Dartmoor: The Safari – Part 1: Cats, Bears and Bunnies

Lockdown eased and social media was awash with people taking their first tentative steps back into backpacking. I had a week off arranged for mid May – a remnant of the time already reserved for the TGO Challenge – but with a reasonably settled forecast, and some evolution in things going on at work, I decided to bring that week forward.

The Plan

It was always going to be Dartmoor for the first trip. Anywhere else is a matter of a long train or bus journey, and I’m not quite ready for that yet. Indeed with the 1st dose of vaccine still kicking in, it seemed silly to put myself out there before the 3 weeks was up. So Dartmoor, where I can drive to; Dartmoor, where I feel comfortable; Dartmoor, which is still a good test of my condition and skills.

With a week to play with and a bank holiday weekend on the end, I had more time than I would usually for such a trip, so could do pretty much whatever I fancied. I decided to dust off one of my ideas for theme walks (see the “White tors” trip from late August), and eventually settled on a theme of animal-related tor names. The idea being to put as many into the route as possible – it’s not really feasible to do them all, as in the Tors of Dartmoor database I counted 70 or 80 spread out everywhere.

I planned a route that would last a whole week, but which had enough flexibility to tweak as I went. Arrangements were made to meet up with the usual posse for part of the time. I was pretty much forced into an anti-clockwise loop because of firing times on the Army ranges: Willsworthy in the far west only being open Saturday and Sunday, and Merrivale just another day more. From Tuesday I needed to be clear of Merrivale. Okehampton being open the whole time, otherwise the whole trip would have been virtually impossible.

The route included not just animal tors, but also some others I specifically wanted to tick off, and revisits to various others as they were “on the way”.

Setting Out

“It seemed no bad thing to take a comforting old friend on this first tentative trip.”

Friday came and packing was an odd experience. Both a familiar routine and something that felt odd at the same time. Decisions on kit were complicated by the various new items that hadn’t yet had an outing. At the heart of it was a difficult decision as to what shelter to take. The forecast was for moderate winds early on, which dropped mid-week, very little rain, but very cold. I was going to take the tipik-tentes Aston as this would be spacious and comfortable if spending a lot of time in the tent, but eventually decided to take the old faithful Scarp which what it lacks in space would be amply made up for in familiarity and proven weather resistance. It seemed no bad thing to take a comforting old friend on this first tentative trip. I was also persuaded to take the recently completed MYOG shelter, although conditions were breezier and colder than I would like. I would swap the tents over partway through at the point where friends came on the scene.

Saturday morning and I was awake before 5am. So having already been packed the night before, I just got in the car and went. I was in Exeter in under 3 hours, and Okehampton at 9 something. A chill out in Paul’s garden while we caught up and looked at tents, then we set off for the moor. Paul would accompany me partway and then return home, meeting up again on Tuesday (and bringing the other shelter and the other half of my food).

We made our way out along Halstock Cleave and spent some time looking at the rocks there, before heading up through the farm and over to Rowtor. Weighed down by kit for a week, and food for 4 days, I was really struggling, and we sat at Rowtor for quite a while. Paul eventually left to do some Saturday pottering about, leaving me with the rest of the walk.

The top of Rowtor seemed to be under army occupation, so I left them to it and focused on the roof of Southern England instead. Up to Yes Tor where the wind did its best to knock me over, and then along the ridge by Hampster Tor (animal #1) to the very summit at High Willhays. The wind and biting cold still making it difficult to linger long.

Paul and I had discussed where I was going to camp – with the original route plan being Shelstone Tor, but under the circumstances that was the last place I was going to camp now! Completely exposed to the north easterly, and whilst the tent would handle it fine, it wasn’t going to be conducive to a warm and comfortable night’s sleep. I decided to take up Paul’s suggestion and drop down to the West Okement for shelter.

I strolled down to Fordslands Ledge and continued straight down the hill to Sandy Ford. There the patch of lawn-like grass that Paul had suggested lay, but even this was a bit exposed. I actually opted for a spot nestled in against the hillside to break the wind a bit more. A couple of lads turned up a little while later and seized the lawn. A couple of small groups passed my tent while I was lazing about, and I found out next morning that one of these groups of three had pitched just above me – just as well I didn’t make too many embarrassing noises during the night!

Struggling for Fitness

Sunday came and I was away just as the lawn lads were surfacing. As I crossed the West Okement, I stopped to chat with one of them, before climbing up the side of Amicombe Hill, my destination Kitty Tor (animal #2), today’s first animal. The wind was still pretty stiff which meant I didn’t linger at Kitty, and instead ploughed on to Green Tor. Green Tor is one of those only ever visited before when the day was already well advanced, and levels of interest waning, so it was nice to take the time to have a proper look. Most crucially it had some good shelter from the easterly wind, although this same feature would normally rule it out as good shelter from the prevailing weather direction.

On down to Bleak House and the Dunnagoats – Lower (animal #3) and Higher (animal #4) – and the animal score now up to 4. Also not properly explored last time.

Great Links Tor lay up a slight slope and provided good shelter for a brew and 1st lunch. As I sat sipping my coffee, I decided to cut out the arc down to Arms, Brat and Doe – mainly on the strength of how much descent and re-ascent would be involved. Realising that this would give me the opportunity to include Chat (animal #5) instead made it an easy decision – the second cat of the day, albeit a French one.

Despite not being able to see it until I was nearly on it, I managed to take a pretty straight course to the tor. Chat is a very neat pile of rock compared with many, and has often been described as a cowpat.

Across Rattlebrook Hill lay my next two targets – Sharp Tor (Lydford) and Hare Tor (animal #6), and these were picked off quickly, as excitement about reaching Tavy Cleave grew.

Tavy Cleave is a stunning gorge topped with tors on one side and with plenty of dramatic plunging views. It’s one of the true delights of Dartmoor, and I’d included it in my route very deliberately.

I headed for the southernmost of the group of Tors, and worked my way northwards: Tavy Cleave South Tor, Sharp Tor (Tavy Cleave), TC North Tor, TC North East Higher, TC North East Lower. On my way from Sharp I encountered an adder jack-knifing its way through the trodden grass towards me. It seemed pretty desperate to get its journey done quickly in the biting wind.

I dropped down into the Cleave itself and made tortuous progress along the shore of the River Tavy, partly wishing I’d just stayed high and dropped down more gently. It was a relief to get to the confluence of The Tavy and Rattlebrook and turn south east with the Tavy. I found a spot beside the river for 2nd lunch and a rest, as I was starting to feel it a bit – so much so that I didn’t bother crossing the river to investigate Knoll and Lord Mayor’s Castle.

I took the side stream of Western Red Lake and followed the range boundary poles – one big cross-open moor trudge now sitting between me and a stopping point. Partway to Lynch Tor I reached that unique point where all 3 ranges meet at the same point.

The day was advancing well as I neared Lynch Tor and Limsboro Cairn, my original intended camp spot for night 2 – picked largely by distance and the fact it was comfortably outside the Willsworthy range. But it was still pretty exposed, water would need an extra walk to get, and my legs had a bit more in them, so I carried on. With ideas of reprising my camp last August by the Walkham, I ploughed across the moor reaching White Barrow on the Lych Way. Over Cocks Hill (animal #7), I fell in with the Dead Lake stream and seeing a nice flat calm spot alongside, opted to stop.

A Tweak with Rewards

A nice peaceful night in, and I woke pretty relaxed. For I had made a plan…

Last night’s camp spot was a few km beyond my original planned stopping point, but even more notably it was actually a lot of km further on down my route, as I’d effectively cut the corner off. I’d spent some time mulling over whether to simply recover the route from where I left it, or simply jettison the bit that was now behind me. Obviously the latter !

Also, I’d rethunk tonight’s camp spot, which per the original plan would have been Crow Tor. But effectively starting several km down the route meant I’d probably be there by lunchtime. So I decided overnight to continue down the route but when I get to Beardown Tors, instead of the planned road walk into Princetown, I’d cross-country back to Great Mis. If I went really well (which obviously was never going to happen), that gave me the option of popping over to Roos and Little Roos to either camp there, or return to Great Mis or a camp by the Walkham.

It was a flexible plan, which meant it was a good plan. And it also meant I wouldn’t spend half the day kicking myself about the bit I cut out, effectively deferring the “decision” to cut that out until the end of the day, when quite frankly I was unlikely to care.

I set off back across Cocks Hill to the White Barrow and swung east onto the Lych Way, heading to cross the Walkham and head up to Conies Down (animal #8). I was there for 2nd Breakfast and spent a while just enjoying the tranquility.

Around the corner in the small valley formed by the Cowsic River I should find Cowsic Rocks (animal #9), so I set about finding them. The second bag of the day, and the second new one too. Having inspected the rather round boulders, I found a semblance of a path down to cross the stream and then set about slogging up to the two Devil’s Tors – first the southern one and then the main one.

…and of course Beardown Man standing stone…

Across the way on the next hill lay Rough Tor, and the path lived up to that name too. A group of ponies decided to scarper as I approached the tor and hut.

Down the ridge was Crow Tor (animal #10), the original target for the day, but now merely a target lunch stop. But it is a favourite tor, even though that’s based on my one and only visit to it. A bit of work initially following the range poles got me there and I found a suitable spot to rest against the rocks and just chill out.

I really enjoyed the view here: I didn’t get one really, the last time I was here.

But of course I couldn’t stay there for ever, so got to my feet again and struck down to the stream to cross it and start slogging up onto the Lydford Tors. Off to the right was Little Lydford Tor, which my previous walks on this hill had never coincided with. It’s not much to look at in comparison with its sibling.

Lydford Tor was a bit better quality, but it’s still no match for the magnificent Beardown Tors – North, East and West (animals #11, #12 and #13)

I got on with the walk to them, making sure I visited each outcrop.

Just to the south of “West” lay a subsidiary group of rocks, which I’d have bypassed as mere outlying rocks of “West” on previous visits, but which the torsofdartmoor database recognises as “Little Beardown Tor” (animal #14).

Down to cross the Cowsic again, as it was here that I was departing from my planned route. I’d had the crazy idea of striking straight across to Great Mis from Holming Beam. In normal times this could be a bit of a nightmare, but in these dry conditions it should be ok underfoot, if a little undistinct in places. And so it proved.

The going became tortuous, as it was clear this is not a popular route. I lost count of the streams crossed and within sight of Great Mis, found a stream and took water from it – it turned out to be the last one, so that was lucky. It was then a bit of a struggle to carry the remaining 1km or so.

All that stood between me and my camp spot (no thoughts now of Roos etc) was a fence. A barbed wire fence requiring some precision to cross. Gear was thrown over first, committing me to the move. I managed to get across with no damage to my undercarriage, recovered my luggage and set about the climb to Great Mis.

Finding it deserted, I looked for a suitable spot, finding one to the north west of the main outcrop. This would give me a decent sunset view too.

Dinner was dealt with and I stood pressed in against the rocks to stay as out of the wind as I could, while watching the sun down. Sunset spurred a flurry of visitors – a dog walker and several runners, but then as the sun slipped below the horizon I had the place to myself again.

Tomorrow, I now just had the straightforward walk into Princetown to meet the others for the second part of the trip….


2 thoughts on “Dartmoor: The Safari – Part 1: Cats, Bears and Bunnies

  1. A really excellent post, Matthew… I am knackered just reading all of it! That route to Great Mis from the east is difficult, especially crossing the Blackabrook which after heavy rain I had slipped into one time. I’m pleased you got to visit some new tors on your trip.


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