A winter solstice (almost!) walk across Dartmoor
I always try to go for a long walk on the moor around the time of the winter solstice. It’s become something of a habit – last year the Belstone and Cosdon Hill area, for example; the year before the West Dart Valley and the Beardown Tors. This year (on Sunday 20 December) I joined John Diplock’s ‘Free Spiriters’ (an activity group for the over 50s) at Powdermills for their December adventure: a 12-mile walk across the moor to Dewerstone Cottage, tucked away in National Trust woodland above the River Meavy. Conditions underfoot were wet to say the least… but after a horribly wet and windy stretch across open moorland above the Swincombe Valley we were rewarded with sunshine and fantastic light by the time we reached Gutter Tor and Ringmoor Down, before the final crossing of Wigford Down.
But back to the start of the route. We set off from the former gunpowder works at Powdermills along the ‘old drive’, which leads to the B3212 not far from the Cherrybrook Hotel.
Then we picked up the bridle path across Muddilake (well named!) to emerge opposite the beautiful beech-tree-lined drive to Prince Hall Hotel and the Dartmoor Training Centre.
We got completely drenched crossing the slopes of Royal Hill to gain the old tin workings at Whiteworks (via a tricky crossing of the swollen Strane River), where we picked up a track leading to Nun’s Cross Farm for a lunch break tucked out of the wind behind crumbling granite walls.
But then (weather-wise) things started looking up and conditions improved considerably. We picked up the (quite badly degraded) track past Eylesbarrow tin mine, ending at the Scout Hut below Gutter Tor.
And on Gutter Tor the light, and views, were just fantastic!
It was just so good to see some blue sky again after days of grey… and from there we had a long tramp across Ringmoor Down in near perfect conditions.
The final stretch took us past Brisworthy Plantation, from where we crossed Wigford Down (north of the Plym Valley).
Finally we descended steeply through beautiful oak woodland to Dewerstone Cottage. A counting house for the local quarry during the 19th century, and situated on an old tramway built to remove the worked stone, the cottage has since been home to a tearoom (from the late 19th century), catering for visitors arriving on the now disused Plymouth-to-Princetown railway. In the mid 1950 it fell into disuse, was acquired by the National Trust in 1960 and leased to the Scouts organisation. The NT has now teamed up with John Diplock’s Spirit of Adventure, under whose guidance the cottage has been renovated. It is now a comfortable bunkhouse in a magical location, available for hire via www.spirit-of-adventure-com.
And that was where our walk ended, and Free Spirit’s Christmas party took place! Many thanks to John for organising yet another wonderful day out – and here’s to many more in 2016.
Winter away day – to Princetown
Question: how do you entertain 10 Scottish and Lancastrian hillwalkers on a cold wet day on Dartmoor in early winter (when they have come to Devon by air and not brought walking gear with them)?
Answer: you treat them to a day out in historic Princetown!
Last Saturday was grey, damp and surprisingly chilly and blustery in Princetown. First stop the wonderful Dartmoor Prison Museum (lead photo above, and open all year): a real Tardis of a building, stuffed to the gunnels with everything you always wanted to know about the prison and much, much more… Curator Brian gave my visitors a brief run down on the prison today, then left them to explore. They were completely fascinated, and came away having learned a huge amount about the prison’s history and how it all works today.
A quick cuppa and a bowl of chips at the Old Police Station Cafe (most appropriately: many of the party were ex coppers) and then it was on to the National Park Visitor Centre to learn more about Dartmoor. Out visit coincided with the Christmas Fair, where the fantastic ‘Dartmoor Range’ was on sale, represented by photographer Anna Curnow (the autumn issue’s featured photographer), Kim Stead of Twool (Whiteface Dartmoors: an article coming up in 2016), photographer Tracey Elliot-Reep, HK White’s wonderful Dartmoor mugs and tea towels, Clare’s Preserves (article in 2016), Lily Warne Wool (Greyface Dartmoors: article in 2016), Dartmoor Soap Company… the Centre is open this winter (to 28 February 2016) Thursday to Sunday 10.30am–3.30pm: lots of gift ideas for Christmas in stock too.
I even managed to buy my Christmas tree from Mr Steer, selling them outside the Centre, and who kindly dropped it off at my cottage on his and Paula’s (Lily Warne Wool) way home to the Teign Valley. Many thanks to both of them.
Next stop was the fascinating church of St Michael and All Angels, built between 1812 and 1814 by prisoners captured in the Napoleonic War with France and the War of 1812 with the USA, and held at Dartmoor gaol. On a better day we would have explored the gravestones in the churchyard – there’s a free leaflet available in the church – including the four rows of small gravestones, each bearing a set of initials and a date: prisoners’ graves. Before 1910 prisoners were buried here anonymously, but have since been identified. The photo below shows just how lovely the church can look on a bright and sunny day.
By this time everyone wanted to go home, so sadly we didn’t make it into the lovely Fox Tor Cafe for tea and cake and a warm up by the fire…
But on the way back to Moretonhampstead we did call in at Powdermills Pottery where my visitors had a good look around the fantastic range of local arts and crafts on sale (gallery and cafe open winter weekends only until Easter: photo obviously not taken last weekend!).
So there you have it: even on a grey, damp and rather dismal day there’s much to see and do, and fun to be had, in Dartmoor’s highest settlement. A great place to take newcomers to the moor.
Dartmoor Magazine is 30 years old!
I don’t usually write about social events in this blog – and I really don’t like ‘social pages’ in any magazine – but I need to make an exception on this occasion. Yesterday David and I hosted Dartmoor Magazine’s 30th birthday cream tea party at the White Hart Hotel, Moretonhampstead.
We were overwhelmed and extremely gratified by the number of acceptances we received. Karen Kitshoff and her team at the White Hart rose to the occasion and provided around 65 guests with the most fabulous scones, jam and cream which were enjoyed by all, as was the celebratory fruit cake (above).
There was a constant loud buzz of conversation throughout the afternoon as Dartmoor people – and some contributors who travelled to the event from outside the county – enjoyed putting names to faces and/or catching up with each other. It really did feel like a meaningful reunion of people who love and work for Dartmoor in a myriad of different ways and areas. I wish we could have asked more people, but there had to be a cut-off point somewhere.
‘Unaccustomed as I am’ to public speaking, I gave a brief history of the magazine and thanked everyone who works so hard to make it happen. It’s a very big job but I get a huge amount of support from a number of people for which I am extremely grateful.
Finally Elisabeth Stanbrook (founder and original editor of Dartmoor Magazine) and I cut the cake. Several people were sent home with ‘doggy bags’ for the family!
A huge thank you to everyone involved with Dartmoor Magazine, to the White Hart, and to Julia Wherrell for taking the photos.
Across the moor with Dartmoor pack ponies
Earlier this week I joined one day of the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust’s 100-mile Pack Pony Challenge on their trek from Yardworthy, just off Chagford Common, to Tor Royal, south of Princetown: a hefty 15 miles. The team – Sam Goodwin with ponies Jasmine and Billy, Dru Butterfield of DPHT, and Dartmoor guide Paul Rendell (accompanied by a number of willing volunteers) – are spending a week traversing the moor via the four Dartmoor stannary towns of Ashburton, Chagford, Tavistock and Plympton, raising the profile of the Trust’s work in supporting the Dartmoor pony.
From Yardworthy we picked up a track across Chagford Common and then the northern slopes of Water Hill. Paul has devised the whole route to make the most of ancient moorland tracks, and we were soon following an old packhorse route between Chagford and Plymouth (red deer seen not far from the boundary of Fernworthy Forest). We paused for a moment by the clapper bridge over the leat that once took water from the East Dart waterfall to Golden Dagger Mine (just below the Warren House Inn). Paul proved to be a veritable mine of information throughout the day!
Then it was across Merripit Hill and down the road into Postbridge for a photo call by the clapper bridge: even the sun obliged by appearing from behind the morning’s clouds. The team is being well looked after along the way, with regular brief stops for food and drink supplied by the support team. We were also filmed along the way by Phillipa Waddell, and photographed at every possible moment by Kathy Tipping!
From Postbridge the ponies scaled a set of broad steps easily; lovely views back towards the bridge en route to our next stop Bellever YHA, where we were treated to a delicious lunch supplied by warden Maria Bailey. Ponies rested and packs checked, we were soon off again through Bellever Forest.
A beautiful route across across open ground took us due south of Laughter Tor to the road near Brimpts, then along the pretty West Dart for a brief pause to gather breath at Hexworthy.
The final stretch took us first across the new Fairy Bridge over the Swincombe, where the ponies managed to ford the river with ease.
And then it was along the old Tavistock to Ashburton (TA) packhorse route and the Conchies Road, built by conscientious objectors from Dartmoor Prison in World War I, to Tor Royal Farm where Sam set up camp with his ponies and dogs for the night. The late afternoon light as we crossed Royal Hill was stunning.
Finally – two very tired canine companions! For more on the Pack Pony Challenge (which will finish this Friday) visit www.dpht.co.uk (daily updates and photo posts). Many thanks to all involved for letting me walk with you for the day: it was fabulous.
Signs of autumn in the Wray Valley
Home after 10 days in Scotland and autumn has certainly got into her stride while I’ve been away. Yesterday I made the most of this amazing spell of weather and walked home from Bovey Tracey (car service) to Moretonhampstead via the pretty village of Lustleigh alongside woodland and hedgerows laden with conkers, acorns, cobnuts, holly berries, sloes and blackberries… and spotting autumnal colour taking over many of the valley’s trees.
I started along the old railway line through the Parke estate, emerging onto the lane below Knowle via the recently extended southern section of the Wray Valley Trail. Spotted a number of cyclists and walkers enjoying the beautiful morning too.
Along the Knowle road towards Wreyland there are lovely views across the meadows and orchards towards Lustleigh.
Dartmoor Magazine has a new sales outlet here too: The Dairy (the excellent village shop and post office)!
For a change I took the quiet top lane north out of the village via Hammerslake and past the drive to South Harton Farm, where an old cross (once split, but repaired) is set into the wall.
Once past Sanduck I took a path down the valley side towards Steward, with great views towards Mardon Down (see above) and across the fields to Moretonhampstead.
Next week many of the articles and photos for the winter issue should be in, and the chance of a morning off walking will disappear. I had a great time away, but it’s good to be home!
Friends old and new at Widecombe Fair
There’s already been a lot on social media this week about the 165th Widecombe Fair… and here’s some more! It was a brilliant day and thoroughly enjoyed by all. The weather behaved and the crowds poured in for a long day of varied entertainment. The above photo shows the green during set-up on the previous afternoon: the stalls on the green and in the car park are run separately from all the traditional Dartmoor activities that can be seen on the showfield nearby.
The Dartmoor Magazine gazebo was busy from start to finish, selling new subscriptions and back issues, and draw tickets, and discussing all things Dartmoor with visitors and locals alike. Such chats are always a good indicator of how people feel the magazine is going, and a source of new ideas and future plans. We do listen to constructive criticism! We were also very well situated near the top pedestrian entrance opposite West Webburn Llamas (and alpacas) so had plenty to watch during brief quieter spells.
I managed a couple of circuits of the field and came across several old magazine friends…
‘Tich’ Scott of Proper Dartmoor Tours, proudly displaying his musical Widecombe Fair mug, purchased during a canal trip in the Midlands!
Lewis Steer of Lily Warne Wool with his champion Greyface Dartmoor ram (article in next spring/summer magazine).
Simon Hodgkiss, hiding away in his gazebo and selling his wonderful Dartmoor photos. Simon will be featured in the spring 2016 issue.
Busy times at the Dartmoor Preservation Association stand.
Had a good chat with DNPA’s Moor than meets the eye’s Andy Bailey and Chrissy Mason (see autumn issue In the News re Chrissy’s tour of the Postbridge haymeadows earlier in the summer).
Charlotte Faulkner’s wonderful Dartmoor Hill Pony Display Team entertained the crowds in the main ring.
Frantic activity in the sheep shearing championship…
… and in the beer tent, where a variety of excellent musicians performed through out the day. And (almost) finally…
Wonderful to hear (and see) Tony Beard behind the mike all day. Here he is with a bottle of Dartmoor Brewery’s limited edition ‘Old Wag’ beer.
Many, many thanks to everyone involved in putting on such a fabulous day. Roll on Tuesday 13 September 2016!
Away day to the northern Quantocks
Sometimes it’s good to take a break from Dartmoor and enjoy a different landscape: we are blessed with such a fantastic range of opportunities in the southwest. And one of the joys of writing walking routes for various magazines – in this case Exmoor the country magazine – is the fact that I’m ‘allowed’ to go exploring. For Exmoor my area extends all the way from Ilfracombe in the west to the Quantocks in the east (and south to the edge of Devon’s heartland), giving me a wonderful range of different landscapes to work with. And so it was a week ago that I went with John Diplock from Spirit of Adventure (Powdermills) and his Free Spirit group to re-walk a Quantocks route I devised a year or so ago. As you can see below, the weather as we ascended Hodder’s Combe and gained the Quantock ridge (around 1000ft above sea level) was less than kind…
But suddenly the cloud lifted and the views up the Somerset coast lifted somewhat dampened spirits. The temperature rose and waterproofs came off as the sun came out and we slid our way towards the Bristol Channel coast, with lovely views back across late-summer fields.
This 10-mile route enjoys both the lofty heights of the Quantocks and also the fields and quiet lanes between the northern end of the ridge and the sea. It also encounters an extraordinary run of historic buildings in less than a mile of walking. First comes the time-capsule village of East Quantoxhead, still home to a branch of the Luttrell family (of Dunster Castle fame) after 800 years, with its impressive late 15th-century Court House, simple stone church and tranquil duck pond.
A network of field paths leads from East Quantoxhead to Kilve and the way home, but the draw of an extra loop to take in the north Somerset coast here is strong. In glorious sunshine we accessed the coast path and marvelled at the extraordinary geology at Kilve Beach SSSI, where layers of fossil-embedded lias make good subjects for photographic study (described as ‘Kilve’s delightful shore’ by Wordsworth while staying with his sister Dorothy at Alfoxden [Alfoxton] House in 1797, passed on the way back to Holford and the start of the walk).
We bade goodbye to the coast has the sky darkened once more and a thunderstorm drenched us on our way past the late 13th century church at Kilve and the ruined Chantry, dating from 1329 and said to have been once used for storing smuggled goods. Wet fields and muddy woodland tracks took us back to our starting point at Holford, tired but happy!
Heather – and Hameldown memories
We’re well into August, and the heather is out on the moor. Bell heather, ling and – in damper spots – patches of cross-leaved heath. I was up on Hameldown last week (good heathery walls by the Natsworthy path!) for a very special occasion: the first visit to the RAF Memorial by the descendants of one of the crew of four who lost their lives at the spot (the pilot died in Moretonhampstead Hospital the following day) when their Hampden Bomber crashed in March 1941.
We were also accompanied by Fred Hill (93) who flew Hampden Bombers from the same Lincolnshire base as ‘The Boys’ (as the lost airmen came to be known), just a few months after they died. Fred had an extraordinarily distinguished career as a WWII fighter pilot and was awarded the DFC. The images below show the Wilson family et al at the memorial stone, and Fred with Tony Beard, examining a ring made from Perspex taken from the crash site all those years ago. The two clearly enjoyed meeting each other and sharing reminiscences.
The story of ‘The Boys’ and one man’s personal mission to find out about the lives of the crew is related in the autumn issue of Dartmoor Magazine. John Lowe has worked tirelessly over the last few years and it is down to his endeavours that the investigation of the crash site featured on the BBC’s Countryfile programme in September 2014, and that last week’s event took place. He even arranged for a salute from a WWII Auster while we were there: a moving moment, especially for Fred.
If you want to read more please buy a copy of the autumn issue, which will hit the shelves just before the Bank Holiday weekend: it’s an intriguing story and yet another part of Dartmoor’s fascinating and varied history.
And for me an excuse to get out on the moor – albeit on a disappointingly dull August morning – and enjoy the company of some very special people (and the heathery hedge banks!).
The show season looms!
The 2015 show season is about to start in earnest! Dartmoor Magazine has a pretty packed programme this summer: do come and say hello if you happen to be passing. It’s Dartmoor Folk Festival (www.dartmoorfolkfestival.org.uk)at South Zeal this coming weekend (we’ll be in the Crafts Marquee on Saturday and Sunday), a wonderful time of traditional music, singing and dance in a beautiful setting. Next we’re taking the gazebo to Harrowbeer 1940s Weekend on 15 and 16 August: a must for anyone interested in military history and a spot of World War II nostalgia.
On 20 August we’ll be in the gazebo at the popular and long-standing Chagford Show, on 29 August (a new one for us) at Sampford Spiney and Walkhampton Sheepdog Trials (a good chance to get some photos to support an article on the subject commissioned for 2016), and on 5 September at the Nourish Festival in Bovey Tracey. And finally we’ll be at good old Widecombe Fair on Tuesday 8 September, where I always particularly enjoy visiting the local produce tent…
… as well as watching the livestock classes, of course!
Last weekend I caught sight of South Zeal’s Tinners Morris on an away day at Sidmouth Folk Festival: no doubt brushing up their skills on the seafront before coming back to the Dartmoor this weekend! Sidmouth was awash with music and colour and sunshine: a wonderful place to while away a Sunday in festival season.
Exmoor ramblings… and Dartmoor deliveries
I seem to have been all over the place this week. On Monday I drove 170 miles in all: starting with Horner Wood on Exmoor where I had to work out a walk for next summer’s issue of Exmoor: the country magazine. A good route but muggy, damp and sticky… the sun wasn’t out for long and I got very wet under dripping trees in the valley of the Horner Water. Still, a lovely day out in all, followed by a drive along the beautiful coast road west to Lynmouth before dropping down to Barnstaple for an interview on ‘The Voice’, North Devon’s local radio station, about my new Two Moors Way/Devon Coast to Coast book.
Much of the week has been taken up with editing features for the autumn issue, and on Wednesday I loaded about 4o pages’ worth of words and images into Dropbox for Emily to start the layout. A great relief, but I still have about the same amount to sort out!
Yesterday saw me on the road again. First to Manaton to pick up some printed DM indexes from Darren at Moor Print: quick, efficient and friendly service just a few miles from the DM office. Bit of a grey morning, but cottages on the Green, and the church, looking as lovely as ever.
Then it was off the the Highwayman Inn at Sourton (photo needed for an ad in the upcoming issue: the pub is also covered in Robert Hesketh’s next feature on Dartmoor’s inn signs and names), and top-ups of stock of the summer issue at Lydford Farm Shop and Mary Tavy PO, two of our much-appreciated 60+ sales outlets in the area.
Next port of call was the Royal Standard at Mary Tavy, base for the autumn Walk & Eat feature (see photo below); then I called in to see Lisa Jenkins, owner of Dartmoor Accommodation. My day ended with a wonderful drive back home across the moor (was supposed to picking up the books that John Earle near Widecombe has reviewed for the autumn issue, but ran out of time!). Today I’ve been keeping out of the rain, hard at it editing features and news items.
And so ends another busy week in the DM office…
A good week for Dartmoor's hay meadows
I’ve been immersing myself in hay meadows this week. On Monday I went on a ‘Moor than meets the eye’ hay meadow walk with ecologist Chrissy Mason: an exploration of some of the beautiful traditional hay meadows around Postbridge. Extremely informative, and some pretty hard-hitting facts and figures divulged: nationally 97 percent of our hay meadows were lost during the 20th century. Dartmoor has an impressive 450ha remaining, and those around Postbridge are particularly special (no public access). We were privileged to be allowed into three meadows belonging to Beechwood B&B: awash with common spotted and greater butterfly orchids, common catsear, ox-eye daisies, hay rattle… and to top it all off very nicely we finished with a delicious cream tea in the garden at Beechwood!
Coincidentally on the same day I received an exciting press release from the Devon Wildlife Trust announcing the leasing of a new nature reserve in the area: Bellever Moor and Meadow, close to the Bellever youth hostel. Described as ‘a patchwork of traditional hay meadows, wet grassland and moorland’ this 70ha site will be open to the public all year round. A fantastic asset for visitors to this part of the moor.
The following day I went to Brook Manor at Holne to meet Kevin and Donna Cox, instigators of the new Moor Meadows group (see In the News of the summer issue of the magazine). Their beautiful house overlooks an extensive and traditional hay meadow, which they have restored over the last ten years (Kevin will be writing a feature on Dartmoor’s hay meadows for the summer 2016 issue). Following on from the inaugural Moor Meadows meeting held in Scorriton in April, a Yahoo group has been set up: to find out more, get advice, learn how to create a meadow and so on visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/meadowexchange/join or send an email to email@example.com.
Away day to Widecombe in the Moor
After several days stuck in the barn deep in a complicated edit, by Thursday last week I had to get out for a bit of ‘work’ R&R. So I took a trip to Widecombe (a lovely drive across the moor via Grimspound, though on that morning in monsoon-like conditions). I confess that I rarely stop in Widecombe in summer, unless passing through on foot, but it’s a place really worth spending some time in. Apart from the historical and legendary aspects (such as tales of the Devil and the ‘Great Thunderstorm’ in the 17th century) and the world-renowned Widecombe Fair (Tuesday 8 September this year) there are great places to eat and lots to see.
The Cafe on the Green (a tearoom since 1926) has recently been taken over by Edward and Liz Corwood, and has been given a real makeover! It’s fresh, bright and spacious: the interior decor colour palette has been carefully selected to reflect the natural hues of granite, lichen, berberis and copper beech that can be seen through the windows. It’s capacious, too: 110 covers inside and 120 in the garden overlooking St Pancras Church. You’ll receive a warm welcome, and I felt a real buzz of enthusiasm running through the staff and building (and the food looked delicious too). Go and see for yourself next time you’re there. (Edward also told me how welcome they had been made to feel in the village, and that Tony Beard had shown him some postcards of The Cafe in years gone by: look carefully at the one below and you can see a charabanc, back in the days when tourists arrived by train at Bovey Tracey and were then taken on a tour of the moor.) The autumn issue of Dartmoor Magazine will have more about The Cafe and planned future events.
Next I went to the National Trust’s 16th-century Church House to take a look round Widecombe Craft Market, held here once a week (pretty much) for 30 years. Rob Hutchinson of www.dartmoorphotos.co.uk shows his work there, and had recently reminded me of the market’s existence (I had been meaning to revisit for ages). And it is well worth it: a great selection of handmade products from a variety of Devon and Dartmoor crafters: perfect for presents (or a spot of self-indulgence). Basketry, jewellery, ironwork, knitwear, leather and linen items (and the ‘Old Forks Home…’, recycled cutlery!): a lovely place to spend an hour, and in a seriously historic building. Every Thursday 10.30am–4.30pm (starting in May: last one this year 15 October).
I also hadn’t visited the National Trust’s new gallery at Sexton’s Cottage next door since it was revamped. The old ‘bookshop’ area upstairs has been transformed into a beautifully lit gallery space where you will find a wonderful range of items on sale, mostly from Dartmoor. But what caught my eye came from a pottery in Bideford, the last in the country to be producing traditional cider jugs. Harry Juniper has been potting for 67 years, and his son and daughter are now involved in the business: Sexon’s Cottage is the only gallery where his work is on sale. His work is grounded in the North Devon 17th-century pottery tradition, using rich red earthenware clay and yellow lead glaze, and sgraffito decoration. (Another nice thing about the gallery is that there is information about each maker clearly displayed).
When I emerged from Sexton’s Cottage the downpour had stopped and the sun was shining, perfect for a drive via Dartmeet to Tavistock Pannier Market, my next port of call. Not a bad ‘work’ day all in all!