Archive for July 8th, 2012

July 8, 2012

A squelchy backpack across north Dartmoor

by backpackingbongos

This was a hastily put together backpack with only a couple of days notice.  I had planned to be in the Highlands but a lousy weather forecast ended that plan.  The south-west appeared to the best bet for respite from the rain with the promise of a dry forecast.  In the end I did experience a bit of sun but overall the weekend was much damper than anticipated.  I discovered that Dartmoor can be a bleak and foreboding place when the mist blankets the moors, which it often did with considerable speed.

Day 1 – 9 miles with 540 metres ascent

Deweys:  Cosdon hill 550 metres,  Steeperton hill 532 metres,  Hangingstone hill 603 metres

Belstone is one of those rare places which has a large free car park with no overnight restrictions.  One of the difficulties of backpacking in the hills is finding somewhere suitable to leave the car overnight.  Therefore Belstone should be congratulated on being backpacker friendly.

I have to admit that I was pretty tired after a 5 hour drive down the motorway and my desire to carry a pack over the moors had diminished somewhat.  Reuben on the other hand had enjoyed a long snooze on the backseat, so was eager to get moving.  He has now come to realise that wearing his panniers mean good times ahead, so now lets me put them on without trying to back away.  We were soon walking through the village which was pleasantly traffic free, another bonus from providing visitors with somewhere free to park.  Reuben provided entertainment for the few people out and about in the village, a dog carrying his own kit still obviously a rare sight.

A path led steeply down hill to a bridge over the River Taw, followed by an ascent up the other side of the valley.  Our first objective was the summit of Cosdon hill, which on the map does not have a direct path marked to its summit.  I ended up taking a bit of a convoluted route initially along a path that contoured above the Taw valley until it eventually disappeared.  Walking off path on the lower slopes was tough going with low prickly gorse hidden among the lush summer grass.  I was glad to find an outcrop of boulders to sit awhile and dig out my waterproofs to fend off a shower approaching from the west.

It was a bit of a dull trudge to the huge cairn on the summit of Cosdon hill.  This provided a bit of shelter from a heavy shower whilst the bottom of a cloud briefly enveloped us.  To the west, the higher summit of Yes Tor was firmly stuck in the clouds where it would remain for the rest of the day.

We followed a well-defined path down the southern slopes of the hill, the huge open expanses of the north moor rolling towards a cloud covered horizon.

Progress was rapid and we passed a stone circle I had not noticed on the map, a point of reference on such a large open landscape.

One of the overriding impressions of the weekend was the sound of the wind blowing through the long green grass.  I have only ever visited Dartmoor in autumn or winter when the moor is covered in every shade of brown.  In summer it is surprisingly green and lush, swirling eddies causing patterns to ripple across its surface.

I felt it only apt to taken Reuben to Hound Tor but on closer inspection it was clearly off-limits.  A gang of cows had taken up residence, like teenagers in a village bus shelter.  With a dog in tow I felt it best to give them a wide berth.

We left the main path and descended to Steeperton brook, an oasis of calm sheltered from the wind.  It was an easy climb to the summit of Steeperton Tor which was occupied by a herd of ponies and a tiny foal sheltering next to the army observation post.  The view to the south had become even bleaker, Hangingstone hill our next destination hidden in the murk.

Luckily a firm track took me almost to the summit as I was soon walking through heavy wind-driven rain, thick mist reducing visibility to a few metres.  In the rubbish conditions the summit which is adorned by an army hut was a bleak and uninviting spot and I did not linger.  I mistakenly could not be bothered to take a compass bearing and soon found myself floundering through a marshy area south of the summit.  I turned due east and picked up a path through the worst of the terrain before finding the remains of a Peat pass.  I soon had to leave this and head into the mist across rough, boggy and tussocky terrain.  I was relieved to come to the wall marked on the map where I could just make out the tops of the trees surrounding the ruins of Teignhead farm.

The going continued to be tough until just above the farm and I was looking forward to seeking shelter there and pitching my tent.  Robin had found a great spot there on his backpack across Dartmoor and it was somewhere I was keen to wild camp.  I was therefore extremely dismayed to discover that a large herd of cows with calves in tow had occupied the area, the air full of their bellowing.  There were also a couple of tents bravely pitched in the exact spot I was after. There was no way that I was going to risk camping near cows, especially with a dog.  Feeling wet and bedraggled I filled up with water from Manga brook and headed up Manga hill in the hope of finding somewhere to pitch the Trailstar.  After half an hour of trudging about I settled on a spot that was passable, although rather exposed and windy.

Reuben was told to wait whilst I pitched and he looked on like I was the worst owner a dog could possibly have.  With shelter finally provided he took to his mat with a big sigh and did his best to ensure that I knew he was not very happy with the whole camping in the wind and rain thing.

It was a noisy night with the rain hammering on the nylon a few inches from my head.  I was glad that I had re-sealed some of the upper seams which had stretched with use.  I was pleased that the Trailstar provided such a stable shelter in an exposed position in some pretty nasty conditions.

Day 2 – 9.7 miles with 410 metres ascent

Deweys:  Cut hill 604 metres

I received a text from Corrina informing me that it would be a dry and sunny morning before showers developed later that afternoon.  I read the text in the morning whilst the rain continued to hammer down!  I festered for a while until the sun made a brief but welcome appearance and I exited to take in my surroundings and get a few photos.  Reuben took the opportunity to do what dogs do.

Rain soon had us diving for cover and I cooked and packed whilst waiting for the next sunny interlude.  The day ended up being one of fleeting sunshine in-between some very hefty showers, mist quickly enveloping the hills.  It felt like the conditions changed every few minutes, a day when by the time you managed to get your waterproofs off it would start raining again.  I ended up keeping them on all day.

Packed up I looked down upon Teignhead farm and noticed that the cows had dispersed across the lush pastures making me glad that I had not camped in the vicinity.

Crossing the North Teign river I followed a bridleway with excellent views back towards the ruin.  It must have been a very isolated place to live.

The Grey Wethers stone circle is rather impressive and I reached it just as the sun came out.  This lead me to re-naming it the ‘Bill Withers’ stone circle due to the fact that I found myself humming along to the tune ‘lovely day’……………..

I had originally planned on bagging White Ridge which is a Dewey but from a distance could see that it was already occupied by cows and their calves.  Therefore we headed directly to the top of Sittaford Tor with its extensive views.

Although not marked on the map a path leads directly to the ruin of Statts House on Winney’s Down.  This path crosses an area where a stream runs through an extensive boggy area.  There was a disconcerting moment where I was walking on quaking ground, a raft of vegetation floating on water.  If you stood still for long enough you would slowly sink and possibly never be seen again!  On the other side of the bog we suddenly found ourselves standing between a young foal and its mother.  I quickly leashed Reuben as the foal made a whinny sound and trotted a huge circle around us to get to its mother.  She continued grazing as if we were not there.

Thankfully the path up to Statts house was firm and dry, Reuben immediately seeking shelter behind one of the ruined walls.  It was a good spot to pause out of the wind for a while and watch the clouds racing across the sky.

Our next destination was the summit of Cut Hill which looked brooding in the distance.  We sloshed across the moor and descended to the marshy banks of the East Dart river.  With already saturated trail shoes it was easy enough to simply wade across, no worries about trying to keep my feet dry.  We followed Cut Hill water upstream for a few metres and found a boulder that provided shelter from the wind.  An ideal spot to sit for a while and get the Jetboil out to make coffee and cook lunch.

We followed the stream for a while before striking up across rough ground towards the unseen North West Passage.  During the climb we intersected two backpackers who were making their way between Okehampton and Princetown.  It was quite strange passing others in such a remote spot, like two tiny boats passing on a huge ocean.  They commented that I was heading into bad weather, the sky ahead quickly darkening and looking bruised and angry.  A beer at the Plume of feathers where they were planning to camp seemed to be spurring them along!

I continued plodding up Cut Hill and probably more through luck than skill managed to locate the old Peat pass, marked by a plaque on a stone.  At that moment the weather came in, visibility dropping rapidly and heavy rain blown along on a strong wind.  It was an unpleasant trudge to the top of the desolate hill.  On the summit the rain continued with particular vigour, hard enough to be felt through my waterproofs.  Poor old Reuben did not know what to do with himself.  An unhappy little dance, a whimper then he attempted to make himself as small as possible against the soggy onslaught.

On the way to Fur Tor the rain stopped and the mist lifted.  Being a dog, Reubens misery was soon forgotten and he was once again trotting along happily with his tail wagging.  The ground between Cut Hill and Fur Tor was particularly rough and boggy and it took what felt like an age to reach the collection of rocky tors.

The effort was worth it however, what a spot!  Fur Tor has got to be once of the wildest places on Dartmoor, a real feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.  An isolated hard to reach place.  A couple of backpackers were sheltering behind the main tor when I arrived and I chatted with them for a while.  Unfortunately their small terrier took a disliking to Reuben so I had to relocate to another tor to seek shelter.  I spent a while wandering around and taking photos.  I will have to return one day for a wild camp as it’s a truly magical place.

The northern slopes were pretty rocky by Dartmoor standards, although progress was quick down the short-cropped grass.  Cut Combe water was a pleasant grassy bowl with plenty of wild camping spots available.  I pushed on however as I planned to spend the night at Lints Tor.

After Little Kneeset the going became rough and boggy once more.  The grassy moor was saturated and it was like walking on a huge soggy mattress.  With dark clouds racing past it was pretty glorious in its grimness!

We descended towards Brim Brook at the point where it turns north.  I had not given its crossing much thought to be honest as it is a small stream on the map.  However all the rain over the past couple of days had turned it into a raging torrent.  Using my poles it was evident that it was waist deep in places, the sheer force of the water making any attempt at crossing potentially lethal.  The source of the stream was only a mile or so away so we headed along its bank on the look out of any potential crossing points.  A few hundred metres upstream it split and we got across the first crossing, although still with some difficulty.  The main channel was then tricky to approach across saturated bogs and I lurched about through the reeds and tussocks.  Finally we got across and it was a short splash across the moor to Lints Tor.

There was not much shelter to be had but I managed to find a pitch on a flattish bit of ground wedged between two of the largest cow pats I have ever seen.  A further weather update text from Corrina promised a sunny evening.  However Dartmoor had different plans and the rain continued to fall in heavy showery bursts throughout the night.  Reuben however did get a treat and was allowed to curl up with me inside the Oooknest, rather than being relegated to his mat in the porch.

Day 3 – 6.5 miles with 230 metres ascent

A brief sunny interlude in the morning gave me a few minutes to pop out of the Trailstar and take some photos.  I had spotted Lints Tor during my week on Dartmoor the previous year and I had earmarked it as a wild camp spot.  It was an excellent location, unfortunately let down by the less than clement weather.

Once again within seconds the weather deteriorated and I dived back into my shelter.  The surrounding hills were quickly enveloped in a thick mist and the rain beat on the nylon above my head with renewed intensity.

As I was packing up inside the shelter I noticed four people on the opposite side of the valley walking aimlessly around Dinger Tor.  They were still there twenty minutes later when I had finished packing, the clouds chased away by strong sunshine.

Half an hour later as I reached Dinger Tor they were still on the hillside, all crouched in a circle looking intently at something on the ground.  I resisted the temptation to walk over and ask them what they were doing.  Dinger Tor marks the end of a track and I was soon making swift progress in an easterly direction, cutting across the grain of the land.

I left the track to start climbing Oke Tor and passed two ponies with their foals in a grassy sheltered hollow.

Oke Tor was a pleasant spot to sit for a while, its summit tor providing shelter from the wind.  Considering that it was a summer Sunday in a national park I was surprised at just how quiet the hills were.  If I had been in the Peak District the hills would have been busy come rain or shine.

A good firm path led directly to Belstone Tor and I could not resist stopping and looking back towards the large open bowl that holds Taw marsh.  From the lofty vantage point I could make out several spots along the river Taw that looked like they would make excellent wild camping pitches.

North from Belstone Tor the ground drops away steeply and it feels like most of Devon is at your feet.

Easy paths led quickly down to Belstone itself, still quiet even though it was Sunday lunchtime.  I was glad to get to the car and change out of my sodden footwear and filthy trousers.  Feeling tired after a weekend in the hills the long drive back up the M5 was less than appealing.