I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.
True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.
My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.
I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.
This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.
Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.
What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.
At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into emerald clouds.
Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.
A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.
Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.
Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.
That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.
The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation. They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.
And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.
That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.
Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.
We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.
These moments, these are what life is for.
Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.