Daniel Groves

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Dartmoor and Exmoor Gathering

Published: 1 February 2016 · Tags: dartmoor, backpacking

Taking the hard route to the first Dartmoor and Exmoor Wild Camping gathering.

Most of the trips I write about here are the ones that go well; never focusing on the other end of spectrum where things go wrong, the whether turns for the worst, and where you’re made to suffer to reach your objectives. This latest trip wasn’t as extreme as some, I’ve done far worse, but it still makes for a stark contrast to the others I’ve written about here.

It was 9:00 as I stepped off the 46 bus in Lydford Gorge. As my boot made contact with the road a familiar pitter-patter of rain falling through leaves started, as if to welcome me on my latest adventure. It would have been nice to have a dry start, but I knew this would happen sooner or later with the forecast. I quickly donned my waterproofs, starting with my GoreTex jacket and trousers, before adding my gaiters over the top. For what is quite possibly the first time ever, I even remembered to pull the waterproof cover over my rucksack.

With the forecast being as bad as it was today, I might have saved this trip for another day if it wasn’t for the plan to meet up with a group from the Dartmoor and Exmoor Wild Camping group on High Willhays for the night.

I quickly headed up the road, having a nose around the 12th century castle before moving on. There wasn’t much to see; just the four walls of a tower which their started life as a prison before being converted to a castle in the mid-13th century. Moving on, I made good time to the car park situated behind the Dartmoor Inn, by which time the rain that had started out by greeting me had blown over, allowing me at least have the comfort of walking without waterproof trousers for a while.

I took a quick bearing to make sure I took the right track out of the carpark, and proceeded down the small lane to the footbridge over the River Lyd, stopping briefly to top-up my water having drunk most of it on the bus.

My next target, Widgery Cross situated on top of Brat Tor, was easy to spot as it stood above me. The ground moving up to it was steep, and soon led me above the level of the surrounding hills and into the full-force of the wind — the nearest obstacle being significantly further west on Bodmin Moor. I stopped for a few minutes to take some photos before packing everything back down and getting ready to move on to my next objective.

 alt: From Brat Tor looking across to Doe Tor and Sharp Tor.
From Brat Tor looking across to Doe Tor and Sharp Tor.

Just as I was about to shoulder my bag I looked up to the sound of rotor blades. A few seconds later a Sikorsky S-92 search and rescue helicopter appeared above my next objective, Great Links Tor. It circled the tor a few times before proceeding to hover for several minutes, and eventually — slowly — land just out of sight from where I was. I headed off walking towards at Great Links, wondering as I walked if it was a real rescue or a training exercise1. As I moved up the side of Great Links, following a small and unmarked footpath, I noticed the sound of the rotor blades intensify once again, looking up as the helicopter now flew straight over the top of me heading towards Plymouth.

 alt: Great Links Tor
Great Links Tor.

I continued upwards walking around the impressive tops of Great Links Tor before taking shelter at the far end, out of the wind. Here I took another look at the map, having decided to skip heading to Green Tor as I had originally intended; from what I could see it didn’t look like it would have much to offer photographically.

I headed for the disused railway line which used to run between Bridestowe railway station and the Rattlebrook Peatworks2. This railway line was used to transport the peat bricks from the peatworks, using horse-drawn carts, only upgrading to a converted petrol truck in its last days. Dartmoor is littered with such features, and the access tracks generally provide easy and fast access to the grounds of the old industrial works. The ruins offered some form of shelter, and with a fast-flowing stream nearby where I could get some water, I decided to use this spot for a lunch stop.

Things get a little harder after the old peatworks as the ground become saturated once again. The area is clearly well trafficked through with a mixture of old wooden planks and stepping stones at the worst areas which makes crossing the majority of the bogs relatively trivial, even with a full backpacking load. I can only imagine this area is where they used to cut the peat from, and the stones were used to allow the workers to move around while the planks are clearly newer additions.

On arrival at Kitty Tor I took shelter behind the military huts which occupy every tor with a firing-range danger flag. This made for a break from the winds which had begun to take on a bitter chill, lowering the temperature. Right on queue the snow started to fall, just as I was setting up the camera. This only lasted for a few seconds, but gave a promising sign that we would get good coverage from the incoming storm during the night.

 alt: Looking from Kitty Tor towards my final destination
Looking from Kitty Tor towards my final destination, High Willhays.

Getting to move on once again I spent a few minutes tightening my boots for the descent into the valley where I would cross the West Okement River at Sandy Ford. Taking a bearing of the ford to make sure I arrived at the river in the right place I picked a path and proceeded down the hill, taking care not to slip and risk injuring myself on the steep ground. As I neared the bottom I diverted around a particularly bouldery area, noticing that there was much easier ground to travel on off to one side.

As I approached the ford I quickly realised there was going to be a problem here — the river was flowing too high and too fast — I wasn’t going to be able to cross here. I decided to head upstream, I’d spotted a waterfall on the other side I wanted to have a look at while descending into the valley and hoped there might be somewhere nearby where I could cross; the river only got deeper. I continued further upstream hoping the river would narrow, or there would be some rocks I could use as stepping stones.

There was nothing; I pulled out the map, hopeful to find something useful.

I had two options. I could head south and hope the ground was dry enough to cross at the source of the river, and risk being forced back if it was too wet and too boggy. Alternatively, I could go north and cross using the footbridge over weir at Vellake Corner. This second option required covering over twice the distance to cross the river, but was a guarantee of crossing. From where I was I could clearly see that High Willhays was shrouded in fog, and so arriving in daylight was important if I was to find the group. I headed north, now using both walking poles to help keep the pace up.

I stuck close to the edge of the river where the ground was firmest. Before long I was passing the Black-a-Tor Copse nature reserve, and it was just past here where I spotted a group of five or six backpackers on the far bank. I suspected it at the time, and they later confirmed, it was once of the other parties heading up to High Willhays on the route I would later take.

It took around an hour to reach the footbridge at the weir, turning up in less style than I’d hoped as I slipped on the steep grass hillside while making my way down. I’d been forced higher up by the steep gradient near Shelstone Tor which was causing a pain through my ankle due to walking across a 45-degree angle for long periods of time. Thankfully no damage was done as my large rucksack took the worst of the fall, so I proceeded over the bridge before taking advantage of this final water source of the day to clean the mud from my hands and take on my maximum volume of water ready for making food and drinks at the camping spot.

Heading up the track back towards the nature reserve I was now carrying a full two kilograms more than I had started with at the beginning of the day, a volume I noticed very quickly. A couple of minutes later a lady stopped me and asked what I was doing. I told her I was walking from Lydford Gorge to High Willhays, only to be asked what I was training for. I told her this wasn’t training, and I did it for fun, leaving her with a look of disbelief on her face as she walked off.

I kept my pace fast, estimating another 90-minutes of guaranteed light with the fog higher up, and set myself a target of reaching High Willhays within an hour. It didn’t take long for the track to run out, where I had to head off piste. I picked a sensible looking line up to Black Tor which got the climbing out of the way quickly, before turning to my final destination which, although somewhere above me and less than 1400 meters away, could not be seen. I took a bearing for the top of the tor and proceeded to walk on it.

Sixty minutes after leaving the weir I arrived on top of High Willhays.

I was surrounded by fog, on top of a large tor, and I had no idea where exactly the others would be camping, and quickly realised, especially in the high winds, I was only going to find them by trail and error. I pulled out the map again and started thinking about where I’d camp in these conditions; it would have to be on the East side to get some shelter from the wind, probably behind one of the three clumps of rock that make-up the summit. There’s a group camping, so the biggest would be a sensible place to start — a clearing in the fog moved over. I turned and there was a tent with two people stood next to it; I grabbed my bag, stuffing the map back in, and made for it.

 alt: The main group of tents on High Willhays
The main group of tents on High Willhays.

A I stopped now I quickly realised how tired I was; I’d only eaten a packet of fig rolls and a Pot Noodle all day. Mike quickly showed me where the main group of tents were, and I pitched in the middle of the group with, Mike’s help to stop the tent from blowing away. The wind was clearly going to be an issue in the night, so I attached some backup guy lines to the additional four tabs to reinforce the existing ones.

With the tent up I pulled my cooker out and proceeded to cook some food just inside the porch and sort my equipment out, piling on extra layers to help keep the cold wind at bay. It’s often surprising what difference a hot meal can make to how you feel.

I went to say hello to the others.

At first I thought I was dreaming; someone was faintly calling my name in the distance. I rolled over, but there it was again.

I woke up.

I spent a couple of minutes wrestling with unseen pull-cords and zips until I could sit up in my sleeping bag, just as a well-timed gust hit the tent-side on, bending the pole double and hitting the side of my head. Not quite the wake-up I had imagined when I went to sleep the night before. I heard my name get called again, and had a quick conversation with Mike shouting, through the material and over the wind. It was time to pack-up and head out, with a low-pressure incoming, and bringing more bad whether with it.

The wind was pounding the side of my tent, making everything that little bit harder as the material frequently tried to push me down as the pole bent under the strain of the wind; it’s much better suited to being pitched with one end pointing into the wind, but sometimes this isn’t possible. Jamming all of my gear back into the various dry sacks now littering the inside of my tent I quickly packed everything away — breakfast would have to wait. I went to open the tent door, but the second I released the storm clip on the door it was pulled out of my hand, the wind opening the zip for me. I threw my rucksack and poles out, before following them out into the wind and fog, where most people were wrestling their tents into the stuff sacks.

 alt: Mikes tent being buffeted by the winds while I wait for dinner to cook.
Mikes tent being buffeted by the winds while I wait for dinner to cook.

Working around the tent logically I unpegged all of the down-wind guy lines, and began unpegging the base to release the tension on the pole so I could remove it. As I pulled the second peg out the wind cut directly under the now weightless tent, lifting everything a pulling all but two of the remaining pegs as the tent shot upwards trying to pull itself away, while throwing most of the remaining pegs straight into my face. Thankfully Raven was nearby and watching, who joined me in jumping on the tent to restrain it from taking off.

With the tent safely strapped to my rucksack, I proceeded to help a few of the others fight similar battles their newly converted tent kites.

Once everyone was packed down, we moved off as a group into the heavy fog. These conditions do not allow for easy navigation, but led by Robin with careful use of the gradient and bearings to navigate off we soon made it down with only a few people falling into the classic Dartmoor holes en-route. It’s trips like this one which really make you appreciate how lucky we are to have modern gear such as lightweight GoreTex waterproofs.

The Route

The usual precautions apply here — you will need OS Map OL28, and good navigation skills as the route does require walking through some fairly featureless areas on a bearing. It worth bearing in mind that much of the ground is extremely wet, and not all of the route may be passable all year round.

  1. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of a rescue happening. There was nothing on any of the four Dartmoor Search and Rescue team websites, or on Grough, which leads me to think it must have been a training exercise.

  2. OS Grid: SX559871