Caught by the River

The Avon Dam

10th November 2012

Words & pictures from West Country correspondent Mr. Alex Smith.

We’ve walked with many people over the years and this latest trip brought back into the fold a man who first used to journey out with us at a time when we were coming close to completing the South West Coastal Path. Tackled in three, four or five day sessions, two or three times a year, this serious-walking rite-of-passage attracted an occasional cohort who just happened to be available to join our nucleus of two for one or more of these bite-size chunks. Jolly Man was one such. Comically unaware at all times of our actual location or where we were headed, he came along for the ride, happily leaving the planning to others more willing and able. His main contribution to any given day was to act as a brake should we pass through a coastal town blessed with a public house, not that we ordinarily needed one. But if time was tight and our chosen overnight location was slipping away into dusk, bringing with it the tiresome task of arriving and pitching in the dark, sleight of hand was often needed and a form of bribery known to parents with recalcitrant children would be employed (though promise of TV was replaced with thoughts of beer). Much like a child, though, deferred gratification was never as popular with Jolly Man as the instant kind.

When walking he would trot up and down the line to talk at us all in turn, spinning and hopping and jabbering, often swinging his heavy pack in our faces on single track passes, happily unaware of our silent struggles up high cliff gradients on the rugged north coasts of Devon and Cornwall. All of us would haul heavy loads on these longer jaunts, tents and mummy bags and lightweight stoves with an aggregate weight rarely dipping under the forty pound mark once fortified with food and water. With a sturdiness to his frame and an athleticism to his gait, this sometime journeyman could, annoyingly, out-walk any of us on his day, yet he’d still be jabbering away in his tent that evening, drawing our tired attention to the stars, the river, the anything in his arc of vision.

My mate, the almost Buddhist point man, who stops the line to relocate worms and caterpillars out of range of following boots, is strangely immune to the feelings that this perennially late addition can invoke in others. It’s this Zen approach that has brought Jolly Man back into our orbit this last, warm, foggy Dartmoor day of the autumn. A discussion is had the night before and routes are amended with deadlines imposed, but it is the driver, this time, to blame for the late start that invariably accompanies the addition of a third. We invite him along partly for the entertainment, partly because we genuinely like him, and, this time, sadly, because Jolly Man is not that well. But he is on time and for that we can only be thankful.

A route is forged with the infirm in mind, from Shipley Bridge to the Avon Dam. The three of us set off along the road beside the river choked with rhododendron, and the tree that grows out of a crumbled wall in the woods that brings to mind a ghostly Sleepy Hollow. We peeled off from the main track by the old quarry and made our way up to the eastern wall of the dam to break out flask coffee and take ghostly snaps from a shingle beach through the thickening fog and skim what few flat stones were to be found. North from here to pick up the Abbot’s Way then east to Water Oak Corner and then north again to the cairn at Puper’s Hill and sandwiches to go with the coffee. A decision is made not to press on to Ryder’s Hill and Snowdon in what we must surely now call low cloud, but to retrace as far as the Two Moors Way and a good track down to Huntingdon Cross to pick up a path across open moorland back to Shipley Bridge. Dead reckoning got us to the junction in the cloud and the river eventually appeared out of the gloom and led us to our destination and our crossing point. Two made a successful jump from midstream rock to grassy bank and one went in up to his knees, a victim of dark weed under his toehold.

Unable in the fog to find the start of the favoured track, and after a false start up an unsuitable hill, a summit was held. One was leaning towards a return to the cross and a route along the Avon, past the dam and along the road beside the river of our beginning. One was still attached to the open moor and favoured a further search to find the start of the elusive track so clearly marked on the map in his hand. It was a decision too important to bestow our passenger a voice on. A real chance existed, after all, that we could find ourselves stranded in wet bogs in the fog or on the brim of a high tor with little or no horizon. Common sense having prevailed, two men turned and started the descent to the valley once again and one headed off up the hill, stopped, looked around, yelped like a trodden-on puppy and scampered after his masters.