Dartmoor Camp

I’m wild camping again and this time it’s a two-nighter on Dartmoor. That’s right, we’re really raising the bar with this one. Rich is back, my long haired companion who looks, as ever, the professional camper. But that’s not all. We are lucky to be joined by a new character in our ongoing wilderness-taming saga that started by the Thames before moving to the coastal paths of Cornwall. Enter Ross, a former army soldier man who now plies his trade as a teacher. With his survival skills learned through both vigorous training  and from tours in Afghan and his intimate knowledge of key stages 1-4 in Geography, his presence could prove vital. 

The sometimes brutal peaks and troughs of Dartmoor are no joke so we’re going in prepared. While one might call the utilisation of all-terrain vehicles along with a full support crew ‘being prepared’, we’ve instead plumped for a Corgi called Bowie. Time will tell whether that was a good call or a terrible mistake. 

Our aim is to hike out into the wilds of Dartmoor, pitch up and lose ourselves in the midst of nature once more. As I drive into Dartmoor on the Friday evening, I have Ross in the passenger seat and Bowie in the back. The sun is getting low and once off the A-road, the routes become stupidly narrow very quickly. Bloody quaint though, as if Hobbiton is just around the corner. Just as we comment on how it’s like going back in time, a spectral white horse canters into the road out of nowhere, like an ethereal vision; an omen of the land we are entering. Not sure if that’s a good sign or not. 

As I mentioned, we are doing a two-nighter. For this we need to assemble our full team and for that we need Rich. He’s at the pub already in a lovely little place called Chagford. Screw camping for the night, we have some food and beer and decide to stay there. It’s a five-star inn after-all and we don’t want to get trampled by white horses in the night. There is a picture on the wall of a man that looks like a cross between Monica’s Dad from Friends (talented veteran actor Elliot Gould) and Prince Andrew (sweaty royal). The food is good and the company excellent. Bowie sleeps in my room and is mildly well behaved, if not a slight pain in the arse. 

As Corgis tend to be, Bowie is small and annoying. He has short legs and a long body. He is two years old now and is extremely intelligent. He can be charming and very sweet but I am convinced he would leave us all to die if it meant he was allowed to lick the plate after dinner. He recently developed a sudden and appalling limp after coming down some stairs that convinced me he had broken his leg, only for it to instantly disappear half an hour later when someone opened the back door through which he rushed with gay abandon. I am becoming increasingly convinced that he is a psychopath. 

Breakfast lives up to the five star nature of our digs. Cup of tea and an eggs benedict for me. We discuss that if Rich were to release his own run of cereal bars he would name the brand ‘Nutrient Rich’. Ross gets out his OS map like a pro and we plan our adventure on the wooden table of the pub beneath its ancient wooden beams. We identify a spot where we can leave the cars and strike out into the wild not twenty minutes away and so off we go. On the way, the scale of the moor opens up around us and we cut our speed to avoid the suicidal sheep that throw themselves in our path every twenty metres or so. 

We arrive at a visitors centre where we park up. Immediately two things become apparent. The first is that there are a load of spotty teenagers running around with oversized back packs on. Upon asking why there is such a high frequency of the greasy angst ridden vessels of emotion, complete with all their Harry Styles badges affixed to their clothing, we are told it happens to be the weekend of the Ten Tors Challenge. According to its website, The Ten Tors Challenge is attempted by 2,400 teenagers in 400 teams of six, navigating routes of 35, 45 or 55 miles (depending on age) over the Northern half of Dartmoor, visiting ten nominated tors / check points in under two days. Rich seems indifferent to them, Ross shifts noticeably into teacher mode, his face lighting up as if it’s Christmas. I briefly contemplate setting Bowie on them all. 

The second thing that becomes apparent is the lack of bins on Dartmoor. This particular issue comes to the fore as Bowie drops trow and squeezes a steaming pile out right in front of the visitor’s centre. Naturally I have to clear it up but, after some fruitless investigation, it looks as if the poo is coming with us. It seems that extra carabiner I brought along was worthwhile. I can’t fit the poo bag onto the back of my pack without help and so we invent a sophisticated code to help us. Whoever fastens it on shouts out ‘poo secure’ to signify the fact that the poo is secure and I can move off without disaster ensuing. 

Teething problems overcome, we set off and blimey it’s hot. I have been clever however as I’ve worn a white t-shirt and everyone knows that this is better at reflecting the sun on a warm day.  Presently, after passing several bands of teenagers, one of whom is carrying quite literally a ghetto blaster on his shoulder, we reach quieter climes and it begins to feel as if we’re finally in the grip of the great outdoors. Presently, we reach a stream and as we confront Ross’s OS map once more, it appears our chosen direction lies on the other side. While the stream certainly looks inviting in this heat, I note that we have full kit and a corgi who will definitely drown if he attempts to cross on his own. Bearing in mind we have only just made it through a muddy bog, I quickly rue my choice of attire. Bowie has, to this point, never been as wet and muddy as he is now. As I carry him across the river, my t-shirt will never be the same again. And the car is barely out of sight.

As we continue onwards,  and with the Queen’s jubilee approaching, I weather the obligatory comments from passing walkers and more teenage outdoor types, all eager to point out that Bowie is a corgi and that we’re all in the presence of royalty etc.  I smile through gritted teeth and just nod. 

Around midday we stop for lunch having climbed one tor and passed through several other monuments. Before we know it we have been walking for hours. Our task has been to find a spot as far away from any children as possible and late afternoon we hit the jackpot. Whether it be through blind luck or through Ross’s intimate knowledge of contour lines on the map, we find some stone circles on the side of a small valley that look as if they have been made for us. As we set up, we admire the lovely views into the distance and, mercifully, not a teenager in sight.

It has been a tough hike thus far and our water levels are running a tad low. While Bowie is content to drink from bogs and puddles, Rich, Ross and I have some standards. We locate a stream from which Rich can extract clean water with the help of his trusty water filter. As we set off over the ankle-breaking terrain I look back and notice a group of Dartmoor ponies sidling up to our camp. They have a swashbuckling twinkle in their eyes and so I double back to protect our home for the night from a proper ransacking. 

What follows is a bit of a staring contest as they loiter 20 yards away from our tents. One of them has a mane that makes it look like Sheena Easton. Then, all of a sudden, they all just pause, as if someone has just switched them off. I had no real idea that this is how ponies sleep until this moment. I sit fascinated until Rich and Ross return triumphantly with fresh H2O. 

As the sun sets, we cook food and drink whisky from a flask. These are the moments that make this sort of thing worth it. The air is clear and though the temperature is dropping, it’s okay because we have jumpers with us. I have brought along a camera trap which I bought from Amazon on a whim and am keen to see what small rodents are running around at night up on Dartmoor. I move someway off from the camp and fasten it to a small rock in front of what looks like a natural trail through the grass. 

Then, bed time. I have anticipated that Bowie will be exhausted by now but it quickly dawns on me that I am utterly wrong. If anything he is more alert and active now than at any point through the day. I have to attach him to my arm via his lead to stop him from running off in search of Sheena Easton and so he just sits upright outside my tent for 5 hours, barking at the moon. Needless to say I don’t get much sleep.

When I finally do get some sleep it must be only for an hour or so before the little blighter jumps on me and starts licking my face. We emerge from our tents amidst a dense fog. Rich almost immediately digs into the overnight oats that he prepared the night before with a decidedly smug look on his face. To be fair, this was a rather impressive move and Ross and I glance at each other in silent acknowledgement. I get up and collect my camera trap, eager to find out what has been going on out there. Turns out absolutely nothing has been going on. Just the breeze rustling the grass. At least I have a sausage sandwich to gobble up. 

As I discuss our route off Dartmoor with Rich and Ross, we sip on tea and coffee and I inadvertently melt my spork on the camping stove. I wonder whether this is how spoons were invented. I am keen to walk back through the nearby forest but am quite rightly overruled by my companions who feel our odds of getting immediately lost in there are high. As the fog clears, we see a military helicopter appear in the distance, landing on the horizon before rising once more and disappearing into the beyond. Later, as we retrace our steps from the day before, we see two more, this time flying right over us in the valley. The first moves with a meticulous slowness – it appears to be following all regulations to the letter and is probably flown by a pilot called Roger or Colin. But the second is really giving it some. It flies much lower and banks at crazy angles. I can’t be certain as to whether the theme to Airwolf  is actually playing or is just in my head. Rich says it’s in my head. 

After what seems like a much shorter walk than the day before, perhaps as our packs are a bit lighter, we reach the cars again back at the visitors centre. We head straight to the pub for some food with no regard for the other customers on account of how bad we all smell. I am exhausted, as is Rich. Even Ross looks tired. But Bowie is decidedly chirpy. Corgis are tough little things I realise. We bid Rich farewell and as I drive home, Ross channels his inner geography teacher by falling asleep immediately.  Overall, a great success and one which we all agree needs to be repeated. Watch this space. 

 

 

A Good Man in Africa

Back to my favourite author as I continue to ration his books so I don’t go through them all at once. This was his first novel and is quite the lesson in authorship. It is, as he has continued to demonstrate throughout all the other books pf his I’ve read, superbly measured – every word in every sentence counts, there is not one sentence out of line. This book creates a marvellous picture of the setting and of the main character. His flaws are excellently observed and his escapades hilariously told. A fantastic book.  

Kolymsky Heights

This was described by Philip Pullman as the best thriller he’s ever read. That should have made me wary as I think Pullman himself is massively overrated (I found the Northern Lights stuff a bit tedious and boring). This was the epitomy of tedious and boring. There was really nothing thrilling about this book. The intricate detail to which the writer goes into is unnecessary and makes for a snails pace throughout. Despite the detail he goes into, it is also incredibly vague. At the centre of it, the story is weird and the only saving grace is the bit at the end (I won’t tell you) although that is nowhere near enough to justify reading this book. Pullman is mistaken I think. This was a proper slog and far too long. Avoid.  

Project Hail Mary

This one was recommended to me as a good poolside read. This is a cool, science centred novel – one for the geeks but accessible to others too. It’s by the same guy that wrote the Martian, starring Matt Damon. I suspect this one would also make a good film. Pure sci fi, set in space, plausible but fantastical nonetheless and pleasingly meticulous. Enjoyable read, even if it does perhaps go on a bit (probably being slightly harsh there). 

Prisoners of Geography

Superbly well written and informed. Brilliantly readable and fascinating. This opened my mind to the world of geopolitics which sounds, on the face of it, extremely boring. But it’s not. Admittedly I do love a good map but trust me, this is a very good book that everyone should have a look at. The man knows a thing or two about his subject. 

The Secret Rooms

This was an absolute gem of a find. Bought from a local bookshop in Wiltshire, I liked the look of it but was also aware it could be a gamble. Thankfully it was one that paid off. This is a superbly written account of an aristocratic world of old that doubles as a moving and detailed account of the 1st world war to boot. It flows brilliantly and it really does read a bit like a thriller as the author leaves her finds in the titular secret rooms of an enormous castle as tantalisingly hanging at the end of the chapters. 

An insight into a real life Downton Abbey sort of thing (I’ve not actually watched it but I think that’s a fair thing to say), I would thoroughly recommend this book. 

Death and Croissants

The best thing about this book is its title. It really is a cracker and it sold it to me in one go. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from there. The plot is a bit simplistic, the prose is disjointed and built around various dad jokes  rather than the other way round and there is some shoddy, confusing dialogue on the other. Thankfully quite short so you can get through it nice and quickly but really, best avoided. Have a chuckle at the title but don’t be fooled to go any further than that. 

A Foreign Country

I sought this out as I read another of his books – Box 88 – and really enjoyed it. This lived up to my expectations. He writes very well and the action is tense, interesting and slick. I love the spy aspects it goes into and I will certainly be reading the other books he has written. 

It was fairly obvious from the outset that this book was going to be biased. It felt consistently as if the author was trying to ‘sell’ biogerontology. This became even more blatant during the last chapter where he as good as admits the book was written to raise political pressure to push forwards the drive to ‘cure’ ageing altogether. While he has obviously done a lot of research into a field that is still significantly speculative and in its infancy, he comes across as almost fanatic at times, treating the subject as would a child with a toy. It is occasionally rambling. What concerns me the most however is the glaring absence of any discussion about the ethical effects on the world should ageing be successfully cured. That is but for a small paragraph near the end. He even includes a link to an extra chapter which goes into the ‘counter argument’. Perhaps he didn’t want to write this in his book because of the obvious role it would play in completely undermining everything he has written about. To leave this aspect out is hugely irresponsible and his comment that the net ethical benefit would so clearly be in favour of stopping us from ageing that it is not really worth including is utter nonsense. This is not a balanced popular science book no matter what it is marketed as. It is a sales pitch – propaganda. Don’t be fooled. And to be honest, it was a bit boring.

Snow, Dog, Foot

An intriguing book, translated from Italian. This was gifted to me and can be read in an evening. I am no connoisseur of translated works but it seems to me they have done a marvellous job. The story itself is good. It charts the descent of a mountain man into dementia or madness over a winter, all in the presence of his dog. As things progress the dog becomes more and more human while the man changes in quite the opposite way and is a reflective account of humanity. Glad I read this.