Daniel Groves

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Solo.

Published: 2 September 2015 · Tags: photography, dartmoor, backpacking

A backpacking journey across Dartmoor from Okehampton to the East Dart River and onwards to Yelverton.

It’s been a while since I last did any solo backpacking. You have to be careful when you’re doing these things on your own. Its easy to find yourself in areas where you won’t see anyone else; it starts to get lonely.

You also have to be one hundred percent confident in yourself. You need to trust your own ability to navigate. Your own ability to make it out the other side. Your own ability to get yourself out should things start to go wrong. There’s no sending your mate for help.

All of this comes with practice, confidence (which comes with practice) and a certain level of fitness (which comes with practice). Even so, I wanted to push myself over the bank holiday as well as access some more remote locations to shoot, and so I originally picked a long route from Okehampton (just north of Dartmoor) to Ivybridge (just south of Dartmoor) before establishing that the public transport links weren’t good enough over the bank holiday for such an ambitious plan.

Instead I chose a new end-point at Yelverton with a more reliable bus service, and arranged a lift to Okehampton for the start. Even this shortened route was just a tad over 40 km, which may not sound like much, but add a full backpacking load and a landscape photographers camera rig (to get an idea of what gear I carry take a look at my post on getting started backpacking) and you’re talking about some serious weight.

Prelude

It was dark as Luke and I walked in. We’d headed off from Plymouth around 19:30 having driven out to Peter Tavy with a plan of camping under White Tor. We’d missed the sunset, unfortunately, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

It’s always interesting walking in the dark. You see everything under a different light, the tors are nothing more than a silhouette, the trail seems to fade away under your eyes, and you can barely tell if a site is suitable to camp on or not.

We pitched up around 21:00, cooked dinner, and retired to our respective tents. This was nothing more than an excuse to spend a night in a tent.

The next morning we packed up and walked out quickly and efficiently. Luke was to proceed back home to Somerset, and agreed to drop me in Okehampton on the way through, the start of the real adventure.

Day One

I left Okehampton around 12:00. This was later than I’d hoped, but it didn’t really matter too much. Sunset wasn’t until 20:00 so I had a realistic seven-and-a-half hours to get to my destination for the day. I pushed hard out of Okehampton, wanting to try to make up for some of the lost time. It was hot, humid and there wasn’t even a small breeze; I was dripping before I was out of the town. I made good time up to the military training camp, and then continued on the road as far possible.

Just past the final carpark on the edge of the firing range near Okement Farm I started to notice my left heel was hurting. Not wanting this to turn into a blister I stripped my boot and sock off to find my under-sock was creased around the area and had pinched the skin underneath causing the pain. I don’t normally bother with an under-sock (I don’t know why I did on this occasion, either) so I removed both and stuck with my normal Bridgedale Trail socks that I normally use for longer backpacking days. For the rest of the day I used both of my Leki trekking poles to reduce the strain on my feet and prevent my heel getting any worse.

 alt: Looking back towards Okehampton around two hours into the first day.
Looking back towards Okehampton around two hours into the first day.

I didn’t really know what to expect of the trails and bridleways on north Dartmoor. On the south of the moor many of those marked on the Ordinance Survey map are non-existent on the ground; either claimed by the bogs or just so little-used that nature has taken them. I was pleasantly surprised on north-moor to find them to be mostly a mixture of concrete, gravel, and tarmac.

These conditions allowed for fast progress until I turned off the main route to head down to the River Taw and pick up the trail running alongside. This briefly slowed me as the rough trail into the valley was hard to follow, disappearing in places. Despite this it didn’t take long to reach the ford over the river.

It was at this ford that I met another couple heading out on a similar route to mine, ending at Fernworthy Forest. They’d left a little earlier than me and I bumped into them as they stopped to refill their water bottles. I took the opportunity to shoot the small set of waterfalls under the ford and to inspect my heel again and see how it was holding up. It was actually starting to look at little better, so I took that as a good sign when I pushed on aiming for Hangingstone Hill.

After Hangingstone Hill the trail was virtually non-existent. I made careful progress through the marsh to Whitehorse Hill, and then through the bracken to Quintins Man Cairn. This is right on the edge of the firing range, which happen to be extremely useful for navigation purposes. They’re marked on the OS maps, and surrounded by a set of white and red stripped poles around 10 ft. high. They stand out, and are easy to follow thanks to the maintenance quad-bike tracks that follow them. I followed these to the bottom of the firing range (involving an interesting experience attempting to jump over the meter-or-so wide Teign River, which is rather hard with a heavy backpack). From the end of these I headed to the top of Winney’s Down where I made a mental note of an old house ruin which would be suitable as a foreground for the sunset shoot if I couldn’t find anything else.

 alt: Ford Crossing on the River Taw
Ford Crossing on the River Taw

From the top of Winney’s Down I was aiming for Sandy Hole Pass on the East Dart River, about a kilometre west of the waterfall I was planning to shoot. I then proceeded to follow the river east until I came across the waterfall. It couldn’t have been any better as a location for the sunset shoot, I immediately forgot about the house ruin I’d seen earlier.

I setup camp about 200 meters east of the waterfall so as not to intrude on the others already setup near by. After a quick brew I grabbed the camera - with about an hour to go until sunset - and went and setup. 75 minutes later I’d just finished watching one of the best sunsets I’ve seen in a long time.

Day Two

I woke to the soft pattering of rain. I knew it wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded, it never is in a tent; but it’s always harder to get out of bed when it is raining. I felt surprisingly good given the number of miles, the pace I’d put down, and the sheer weight I’d been carrying the previous day.

As I’ve built more experience wild camping I’ve started doing a few things to make life easier in the morning. I leave a small carabiner clipped onto the door, as it’s more secure than the clip built into the door to hold it open. I leave a small pan already filled with water within easy reach of the inner tent, the flint sat on the lid. Finally, I leave breakfast next to it ready to go.

Despite the rain I clipped the door back, and lit the pre-heat on the stove, watching the rain drops quickly evaporate under the heat of burning petrol as the stove sizzled into life. As I heard the gas vapours making their way through to the main burner a quick turn of the fuel gauge lit the main burner. I disappeared back into the depths of my sleeping bag as the stove heated water through.

Just inside the inner tent my mug sat waiting, tea bag already in place. Once the water had been boiling long enough to kill any microbes and bacteria from the river I filled my mug and tipped the bag of beans into the pan for breakfast. This morning routine is just another part of a well-oiled process for me, allowing me to take onboard the energy I need for another hard day.

Once the motivation has been found to crawl out of my sleeping bag packing away doesn’t take long. I try to keep most things in their respective dry bags; it’s simply case of reassembling the jigsaw puzzle, something which can mostly be done in the shelter of the tent.

I started making towards Sandy Hole Pass. It was an easy point to orientate the map from, and I’d seen an easy point to cross the river heading the other way. Once up top I could see a long way ahead, so I picked out as many of the waypoints as possible that I’d chosen during a lunch break at work during the week.

 alt: An incredible sunset over the waterfalls of the East Dart River at the end of the first day
An incredible sunset over the waterfalls of the East Dart River at the end of the first day

I quite like using the tops of tors for navigation when the weather allows; you can normally see your next waypoint at some distance, the scenery is better, and it makes navigation a breeze using the surrounding tops to orientate yourself. Saying this, it’s still important to be able to navigate through the valleys in bad weather using only your compass because you can’t see more than 10 meters ahead – Dartmoor is particularly famous for these fogs.

I made pretty good time for the majority of the day given the rough terrain that is well off the beaten track, and that fact the my heel was now starting to cause me a little more grief. It was fine while I was on the flat or descending, but what started at the start of the day as a slight tingling was now causing noticeable discomfort. I was back to using both poles full-time in order to try and reduce the strain on it; the last thing I wanted was for it to get any worse while I was still in an area with no-signal and off the beaten track.

Despite the issues I was having I sat in the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown eating cake and drinking coffee by 14:00, having left my camping spot at 10:00 that morning. I sat there for the first few minutes googling the busses on my phone. I know the southwest corner of the moor rather well, so a walk out to Yelverton isn’t overly exciting via any route for me. With this in mind, and not wanting to make my foot any worse, I figured I may as well get a bus from Princetown if I could. With one scheduled half an hour later I asked a local if the bus still runs. This was a good idea as it turned out, with busses not running on Sundays.

With a bus an hour until gone 22:00 I had plenty of time to get down to Yelverton. Despite this, I didn’t see any point in hanging around anymore and so threw my bag back on and set off down the road. There are more exciting routes off, but sometimes you just wanted the most direct, and that’s exactly what I took. Much to my dismay, about 45–minutes after setting off the Princetown bus that I’d been told by a Princetown resident doesn’t run on Sundays drove straight past me.

A few hours later I was sat on the bus watching the Plymouth suburbs flicker by as we wove through the city towards town; just one short and painful walk from my flat.

Route Details

This is a long and strenuous route. It’s not to be taken lightly, and good navigation skills are a must. Much of the route is off the beaten track and will require compass based navigation should the weather turn for the worst. The first day is around 19km long and the second day is around 22km long.

You’ll be wanting OS Map OL28.

If you’re new to backpacking I recommend reading my getting started backpacking guide.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Luke Shackleton for dropping me at Okehampton, that saved much cursing of the public transport system. Secondly, thanks to Nick Charlton standing in as editor for this article, and for Jenny How from Visit Dartmoor for pointing out a few additional changes.