Caught by the River

Postcard From Dartmoor

21st March 2012

From West Country correspondent, Mr. Alex Smith:

“The people’s flag is deepest red: Non-firing day on Okehampton Range”

There’s some truth in the old adage, “If the weather’s crap in Plymouth, move, you daft sod.” This probably refers to the fact that our prevailing winds, coming as they do from the southwest, have trouble carrying their cloud over the high moors to the northeast of us. The clouds back-up, get super saturated, and drop their load all over the good burghers of Plymouth. Just a few miles to either the west or east and the weather will be fine, clouds scudding over and beyond Looe or Salcombe with no impediment from poorly placed Tors. Loving this place as I do, I can say it out loud: Plymouth is wet. Sometimes very wet. And, often in the summer, foggy. When beaches to our left and right are shimmering and brightly lit, we make plans to host a barbeque, lift the blanket and sit under it. Warm moist air carried on an arriving front meets the cold air sitting above the sea and causes some of the most impenetrable mist and fog in the county. If the winds are light it stays. If there is wind, but its from the southwest, it has no place to go. So, again, it stays. This is the lot of the Plymothian. Only when those who leave make their return does the message get out that there is other, better weather to be had. Sometimes quite close to hand.

This week half the nation shares our pain. All across the southern counties there is fog. Weather maps have their southern coast blurred like some common criminal. A lazy warm front sits in the channel and blows fog into our fields and towns, reaching far inland up rivers and valleys. “It should burn off by lunchtime”, they say. Not down here it won’t.

And so it was that Plymouth found itself shivering under a blanket of cold, dense fog for the first few days of the week. There was no hope of the weak spring sun burning it off or of drier air following the wet into our moribund sea area so we huddled in our houses and inched our way to work and the uninitiated read their handbooks in search of the fog light switches hidden in the seldom seen dingly dells of their dashboards.

We probably looked to the untrained eye a pair of right old optimists as we hung our bikes on the back of the car at 8.30 in the morning, armed with wickaway base layers and shorts and t-shirts and little else bar sunglasses and peaked caps to force our way against the crawling fog-bound commuter tide. The air was just as thick at Roborough. Thicker still at Yelverton where it had seeped up the river valleys leaving only floating islands of higher ground, glimpsed briefly as the road occasionally reached similar elevations above the sea of fog. Tavistock was a little clearer with mist in the valleys and sun on the town. It was definitely a step in the right direction. It always is. As we headed up the Okehampton bound A386 we could finally see what we had come for, golden rolling moorland with only a suggestion of mist smoking out of the deeper recesses of the Tamar Valley. A little mist in the next couple of dips and then nothing but sun. Weak but warm sun and the moors looking yellow and orange and a little hazy around the edges. Ideal.

We parked at the Fox and Hounds, just short of the Lydford turn, and made a dash of a couple of hundred yards to the gate for the Granite Way. We had an easy few miles on this former railway line, warming our muscles on easy terrain,no other traffic to be had and views out over Dartmoor from the Lake and Meldon viaducts. We left the way just short of Okehampton and headed up to Okehampton Camp, an army base that carries out training exercises in the area, taking the moors out of bounds for a very occasional day or night or both. There are flags at most entry points to the moors around here and a website to go to (and a number to ring) to enquire about live firing. We’d done our homework before leaving the fog, The singsong voice, the warnings about picking stuff up and of crossing into live ranges from clear ranges and then the meat of it “Tuesday 13th March, Okehampton clear, Willsworthy day, Merrivale day”. So, like the flinching cowards and sneering traitors (and the inhabitants of the camp, presumably), we were pleased to see no red flags flying here.

Unlike areas on the south map, this high end of the moors is well served by metalled roads and navigable tracks that take you deep into the heart of Dartmoor. Used by army Landrovers to reach their ranges and observation points, these little arteries are catnip to the off-road cyclist. I ride a hybrid about these parts and it is fine for this route, though front suspension might protect the hands from white finger on those fast downhill tracks.

We opted for a circular route to take in both sides of the imposing ridge that is home to Higher Willhays, the highest point on Dartmoor and the highest point anywhere in England south of the Brecon Beacons. Having first set off from Okehampton Camp on the road heading to the south and east, we skirted East Okement Farm and Oke Tor and, after a bit of pushing up the hill to the side of Steeperton Tor, had lunch at Okement Hill. There was song on the hill. Now I’m no expert but I had my hunch. It took a return to civilisation and a little research to confirm my diagnosis. I rejected the whitearse and the meadow pippet and various LBJs, I listened to all their songs. But I suppose I knew all along it was the Skylark. It is said to fly high, and it does, I suppose. All things are relative and they soon get lost to the eye up there, but occasionally you can pick one out, about 100 foot up, singing away, hovering in some geostationary orbit over its very own clump of grass. Then tumbling down, often in company and lost to sight, reappearing among the tussocks to squabble with a neighbour. It must be the season for this sort of thing. Nesting, mating, you tell me. But there were loads of them up on that hill and a short walk with a still-warm pasty took me from one song to another, an unbroken soundtrack.

The return leg gave us a lovely downhill stretch of a couple of miles of freewheel in the valley between East Mill Tor on our right and Higher Willhays to our left. Turning left at New Bridge we navigated Okehampton Common and Longstone Hill, passing to the western side of Higher Willhays this time before making our way down to Meldon Reservoir, eventually rejoining the Granite Way at Meldon Junction and back to the car and a pint in the pub. Six hours in total.

The return to Plymouth was a mirror of the outward leg. The fog hadn’t moved a bit and the people labouring under it were no wiser to the wisdom we secreted about us. A quick stop to pick up the papers in the corner shop and a moan about the weather and I was back in the house and into a jumper. And nobody any the wiser.