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.

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36 Responses to “A squelchy backpack across north Dartmoor”

  1. I always imagine Dartmoor to be wonderfully atmospheric and your photos certainly endorse that. Those stone circles look great – could just imagine camping near one, reading some spooky novel in the evening……
    And it’s a wonder Reuben hasn’t been approached yet by some talent scout for a doggie modelling agency 🙂

    • The moor is a very atmospheric place Chrissie. It is full of Stone circles, standing stones, crosses etc. A real feel of history about the place. Reuben is a handsome devil eh? He is game to pose for the odd photo!

  2. Great stuff. I enjoyed that.
    Cheers, Alen McF

  3. I’m itching to get back to Dartmoor. Shame you couldn’t camp at Teignhead Farm. Brilliant place to camp. I had it all to myself earlier in the year 🙂

    • It’s a perfect place to backpack Robin, the best way to get into the heart of the moor. I was disappointed that I could not camp at Teignhead farm as that pitch looked perfect. Damn bovine beasts!

  4. Lovely post, grand pics inspite of the murky conditions. I liked the line about the coos hanging around Hound Tor like teenagers in bus shelter. Do you remember a film from days of yore entitled The Belstone Fox/

    • Thank you Dr Edwards. I don’t remember the film ‘The Belstone Fox’ but am just about to look it up…………..

  5. great trip report and I love the Grey Withers, very atmospheric. I reckon Dartmoor is at its best in the conditions you had, moody, atmospheric with lots of contrasts

    • The stone circle dedicated to Bill Withers is a grand spot indeed, I can imagine it being very atmospheric at dusk when the mist rolls in. In retrospect I had excellent conditions for a weekend on the moor, it was never dull. However at the time I would have been much happier with warm sunshine and just a gentle breeze!

  6. Cracking trip James, looks like a lovely, lonely area for some spiritual communion. I have fond memories of Dartmoor from my childhood. Never walked the hills but loved the Clapper Bridges and the tors – I used to love climbing Haytor. I must get around to some walking there or on Bodmin Moor (ever been there?). I was backpacking last week in the Moelwyns and the weather was pretty damp there as well! (post to follow later this week)

    • Thanks Andy. It was suprisingly quiet on the moor, after the ten tors has finished must be the time to go. Never been to Bodmin moor but looking at pictures it looks a nice wild place, although much smaller in scale than Dartmoor. look forward to reading about the Moelwyns, my favourite place in Wales.

  7. Lovely pics of a notoriously difficult to photograph place. It brings back memories of 40 years of walking there and my work for the DPA. Incidentally, the Belstone Fox is actually set in Northamptonshire, was filmed on Exmoor. The author David Rook (he also wrote the Dartmoor novel Run Wild, Run Free) lived on the Moor before his early death, so used the place name.

    • Thanks Stravaigerjohn, apart from the tors there is not alot to focus your camera on when walking the moors. Good job Reuben is such a good model! It must have been great to work for the park authority?

  8. Great report and photos James. LOL at Reuben marking his territory, dogs eh you gotta love ’em. You are right about the it being a bleak and lonely place when the cloud comes in, really does test the nav when that happens. It brings back some good memories of Dartmoor, about time I went back there I think.

    • Cheers Phil. Reuben managed to mark most of the north moor as his territory, I’ll have to take him back so that he can patrol it! I did have a GPS with me which does provide a huge security blanket when the mist rolls in, although I only use to to confirm I am where I think I am. Thankfully I was…….

  9. Maybe the people were searching for (and looking at) a letterbox or geocache? I think Dartmoor is the only real place that letterboxes exist. (they’re like geocaches but you follow written clues and a map rather than a sat-nav!). I’ve got books filled with letterbox stamps from tramping around Dartmoor in my childhood!
    Lovely photos.

    • Hi Rachel. I did wonder if they were letterboxing, although if they were it appears to be a long and time consuming business locating them! Thanks for your comment.

  10. James – I lived near Grey Wethers for a while – my top stone circle in England – when are you in Sweden, which is where we are now? As ever a great post there James.

    • A brilliant stone circle it is Warren, very atmospheric and worth the slosh across the moors. I will be in stockhom on the 18th August, will you still be in the country then?

      • James – Hope to be in Finland by then. You had a tent that you could not get on with. I think I may have the same problem with our new Xped tent. I just do not sleep well in it – this is a big problem. Happy travels James.

      • Hope that you enjoy Finland Warren. I did have a tent that I did not get on with, it was a laser comp. Shame that you are not getting on well with your new Xped, any reason why you do not sleep well in it?

      • I can not get the inner tent tight – flaps around and touches my head. I think it may be 1cm too wide. Twisted the holding straps to tension today. Why am I 1.92m? If I can sort that the tent is wonderful.

  11. I enjoyed reading that James. Very atmospheric. You did extremely well considering the weather.
    It’s a lovely area.

    • Thanks Alan. I was gagging to get into the hills that weekend so just took what the weather threw at me!

  12. I think you did well with the conditions and the images there considering the weather stream. It all looks quite different with the grass green, I did my Dartmoor backpacks earlier in the year in Spring to avoid the people and the landscape was straw-coloured. Pretty grim and quite challenging in clag and rain I remember thinking, a good 9 on the squelchometer after the recent deluge I would imagine.

    • When my partner saw my photos Geoff she said that my trip looked sunny. I just did not take any photos when the weather was grim! The plus side to the weather being mobile is that it was very changeable with great light and shadows on the hills at times. Very atmospheric. A big change from the straw coloured hills you mention, the grass is long and lush at this time of year.

      At least 11 on the squelchometer to be honest. Glad I had trail shoes so no worries about trying to keep my feet dry……………..

  13. James , I enjoyed your report, Weather has tested everyone this year, although by some luck I have avoided the worst of it so far- but with the weather patterns this summer, I am sure my luck will run out, Very many years since I walked in this area and has very much it’s own character.

    • Thanks Mark. Fingers crossed that summer will make an appearance before too long. I’m sure we all need a few weeks of sunshine to get those vitamin D levels up. Dartmoor is well worth a return.

  14. I’ll have a close look at this as I am going to spend some days between xmas and new year on the moor. Will then join family in South Devon for new year. Despite spending childhood holidays in Devon I’ve only been on on Dartmoor once!

    • Dartmoor is a great place to go for a backpack. I think that what is has going against it for me is the distance needed to travel there. Add 100 miles and go in the opposite direction and I can be in the Southern Scottish Highlands. Lots of good wild camping spots.

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