Caught by the River

A Postcard From Dartmoor

8th October 2013

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Words & pictures from West Country correspondent Alex Smith.

South from Widecombe in the mizzle.

We haven’t been out for a while. In fact, our last one was in the snow; a whiteout with compasses and deer and drifts up to the waist. All subsequent adventures had involved bikes along the Kennet and Avon or snorkels on hard-to-reach rocky ledges once the cold wet spring had opened into better weather. And now we find ourselves at the end of this long summer, temperatures still respectable, a wet front coming through and the first chance to get out and do some proper walking.

Widecombe-in-the-Moor is a small village in a sprawling parish, a provider of safe all-day parking for £1.30 and a starting point for routes out onto the Two Moors Way; south to Ponsworthy and Dr. Blackall’s Drive or north to Hamel Down and the Grey Wethers. Our planned walk; south from Widecombe, along the Dart and back up the River Webburn, is a fair choice for an early season session. The walking is mostly riverside woodland tracks and a little open moorland around Dunstone Down and Sherberton Common.

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It was all road as far as Jordan with an impressive tree fungus at Dockwell. A tree-lined river walk from Mill House down to Ponsworthy, then up the hill to Uphill and beyond Primm Cottage to Bel Tor Corner and, after a quick rootle around the site of some prehistoric hut circles, an early lunch at Mel Tor. We sucked in the views over the Dart as we ate, streamers coming off White Wood on the opposite bank, rising like the steam that socks give off from radiators, gaining height then dissipating into the heavy mist that had built up over the valley. The river, from our eyrie, was just about visible down at Mel Pool before it started its meander around the lower reaches of a Hockinston Tor yellow with gorse flower, on its way to its final destination at Dartmouth, with stops at Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
Dr. Blackall’s Drive stays above the Dart as far as Aish Tor, the point at which we headed off east to Leigh Tor, cutting off the loop the river describes as it journeys south to New Bridge and then north again to start its long diversion around Holne Chase. We joined it at the road after a long woody descent and sight of a lovely suspended bridge, then a short hop to Buckland Bridge with its kingfisher and its rather incongruous ceramic “No Bathing” sign, placed high up a tree so nobody could have it away.

It was at Buckland Bridge that we joined the River Webburn, past Mistresses Piece, along footpaths through private woodland, well trodden at first but then, increasingly unsure of our right to roam here, we chose tracks that turned to little more than desire lines and the firebreaks and the overgrown logging roads became less obvious and eventually it all dissolved away as we entered a woodland much less managed. Our progress was slowed as we crossed the stream to find a better track, the newer path taking us up high banks and down deathly slides and over and under downed trees . This was how we travelled through the woods, sliding and climbing, falling and crossing, trying to be silent while dead wood cracked under our weight as we traversed this river valley skirted by overhanging rocks dressed in grasses and creepers and big old primeval ferns. The autumnal smells were quite overpowering in this dense, wet woodland. The musty notes of dead leaves, like just-out-of-the-tin tobacco, supporting fruitier notes of stinkhorn and gorse flower, all of this the base for such travelling far-off scents as woodsmoke and sawn timber.

At Pudsham Wood we crossed again to follow the East Webburn up to Cockingford Bridge, the terrain much the same and the time streaming from our watches, and then better paths to Cockingford itself and its caravans and its footpath through nervous grazing sheep to the road through the Dunstones and a return to Widecombe-in-the-Moor, the top of its church tower first visible from a bend in the road, announcing the final stretches of a walk more strenuous than the one we had planned, but hugely enjoyed all the same. About ten miles in all, though it felt much further, six hours including the break above the Dart and a coffee by Leigh Tor and a final one on the Webburn to avoid having to carry any back.