems to be struggling as well. Our route takes upwards and then around one of the tors before mercilessly pointing us downwards again into the next valley. Here we spot one of the first landmarks, an allegedly pretty waterfall called Becky Falls. So pretty in fact that they charge you £9.50 to get in. No thanks. We skirt around it and find ourselves passing Becka brook (a small babbling flow of water and not a flame-haired, news paper-editing harpy).  

As the going is relatively flat, we spend the rest of the morning enjoying a pleasant wander through some lovely temperate rainforest before coming across a small cluster of houses, too small to even be called a village but big enough that it has a pub. Annoyingly, as nice as a pint seems at this point, it is closed so we press on. 

We stumble across a church that looks as if it is straight out of either Midsummer murders or an episode of Jonathan Creek. If our maps are correct, we have to go through the graveyard and into the woods behind the church. The ones that look really spooky, even during a warm sunny day like today. With no alternative, we push forwards, uphill once more, trying our best to ignore the abandoned huts scattered through the trees, many of which have actual wooden crucifixes on them. 

Rich enquires about the large viking tattoo covering my left forearm, presumably trying to take our minds off the possibility of imminent abduction / demonic possession. I tell him it’s a transfer, left over from a friend’s viking birthday party a few days prior. I am concerned that it might not scrub off properly before I have to go back to work. He points out that, with the sunny weather, I’m likely to have tanned around the tattoo as well. Shite. 

With that ominous prospect in mind, we emerge from the trees and take in the stunning 360 views from Manaton rocks.

This brightens the mood somewhat. By now, it’s mid afternoon and we can see the tor towards which we are destined by now. It looms above us in the distance, one side covered in pine forest. That is is the side we roughly direct ourselves towards, passing an isolated house along the way with a box outside saying ‘eggs for sale’. There are none left. 

We reach the base of the tor along a windy road and begin to skirt around in an anti-clockwise direction, looking for a path up into the forest. Predictably the one we aimed for isn’t there so we carry on for a greater distance than we had intended before finally finding a way up. 

As we reach to forest it cools somewhat, but the incline is not messing around. This will be a slog, we think. Halfway up, now in deep pine woodland, we come across an abandoned log cabin, the spookiness of which far exceeds anything we have seen so far, particularly now as the light is beginning to fade. It’s name? Bogda. For some reason. 

According to the map, the tree line should break not far from here after which we anticipate a clear run to the top of the tor. What we don’t realise at this point is that certain features, not least accurate paths, do not show up on our particular map.

As every path we find seems to want to lead us back down the hill, we decide to strike off up the hill. “This is more like it” I think. “No paths. Just pure adventure.” As we reach the treeline, my thoughts of adventure quickly sour as I realise just how badly our map had betrayed us. Ferns. Oh the ferns. As far as the eye can see. So thick that to travel a few metres is like leaning against a gale force wind. The hill is getting steeper. With every brow of the hill we reach, we are met with more ferns. Ferns. So many ferns. 

We seriously consider going back down and finding a spot in the pine forest to bed down. But Rich and I are made of sterner stuff. We plough on, uncertain what we will find ahead of us. But then, just as we are about to give up hope, the ferns thin. The incline settles and the ferns gradually are replaced by a covering of sharp shallow thistle. Not something we can camp on. For a moment, we worry that the whole tor is covered in the stuff and we really will have to go back down. But then, we see grass. Oh lovely grass. 

The satisfaction is palpable and we are soon spoiled with ideal places to camp. A herd of sheep look up at us, no doubt slightly baffled that humans should emerge from this direction. The views we share with our fluffy companions are spectacular. It’s as if we can see the whole of Dartmoor and we suddenly realise that it has all been worth it. 

We pitch our tents and then crack open some beers. Rich cooks up some absolutely cracking tacos which we eat in front of a gorgeous sunset. Moments like this are rare. 

We retire to our sleeping bags finally under the cover of a clear starry night with satellites visible above. I wake a few hours later convinced I can hear radio chatter transmitted through my camping pillow. Thoughts of secret underground government bases fill my mind. I head outside to take a pee and find our campsite drowned in mist. 

In the morning the mist is cleared. After plotting out our day’s route over a pleasant breakfast, we pack up and head down, this taking choosing the opposite side of the tor. We begin to feel really stupid when we find a clear way down. 

Our aim is to cross a stream at the bottom to avoid a huge detour around private land through which we can’t travel. It turns out that the free land over which we have planned our route is not quite as simple as first envisaged. The way forwards takes us through a field. On the map, this looks impossibly simple. In reality, the field is a bog bordered by a stream, heavy undergrowth and fenced off with barbed wire. We spend about an hour probing the back of this field to find a way through but no luck. We eventually find a corner with some just about scalable barbed wire over which we vault. Rich catches his undercarriage on the wire and for a moment, I see in his face the look of a man who has lost something dear to him. We fear the worst. There is blood. I need to take a look.

Anyone spotting us as I inspect Rich’s groin area at this point could be forgiven for reaching the wrong conclusion. Fortunately, it is a small gash in the thigh and nothing more. 

The day has turned into a scorcher and, just as our last drama ends, a new one begins. We have very little water left. As we traipse through a series of fields, we stumble across a clear stream and we use this to refill our bottles, with the aid of Rich’s water purifier. 

As we continue, signs of civilisation begin to appear. We come across a small collection of houses and what seems to be a workshop of some kind. A sign over a tool box reads ‘Don’t even look at them.’ As we take stock, a man emerges and we have a quick chat. Very friendly and, although he is taller than both of us, he looks for all the world like a dwarf from Lord of the Rings. 

As the morning turns to afternoon, we wander paths and roads in some idyllic countryside. We pass a dead mole at one point. Huge. Then a shrew. Signs of a rather predatory house cat from one of the cottages dotted about the landscape we suspect. From nowhere, the sounds of ‘Let’s get is started’ by the Black Eyed-Peas blare out. 

We stop to have supernoodles by the side of the road and I decide to loosen my boots which are chafing a little. We discuss the phrase ‘loosen the boots’ and decide it could also be euphemistic for opening one’s bowels. 

Early afternoon and we reach Widecombe where we resupply, plan our evening’s route and make use of the pub in the middle of the village. Inside, a sign on the wall quotes Kenneth Williams. ‘I can’t stand euphemisms in a script. As soon as I see one, I whip it out.’

It’s at this point also that we realise we are both riddled with tics. Tiny ones but tics nevertheless. We remove as many as we can find and cross our fingers that we are lyme disease free. (The tiny specs in the below picture are said tics).

Sufficiently recharged and possibly slightly drunk, we set out eastwards. In relation to its surrounding landscape, Widecombe sits within a big bowl which we must now walk out of. Like tearing off a plaster, we go for it. We reach the Bonehill rocks above a little while later and find an ideal spot right at the top where we set up camp once more. As we sit drinking more beer, a couple of shepherds emerge as they herd their herd of sheep off the hillsides. One rides around like a lunatic on a quadbike while the other just runs around. Rather them not me. 

The night is clear and warm, with good views of the milky way. I have a satisfying breakfast of sausage, beans and egg, swilled down with coffee and finished off with a fudge bar. The day is overcast and breezy which suits us. I ensure I am wearing trousers not shorts. As we descend, we talk about the fern craze of the 1900s and Rich furnishes me with the fact that custard creams (probably my favourite of all the biscuits) have ferns on them, which relate to this period in our history. 

So distracted are we by confectionary-related trivia, we fail to realise we have dropped down into a bog. This is no ordinary bog. It is the real deal. Like something out of Indiana Jones or the Return of the King. We each take different routes, finding islands of squelchy firmness amidst genuinely quite deep water. At several points, we each find our boots stuck and sinking into the mud, like quicksand. The heavy packs on our backs are no doubt not helping us but we have no option but to press on. Rich reaches safety. I am but a small leap across a watery section to reach him. I assess my options. I could retrace my steps and find another way but I’ve spotted what looks for all the world like a firm piece of ground with tufts of grass reassuringly growing out of. I go for it. It almost happens in slow motion. I sail over the water with the grace of a gazelle. I have spanned the chasm with ease. But as I place my foot on the patch of ground I’m aiming for, the point at which I would expect feedback from the ground beneath me soon passes. I am falling. Both feet now press down on the earth which sinks like an armband in a swimming pool. I plunge to my mid thigh into the cold bog. 

Rich lets out gleeful laughter as I swear and scramble to dry land. Clearly it could have gone better. There is nothing I can do now but carry on. With time, the water within my boots and trousers warms like a wetsuit. It’s not altogether unpleasant. 

We reach another smaller tor which takes my mind off things. Clearly the haunt of druids and hippies from the smell of incense coming from the nooks and crannies of the rocks here. Not long after this we pass the shepherds from the night before who we had seen traversing the bog as if it weren’t there. Their herd complete, they had set about sheering the sheep. All very English. 

Our journey nearing its end, we discuss the landscape through which we walk. Our final leg sees us travel through some dense forest and across a beautiful stream that looks incredibly similar to one of the stock screensavers you get on your computer. 

My brush with the bog is a distant memory and I could genuinely spend another night out there amidst the moss covered rocks and the sound of light running water. But before long, we reach our cars, safe and sound.

Dartmoor is an incredible place. Bleak at times, but full of hidden gems if you take the time to look for them. A wild and precious landscape that is there for all. As we refuel with a pub lunch, Rich and I are already discussing our return. 

 

 

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