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.