“Now there is an extra dimension to the charms of The Road – it takes me to, or almost to, Dartmoor – a place that is rapidly taking its place among my favourite upland areas. But unlike journeys to other areas, there is no desire to hurry to get there, no wishing the journey were done. Simply being on The Road is pleasure enough that I am content to let Dartmoor arrive in due course.”
The car is loaded with way too much stuff, covering every eventuality that a winter drive to a windswept moor could conceivably throw at me. Two rucksacks, a big duffel bag, provisions, every possible combination of clothing layers, leather boots AND trail shoes. And I top it off with crampons and ice axe, mainly in the hope that by taking them they will prove to be totally unnecessary.
The weather forecast isn’t that helpful – the BBC has a white apocalypse on the way; mountain forecast has a meagre amount, but this depends on the precise hill that you use to generate the forecast. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. So in my usual fashion, I prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.
The drive down to Devon is a journey of contrasts – the first 80 miles on the M25 and then M3 are about the worst stretch of road you could wish on your most mortal enemy. Each time I drive it, it’s an hour and a half of my life I consider wasted.
But the minute the car’s tyres touch the slip road taking me from the M3, all is different. As the car turns to point west, it’s like meeting up with an old friend. And I do consider the A303 a friend of long-standing. As a child, The Road represented the excitement of the annual family holiday, whether it be the New Forest, Dorset, Somerset, Devon or Cornwall – it was always one of them; as a student, it represented the start of a new term in Exeter and the emergence of an independent life away from home; in the early years after university it represented the return home from visiting family at Christmas; in later years when career took me to working in and around London, it represented weekend visits back home to Mrs Hillplodder whilst we were in the process of transition from one home to another. And then The Road and I were separated for a few years.
Now three visits to Dartmoor in as many months, with at least one more definite happening in coming weeks, means an acquaintance renewed. This is the road I once knew so well I could mentally drive the whole length when I was away from it. It’s fair to say that if I have a favourite road, then this is it.
Now there is an extra dimension to the charms of The Road – it takes me to, or almost to, Dartmoor – a place that is rapidly taking its place among my favourite upland areas. But unlike journeys to other areas, there is no desire to hurry to get there, no wishing the journey were done. Simply being on The Road is pleasure enough that I am content to let Dartmoor arrive in due course. Not for me is the mundanity of the M4 and M5 and the slight advantage of time it affords. The M25 is The Road to Hell, of Chris Rea’s song, but the A303 is for me, the road to paradise.
Vehicles slow to pass Stonehenge – for once not due to weight of traffic, people simply back off to gaze upon the monument, delaying their busy lives by a few seconds to take in its ancient splendour. And it is appropriate that my route to Dartmoor takes me past The Stones – the moor being scattered with ancient remains in the form of burial mounds, stone rows and abandoned settlements. The Henge is also, near as dammit, halfway.
Even with this being just the third trip to Dartmoor since November, a routine has developed. Respects paid to The Stones, shortly after is a mandatory stop at The Old Willoughby Hedge Cafe, in what is the biggest layby on The Road. We simply call it “The Layby”. And it probably does the best burgers too. Myself refreshed, a dozen or so miles further on, it’s time to do the same for the car, and a fill-up in Wincanton keeps the car going all the way until back home.
Now properly in the South West, the road signs display the memories of childhood holidays, and the more recent project to walk the South West Coast Path. Finally The Road itself ends and submerges meekly into the A30, now changed beyond recognition from the old days. Ahead of me, my old city, Exeter, appears and in the distance behind is my destination, Dartmoor, rising grandly in the hazy background.
Today, I deviate from the previous two journeys to Princetown, and head down the A38. It’s only lunchtime so I am going to do a walk on the south of the moor. The A38 is another familiar old road – many is a time I’ve driven to Plymouth for work, but it never got the love that the 303 did. I drive through Ashburton and up onto the moor, the wooded valley of the Dart shielding the view of the moor, so it is a bit of a surprise when I emerge onto more open landscape and shortly after pull into the empty car park, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
To be continued…