Dartmoor – Part 1

On the Summer service from Exeter to Okehampton, one gets a sense of its nature from the passengers. Gone are the bored commuter that normally sit glumly waiting for a destination, they may not want. Instead one knows it is a train to somewhere of interest for there may be a man with deep-set eyes, wind-tanned face and a border collie with passant nonchalance. Queen Anne’s lace provides a ruff to each and every field that can be seen as the train cuts through the heartland of Devon. The open air of the Moor seems to seep into the carriage. As it pulls into the station and eyes are briefly baffled by the lack of benches and waiting passengers, instead many tables set for tea litter the small platform.

 

The walk up from the station is well signed, steep and forested to obscure views. Soon one might forget the proximity of the station, yet one cannot forget man’s influence on this landscape, neat hedgerows, smoothly cambered tarmac and neat cars. But even now the short walk up from Okehampton is worth it for at the edge of the scrubby fields, as the path joins the road, the rake of the hill provides views right over North Devon. One can imagine taking in the width of a whole county: a seaward horizon laid out as a map before a child.

 

As the road curves west there is a damp spot in the grass, amongst the marsh grass water can be seen with its mirrored darkness. For this is the ignoble state of Fitz’s Well, once capable of providing sanctification to those pixy-led. A rough-hewn cross, now mainly hidden by encroaching vegetation, marks the spot. Erected to mark the edge of the wild moor, and the supernatural taint of the uncontrollable. A last mark of human reign over the elemental slopes, brooks, mires and tors. But now it is resigned to impotence, an oddity at the edge of a road, seldom noticed, and even then thought of as an oddly shaped lump of granite and nothing more. Now Okehampton camp, with its military order and clearly marked control, lies further into what was once a slope made dangerous by the absence of Man. Now the main risks one faces here are from the live firing range and unexploded ordnance.

 

Yet humanity, with our earthbound impotence, are shown to be subject to this environment. One must have ironclad ego to be able to watch a swallow spar with gravity a metre from one’s face, a moving knot against a blue material and not question their hubris to think this land can be owned and that humanity are not as ephemeral as the butterfly still taking to the wing as November’s chill bites. As the road rises towards West Mill Tor one might feel an affinity with Buchan’s Hannay in the remote fells of Galloway.

The dangers of Dartmoor are oft reiterated, one must always have a map, compass and rainproof clothes lest they be pixy-led by the mist, fall and break limbs, or sucked into a mire. And whilst it would be verging on stupidity to venture there without a map, if one has a memory and can read the land it is very hard to get lost.

As the path rises one is reassured by West Mill Tor on the right and Moor Brook cutting through the turf to the left, with a gentle murmur. If one insists on fully triangulating their position, a third landmark of the rather diminutive Rowtor might be used, though it pales even in comparison with West Mill Tor. Just past the brook’s head the road runs out and is replaced with a loose gravel path, still marking titular ownership on the land. Once even this peters out, one is close enough to pick out individual boulders of Yes Tor, see the synthetic trig point, and look back unsure of quite where one started. Finally the moor is in ascendancy and one must either wet their feet as the path fords Red a ven Brook or risk finding a narrow point to jump, in the hope the ground feet land upon is firm enough not to yield to the waters’ cut.

 

The peak of Yes Tor is besullied, not by the trig point which has a utilitarian elegance, but by the unmarked sheds that hide their purpose, and remind the walker that they may only tred at the MoD’s pleasure. But a constant wind breathes life into the wilderness. One must be arrogant or have reached the heights of stupidity not to feel the power of nature, when the wind seems eager to snatch away any unfastened possessions. Many toponyms imagine ridges as skeletal parts of Gaia, most without much veracity, yet this ridge reaching slightly up from Yes Tor to the tumbled High Willhays, is surely the spine of Devon. There is no high horizon to aspire to conquer.  One standing on the High Willhays is not sheltered by any landmass, their body is the highest thing south of the Brecon Beacons, and must thus face untamed winds, and be exposed. Yet it is worth it as one can survey the whole area and see people passed still walking slowly up the tracks, reduced to miniatures played across a diorama.

It is easy to forget the difficulties of the Moor when following common routes. Even when there is no solid path, the wear of boots levels and calms the turf. Branching out from the High Willhays towards Black Tor goes against any natural path. On this terrain of grassy clumps, random stones, and insidious mire, the tales of people wandering to their deaths, when the fog arises, seem to worm into conscious thought. The oddness of following a straight line from a map, and not the curving paths of others, brings to mind the Dartmoor works of Richard Long, which are given added power once one has tried similarly to impose geometry. After the impressive height of the last tors, crowned with trig points, Black Tor seems like a few abandoned toys of a giant busy modelling grander Tors.

 

 

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Eggesford

Perched above the slowly curving River Taw are the remains of two Norman Castles. Sitting in what is now Heywood Forest and surrounds, just above Eggesford Station. Once fully obscured by neglect and woodland, now merely ignored and overlooked, they are mainly unknown. To the north, on higher ground, is Heywood Castle set in Heywood forest, and in a wooded part of Eggesford House’s grounds sits Eggesford Castle. The presence of two castles so close together has perplexed many scholars, as they seem to be of similar date. The most convincing argument is that Heywood Castle was built as a replacement, as it sits in a better position. This is reassuring to one who does not wish to trespass, as they might see the most important fortification without jumping any fences, yet having walked far to circumvent the House’s grounds one might be excused in questioning the right to exclusive use of such large stretches of land.

Eggesford conveniently lies on the Tarka Line, running from Exeter to Barnstaple, so can be reached within 45 minutes from St David’s. Serviced by old two-car trains, the journey has a sense of slow continuity in contrast to the slick trains that run out of the county. The city quickly dissolves into the rolling farmland and wooded hills of Devon proper. As the line follows the Creedy valley the river glimpses into view, often as a ribbon of trees meandering through an otherwise empty field. Whilst land around undulates, the train sticks to the base of valleys, twisting through the county, lead by the waterways. The course of one brook separates two fields, one of turquoise grass, made fluid by the wind, the other of ruddy soil recently broken open by the plough. It would take a lifetime to track and name each rivulet and watercourse, or naiads realm. At the middle point between the coastal basins, with no noticeable sign, the water system changes. All streams no longer flow to the Exe, the Taw is now dominant and can be seen as the train pulls in to stop.

Oddly Eggesford is not a request stop, although the station is far smaller and more isolated than most others on the line. If one is so inclined one might believe this is because the Earl of Portsmouth at the time of the station’s building, on his estate, only gave permission with the condition that each and every train must stop, for him and his guest’s convenience, there. However, as the law does not like the dead to control the living, it is more likely that trains stop there now as it makes a logical point to pause and wait for the correct signal onwards. The rather handsome 19th Century station building is now a private residence, but has not lost its charm with a wisteria climbing the trackside façade. The platforms are well kept and ornamented. Indeed sitting next to purple tulips in full bloom and listening to chitterlings from the riverbank foliage, is one of the better ways to spend time waiting for a train. Yet, the absence of a settlement around the station is an obstacle to a truly commodious wait as there is no pub to retire to for a drink, or contemplation of the trip.

The fortifying power of a pint would greatly advantageous for the walk up from the station, as one must do about a half hour of plodding up narrow roads to reach the forest. For unlike in Thomas Hardy’s day, there is no brougham waiting outside the station to whisk one up the hill. At the edge of the forest is a small car park, after which the vaguely surfaced road gives way to a stone based mud track. Wide, yet overshadowed enough for one to imagine the plight of Varus’s legions hemmed in by the Teutoburg forest. Shadows behind trees morph into men and then, with reason, back to dead wood. The edges of the path are speckled with bluebells, primroses, and ramsons. This deciduous carpet seeps into the forest, clinging to the light, amongst the few plaid saplings growing in vain. Beyond monotonous lines of pines stretch into obscurity, silenced by the needle mulch. There is no sound save the susurrations of the wind, the clap of a startled pigeon’s wings, and the imported sound of walked dogs. The frequency of bluebells and the range of trees trying to challenge the managed growth, suggest an ancient foundation to this modern wood.

All that is left of Heywood Castle are the earthworks, slightly overgrown but clearly visible. Yet, with no signage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the mounds are either natural or the result of some inconsequential industrial practice. To the more practised eye, the Motte and Bailey are patently obvious and tell in great detail what would have been here seven hundred years ago. To the north-west, the elevation and provides an impressive view of the commanding position the Castle has, and one can only assume that with native deciduous forest, cut further back to provide a large clearing around the Bailey, one would be able to command movement and obedience in all directions.

The mounds are reminiscent of an M. R. James novel, and one almost expects to find a cursed Saxon crown, thrown down in subjugation as the Normans enslaved the land and claimed dominion. As dusk grows, the atmosphere would grow and the lone traveller would have to be either be steadfast or foolishly rational to not quit the woods before dark. The modern artifice of keeping it as a clearing, and the carpet of bluebells growing undisturbed within the oval moat lends a sense of sanctity. It nearly seems to be more sensible thinking this is the work of another realm, a crossing point, and within the mound sleeps one of the Other folk.

Much of the rest of the wood is rather dull, efficient monoculture lacking the organic feel of true woodland. The scars of recent felling can be seen, a reminder that this is managed land and must turn a profit. Yet one can glimpse a less rigid way, as the wilder trees infiltrate the edge of Forestry Commission land, revealing what lies in the grounds of Eggesford House. Unfortunately, Eggesford Castle is on private land. One can get to within 20 yards of it but as it is still forested, unlike Heywood Castle, and the land is undulating, it is impossible to make it out. Perhaps that rise is the edge of the bailey, that ditch the moat, or perhaps just mere fantasy: ideas imposed upon the land, with no regard to reality.