Dartmoor’s most challenging terrain?

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28th May 2012 saw temperatures of just below 30 Celsius in many parts of the UK. I didn’t expect it to be quite so hot on the moor that day, but assumed that, if nothing else, at least it would be dry, so I set out early to complete a walk I’d wanted to attempt for a long time.

Fur Tor is regarded as one of the most difficult spots to reach on the moor, and is situated, so it is said, further from a road than anywhere else in England. That in itself makes it an obvious ambition for someone like me! The Tor can be reached from Tavy Cleave to the West, and that walk is a bit shorter than the one I took. On the day I set out the Cleave side of the moor was flagged as a live firing day by the MOD, so I could be reasonably confident that if I approached from the South East at Postbridge, I would be unlikely to meet anyone arriving there from the opposite direction.

With Cocker Spaniel Penny on the back seat and minimal camera kit in the boot, I headed for the car park at Postbridge. I worried about having enough water, in case the temperature should be as hot as it was when I was hunting for the Ted Hughes memorial stone a few weeks earlier. That day I took what I thought was plenty of water, but in fact after several hours of constant high level exposure and dry heat, I ended up pretty vague-headed with heat exhaustion, having given Penny the last of my water an hour before arriving back at the car. So this time I packed as light as I could: D300, 12-24mm Nikkor, 28-80mm Nikkor, and walking stuff such as compass, map, GPS. With lunch, my largest bottle of water and fleece / waterproof, this is quite enough to carry for a long day on the moor, without adding a heavy tripod and extra lenses. The fleece and waterproof weren’t used at all, although the temperature up there felt no higher than around 10 degrees.

We headed off from one of the most accessible parts of the moor to one of the least, and I couldn’t have been happier. The first objective was the small waterfall on the East Dart River, via Roundy Park and Broad Down, and there were some fine views back to Bellever from the highest point here: I recorded a couple of images, but haven’t done anything with them so far. An obvious path down to the waterfall from here didn’t seem to exist so I improvised my own. The waterfall covers a larger area than I expected, though on a small scale, height wise; but it is rather beautiful. We had the place entirely to ourselves so Penny and I spent a delightful half an hour tramping around the area exploring its angles (in my case) and places to jump in the water (in Penny’s case). A place to linger, definitely, but we had much further to go.

East Dart waterfall
East Dart waterfall
Further up the river
Further up the river

The path stretched ahead in an erratic, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t kind of way, toward Sandy Hole Pass. I wasn’t sure what to expect here but I found it to be everything I love about Dartmoor: nature at its most basic, with wild lonely moorland, big sky, and the hypnotic meandering path of an infant river coming around the hill from the left, sweeping around in front of me and stretching much further ahead than I could see. There is no conventional beauty here, just the opportunity to see the natural world doing what it has always done. On the horizon I could still see a small herd of cattle I had left behind a good half mile earlier: they had hardly moved, having little else to do but remain witnesses to, and be part of, this open land being itself.

Sandy Hole Pass
Sandy Hole Pass

After a further mile or so following the river it was time to strike West-North-West toward Cut Hill, and I wasn’t so sure I was going to enjoy this part. Looking toward the hill itself: vast, rounded, yet fairly-flat topped, I was dismayed to see mist clinging to its flanks. Almost immediately the ground became difficult: long tussock grass, peat hags, no obvious path. I had my GPS and had carefully entered at home what I thought would be the most useful grid references for this hill, and it did indeed prove to be invaluable, guiding me to the North West Passage without any real difficulty, save the problems of twisted ankles, falling into peak craters and rescuing the dog from the marshy long grass.

Tussock grass and peat hags
Tussock grass and peat hags
Toward cut hill
Toward cut hill

I had no idea the Passage would have quite such deep sides, but I was grateful for its existence, and looked forward to my first sighting of Fur Tor as I got closer to Cut Hill’s summit. Summit does not feel like quite the right word because its exact location is pretty impossible to gauge – it’s just a flat, very wide area of hags and blanket bog.

North West Passage crossing stone
North West Passage crossing stone
Cut Hill summit hags and blanket bog (it had to be colour!)
Cut Hill summit hags and blanket bog (it had to be colour!)

Eventually Fur Tor appeared almost directly in front of me.

First glimpse, Fur tor
First glimpse, Fur tor (top left)
Fur Tor ahead, dried up stream in foreground
Fur Tor ahead, dried up stream in foreground

Isolated from the other tors by the slopes all around it, and by no means as tall as some of them, Fur Tor has a definite charisma. A strange term for a tor, but in this case it is difficult to think of a more suitable one. The walk across took less than half an hour and Penny and I had the place to ourselves. We walked all around the main outcrop and across toward the smaller rock collections beyond it. I took in the scene around me: there straight ahead was Brat Tor, with Widgery Cross clearly visible at its top; to the right was Great Links Tor and much further to the right was High Wilhays, the highest point on the moor, and therefore the highest point in Southern England. Beyond that were Cosdon Beacon, Steeperton Tor and Hangingstone Hill. In the valley below was the vast patch of marsh land where 4 rivers had their source and headed downhill in 4 different directions.

Fur Tor
Fur Tor
Fur Tor, main outcrop
Fur Tor, main outcrop

Such a magnificent spot, it was hard to believe we had it to ourselves that day. I took more photographs and we sat underneath the main outcrop to eat some lunch. Penny shared my cheese salad roll, apple and Tunnocks bar, we stretched, took in one last lingering look at what had instantly become one of my favourite tors, and began the walk back to Cut Hill.

Beyond the tor, and turning back
Beyond the tor, and turning back

Thanks to the GPS I was able to exactly follow the path down the hill that I had taken up it, back through the Passage and down to the river side. My guide book now suggested I cross the river, but didn’t say exactly where, and then head up Winney’s Down to see the remains of Statt’s House at the top of Statt’s House Hill. This gave me an immediate problem in that I’d come too far along the path of the river and a crossing place wasn’t obvious – it was already quite wide. I was hot and sat to drink some water while Penny cooled off in the river. As usual she started to fetch me pebbles and sticks to throw – clearly not as tired as I was – in fact she never really stops. After a few minutes of this, still unable to see a crossing point, I decided to just wade into the river to cross, and it was only up to my knees at this point, not too cold, and really refreshing.

The land on the other side, however, was not much fun at all. Named as “Broad Marsh” on my map this was really pretty unpleasantly wet for perhaps 50 metres or so – most of which were spent shin deep (at best) in the marsh or knee deep (at worst) for me or over-her-head deep (absolute worst) for Penny. As soon as dry land became visible we took it and started a longish, weary climb through yet more tussock grass.

Statts House
Statts House

“Statts House” is a fairly grand title for what was effectively an 18th century peat cutter’s shelter, now in ruins, but nevertheless an interesting reminder of a forgotten way of life – somewhere where he could eat, rest and sleep during the peat cutting season. Again I took a couple of photos before heading south east downhill along, according to my guidebook, “fairly level ground”. This proved to be more thick tussock grass, something I was growing to detest, if only for the effect that climbing over it was having on my heels (blisters) and knees (stabbing pains).

I took a diversion toward the Sheepfold on my way back, having never been to the place. A much larger enclosure than would be expected, this was created by a Scotsman in the 1800s to keep in his black-faced sheep, but was destroyed by fire a couple of decades later. Gated and locked, I could only stand by the gate and take a couple of photos, but have not yet processed them. After another swig from a dwindling bottle of water, it was time to head down off the hills, skirting around Hartland Tor and back to Postbridge.

The Sheepfold
The Sheepfold

Back at the car, about 7 hours after setting out, I was weary and my knees were incredibly painful; when I lifted my right leg to take off my boot I almost fell to the floor with cramp! But at home that night my head was filled with recurring images of winding rivers and lonely tors, feelings of peat under my feet, fresh air on my face, soaking warm marsh water around my legs. A month has passed since then, and none of these feelings has diminished.

Near Sandy Hole Pass
Near Sandy Hole Pass

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