Dark, haunting, lovely and lonely – a perfect hike
There are hikes, strolls, meanders, route-marches, wanderings and perambulations – but what ingredients are required to fall in line with the title of these articles? What makes for a truly classic walk?
Several WMN readers have asked this while praising the glorious double-page spread we get for our walking adventures in the paper nowadays – and of course it is a difficult, how-long-is-a-piece-of-string, question to answer. One person's classic walk might be another's nightmare.
Over the 13 years I've been writing about walks I have evolved the following rules of thumb, and the most important is this: that hikes which appear in a general family newspaper should, as a rule, be attractive to the largest number of readers. In other words, it's no good describing some 35-mile route-march which would appeal to a small handful of outward-bound enthusiasts.
Secondly, the walk should be scenic, or full of interest – preferably both. In many other parts of the country the prescription for both would seem a tall order, but not in the Westcountry.
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Thirdly, the writer of newspaper walks should be willing to adapt to the prevailing circumstances (as witnessed in our last two classic walks when I was prevented from leaving my home patch by the snow).
Having said all that, we'd better come up with one that addresses all three of these principles. Let's take the last first...
At this time of year, when we only get a few hours of daylight, I like to head for the western flanks of the hills if I can. Why? Because the days are still short and light is at a premium – and the western slopes of our big hills allow you to enjoy the last vestiges of sunlight as the big orb sinks into the ocean beyond. Which means you get sunsets. Big red, horizon-to-horizon affairs that lurk above the lonely marches like scarlet curtains hiding heaven.
I saw one of these the other day. It was draped across Bodmin Moor so that it looked like a place condemned to burn in a beautiful hell. Between where I stood and the rough peaks of the west was the great wide Tamar borderland, where the lights began to twinkle and the evening chimney smoke was smeared down a hundred riverine coombes. Dark, haunting, lovely and lonely. That is what I thought about that great abyss as I went my weary way.
The B3357 Tavistock to Two Bridges road had conveyed me up and up, out of the vale and on to the western plateau of Dartmoor – which is where I stopped, transfixed by the quality of the light.
At Merrivale the road dips to pass the quarries and the pub, and then climbs on eastwards past the famous old hut circles. On the right you'll see a small car park set amid some low, ancient walls – and this is where I parked and reached for my coat. For one thing, I wanted to take a closer look at the two extraordinary stone rows that run across the hill in parallel just a few yards from here. You'll see them on the Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map 28 – and you will not fail to spot them on the ground.
They look like the markings for some primeval runway. Set about 150 feet apart, each row of stones continues for about a quarter of a mile. The stones range between a few inches and several feet in height, and the general impression you get from the twin alignments is one of mystery. I don't suppose anyone will ever know what the ancient people thought they were doing, dragging huge heavy stones across the moor to make two lines.
The stone rows on neighbouring Exmoor tend to run from some old chieftain's barrow down to a nearby spring – perhaps something to do with water spirits, naiads and dryads and the like. But up here on barren Dartmoor, these two lines seem to have been placed for some other mysterious reason. A landing strip for aliens? As good an answer as any.
The weather was tremendous and, having studied the stone rows, I decided to make a walk of it before the sun went down. And I'm glad I did because the route I'm going to describe addresses the first and second of my classic walk principles…
It's neither too long, nor too short (requiring between two-and-a-half and three hours of your time) and it is rich in heavenly views, not to mention historic interest.
Just west of the stone alignments there are some field-walls and, at the southern extremity of these, I passed through a gate and walked down over the moor to join the footpath that continues south to the farm at Longash.
Now the path enters a rather magical, moss-and-lichen-covered wood just under Hucken Tor, which the writer William Crossing called Okel Tor, describing it as: "One of the most beautiful rock piles of Dartmoor."
In fact, dear old Crossing seemed to be rather enamoured with this neighbourhood altogether. He says: "The masses [of rocks] are so delightfully shrouded in dwarf oaks and mountain ash, tufts of heather and patches of the bright green whortleberry plants, that they present an appearance that cannot fail to enchant the beholder."
After a few twists and turns our path crosses a cascading stream and eventually issues out into rough fields through which we stroll until we reach a place called Daveytown. Not a town, just a farm… But here we join the paved lane that takes us south again, through the pretty countryside of the Walkham Valley, until we reach a crossroads on a spur of hill just above Ward Bridge.
We turn left up the hill and begin the short but scenic ascent to Ingra Tor – and this is where we catch the train.
Not really, but that's what I told one of my companions who had moaned that the walk looked too damn far. I don't know if he was comforted by my explanation that railways mean easy gradients and therefore little effort on the part of the walker.
He had no choice but to follow me along the old permanent way – as railway people optimistically call their beloved tracks. The actual line disappeared over half-a-century ago, which was when the wives and girlfriends of prisoners at Princetown were last able to let the train take the strain when visiting their incarcerated men-folk.
My reluctant friend soon saw the sense in following the old track as it swerved effortlessly around the contours, on its way up to Princetown, and even agreed with me about the short-cut which ascends the hill below Swelltor Quarries. It's only a few hundred yards of steepish climbing, but it saves a mile or more of railway walking out around King's Tor.
At the point where the footpath rejoins the track, we are able to cross directly to the bed of yet another old line – this time an old tramway which heads north past the ruins at Foggintor Quarry to pass lonely Yellowmeade Farm. This must be one of the most isolated, windswept farmsteads in the Westcountry, but its grandstand view of the sunset is second to none.
Shortly after the farm we cut across the heath to the Grimstone and Sortridge Leat which runs – like a thread of glimmering gold during sunset hours – back to the car. I must say that, in that heavenly light, on the lonesome and freezing hill, the arduous business of finding a truly classic walk each week seemed like a wondrous responsibility indeed.