It all started on Halloween 2020. I’d carved my pumpkin, roasted some chestnuts and listened to spooky stories by candlelight. Then the news hit about the November lockdown. I’d planned to walk the Dartmoor Way in one continuous circuit over several days during mid-November. It’s a new walking route, local to me that circumnavigates Dartmoor mostly through quiet country lanes and footpaths.
But, with the lockdown announced, I knew I had to move my plans forward. This may sound mad to some people, but I was in desperate need of a camping fix. After spending the month of October basically glued to a screen trying to find a new job, I needed to get out. My sleep schedule had gone haywire, as it often does, and there’s nothing like camping and exercise to reboot it.
Because the lockdown announcement was so sudden, there wasn’t much time left to plan or do the walk. I was left with three days to walk the 108 mile route and one day to do all the planning, shopping and altogether getting myself organised. I should probably say straight up that the Dartmoor Way is designed to be done over 10 stages, each a short day walk with time to enjoy local attractions. A three day, fully laden sprint was not the intention. But 36 miles a day on foot was certainly not impossible.
Anyway, I didn’t really have time to think about it. I ran round a supermarket finding things that might pass as camping food, failed to find steri tabs anywhere and hastily marked out the rough route on my Dartmoor map. The route actually goes outside of the boundaries of the 1:25k OS map in a few places, so I printed those bits. The Dartmoor Way official site has a very useful breakdown of route descriptions and GPX files. The way is also signposted with friendly purple and white marker arrows.
Then I packed a bag with – no surprises – a bit too much kit, got a rough idea of where I might be sleeping each night and left a spare key with the neighbours (because my front door was going to be replaced mid-week. I know, don’t ask!) Feeling incredibly unprepared, I was ready to go.
Day 1 – It Begins
As well as being a leisurely 10 day circuit, the Dartmoor Way is also designed to be walked from Ivybridge. It makes complete sense for public transport connections, but my closest access point to the Way was Tavistock. So I started there. Setting out past the grand statue of Francis Drake, the famous local pirate, I found my first route marker and headed out along Tavistock Canal. It was early morning and a clear, crisp, autumnal one at that. Although I’d overslept slightly and so there were already children arriving to the local school as I walked past.
The route heads south out of Tavistock and soon meets up with the cycle route to Plymouth – called Drake’s Trail locally and Eurovelo 1 internationally. You leave the bike path just past Yelverton and then head off into a warren of footpaths and dismantled railway line constructions.
I really enjoyed this section. It was fascinating to tie together areas I already knew (and re-find sections of my Bronze DofE walk). From Yelverton to Dewerstone to Cadover Bridge – all so close and yet miles apart in my mind. Then I headed up towards more open land, with views towards Trowlesworthy. The path goes right by the edge of the China Clay Works, which is interesting it its own right. Although the weather had been nice until then, Dartmoor gave me a short and torrential soaking, just to remind me where I was. After crossing over Rook Tor, I was back on country lanes. Actually, a lot of Devon’s lanes seem to wish they were rivers.
All in a Day at School
Through more fields and woodland, I arrived in Ivybridge. If I had to pick a theme for this day, it was certainly trees. They were all shades of yellow, red and brown – just past their best and fading into winter. The path was often muddy and black with trodden leaves. Ivybridge’s viaduct appearing through the canopy was spectacular. I’ve been to the town several times before and never noticed it.
As I crossed Ivybridge, heading up to the moor gate, I passed the local school. It was poor timing on my part because kids were streaming down the hill and filling the single pavement I was trying to walk up. But it was somehow amusing. I’d left Tavistock as the kids were arriving at school. Now I’d reached Ivybridge as they were leaving. It’s amazing how far you can walk in a day.
But, with my ambitious targets, I still had a way to walk. Over the railway and up the familiar stony track to the moor gate, I turned right and headed into unknown territory.
And then it got Dark
I wove my way through the lanes and footpaths. There was a short, rather miserable section along the main road in the evening gloom, damp spray from commuters’ cars making the road hazy. I was on a pavement, of course, and was soon heading uphill again towards the moor.
One of the many problems with doing this walk over three days in November is that the days are short. It was pitch black and headtorches long before I would want to stop for dinner. But my body clock was trying to convince me it was time for food and sleep. Still, once I was back up onto open moorland it was beautiful to just stand in complete darkness and look up at the stars.
It was gone 6pm, so I sat down and tucked into my dinner: a 1 min microwaveable side, which I shamelessly ate cold out of the pouch in its entirety. It didn’t taste too bad. The one trouble with being on lots of lanes is that it’s somehow socially unacceptable to sit down in the verge beside the road. Even if it is an almost empty road. I’d spent the last few miles dreaming of benches.
Still, there was even further to go.
A Night in the Rain
The moon came out and I kept walking. In its serene half-light, I barely needed a torch. I encountered two eyes in the dark, too far apart to be a sheep. It must have been a cow, but it fled in my wake. That made me happy. Eventually, I found a spot to pitch the tent. It was a little sooner distance wise than I’d intended, but I figured it was close enough. Tent pitched and all set up for sleeping, I checked my watch. 8:30pm. What?! It felt so much later. Ideally I should have been walking until 10, but it was done now.
I got the map out and inspected how far I had to go the next day. Oh dear. Oh really dear. I had a very long way to walk.
New Day, New Weather – Day 2
The weather had turned. It rained solidly all morning – except for the 30 minutes or so I spent on the high moor, where the route cuts a corner by Avon Dam. That was horizontal hail. Still, I plodded on across fields and through towns and endless wet tarmac lanes. Again, I was joining together sections I knew well – even just from visiting or driving through, more than walking. I found myself on a tiny section of footpath by the caves in Buckfastleigh that I took kids running up on residentials. Then there was a familiar, if rather miserable section, along the long straight road that all the locals use between Ashburton and the Totnes turn off (rather than the A38).
Around halfway down that road, it stopped raining. A huge rainbow arced overhead and I turned off into more country lanes. Shortly after that, I made my first major navigational blunder of the trip. I thought the sign was pointing me down a road to my left. But it was a dead end, so apparently not! I did gain a funny encounter for it though.
A little way down the lane, with two steep ditches on either side, the way was blocked by a fire truck. I thought there might be an incident going on, but the firemen were all standing around by the truck and beckoned me through. I squeezed by in the ditch. It transpired that they’d got their vehicle stuck in the lane, gone and solved the incident on foot and were now waiting for rescue.
“But don’t tell anyone,” they joked.
“Course not, I’m in Dartmoor Rescue,” I grinned.
There was a chorus of laughs and groans, knowing that made it fair game to tell everybody. I feel justified in telling you too, given that I was there myself by shameless navigational blunder – although I didn’t know it yet. We can all laugh at our mistakes.
I passed the fire engine, discovered my dead end and figured I probably ought to check the map. Somehow, through sheer guile, I managed to go all the way back up the road and past the fire engine without receiving any banter. Although a crane and some pylon engineers had arrived and pulled the fire engine out. I’m not sure but I think the crane belonged to them and it was a happy accident that they were there at the same time.
On the way back out, I got talking to one of the engineers.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what walk is it you’re doing?” he asked.
“Oh, the Dartmoor Way. I started in Tavi yesterday then came round the bottom through Ivybridge and up this side. I’m hoping to be back in Tavi before lockdown.”
“You’ve got a tent, I take it,” he said, eyeing my enormous rucksack.
“Yup,” I smiled.
“So where are you going from here? Across the moor?”
“No, the route goes around the top and back down the other side.”
“That’s brave,” he said.
“Brave? Why?” I left just enough of a pause for him to answer, then being British said, “The weather was pretty miserable last night.”
He agreed, “Don’t want to call the Rescue Team out.”
I laughed, “Well I’m in the Rescue Team, so I hope not!”
“Ah, you’ll probably be alright then.”
We reached the top of the hill and cordially went our separate ways. Since this is the internet, I will just say: all of that conversation happened with zero animosity. We could have been remarking about the weather.
The End of the Line
As the day drew on, I started to feel generally depressed about the whole Dartmoor Way thing. At the start, I’d been offered a lift back to Tavistock if I needed it. As kind as that was, it’s probably one of the worst things you can do to me. That kind of offer plays on your mind and all of a sudden I’m acting in the best interest of the person picking me up, not of my trip. This is exactly what happened.
By the time I’d passed through Ashburton, I was convinced that I was going to have to get picked up by Haytor. Mostly because this would be the most convenient place for the person doing the picking up. I didn’t want to come off at all. But I’d convinced myself that I had no choice.
The campsite I’d wanted to stay at outside Mortenhampstead was, obviously, shut and I couldn’t find anywhere else to sleep the night. I was also probably running low on energy and motivation. Plus I had just been pursued and then bitten by a farm dog. Sitting in the verge, chewing liquorice-centred boiled sweets, I was feeling very sorry for myself. And then something more magical than sugar happened: I realised I was lying to myself. I didn’t have to go home this afternoon. I didn’t want to and no one was making me. This was my adventures and I didn’t have to accommodate anyone. It was a huge revelation. I looked at the map again and found an isolated patch of moor I could sleep on. The game was back on.
Into the Night
Past Haytor Rocks, carpark litter blowing across the hill in a strong breeze, I was back in woodland. I did a very lovely section of the Templar Way as evening fell, but I’d lost time moping and my campsite was still a very long way off. So I cheated. I cut the corner on Bovey Tracey, so I didn’t go all the way through Parke only to come all the way back out again. No point.
It fell dark and by dinner time I was walking through the plantation woods west of Lustleigh. Shame really: they would have probably been quite lovely during the day. Alone by torchlight, they were just slightly creepy. By the time I reached a place I could pitch my tent, it was about 10pm. The full moon had lit my way along the empty lanes for hours. There was a cold wind, so I quickly threw up my tent between the gorse bushes and got inside.
^My ankle had felt like it was rubbing on my boot, so I gave it a quick check in the torchlight before slipping into my sleeping bag. It was not what I expected. There was no red, wet-sock chafing like I’d imagined. In fact there were no marks on the skin at all. But my ankle was double the size it should be. Oh great. I got the other foot out to compare and contrast, popping a pre-blister on my right foot for good measure. Yep, there was definitely something up with my left ankle. But there wasn’t really anything that could be done here and now, so I fell asleep.
A Shuffling Slowpoke – Day 3
The wan winter sunrise was worth camping out for. In the dim dawn light, I shook my tent out and for a horrific second thought I’d perished the outer lining. Luckily it was just a layer of frost shattering and scattering across the ground.
After a spot of breakfast, I plodded on. I was now into completely unknown territory, parts of the National Park I’d never been to before. I met a delivery man in a little country village as I wove my way between expensively quaint stone cottages with thatched rooves.
“You look like you’ve slept on the hill,” he said.
“I have!” I exclaimed and he proceeded to quiz me about which sleeping bag I used and where he could get one.
The day seemed cold but clear. I shuffled through a field of beet and on through lanes and fields and footpaths. But it was incredibly slow going. My ankle was not behaving and stiles were becoming very difficult to manoeuvre. I stopped mid-morning on a bench, randomly placed in a green triangle in a road junction. Praise be to the people who place these surprise benches! It was almost lunchtime and I’d barely walked 5 miles. As I sat and ate a carrot and a handful of flapjack bites, a lady came out of the lane I would be heading down.
“It’s absolutely beautiful down there,” she said.
Fingle Woods in a full autumn array of gold and orange, sunlight streaming through the high canopy. It was indeed beautiful.
At the start of the descent to Fingle Bridge, I did a full body check. This doesn’t involve stopping and poking limbs or pulling funny positions or anything. I just do a top down awareness sweep of my body on how it’s feeling. I was reassured, if slightly frustrated, to discover that it really was just my left ankle in pain, letting the side down. Everything else felt fine: brain slightly tired, legs slightly tired and plenty left in the tank. But stepping down on my left ankle was causing me acute pain, slowing me to a shuffle on the steep gravel descent into the Teign Valley.
It was around about this point, I think, that I realised I wasn’t going to make it round. I didn’t admit it to myself until I’d spent 15 minutes with a group waiting for an ambulance on the other side of the valley. I wouldn’t have done that if I was serious about finishing. But that’s another story. Decision made, I realised that if I was going to come off, I needed to do it soon – at Castle Drogo – or at Okehampton around about 10pm. In between there would unlikely be any phone signal. So I sat on a bench, munched lunch and rang my lift.
Unsurprisingly, they chose mid-afternoon at Castle Drogo. I sat around in the autumn sunshine, posed on outcrops above the sheer valley and generally sauntered round to the National Trust entrance. It was about 2pm when I was picked up.
Looking back on it, as I have many times now in the course of writing this story, I should have been able to do it. Completing the Dartmoor Way in three days still seems incredibly do-able, to the point that over the past three months I’ve gone from “ah well” to “I have unfinished business here”. My times for the first two days were adequate and it’s just day 3 that fell apart. With a little more prep time, less kit and no weird ankle issue, I’m sure I could have done it.
At the time, it really didn’t matter though: I’d got what I wanted. (Although perhaps a little more literally than I’d intended.) I wanted to spend a couple of nights in a tent before lockdown, with a long enough walk that the prospect of being sofa-bound for months seemed generally appealing. In reality, I couldn’t bend my ankle properly for weeks. Be careful what you wish for kids.
Still, the restlessness has grown, the ankle has healed up and as soon as camping is back on the menu, I’m fairly sure I’ll be back. Dartmoor Way, I’ve got a score to settle with you.