Dartmoor: A Step in the White Direction

No sooner had the last trip to Dartmoor worn off, than I was back for (and I can barely believe I’m saying this) the main backpacking trip of the year. This was to be a solo affair though, and it needed an objective…

I really wanted to capture as much of the “big trip” feel as possible on this jaunt. With no TGO Challenge, the hole left is difficult to fill. The best I could do is a multi-day trip with a bit of challenge thrown in. Something that would give me decisions to make, and the commitment of a long(ish) route. A trip where I’d have to work with what I had and the conditions as they evolve.

I didn’t want to just go out and do an arbitrary circular backpack – I knew what would happen: at some point I’d take the easy way out and either cut it short or miss out a whole load of tors. And then feel disappointed in myself for squandering the opportunity. It’s by no means impossible that this could be the biggest trip before NEXT YEAR’s TGO Challenge too, given how things are going.

A multi-day walk with an objective, now that’s a different matter. With something to aim for to keep me on track, I should end up doing a decent distance and staying the course.

Idly scrolling the list of Dartmoor tors, I hit upon the idea of doing all the tors with a particular characteristic in common. Some research narrowed this down to some viable possibilities, and I hit upon doing all the White Tors.

The rules for the walk were set as follows:

  • Tors with White as the main part of their name only. So no Whitehill (good as it was at completely the opposite side of the moor), or any other compound names, or “Whit”s etc.
  • White had to be the main / generally accepted name of the tor – I wasn’t going to run myself ragged by including Tor X, which had some obscure alternative name that nobody uses that happens to be “White”.
  • Only tors on public land were to be included. (not that I have anything against a bit of light trespassing, but on this occasion I just didn’t need the hassle).
  • White Rock above Sticklepath was specifically excluded – primarily because I could argue it’s a rock rather than a tor, but mainly because it’s gastly and not worth the effort. The fact it’s not on the Social Hiking list but is on the big database, means I can claim it as too obscure to do as well.

Initially the list of tors was taken from the Social Hiking list, but I also checked it against the torsofdartmoor database, to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. But ultimately, the integrity of the list was not to be taken too seriously – the only goal was to have something I felt I could stick to when and if morale and energy levels started to waver.

I ended up with:

White Ridge Tor

Lower White Tor

Higher White Tor

Little Whiten Tor

Little White Tor

White Tor

Starting from Belstone this would give me a walk of around 70km and 4 (ish) days of walking, which was about what I was looking for. That’s roughly equivalent to a section of the TGOC (which typically falls into 4 chunks). I also planned in an extra loop over Bellever to pick off some tors I’ve not yet done, but considered this optional – certainly when I thought about timings, it didn’t seem like it would be ideal, given where the permitted camping areas are.

Day 1

The day dawned and I bailed out of work early, everything already loaded for the drive. By 9pm I was approaching the moor, and parked up, light rain falling as I set off.

I meandered through dark lanes by headtorch until I found the track and then gate I was looking for. A muddy and squelchy track led onto the moor. 200-300m later and I was at my planned camp spot. Right at the edge of the moor, but still inside the permitted wildcamping area.

Day 2

A fine day greeted me when I emerged from the shelter. I headed south onto the moor proper, and climbed up towards the Belstone ridge.

I got to Oke Tor with a decision to be made as to the next part of my route, including which order I did it in. In the end I decided to keep it clockwise as per my original plan. So White Ridge would be the first of the Whites. It was quite a distance though.

I dropped down to cross The Taw at Knack Mine, wasting time walking upstream looking for a place narrow enough to jump across, rather than just wading the ford. I ended up not quite making the jump anyway, one leg trailing in the stream.

I pulled up onto Hangingstone Hill and took the peat pass over to Whitehorse Hill. A further mile or so of squelch brought me to Quintin’s Man and a lunch stop, a pony and half a dozen sheep being my dining companions.

I opted to take the direct route to Sittaford Tor, rather than attempt to contour around Little Varracombe. Another stream to wade.

I had a bit of sit down at Sittaford, seeing Shamus turn up doing his Bronze Age video. I didn’t twig it was him until the moment had passed, and wasn’t going to run after him (it was uphill anyway). I headed for White Ridge and the tor at the other end instead.

Stannon and Hartland tors were collected on my way down to Postbridge, arriving there just after 4pm. Unfortunately Postbridge shuts at 4pm. Sharp. All I got out of it was a sneak into the visitor centre loos. So at least I’d stuck to one cardinal TGO Challenge rule – never pass up the chance of a proper toilet.

No goodies today then. I set off along the road, being the easiest way to build a bit of westward distance.

A bit demoralised by the lack of treats, all that I wanted now was camp. But there was one more tor to collect – Arch. The tor itself was easy enough, but the journey across to the next ridge was just the sort of leg sapping never-ending slog you don’t want at the end of the day when the thought of a nice cup of tea in your tent is foremost in your mind.

Worse still was a barbed wire fence standing between me and a crossing of the Cherry Brook. Just too high to risk climbing, it was a toss up between left or right to find a better place to cross. I got lucky, heading right and finding a bit where the lower strands were torn away. A commando roll under and the job was done.

The Cherry Brook provided water for camp, and the following slope provided the means of draining the last reserves of energy from me. I struck north a bit to head for my planned spot on Lower White. As I approached my heart sunk – there was someone there. Not just there, but on the exact spot I intended.

I carried on anyway to go and say hello. We chatted for a few minutes, then I turned south to find somewhere further along the ridge. The first big outcrop of Higher White did the job, a little bit of shelter being given by the rocks from the fresh northerly.

Day 3

It blew quite noticeably in the night, and sleep was difficult to sustain. At one point I thought I’d lost a guyline, but this turned out to just be a trick of the moonlight.

Sunday morning, so a token lie-in, before I got going. Although I was very close to Higher White’s main outcrop, I diverted down the hill to Little Whiten as it was this side of the wall, before returning back up to Higher White. Four out of 6 now done, and most of the day still ahead of me. It would be another 24 hours before another White was seen.

I continued down over the ridge: Longaford, Crockern etc and then onto the path to the carpark. A bit of road walking brought me to Princetown, which was most emphatically OPEN. Here the shop yielded all those things I’d wanted from Postbridge. Plus a hot pasty.

For good measure the Old Police Station café yielded an ice cream and a latte.

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned TGO Challenge Rule I went to “investigate” the toilets, finding they are pay entry. With no coins on me, this presented a bit of a dilemma, and ultimately I had to break the rule.

It was still only lunchtime and I faced the prospect of an early arrival at White Tor, my assumed camp spot for today. That felt like it would see me finish the whole trip too early, so on the spur of the moment I decided to throw in a detour. The old railway track out of Princetown was ideal for this purpose – an easy way to put an extra loop into the walk. Whilst walking, and with the tors opening up in front of me, I impulsively decided to walk out to Ingra, as somehow I’ve not been there for 5 years.

It was a good walk.

On the return I looped around the side of Kings to walk cross country to the car park below Great Mis. A distasteful cacophony of cars and people greeted me there and I didn’t linger (well there was no Willy’s ice cream van there, anyway). It was straight on, up the track, to Little Mis and Great Mis.

I’ve never really spent much time exploring Great Mis – it’s always been on the way to somewhere else, and usually winter – so I did have a more in depth look around. In reality I was delaying making a decision: should I camp on Great Mis?

There were plenty of spots, but with a car park and easy track it was unlikely I’d have the tor to myself. And this was the night for a proper solo camp, it seemed to me. Ultimately, I decided not to risk it and carried on down the other side. I saw one more person, striding out over Greena Ball towards Cocks Hill, and that was it.

A bit of fun finding the least iffy place to ford the Walkham, and I was across and eyeing up a nice flat bit of grass nearby. Closer inspection yielded a recommendation from a past tenant in the form of a discarded tent peg.

A rock nearby similarly yielded that same past tenant’s toileting recommendations, which I was less taken with. Too near the water, bog paper poking out etc.

All this aside it was a good quiet camp, and with no phone signal that made it more so.

Day 4

Bank Holiday Monday was another fine day. And although I hadn’t got as far as White Tor yesterday, it was just a matter of climbing the slope behind the tent and crossing a bit of barely contoured ground. How hard could it be?

Very hard is the answer.

Getting to the stone circle was ok. It then looked an incredibly long way to White Tor…

Worse was to come. That incredibly long way was mostly bog. About a mile of it.

At one point I went in calf deep and could feel myself sinking further. Not as bad as the time I went in thigh deep in the Lake District, nor the Domen Milwyn incident, but certainly in the medal positions for worst bog I’ve experienced.

It was another 2 hours before I was on top of White Tor, taking a break, although I did go and pick off Little White on the far side first.

This turned into a considerable break: a full “boots off” stop, with a brew.

The mission was now complete: 6 out of 6 Whites all in the bag. That didn’t mean I was home and dry though. It was still a long way back to the car. A whole day, as it turned out.

The walk to Lynch Tor seemed to take forever, but in reality (as the timestamps on the photos prove), it was about an hour. Here I encountered a bloke doing the Perambulation. We chatted for a while. This also provided the means of putting off a decision of which way to head now.

There were two main options – straight north for Amicombe Hill etc and the route we took on the last trip; or a more central route to position better for Belstone. One would give dryer feet but at the cost of more ascent and distance; the other substantially less dry feet but more direct.

I opted for the second option as I didn’t want to simply repeat the previous trip too much.

Fur Tor stood a couple of miles away across a vast expanse of vegetation, and not all of it was going to be firm and dry. You could almost liken it to a vast castle in the middle of the moor, with a mile wide moat of bog surrounding it. A variety of sheep tracks cut through the grasses, but these are unreliable, and there were several times I had to leave them to stay on a vaguely direct course.

The infant Walkham yielded a much needed top up of water before I got to Fur Tor, which in itself was a couple of hours slogging through soft ground and long tufty grass. It just never seemed to get nearer. But eventually I stood at the tor.

Now the Kneesets, but by this time I’d pretty much fixed on Lints Tor as my target for the day. This would leave me a straightforward walk out the next morning along good tracks. I just hoped someone else hadn’t had a similar idea.

I dropped down to cross Cut Combe Water and heave myself up onto Little Kneeset, the path still remembered from less than a month ago. I took a different route onto Great Kneeset though, deciding I didn’t need to go to the top and could just cut across the western plateau. Not surprisingly, this yielded another mile of long tussocky grass and soft ground underfoot.

Eventually, though, I was dropping down steeply to Kneeset Foot to cross the West Okement. I filled up with water and began reascending onto Lints Tor. Relieved to see it devoid of people, having thought I’d seen people lurking there, I found found a spot just a little lower down for some shelter and made my final camp of the trip.

Day 5

The next morning was a short walk back along the ridge to join the track up to and beyond Dinger Tor. Although I had as much time as I wanted, I was very much in “get it done” mode, not uncommon on the final stretch. Five miles lay between me and the comfort of the car, a change of clothes, dry feet, and a cooked breakfast.

Paul and I exchanged messages whilst I was grinding out the tracks, and we set a meet time of 10am for breakfast. A deadline in place, this helped me push out the last of the walk and I made it to the car with just enough time to change before meeting him for breakfast.

Reflections

As I said at the top of this post, there’s a good chance this will be the biggest backpacking trip this year. But, it only partially scratched the itch. In hindsight a 4 day backpack on Dartmoor only 3 weeks after already doing one, just made it all a bit too familiar.

The one thing, bizarrely, that saved the trip was all the bog and tussocky ground. I had to motivate myself to cross big stretches of barren and difficult terrain solo, which I don’t have to do often. It felt good getting it under my belt, and gave a small amount of the feeling you get when backpacking successfully in less familiar and demanding terrain. I’m increasingly aware of the part Dartmoor has played in building my confidence in wild terrain, and of course in my confidence on boggy ground. It’s made me a more patient backpacker too, as that’s the only thing to be when faced with mile after mile of bog to cross.

I think though, that I do need to go somewhere different for the next trip.

Whenever that may be…..

4 thoughts on “Dartmoor: A Step in the White Direction

  1. Excellent post, Matthew, and some great ground covered. What’s next? All of the Black Tors? That would take you to near enough the northernmost and southernmost points in the National Park, and would probably be double the distance. ATB Max.

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    1. I figured Blacks was too much, given that means walking almost all the way to Ivybridge and back again. Nearly went for the Highs/Highers on the White trip. The deal breaker was Higher Hartor which was too much of a detour. Otherwise, I’d have had a crack.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely considered doing Sharps, but they’re so dispersed, and would have meant a lot less walking on the open moor to get between them, that it didn’t quite fit the bill. I think I’d have needed longer too. But I do think doing “All the Sharps” would be something that people would recognise as being a bit of a challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

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