Mind Boggling
The Great Outdoors|December 2019
Rising rivers, quaking bogs, ferocious winds, possible thunderstorms and annoying theme tunes – will Paul Beasley be able to take all this in his stride and successfully cross Dartmoor?
Paul Beasley
WE PAUSED ON BUTTERDON HILL, barely 20 minutes into our planned threeday journey. It had started off smoothly on the so-wide-you-can’t-miss-it Two Moors Way – but things were about to get ‘interesting’.

The main challenge of crossing Dartmoor is not to do with height. After all, the pinnacle of this national park is the weathered granite outcrop of Yes Tor, which pokes a mere 2031ftinto the sky. The real difficulty is the quaking, squelching bog which bows between the tors like a wet blanket on a slack washing line. Even in dry spells, the bog is rarely firm underfoot thanks to sphagnum moss, which is able to hold up to 26 times its dry weight in water. Add to this how nondescript the hills can look in poor visibility and you begin to understand what qualities the Royal Marines gain from training on Dartmoor.

Yet it wasn’t the bog that preoccupied us as we gazed out over the moor. Instead, it was what was forecast to swing offthe ocean behind us – a two-fisted assault of intense rain and gale-force winds. So, knowing the likely conditions, why did we even bother?

A combination of family commitments and a twice-postponed operation had made our ‘windows of opportunity’ more like arrowslits in a castle, so we decided to take the chance and come what may. Initially, the forecast was brilliant, but the nearer we got to our departure the greater the chances became that we’d be walking out in a dreadful downpour.

C’est la vie. Forward!

Many rivers to cross

“This cloud coming in now with its patchwork of grey and white is stratocumulus, and behind it is nimbostratus – the real rain-bringer,” says Martin, ominously, from our vantage point. On cue, parts of the mid ground begin to disappear in sudden, blurring cloudbursts. Not wanting to pitch a tent in rain, we cross our fingers and push on.

The atmosphere may be gloomy, but we’re not glum for there are white ponies to photograph and meadow pipits to spot. After five miles of easy walking, it’s time to head off the gravel-packed bridleway and onto a footpath. In typical Dartmoor style, the path is nowhere to be seen. Still, we can see the prehistoric ‘pound’ we’re heading for, so we painstakingly pick our way through half a mile of knee-high grass held aloft on unstable clumps.

Our next obstacle is the River Erme, which looks to be about three feet deep and running powerfully. It’s only a couple of metres wide in places, so we look for a spot where we can jump across. Martin does this quickly, but I head upstream to find an easier crossing. A mile further north, with darkness having fallen and Martin’s headtorch no longer visible above the opposite bank, I grudgingly accept that there is no easier place. I hurl my bag across the water in frustration, then leap after it. Clinging on to wet grass, I clamber up the slope and find Martin.

The next task is to locate a stone row – at just over two miles, the world’s longest – as it’ll lead us to Stall Moor Stone Circle, where we plan to wild camp. Using a combination of GPS coordinates and compass bearings, we intersect the row after 20 minutes; but as the stones are only as high as the grass it would have been easy to miss them. In the dark, the broken, boot-sucking ground is a struggle. Shortly after 10pm, we find the stone circle – and then a half-skull of a pony someone has placed in its dead centre. Hmm… what kind of cult are we stumbling into here? Tent pitched, I tell Martin the story of the circle – apparently, girls were caught dancing with a male on the Sabbath and were turned to stone as a punishment. Well, that served them right!

Heads in the clouds

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