We headed down to Dartmoor for the Summer Solstice weekend. We are fortunate in having this last great wilderness in England just an hour’s drive from home. It is a huge, largely uninhabited lonely area of moorland of some 365 square miles. On the North Moor near Cut Hill and Fur Tor it is over 5 km to a road. I love this wild, lonely remote area of uplands. The rolling, sweeping horizon with its huge skies is fabulous. You are never shut in on the moor, there is always a feeling of distance and vast open spaces.
The landscape has been much changed by man. Man has lived hunted and worked on Dartmoor since pre-historic times and has left his mark from hut circles, stone rows, megaliths and stone circles to tinners spoil tips and blowing houses, forestry and dams.
Our visit coincided with the Summer Solstice and traditionally we sleep out under the stars on 20/21 June every year. We had located a spot on Pil Tor back in December which we thought was quite spooky with references to pixies and ghosts of Iron Age people when a local man disappeared amongst the ancient banks or reaves and hut circles that are up there from the late Bronze Age / early Iron age settlement.
On 20th June we set off from Two Bridges in the North East of Dartmoor and walked above the West Dart over Crockern Tor, Longaford Tor and the White Tors up to Browns House. This is a remote area and there is very little left of Browns House apart from a pile of stones. We then crossed the West Dart
and climbed up Rough Tor. The pathless stretch of moor to Crow Tor was hard going but better towards Beardown Tors.
This is a collection of smaller Tors that make up 3 separate summits. The views from up there were lovely in all directions and captured the wild emptiness of the moor.
After some refreshment (tea followed by dinner!) we headed towards Widdecombe and began our walk up to Pil Tor, where we planned to sleep out under the stars. At 10pm there were no stars – just billowing black clouds and occasional drizzle. It was also quite cold considering it was midsummer and although the weather forecast had promised a dry night there had been showers of rain with low cloud throughout the evening. We decided to go ahead despite the weather. We’ve been wet before!
It didn’t really get dark until after midnight and we settled down accompanied by a lot of sheep and some inquisitive ponies.
We were expecting to feel spooked but we had a very peaceful night and slept undisturbed until after 7am. Remarkably it didn’t rain and we had a dry comfortable night.
After a hearty breakfast at the Two Bridges Hotel (a little treat for being so intrepid) we started our walk from Postbridge heading up the East Dart into the remote North Moor.
We enjoyed following the course of the Dart on foot as we have been close to the river many times further down its course towards the sea. We have swum in it – sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally when capsizing from a kayak. We have camped on its banks and have kayaked down the estuary and onto the open sea many times. We have also gratefully entered the calmness of the estuary escaping from unexpected high winds and rough seas. We can see Start Point from the cliffs at our home on a clear day and this is the prominent headland just after Dartmouth. We have kayaked from our home to the Dart.
We followed the river upstream noting evidence of prehistoric man in the form of hut circles and a large kistvaen at Roundy Park. We followed the river up to Sandy Hole and Sandy Hole Pass. This is the point where the river leaves its birth place high in the depths of the moor and becomes a young adult flowing in steeper deeper valleys. The river bed near Sandy Hole was excavated by medieval tinners to improve flow. There is a lot of sand and gravel in the river bed here.
We went off on a bearing towards the North West passage below Cut Hill. The peat passes on Dartmoor lie on good natural routes over from one river valley to another and were used by the moormen driving their animals from one grazing area to the next or down to market. In the case of the North West passage improvements were made by Frank Phillpots, a keen huntsman who between 1885 and 1905 cut some new passes. A small granite post with a bronze plaque at each end of the peat pass mentions this.
We managed to keep on track and thus avoided the badly eroded areas of peat that make this area difficult to get through. We went on to Fur Tor which is one of the remotest places on North Dartmoor. There was a great feeling of isolation with fantastic – though rather hazy views – all around.
We retraced our steps back to the East Dart and then crossed it and went up to another small peat pass and on to Statts House on Winney’s Down . (Helpfully marked on the map with ruin in brackets.)
The house was built in the eighteenth century by a peat cutter called Statt. There’s not much left of it.
We had walked about 18km at this point but Sittaford Tor was just over there so we strolled across the moor and then down to the Grey Wethers. It seemed appropriate that we should visit these restored stone circles on midsummer’s day. From there it was downhill all the way back to Postbridge. Except it wasn’t as we went over Stannon Tor and followed the Stannon Brook back to where it joins the Dart close to the splendid clapper bridge in Postbridge.
A very nice way to spend the Summer Solstice weekend.