It was way back in about 1975, when I was 14 years old, that the mystery of Dartmoor truly reared it's head. I had been bought an audio story of Hound of the Baskervilles, on one of the old cassette tapes of the day. I would listen to it in the darkness of my bedroom at night, and got carried away into the story of moorland bogs where one would disappear, and of the hound roaming about causing terror to whoever wandered unescorted.
Since a very young age, I had ventured out for treks and camps, but didn't have any proper hiking gear. What we did have was a few basic things from the local Army and Navy store. A tent reminiscent of the confederate army, some 1945 mess tins, and a pretty useless sleeping bag.
Dartmoor had caught the attention of both myself, and my mate Tim. We new nothing of it other than the Hound of the Baskervilles story, but we wanted to go there nonetheless. Two framed rucksacks were purchased. I spent all of my pocket money on a rather high specification down filled sleeping bag for the day (totally useless by today's standards), we had a gas stove, compass (which we only knew how to orientate the map with), tinned food and chocolate bars for two weeks (so, so heavy), a metal 'A' frame two man tent, and a 1:50,000 map of the entire moor (one inch to one mile scale....not very good!), from Okehampton in the north, to Ivybridge in the south.
We didn't have waterproofs, or indeed boots, just shoes and parka coats. Never having been to such a place, we had no idea what to expect weather wise. And so it was that after announcing to our somewhat indifferent parents that these two 14 year old boy's were about to set of for a fortnight on this notorious moor with no experience, we caught the bus to Okehampton.
Let me first say that Dartmoor is WET most of the time, and has a weather system separate to the lower land around it. The central marshlands, comprised of thick spaghnum moss layers over deep water that is trapped over the granite that the moor is on, can be very dangerous, as it's all too easy to place a wrong foot and fall through. On one occasion at a later visit, after falling through to my waist and feeling the icy water beneath, I was saved only by spreading my arms, and hiking colleagues close by hauling me back up. Heavy rucksacks make it worse.
Anyway, back to my youth. We didn't know how to take proper compass bearings, but would orientate the map magnetically, and thus line up the various tors and features on the map with those around us. In this way we were able to walk from hill to hill, recognising various features as we went. All good when the weather is ok, but 70% of the time it was raining hard, and coupled with Dartmoor being on a plateau of sorts, the wind is horrendous. So a lot of navigation was guesswork.
We made it halfway to Two Bridges, and then further south to Ivybridge, then it was the long walk west to Plymouth and our bus home. We had done it! An experience that has stayed with me to this day, and was the beginning of a camping and hiking life that has had me in the snow of the Cairngorms, on ice in the Brecon Beacons, trekking through the Alps, and more times than I can remember back to the beauty that is Dartmoor, my favourite place. Heck, we were even on it during the 1990 hurricane!
The specialist gear is still with me, and added to, but over the years the time to use it doesn't seem to have been there, what with the business restrictions and all, but both myself and Amanda have vowed to change that, and it started with this, my 54th birthday. (Ow....54....where did THAT come from?)
We weren't going to camp out this time, but had three whole days in which to enjoy the place. The drive only took us about three hours, and in no time we were heading along the exposed road that cuts the moor in half from east to west. We were booked into the Two Bridges Hotel, which lies roughly central to the moor itself.
No two man tent, sugary tea, or dried food for now though, that will come later. For now we had the bridal suite, complete with a two person spa bath (a little more comfortable than washing in a frozen stream for now).
There were the basics for a couple of nights survival on the moor
And although there was no dry grass, or running stream to collect water from, the facilities were adequate.
I liked these words that were on a wall plaque in the room. Something that can be kept in mind on a day to day basis perhaps?
It didn't take us long to get on to the moor though. I was as happy as a pig in shit.
Whenever I head out to such places, regardless for how long, I have always taken enough gear for an emergency overnight stay. A broken leg or such like can happen at any point. The tors can provide shelter if needed, and I have extra clothing, medical supplies, a stove and energy bars. There's even water purification tablets if the water runs out, and a blooming great orange sheet to wave at the rescue helicopter.
It had been raining for the past day or so, and we were lucky to get up there once it had stopped. It was however very windy. I found it a little frustrating not being able to climb on to any tors, as the 'head thing' has to be taken into account until the end of February, and I don't want an episode when stood thirty feet up on a pile of granite.
The views immediately brought back those feelings from before. Excitement, wonder, awe, challenge. It was the first place that I took Amanda to when we met as well, and she is such good company up there.
Since being fourteen, I have learnt to use a compass to get me to within ten feet of wherever I want to go, even at night, and it was nice to use those skills once again.
The moor went on and on, and the view below was one that I would have witnessed back at the beginning.......forty years ago.
Being out in such a place has the wonderful effect of completely focussing ones mind, not just in terms of navigation etc, but in terms of just what freedom is still out there to be enjoyed.
Our short trip came and went so very quickly, but on our return the overnight hiking gear has been checked and made ready for the very near future.