09 October 2014

England: Hay Tor, Dartmoor National Park

Walking on Dartmoor – what a fabulous introduction to Devon!

We parked at the National Park Visitor Centre near Hay Tor and from there wandered wherever the notion took us. The moor was covered with bracken, which was just beginning to turn from the usual vibrant green to its orange, yellow and brown autumn colours, as well as two types of heather, flowering pink and purple, all interspersed with grassy areas and patches of soggy peat.

We headed off on a bit of a circuit of various tors, the huge piles of exposed granite that dot the landscape, particularly the tops of hills. At our first tor we discovered, purely by chance – well, actually I was trying to get close enough to a wee bird to get a good photo – a plastic box containing three rubber stamps, a stamp pad and a notebook – and this was my introduction to the ‘sport’ of letterboxing. It was invented on Dartmoor in the 1850s but has now spread throughout the world.

There are two aspects to letterboxing: if you want you can deposit your own letterbox, with a stamp in it – often something unique – plus a pad and a log book. You need to hide the box somewhere, not too obvious but in a place you can find again as you may need to maintain it. You can also be someone who goes letterboxing – following a set of clues, usually published in a leaflet by the local club, or simply by following your nose and checking all the rock piles you find as you walk. The idea is that you keep your own logbook into which you make an impression of the stamps you find, along with their location, and you ink your own stamp in the logbooks of other boxes you find, with a hello message for the owner.

We didn’t actually know how the system was supposed to work when we found our first box so just wrote a message in the logbook and took photos. Later, on Facebook, I tried unsuccessfully to get more clues for a further walk but the local club person was on holiday and no one else was prepared to scan a few pages of their leaflet and send them to us. A shame as we would’ve spent another day trying to find more – I do love a good treasure hunt!

Onwards … we followed the tracks of old tramways, used for hauling granite from quarries on the moor to local towns and cities. The moor is littered with tumbling piles of colossal granite boulders – the random shapes were caused by molten lava that was pushed up from the depths of the earth in plate movements millions of years ago. Over the centuries, smaller boulders have been used to build the dry-stone walls that divide the farmland in this part of the country. It looked like someone had been repairing the tumbled-down walls and we did our bit to help by placing our own boulders in a couple of gaps.

Viv repairs a dry-stone wall

Through a gate with a sign marked ‘Beware of Bull’ (luckily there was none), we discovered a Devon Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve that included a bog, Becka Brook Mire (luckily not too soggy), and Emsworthy, an old house and farm buildings, now mostly ruins though the barn has a new roof and nesting boxes for barn owls inside. We mooched around the ruins, taking photos of the magnificent old trees, the fascinating tiny lichens and sedums growing on the rocks, and a couple of rather spectacular big fungus growths on one of the trees.

As well as the flora we discovered growing all over the moorland, there was also an abundance of fauna. The local not-so-wild life included the rather comically coloured Belted Galloway cattle, Scottish Black-face sheep and, of course, the ponies Dartmoor is famous for. These ponies are no longer wild, but are allowed to roam and graze on the common lands of the moor during the summer months before being taken down in the winter to their owners’ farms. They are gorgeous (and I couldn’t help including lots of photos of them here).

We saw lots of little birds, flitting from one bracken top to another but most were too distant and quick for good photos. We chased pretty butterflies, laughed at bonking bumblebees, and admired purple-skinned beetles.

Hay Tor was our last stop of the day. At an altitude of 457 metres (1499 feet), it’s the highest local viewpoint and provides stunning panoramas of the surrounding countryside, as well as the Devon coastline and the English Channel beyond.

From there we drove the dramatic road down and uphill to Widecombe-in-the-Moor for an early dinner – we’d got so carried away with our wandering that we’d had no lunch, not even a drink, all day. Widecombe is a charming little village and the pub, the Old Inn, served us a scrumptious meal, with some delicious and rather potent local cider to wash it down. It was the perfect end to a most excellent day.

'Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All'