Recently blessed with a bit of time at the end of the academic year I found myself with a strong itch to get outdoors and go camping. Three days and two rough nights in Dartmoor later and I found that itch had in fact intensified! That might have been the ticks, though.
The last camping trip I had been on was probably a good seven years ago, and even then the whole thing was organised by my school’s cadet force meaning I only really had to do the easiest part, so to say I was out of practice would be an understatement. Spent a few days shopping for all the essentials like a medical kit, cooking equipment, and a map, but somehow left buying boots until the day before. Even then it was Amazon Prime next-day delivery which came to the rescue, so breaking them in was out of the question. I was able to borrow a few bits of kit from my flatmate, too, so my savings didn’t take quite as sizeable a hit as they could have. My total kit list was as follows:
I also picked up an ordnance survey map from Waterstones and plotted a route through the various tors the National Park had to offer, full of off-piste diversions onto military firing ranges and grand overestimations of my ability to traverse the undulating geography of the region.
In all I planned about 60km of walking over two days which started in an eastern corner of the park and ended at a nature reserve on its west side. The final day was to be dedicated to the grueling task of walking from the nature reserve all the way to Liskeard to meet my friend.
The journey from London to Dartmoor is a whole adventure in itself. I got a train from Paddington to Exeter St. David’s which took about two hours, followed by an hour and a half bus journey from Exeter to Lustleigh, a town east of the national park where my walking route started. The train cost about £50 and the bus just a few pounds. Getting back was slightly more convenient since I was getting the train back from Liskeard, not quite a small village in the middle of nowhere. The journey to Paddington took about three and a half hours and cost about a tenner more.
My starting point – Lustleigh – was in fact so remote that I had to team up with the bus driver to make sure I didn’t miss the stop. Thankfully I was allowing myself to use Google right up until I started walking my plotted route officially and we spotted the right bus stop nestled behind a bush a short walk out from the village. I made a quick stop at the post office to get some water and snacks, and ate my nectarine in the sun outside while I cut some paracord for the necklace on which I would hang my compass. That done, the time was about two o’clock and I was ready to begin.
Immediately I went wrong. I had been meaning to walk southwest towards Pethybridge, and even asked a local to point me in the right direction, but somehow missed a turning and found myself near Waye Farm to the north. I managed to reorient myself after some effort and only a bit of lost time, but this was the first indication that navigating would require constant attention both towards my location on the map and of my surroundings, to look out for various signs and landmarks that would help me on my way.
I managed to get myself back on track in Hisley Wood so I continued downhill towards Old Clam Bridge and more importantly the stream, where I filled up my water bottles for the first time. The sun was shining and even through the trees I was feeling the heat, so I threw a water purification tablets in my replenished bottles and took a few sweaty swigs.
Kirchhoff’s Second Law interpreted geographically, says that what goes downhill must break its back getting uphill again, and the journey back out of the small valley of Lustleigh Cleave was a taxing one. Once I was out I continued west towards Hayne Down, at the top of which I made my first food stop. There was some shelter from the wind sitting amongst a clearing in the ferns next to a wall of rocks, but it was certainly an unforgiving environment from the perspective of my little meths burner. The plan had been to cook a packet of ready-made rice and wash it down with a cup of tea but the wind was proving too fearsome an adversary, so I said sod it and made do with somewhat warm rice and some water. The time was about half five so I treated myself with some dried apricots, cleaned up my mess, and resumed my walking.
The walk down the west side of the hill was pleasant and was followed by a gentle incline up Cripdon Down, where I came across a cow doing its best impression of the Atom Heart Mother album art. Golden hour was peaking in the stretch from Jay’s Grave up to Natsworthy Manor, but continuing onto Hamel Down I noticed the golden light was quickly fading with the sky becoming blocked by a layer of cloud the colour of steel wool. I quickly backtracked on a decision to push through the coming storm so I made my way back down past a memorial to a World War Two bomber crew that went down on the Tor and into the woods to set up camp for the night.
I walked north past a small collection of homes calling themselves Heathercombe and set up my tent on a small grassy patch under some trees by a brook a few minutes’ walk from the footpath. I had practiced setting up my tent in a park near where I live shortly before journeying out so it didn’t take too long to be out of the open air, which by now was replete with midges, after which I tucked into dinner then got ready for bed. The ground on which I had pitched looked even enough, though by the time I was laying in my sleeping bag my roll mat did little to cushion the harsh clump of earth digging into my lower back. As a result the night’s sleep was pretty rough – constant interruptions from the sheer discomfort of it all, and while I was sleeping with my knife by my side the creaking and rustling nearby caused me to occupy my mind unwillingly with contingency plans for potential hostile encounters during the night.
I was awake fairly early and after another unsuccessful attempt to brew some tea I ate some breakfast, packed up the tent, and continued on my way. After refilling my water at a stream in the middle of Heathercombe I headed back up Hameldown Tor, greeting once again the cows grazing by the stream at its foot, until a brief rest and stop for food at the top of Hookney Tor overlooking a circular structure of rocks called Grimspound. Now on Two Moors Way I walked down the footpath towards Benett’s Cross then across the B3212 onto Chagford Common. I took the opportunity to take a seat in a gouged out clump of earth near a bunch of horses, and slightly further on was an alleyway of stones ending in a circle and a horse.
Although it was only a short distance to the entrance of Fernworthy Forest it was perilous crossing. An oversight during preparation meant that I hadn’t noticed the marshland demarcations on the map, meaning I waded straight into sucking bog and waist-high shrubs and an uncertain idea of when it would end. Thankfully any crisis involving sinking or twisted ankles was avoided (though I must have been trying to find one when jumping across a small stream blocking the way) and I was now on my way along the southern edge of Fernworthy Reservoir. Given that I was now sodden up to my shins in bogwater I went for a dip in the water while I left my clothes to dry – or as much as possible on what was a cold and fairly overcast day. After a quick bite I made my way to the opposite side of the reservoir to enter the forest by Fernworthy Circle. The forest itself was a very calming but eerie place – there was a great stillness to everything as the rows of huge thin trees and thick layer of bright green moss seemed to deaden all incoming sound.
It wasn’t too long until I had reached the western edge of the forest, and the five kilometre stretch from Long Ridge down to Postbridge which followed was some of the nicest walking of my trip. I recall having some issue determining whether I was on the correct (read: walkable) side of a valley near Sittaford Tor, but after some backtracking it was a straight trip down into the town. Some confidence features including beehive huts, walls of old settlements, and the river helped to assure me I was sticking to the right path, and the long walk down the valley was rewarded with a picturesque spot to sit down and refill my water where the path met with the stream.
I passed a group of people doing their Duke of Edinburgh award as I was coming into Postbridge and they seemed surprised when I told them I was hiking for the fun of it. At least, at that point I was still doing it for fun. I headed south down the main road out of Postbridge until the entrance to Bellever Wood and proceeded to make my way through another forest. This one was more straightforward with fewer possibilities of taking the wrong path. I noticed someone was hot on my heels behind me and it wasn’t long until they had caught up to me. He appeared to be a seasoned hiker evinced by his shorts, ultra lightweight backpack, and walking sticks, and talking to him confirmed this fact. He told me about his walking experiences along the South West Coast Path and heartily recommended a pub down that way – I want to say it was Leemy. I made it to the top of Bellever Tor and with the light beginning to go it was time to find a spot to spend the night.
This time I did indeed get lost in the woods thanks to several paths appearing to be the public footpath on my map, but not being so, leading me astray. After considering a spot in the forest on a slope I searched little longer and settled on a narrow flat area on the side of a gravel path. I put up the tent and jumped inside to tuck into a nice tin of cold baked beans. What followed was amongst the worst nights of sleep that I have had. Every force has an equal and opposite reaction and while I got to sleep early, around ten o’clock, I was woken up as early by the thunderous din of rain hitting the outside of the tent at around four o’clock. I also realised two small puddles had formed inside the tent as a result of the undulations in the ground on which I had pitched. In a panic I packed up all my loose kit so that I was ready to go if the situation got worse, and although I drifted off to sleep again briefly I was just as quickly woken by the rain again. Eventually giving up any hope of rest I was up, out, and raring to go just slightly after seven o’clock.
I made my way into the small village of Bellever (where I passed a youth hostel whose existence I am glad I was unaware of the previous night, when my willpower to continue wild camping might have failed me) and then onto the footpath north back towards Postbridge. Breakfast that morning was a particularly memorable one – since I had finished the three ready-made rice packets as well as my beans it was time to crack out the tinned sardines and tin of garden peas. It was certainly a slog forcing myself to eat the bland soggy dregs of the peas so as not to waste any calories. However, the end was almost literally in sight and it wasn’t too much later until I had made it back to the small town of Postbridge. After resting a while by the stone bridge, I popped into the post office for a much needed cream tea – made from all local ingredients! At this point according to my route there was still the Postbridge to Burrator Reservoir to Liskeard legs of the journey. Thoroughly behind the pace and with two days of hiking beginning to wear on me, I decided I would simply get the train to my friend in Liskeard as opposed to walking there. It was a few hours until the next bus to the station and unfortunately the pub didn’t open until midday – what a perfect bookend that would have been! I hopped on the bus when it arrived and it was weird, even if completely expected, to get a few miles down the road and see the section of Bush Down I had been trudging across only the day before. Finally allowing myself to listen to some music I stuck on some Frank Zappa as my home for the past two days receded behind me.
All in all it had been a very successful and enjoyable trip, not least because I had managed to not kill myself or get killed in the short 48 hour window that I had been away from most civilisation. I spent most of that time in clothes heavy and cold with sweat, all the while breaking in my new boots as they broke me. I got to see some of the lovely sights that the National Park has to offer and appreciate the grandness of it, as well as finally getting some clean air circulating through my lungs. I also realised that I would be completely okay with eating cold baked beans for several days in a row, which will greatly simplify the grocery shop for my next trip, while I can probably leave tinned garden peas off the list. Never has tea and scones been so rewarding as it was that final morning. There are a few things I’d like to improve for the next time I go, such as better and more considered route planning and wiser clothing, but I am pleased with how my first solo camp turned out. There is a lot to be said for just getting outside and away from everything and being immersed in nature, and I was surprised how I was quite happy to simply walk for eight hours a day with no need for any diversions like music or podcasts.
And while I only discovered two ticks after getting home, the itch to get out and go camping again has not gone. I’m currently eyeing the Mach Loop in Wales so I can gawp at the fast jets flying low-level over (or rather, under) head.