Beating the Bounds of Lydford Parish

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Living Adventurously

It’s not often that you get invited on a walk that only happens once every 7 years. For those who don’t live on Dartmoor, ‘Beating the Bounds’ is an activity that has happened for generations. In practice, it is a walk around the edge of a boundary – usually a parish boundary, marked by boundary stones. But traditionally, it has a couple of functions. Firstly, it is a way of teaching the children of the parish exactly where the edge of the parish is. Secondly, it’s a bit like wassailing: the beating involves actually hitting the boundary stones with a stick to drive away evil spirits. No requirements to dress up though.

The Lydford Parish boundary walk happens once every 7 years. My friend Alex heard about it and suggested we went along. We’re not quite locals but everyone was very welcoming.

Leaving Lydford

We started in a crowd of people on Lydford Playing Fields – people of all ages. The youngest in single digits. There were four planned checkpoints, including lunch. Some people were only going halfway, while others would continue round the whole loop. Leaving Lydford up a stony track along the Dartmoor Way, we quickly realised that this was not exactly the kind of walk we thought it was. We assumed it would be a bit more like 11 Tors – where you are given the route and allowed to walk at your own pace, checkpointed along the way. This was actually a guided walk.

“Did you two bring a leash I can put you on?” said the poor walk leader in a high viz jacket, trying to herd some 50 people.

We passed the first stone, which the children hit enthusiastically with budding hazel sticks from the hedge. Then we carried on down the road and along a lane shady lane.

Into the Woods

Soon we were in Lydford Forest, walking down a stony track with a grass strip down the middle. The trees were plantation initially, on a steep descent towards the river. But slowly, the tree cover melted into deciduous sprawl and the track got narrower and narrower. We were just in time to see a bright carpet of bluebells in amongst the exploding green undergrowth. We’ve had a very wet April here in West Devon and this past week, it is as though Spring has lifted up her arms and cried, “Up!” and every plant has listened. Everything is a young, vibrant yellow-green and growing fast.

The path we were on popped out into the back of Lydford Gorge, right beside the White Lady waterfall. Lydford Gorge is owned by the National Trust and we were allowed especially to walk through that way today. Lydford Gorge is one of those strange places in my mental map of the area: it’s detached from everywhere else. Walking through that gate in the woods was like putting a jigsaw piece into the map in my head.

On the way up the hill, we bumped into Robbie Evans, who was the first person to attempt my All the Tors Challenge route in one go (after me!). He did it in August 2020 and I’d hoped to see him in at the finish, but couldn’t make it happen in the end. It was great to hear about his walk first-hand (and, yes, I do still owe him a hot chocolate).

After a steep ascent out of the gorge, we arrived at the top car park, where the National Trust treated us all to a drink and flapjack.

Onto the Moor

For this walk, I was wearing a pair of adidas Terrex trail running shoes (these, particularly) that adidas sent me to try. We were definitely not running, but I wanted to see how they performed in variable terrain, over a full day, and what the grip was like. So far so good but we hadn’t got into the rough stuff yet. One key thing was that the laces hadn’t undone – something I’m always wary about with laced trainers. So far so good.

Out across Black Down and the first views of the moor: Great Nodden, Arms Tor and across to Great Links Tor. We met some very interesting people from Lydford as we walked and couldn’t help but chat about common concerns this side of Devon, like the ceaseless construction of new housing estates and the state of the roads. No solutions, but always nice to know you’re not alone. Meanwhile, the smallest members of the groups were doing a great job encouraging each other up the hills.

But of course a Pasty

We arrived at Wilsworthy Barracks to the best lunch surprise ever: pasties. Because any good walk of course involves a pasty. So we sat in the shade and munched on our excellent lunch.

The Breakaway Group

At this point, some people were leaving the group and the two of us were considering our options. We wanted to do the full thing but we really didn’t have time to walk at this pace. Not that it wasn’t pleasant, but we had things to get back for before dinner time. In the end we decided to drop out of the official event (*cries in shiny certificate and icecream*) so that we could complete the walk and be back before 7pm.

“We’ll probably catch you up,” said one of the group leaders. We smiled, “I doubt it.”

Released out onto the moor, we headed up towards the dip between Hare Tor and Sharp Tor. By this point I could confirm that my shoes definitely weren’t waterproof. Even so, it has been a few weeks since I was on this part of the moor and it was incredible to see just how green it was now, in such a short space of time. Summer is truly here.

It seems that the War Department markers – much more modern than boundary stones – are along much of the route. We ticked one off before going downhill again and along the Rattlebrook towards Bleak House. I can’t help but wonder just how bleak it would be living in that house, even on scorching hot days like today.

B is for Bog

As we headed for the boundary stone in the middle of the great big bog below Great Links Tor, we saw a quad bike driving along the track. Probably a farmer, we thought. But she stopped and waved at us, “Are you beating the bounds?”

“Yes!” we shouted from the bog – I guess why else would anyone be here.

“I’ll be up on the tor! I’ve got refreshments!”

Score. We thought we’d miss out on the refreshment stop by skipping ahead of the group. Many squelch-runs in to the boundary stone and out again, we were sitting up on Higher Dunna Goat with her.

We enjoyed bottled water, crisps and wafer biscuit bars. It turns out that the lady had her sheep out on this part of the moor, so was allowed to drive her quad bike on the track up here. We were very appreciative. After a short stop, we left her to enjoy reading her book. Still no sign of the other group behind us.

The Final Countdown

I’m tempted to say it was all downhill from here and I think that was almost true. We followed the obvious route back down towards the Fox and Hounds, past the side of Arms Tor, and decided to stick to the actual boundary line rather than detour to the pub. After a tiny bit of confusion work out exactly how to get back onto the boundary after crossing the main road, we crossed the Granite Way and continued over Fernworthy Down.

This met up with the Dartmoor Way and suddenly I knew exactly where we were again. Looking back towards the moor as we were about to lose sight of it, we still couldn’t see the big group. And given it was approaching 5pm, we knew we’d made the right decision. Soon we were back in Lydford, bounds successfully beaten – many thanks to Lydford Parish for putting on such a wholesome event.

And to wrap up, a quick overview of the shoes. They aren’t supposed to be waterproof, so of course my feet got rather wet. But what more can you expect on Dartmoor? Luckily I found that they were also very quick drying – although by the end even Alex could hear the squelching noises I was making. They sounded rather like a duck (yes, it was the end of the day). But despite getting very wet, the laces never once came undone or even loose. That’s pretty impressive to me.

Also there is a lot of cushioning in the sole, much more than I’m used to in fell running shoes that basically let you feel everything underfoot. This gave me the feeling of bouncing, think like the main character in Portal but less extreme… And the grip was great. It’s quite hard to get the shoes on and off, precisely because they are so secure on my feet, but for a long day it was utterly worth it for not having to faff with laces every hour.

Hi, I’m Emily! I’m a female adventurer based in the UK. I’m also that girl who did all the tors in one go, if you’re based near Dartmoor and maybe saw me on TV! If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. If not, maybe join my Adventure Squad newsletter. More like a chat with a cuppa and as far from doomscrolling as possible.