Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dartmoor: A circular to Great Gnats Head

Great Gnats Head
Great Gnats Head
When +Phil Sorrell mooted that he was planning to spend a week on Dartmoor in September, I was keen to join him, despite it not being an ideal time to be taking a break from work. But I laboured my way through the extra hours to enable me to get away, and come Thursday night, we met up at "Base Camp" at Halwill Junction.

Our first walk was to be an overnight foray deep into the south moor. On first glance at the route, devised by Phil, I was excited and all too aware of some of the terrain he was taking us across. Mixed, for me, with old familiar haunts and new unexplored hills, it promised to be a tough but rewarding two days.

Friday morning, fed and watered at ABC (aka The Fox Tor Cafe), we were off. We followed a bridleway down to the Blackbrook, across a wooden bridge, and up to our first tor of the day; Round Hill Tor.

Bridge crossing the Blackbrook River
Bridge crossing the Blackbrook
Round Hill Tor
Round Hill Tor
Enjoying our first sit down, as is fast becoming the ritual of tor bagging, we contemplated the weather and how we would fare in the humidity and heat. September was really turning out to be an "Indian Summer". 

Round Hill Tor
Round Hill Tor
Further along the banks of the Blackbrook, we could clearly see an outcrop, and took this for Prince Hall Rocks. As best we could across rough open access land, with no path, we went straight for it. 

When reaching the rocks, our coordinates failed to match those in our guide book. Being a pair of pedantics, we weren't happy with the outcrop we were at, although it was clearly more significant and a part of the rocks. So we offloaded our bags by the river and went back to find the spot. It didn't take long, but it was tricky, and we had rambled straight past it given it was camouflaged by grass, gorse and brambles.

Prince Hall Rocks
Prince Hall Rocks
Back to our bags, I took a quick pic of the other outcrops of Prince Hall Rocks. Much more of a destination in my eyes, than that of the book, but "them's the rules"!
Prince Hall Rocks - South of Blackbrook
Prince Hall Rocks
We crossed a bridge over the Blackbrook which proclaimed it was only for fisherman access. I took it that the notice was a remnant of the days before the Countryside Rights of Way Act (CROW), as all the land here was open access on the map, and happily ignored it to avoid a soggy crossing of the nearby sandy ford.

Blackbrook River
Blackbrook
A short ascent up the banks of the river, we were at Blakey Tor. We didn't linger long on this one, as we began to notice that the humidity had triggered off a swarm of flying ants, and they seemed to be congregating on the surrounding granite. It also was quite clear that, like the March Flies of Australia, they seemed enamoured with the blue shirt I was wearing!

Blakey Tor
Blakey Tor
Moving on, we crossed the track near the cyst, or burial chamber, known as Crock of Gold. As I'd missed out showing +Richard Flint a few weeks ago, I wanted to show it off to Phil, but despite finding it a couple of years back, with the grass longer now I couldn't find any trace of it! Not my finest moment of navigation, but I feel I have to prove I did find it with this photo from my blog post; Crock of Gold, Drizzle Combe Stone Row and Sheep’s Tor.

Proof I have found Crock of Gold at least once!

Eventually, I took it on the chin, gave up and we ascended to Royal Tor.

Royal Tor
Royal Tor
Now time for some unexplored territory for me. We went east, across open moorland, through a gate and down to the Swincombe Intake Works. Established in 1929, the small reservoir helps supply Paington with fresh water.

Swincombe Intake Works
Swincombe Intake Works
Phil had marked a suggested route that followed a disused leat and then handrailed a wall up to a pair of crosses on Ter Hill, but I saw amongst all the contours on the map, a re-entrant we could also see on the ground, and thought it would save time to head straight up. In hindsight, it was probably a tougher choice, although a shorter distance. 

It was a good old fashioned, character building, Dartmoor slog, eventually reaching two crosses marking the way over this featureless hill. We were blessed with good weather and these structures were a sight for sore eyes, so imagine being clagged in and having to find your way across here! Despite the visibility, there was nothing of note to see on the summit but bog, grass, and flying ants. I was, by now fed up with our stops being plagued by these critters, so changed out of my blue shirt, and it appeared to do the trick! 

We also began to notice that Crane Flies were beginning to appear on their brief quest for a mate. I just hoped we didn't  have epic proportions that I have experienced in the past, although that occasion being in The Chilterns. For those interested in such things, here is a video, narrated by Bill Oddie, of The life cycle of the Crane Fly.

Cross on Ter Hill
Cross on Ter Hill
The absence of a tor or significant rock was disappointing, but during our break at the top, we were impressed by the utter silence! The air was still, not a blade of grass moved, and as we paused, I felt silence as I had honestly never experienced before. It was almost as if my ears began to work even harder to pick some sense of sound, eventually honing in on the flapping wings of a pair of rooks. It was incredible!

On to Skir Hill, more off path soggy, but not saturating, bog walking to another summit of nothingness. 

We continued around Swincombe Head, avoiding the worst of the bog that makes up the rivers source, but still across more tough terrain, and down to tiny Rabbits Tor.

Rabbits Tor
Rabbits Tor
Phil picked up more water. It is a blessing that the need to carry a large supply of water is unnecessary on Dartmoor, with plenty of points to refill with the aid of a trustworthy water filter.

Fox Tor in sight, we continued as we left off; no path, just a succession of spurious animal tracks and instinctive choices.

Typical terrain for the day on our way to Fox Tor
Off to Fox Tor
We stopped at Fox Tor, choosing an outcrop that wasn't crawling with flying ants. Sadly, unlike the cafe of the same name, there was no afternoon tea and cake to be had here, just a view across the unforgiving Fox Tor Mire to enjoy.

Fox Tor
Fox Tor
It was a short distance to Little Fox Tor where we afforded more views of the mire.

Little Fox Tor
Little Fox Tor
We headed south, up Crane Hill. This was another hill in the same style as Ter and Skir, and Phil was debating whether to remove them from the Tors and Rocks of Dartmoor Bagging List on Social Hiking. Quite right to move them from the list, but I feel they are a challenge in themselves, and worthy of remaining on the database in some form.

We trudged on to Great Gnat's Head. Not a tor, but a cairn in the style of the Lake District, with one difference; there is no easily followed path here for day tripping tourists. If you get here, pat yourself on the back for a bloody good effort! Your reward? Big skies and good views of the south moor, across to Eylesbarrow, and the tors that line the valley of the River Plym.

Great Gnats Head
Great Gnats Head
We went off on a rough bearing, heading for Broad Rock. We found it easily next to a wide bridleway. Interesting that this seemingly unremarkable lump of granite should be singled out as significant, but it is actually a boundary point. Not of the well known 1240 Perambulation, but of a modern boundary recognised by the Duchy of Cornwall. It has an inscription "BB" meaning "Blachford Bounds", being the manor of Blachford, near the village of Cornwood.

Broad Rock
Broad Rock
Our route down to Little Gnats Head appeared to take us a little too close to a herd of cattle, and we did some negotiating to avoid the worst.

Little Gnats Head
Little Gnats Head
Calveslake Tor was a short distance on the same bank overlooking the Plym. The name of the tor would suggest it was frequented by cattle, and it proved correct.
Calveslake Tor
Calveslake Tor
Originally we had planned Calveslake as a possible wild camp, but Lower Hartor Tor, on the other side of the Plym looked more inviting, and cattle free!

Calveslake Tor. View to Lower Hartor Tor.
Calveslake, with Lower Hartor Tor in the distance
So we descended down to the Plym, crossing surprisingly easily. We took the opportunity to stop to collect our water requirements for the evening, and then it was one last ascent to our stop for the night.

Lower Hartor Tor
Lower Hartor Tor
Lower Hartor Tor. Wildcamp.
Wild Camp on Lower Hartor Tor
All settled in, whilst I made my evening meal and chilled, Phil returned to the River Plym for a bit of a wash and wild swim, and his Audioboo of the experience, can be listened to here;



I was soon in my tent before nightfall, watching a mist creep over the landscape. It didn't bode well for a spectacular sunrise. Phil wandered off to record his Boo, giving his thoughts of the day.



When morning came, we were disappointed by a murky grey. The mist of the night before had lifted and it meant we would have some views from the off, though, but no sunrise.

It is a short walk on good path to Higher Hartor Tor.
Higher Hartor Tor
Higher Hartor Tor

Higher Hartor Tor
Higher Hartor Tor
From here it was a period of time in relatively busy surroundings, joining the cycle track near Eylesbarrow Tin Mine. Already, we had seen more people than we had seen all yesterday! 

Close to the track, you can still see the mine shafts in places, fenced off for safety and being reclaimed by nature spectacularly. I named this one the "Hanging Gardens of Eylesbarrow"!

The Hanging Gardens of Eylesbarrow Tin Mine
Hanging Gardens of Eylesbarrow
We were also getting more blase about the cows, given they are actually pretty docile if you are sensible.

Cattle dodging
Cattle dodging
We left the track to bag Eylesbarrow, one I have visited many times, as part of the 1240 Perambulation. We then descended to Nuns Cross Farm, and a side excursion to the Devonport Leat so Phil could collect some water.

Nuns Cross Farm
Nuns Cross Farm
We returned to the cycle track, and onto Siward's Cross. Slightly perturbed that a cyclist was using the ancient piece of Dartmoor history to prop up his bike, but he soon moved it when we approached to take some photos.

Siward's Cross
Siwards Cross
We followed the track for a few more minutes, turning right on a wide bridleway to the metalled road down to Whiteworks. This was a small tin mining hamlet, with a small terrace of cottages that now have an enviable view of Fox Tor Mires.

Tin mine at Whiteworks and Fox Tor Mire
Tin mine at Whiteworks and Fox Tor Mire

Whiteworks Tin Mine
Whiteworks Tin Mine
Through a gate, out onto open moorland, we left an unmarked, but obvious track, instead following a disused leat below the larger Devonport. Our goal here was to find Strane Tor. Reguar readers may know that +Richard Flint and I had thought we had bagged it a few weeks ago in my previous post HERE, but on further investigation when I got home, found that we actually hadn't! This time, Phil and I had no issues, and now it was glaringly obvious where it was, nestled between two forks of the Strane River.

Strane Tor
The real Strane Tor
As we rested for Phil to tend to his feet, I eyed up a more direct route from Strane Tor to South Hessary, which we could see on a brow in the distance. The planned route was returning to the highly populated cycle track whereas the other alternative, over land near Peat Cot farm, looked much more adventurous!

We set off, the ground at Strane Head was wet, and I soon lost a leg to the bog in the traverse, but I was unharmed and always see the funny side on these occasions, and shrug it off in my head with a nonchalant "That's Dartmoor for you!"

We reached a tied up gate, barring us from access land, so climbed over. It was more hard going through tussocky grass but only right that we end this walk in the same vein we had done most of it yesterday.

At the edge of the field, we reached the Devonport Leat again. This time it looked too wide to cross, with no footbridge. We needn't have worried. We found a section nearby where a crossing appeared to be possible. The leat is virtually empty here and it was simply a couple of tentative steps on the grassy bed to the other side.

Devonport Leat. Thankfully empty when we crossed it!
Devonport Leat
We reached the road that goes from Tor Royal to Whiteworks, and took a last look back at the leat and the terrain we had just crossed.

The challenging terrain we tackled from Strane Tor to the road near Tor Royal!
Challenging terrain
Up a good grass track to South Hessary Tor, where we paused on the top before rejoining the cycle track into Princetown and lunch.
South Hessary Tor
South Hessary Tor
A tough two days, in stifling heat, we were pleased with our efforts, and were already looking forward to heading out for our next adventure in the afternoon! But that is for another blog post. 

For now, all that leaves is the route we took;