I was first introduced to the mystery of Dartmoor when I was about seven or eight years old. My father, mother, brother Ian and sister Lyn stayed in Green Cottage in Widecombe-in-Moor for the annual family holiday. My parents ran a very busy family hotel in Bournemouth, and so they needed a rest. My parents didn't want us children (well, probably me being the youngest) to stray, and so tales of goblins that ate children if we wandered out in the dark and onto the moor were told. It worked, and I spent some time looking at the moonlit silhouettes of nearby tors, and imagined eyes watching me in return.
I was thirteen when my mind returned to Dartmoor. I had spent my pocket money on a double cassette of the story of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I would lay in bed in the dark, put my earphones in, and disappear into the mystery of the moor. The story gripped me, and not only because of the beast itself, but due to my vivid imagination, and the images of the moor, so graphically described. Rain, thick fog, areas of sphagnum moss that would swallow a man if he didn't watch his footing, deep holes full of mud, and icy rock tors dominating the landscape. I will never forget that tape, and the story, as it's probably been one of the few things that have changed my life quite profoundly.
I had to go, and a year later, at age fourteen, I forged a plan along with my pal Tim to go.
We had no idea what the actual moor had in store, as it was far more barren and hostile than the touristy villages on the outskirts such as Widecombe. We bought a tent, sleeping bags, what we would consider today a totally inappropriate map, and a compass. Tinned food was packed, again completely wrong by today's standards. Spaghetti hoops, baked beans, and mini sausages in beans, breakfast, lunch and dinner sorted for two entire weeks, and weighed a ton. The advantage however was that the load got lighter with every mouthful. This was all accompanied by a Mars Bar at the end of each day as a treat. My clothing however was what I now cringe at mostly. I had no idea what to expect, and along with jeans and a jumper, wore ordinary lace up shoes and a snorkel coat from the local supermarket.
We had ambitious plans, and I for one have never been one to do things by half. We booked and paid for, again from our pocket money, a bus to Okehampton, and for the return journey a fortnight later, a bus from Plymouth. I don't know if our parents simply trusted us, or didn't really care, but no attempts to even remotely talk us out of it happened.
Our route across the moor took us from north to south in it's entirety. Okehampton, High Willhays, Fur Tor, Two Bridges and so on to Ivybridge at the southern end following the compass and ancient stone rows and landmarks, then finally a long walk along the edge of the dual carriageway into Plymouth. It was the adventure of a lifetime. We suffered, got wet, tired, only went off course once near Devils Tor, but for two fourteen year old kids let loose, it was pretty darned good.
For the next few years the ending of school life took over, along with some pretty heavy emotional stuff for me to deal with being a hormonal teenager, but eventually I felt the need to return to the moor. I was now in my latter teens, and after having a rather tame night in the New Forest with my brother and his very young son, we both decided to give it a go. I made certain that I at least had boots this time, and some waterproofs.
It was only for the weekend this time, but we had got wet in heavy rain and crossing a couple of rivers, hung our clothes out to dry as much as possible overnight, but underestimated just how much the temperatures would drop, and awoke to our clothes as stiff as a board. Another lessen learned, and I have since, on many occasions, removed my clothing and packed into my rucksack when rivers are a little too deep.
The next few decades had me returning dozens of times, with a variety of people, but mostly with my brother Ian. It has always been a place to challenge, and when life gets hard or complicated can ground one, forcing focus on the 'now'. There isn't much of the moor that I am not familiar with, and can quite confidently navigate in zero visibility.
I have been on the moor in baking heat and sun, torrential rain, 'white out' fog, blizzards, deep snow, and even during the famous 1987 hurricane.
This latter event in particular was a little scary. Ian and I had felt that something was building, and so pitched our tent in a tight little gulley in the heart of the main plateau. The night was horrendous, and despite using every guy line and rock available, could feel the tent repeatedly lift under us, to again come thumping back down. Something was violently killed very near to us that night. Despite the noise of the storm we heard it's death screams, and the following morning found the remains of two sheep a few yards away. They had been obliterated, with quite literally only the flattened skin and a couple of bones left. We have witnessed similar sounds, and found similar remains elsewhere, one a pony, again with just flattened skin still trickling with fresh blood.
Do I believe in a beast on the moor? There have been various explanations, and while although quite rife, my imagination doesn't quite run to a mythical monster. I do believe that there is something that comes up on to the moor at night, probably for it's own safety, maybe lives in a nearby forest, and quite possibly is an offspring of one of the big cats released back in the 1970's, when the nationwide reform of zoos happened. Needless to say I always carry the knife in my previous post with me just in case!
Apart from a far too brief but enjoyable 50th birthday surprise of two nights at the Two Bridges hotel, and returning for a days walk on the moor through Wistmans Wood to Longaford Tor, my 'mooring' days did appear to have been coming to an end. I missed the place so much, and the way in which it seems to take away all of ones present problems, and replaces them with focus and beauty. I needed to return properly, and in January, for my 58th (ouch!) birthday, I made a list of kit that I needed.
I still had a very high specification tent, sleeping bag and rucksack. My compass is the one from my very first trip at 14, and my clothing is now somewhat better and more appropriate to the environment. I needed a micro stove, and a few other small essentials, and my birthday completed my kit once more.
I wanted to return to my favourite place Fur Tor, where there is a little stream for water, and the chance to read a good book with ones feet in the cool water, and maybe a small malt whisky and a hobnob. I made plans to park overnight in Lane End car park, and follow the River Tavy upstream, and finally onto the open moor at the foot of Fur Tor.
It was a strange thing to be setting off from home on my own, and I must admit to being a little nervous, not about the actual logistics of the hike, but about how I would handle it emotionally. I had never been there on my own, and thoughts of waking at 2am to strange sounds and nobody to question it with came to mind. The pitch dark of night has, in the past, offered silence and peace at times, but at other times noise from the weather, and as mentioned before, horrific screams.
I wanted the personal challenge though, and having a breakfast near Bridport, found myself arriving at the car park, and once more, a view of tors and the Tavy valley.
I had promised Amanda that I would let her know when I arrived, but as predicted there was no phone signal, and so I had to wait until higher ground much later in the day. One deep breath, and I hoisted the rucksack on to my back and set off. I followed a leat that took me part way up the river into Tavy Cleave, whereupon the next few miles were very tricky as there was no discernible path, but instead mile after mile of rocks on the rivers edge that had to be negotiated. There was a deep pool at one point, where a couple were swimming (didn't expect that!), and after passing a few pleasantries about how the water was very cold (them being naked and all), I continued on my way. It turns out that the lady new me, but that's another story that I am still trying to get my head around.
The rocks eased off, and after crossing a couple of tributaries that fed the river I took a breather in a small grassy area, sipped some water, and as I laid back just stared in awe at the slopes rising hundreds of feet all around me. There was no sound other that the river. It was wonderful.
I pressed on further, and eventually the open moor plateau spread out before me, and there was Fur Tor about a mile away, and my camp for the night. I had made it! It started to rain, but I didn't care, I was there again.
Just about to leave the Tavy and approach Fur Tor
Not my photo, but from the same place. The River Tavy from Fur Tor.