They say; that to go wandering alone on Dartmoor is to go searching in the deepest part of one’s soul, that one walk into its mists can reduce even the most dogged of men to a whimper and that upon making it out the other side, a piece of madness will forever lurk within.
They don’t say any of that, I made it up, but it could all be said with some degree of solemnity. Dartmoor is an unforgiving place.
I began my journey through Devon’s rugged moor in Okehampton. The town has chosen to give itself the title of ‘Gateway to Dartmoor’ even though, there are many gateways. In fact there are so many gateways, that it is virtually impossible to navigate by any one path. Once on the moor, signage becomes abstract at best and charming as that is, it makes for a challenging place to cross. Perhaps this was part of the reason for building a prison in the middle. Surely any would be escapee would be so confused by the narrow tracks, that they would either be caught or simply die on the moor, having lost all sense of direction.
I arrived in the rain, I walked in the rain and I left it in the rain. It was the first weather I had seen in my entire time on the road, and although initially I welcomed it, I quickly grew tired of staring down at the ground as cold water poured down my neck, back and boots. The following day I learned that there had been more rain in 48 hours than there had been in the whole of June and July, earning the catchy nickname ‘Awful August’.
I had planned to walk the West Devon Way (a 37 mile route from the top of Dartmoor, all the way to the bottom) which starts in Okehampton, but in the rain and my haste to get going, I missed the start of the trail and ended up heading cross country by compass point, into the mists of Belstone Tor. I was able to cut some sort of path towards my first stop by joining a few narrow tracks together, although my confidence of actually making it to a recognisable village was diminishing as the mist drew in. Some way up one of these narrow tracks, I made out the shapes of people (the first I’d seen). As they got closer I could see it was in fact the army. I stopped to ask them where we were, but they didn’t know, at least they didn’t know enough to direct me. They were heading back to the army base in Okehampton having spent the night in a cloud on top of Belstone. It felt good to know I was sharing this character building experience with the army and seemingly no one else.
I trudged on, occasionally checking the map on my phone and correcting my trajectory. As Meldon Reservoir came into view, I realised I had gone too far down hill to be able to cross it. I had to climb the steepest of slopes in order to get myself back to the actual footpath that joins the dam. For about a week, a blister the size of a chestnut had been developing on my heal. It seemed to be quite a hardy blister, so I ignored it and carried on, wincing now and then when I reached a steep ascent. This ascent however, proved too much for it and just as I reached the top of the hill an ungodly explosion of skin occurred. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it. The rain would make it impossible to fashion a bandage and there was nowhere to shelter. I hobbled for the next five miles, across the reservoir, to the top of Sourton Tor before eventually making it to the sanctuary of a bus shelter in Sourton itself.
Sourton is barely a village, but it is home to the most wonderful pub – The Highwayman. Unfortunately, the pub was shut. Dartmoor is old fashioned in many ways, and in general is better for it. The tradition of shutting all Pubs between the hours of 2pm and 6pm however, is shit. I had battled wind and rain over two tors, a reservoir and sustained a most disgusting foot complaint, and could not even celebrate in the comfort of a pub. Disconsolate, I sat in the bus shelter and ate a can of tuna and a snickers. The rain belted the roof of my sanctuary. My heart sank at the thought of camping on the moor in it. I called around the inns within a five mile radius but they were all either full, shut or not inns at all. Camping it was then. I tramped through the rain to the nearest campsite, hoping that if I was to spend the night in the rain, at least I might have the luxury of a hot shower in the morning. I found myself at a very quiet campsite, right on the edge of the moor.
‘You know it’s very wet out?’
Dripping all over the manageress’ floor, I couldn’t quite work out whether she was joking or was just not very observant.
‘Yeah, I’ve been in it for the last three hours.’ I replied.
‘I’ve got a caravan if you want?’
My prayers had been answered. This oblivious hero had just made me the happiest man in all of Dartmoor. She led me to my palace on wheels, which would be my home for the next two nights, and for ten English pounds, it was perfect. I lived like a king, listening to local radio and dining on chocolate hobnobs as the rain failed to get at me through my beautiful beige ceiling. I did my washing for the first time in two weeks. I nursed my blisters and dined lavishly in the local pub. When the rain stopped, I was ready to tackle the rest of Dartmoor and finish the job I came to do.
Leaving my beloved caravan behind, I headed for Lydford, for I had an appointment to make. My father-in-law was meeting me at Lydford Castle to join me for the remainder of my travels through Devon.
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