Thursday, 1 January 2015

Dartmoor: The Tors of Hameldown and Challacombe Down

Birch Tor
Birch Tor
I was hardly up at the crack of dawn today. I had "strange bed syndrome" at the Fox Tor Cafe bunkhouse and with the heavy frost on the car, I chose to stay in the warm a bit longer and let the sun rise higher in the sky. I went for a leisurely breakfast in the cafe before setting off to the Warren House Inn, the start of my walk today.

In hindsight, I probably left it a bit late for a route of this length. It was just gone eleven when I began my descent into the remains of the picturesque Birch Tor and Vitifer Tin Mine area. The ground was hard, still extremely icey despite the sunshine. At the point where you reach a small granite slab that crosses the mine leat, the area is grassy, green and worthy of a picnic stop.

Challacombe Hill and Tin mine works
Challacombe Hill and the Vitifer Tin Mine works
Vitifer Mine Works
Birch Tor and Vitifer Tin Mine
I made my way up an obvious path, atop one of the deep ravines excavated in the relentless search for tin. In a saddle between Birch Tor and Challacombe Down, it was possible to cut across the workings without actually entering them, although they are fascinating to explore if you get the chance. My goal today was walking along the stone row that sat on the side of the down. A scruffy set of stones, half hidden in knee high gorse, it is difficult to determine any pattern to their placement, but what you are actually looking at is a triple stone row.

Challacombe Down Stone Row
Challacombe Down triple stone row
End Stone
Challacombe Down end stone
Passing the end stone, the largest of the collection, it is a narrow walk up to a high wall that arcs, east-west, over the entire hill. The gate through was tied fast, and it was necessary to use the ladder stile sat beside it, which was particularly precarious given the ice encrusted north side had yet to see the sun.

Looking back to Warren House Inn from Challacombe Down
Looking back to Warren House Inn from Challacombe Down
Once over the wall, you are a short step from bagging the Trump of Challacombe Down, at 463m. There is no rock of note, but making the effort to get up here is worth it for the stunning view of the Hameldown Ridge.

Hameldown Ridge from Challacombe Down
Hameldown Ridge from Challacombe Down
I followed the wall steeply down to the valley below.  When I finally reached the bottom, I turned right, to take the bridleway east towards the medieval hamlet of Challacombe. This whole area is rich with archaeology. It has been worked for thousands of years, with evidence of ceremonial sites, bronze age settlements, medieval farming, and later tin mining. There is little left of the medieval hamlet but you do find evidence to confirm it was a larger farming community than exists now; a few low moss encrusted walls of buildings, spread around what is now just one working farm.

Medieval Hamlet gate
Gate to the Medieval Hamlet of Challacombe
Upon reaching the farm, I turned onto the road, and pounded the metalled surface for approximately a kilometre. For a narrow byway, it was relatively busy, being one of the few arteries from the B3212 to Widecombe.

At a gate clearly signposted as open access, I turned off the road, right. I surveyed the next hill from below; its slopes were a collection of fields, and it appeared my way up was through a succession of more gates. I entered the first lower field, that ran the length of the road, and sparked the inquisitive nature of five ponies. They immediately popped out from behind some bushes in a hollow by a small stream, and boldly headed straight for me. At first, I welcomed their attention, but they were more confident than I expected, and before I knew it, I was surrounded, no, pinned, against the next gate, as they sniffed and looked to nibble my rucksack inquisitively. Any attempt to shift without spooking, was nothing short of hopeless. I could do no more than scale the gate, rather than open it, and make my "escape". 

Surrounded by ponies I jumped the fence to escape
Surrounded by ponies
The rest of the ascent up to Blackator (Challacombe) was unchallenged, although finding the final gate onto the top of the hill took me out of the way somewhat. The tor was situated nicely, with views west to the forestry plantation on Soussons Down , and east across Blackaton Down and the Hameldown ridge.

Soussons Down from Blackator Challacombe
Soussons Down from Blackator (Challacombe)
Main outcrop at Blackator Challacombe
Blackator (Challacombe)
There was little choice on how to get down off the hill. I returned through the top gate and followed a wall down towards the road, but my way was blocked short of the stream. I had to turn left and make my way back towards the field with my new equine friends.  This time, though, I found another route that saved me from running the gauntlet again. Even though I didn't enter their field, they were soon at the boundary, wanting to be reacquainted. This time, I was more than happy to say hello from the comfort of the other side of the gate.

Here they come again
Here they come again!
A little bit more road walking, I came to, what appeared to be, an ancient lane that scaled Blackaton Down, over Hameldown ridge and down to the village of Widecombe. I imagine it would have been one of those vital routes for the ancient tenements in the centre of Dartmoor, back in the middle ages.

Byway to Widecombe
Byway to Widecombe
Tree line to Hameldown Beacon
Tree line to Hameldown Beacon
Exiting the walled lane onto open downland, I left the route, in search of Langworthy Tor. In an area of few granite outcrops, I found a worthy contender, but it didn't match the coordinates I had. I was pretty sure I had found it, but I relocated anyway, to the other waypoint, to make sure I wasn't missing something lower down the hill. 

Langworthy Tor below Hameldown
Langworthy Tor
Position confirmed, I returned to the tor, made a note of its reposition and continued on.

By now, time was getting on, I was cold and I was feeling it now. Conscious of the lack of daylight left, and not particularly relishing a drive back to Princetown on a rapidly freezing surface, I realised I wasn't going to bag all the notable rocks and tors on the ridge. It was a good job that this is a cracking route, and one I'll be back to enjoy when the days are longer!

I strode along the spine of the wide ridge, with a wonderful panorama to my right, of the Bonehill Down and Haytor Down area that I enjoyed with my fellow Social Hikers back in November.

Bonehill Down from Hameldown Ridge
Bonehill Down panorama from Hameldown Ridge
Despite my fatigue, I tried to step up the pace, and the frozen landscape did make it easier to traverse the normally boggy track that is the Two Moors Way. I bagged Kingshead Tor on my way through and tried to forget the others that lay off the path, that I was sacrificing on this occasion.

Stoneslade Tor
Kingshead Tor
I gave little more than a sideways glance at Hameldown Beacon; enough for the pushover notification to confirm it was collected. I have visited these parts of the route a few times before, but not logged them, so I didn't feel so guilty about my haste.

Approaching Hameldown Beacon
Approaching Hameldown Beacon
Broad Barrow was next, also known as a Dewey and Sub Hump called Hameldown, at 532 metres. The ice here had seen the sun, and was thin, so, on occasion, my footfall cracked the surface.

Broad Barrow
Broad Barrow
Hameldown Tor, is a low collection of granite close to a more prominent cairn and trig point at 529m. It has a commanding view of the Bronze age settlement of Grimspound.

Frozen Cairn on Hameldown Tor
Hameldown Tor
By now, the light was turning as the sun got lower and made for good viewing. However, the descent on the path down to Grimspound was slippery and still frost bound, thanks to its north face, and I had to concentrate.

Grimspound and Hookney Tor
Grimspound and Hookney Tor
I entered the late Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound. Within the walls of this compound, are the remains of twenty-four stone houses. It is an enjoyable practice to sit awhile within these hut circles and let your imagination transport you back over three thousand years; Perhaps, a family once sat in this very spot, huddled around a warming hearth within, or imagine the sounds of children playing outside, scampering around the pound, to the consternation of the livestock.

Grimspound entrance
Grimspound entrance
Hut Circle
Hut Circle
It was a good climb up on both rough steps and natural granite, to Hookney Tor.

This tor holds a particular personal resonance for me. Many years back, I had been going through a turbulent and unsettled period, and I made an impromptu escape from my troubles, by driving the two hundred miles down to Dartmoor. I still remember a poignant moment sat on this tor, sipping a flask of coffee as I surveyed the wonderful scene before me, and feeling my troubles melt away. I returned to London, a little more calmer. Ever since, Dartmoor has been my, for want of a better word, spiritual home, and my place of mental recuperation.

Hookney Tor
Hookney Tor
On from Hookney, across the frozen bogs, I strode, dipping into the shadows from the hill where my final tor of the day sat. As I made my approach up the hill, I considered giving it a miss, in my race with the setting sun, but as I reached a small rock shelter where the path to the tor goes left, I felt the sun was still high enough for me to bag it in time. I turned and went for it.

Shelter near Birch Tor
Shelter near Birch Tor
I was so glad I did. The light was fantastic, and despite only having my Galaxy Note 3 handy to take photographs, I managed a couple that I am quite pleased with.

Birch Tor
Birch Tor
Warren House Inn centre from Birch Tor
Birch Tor
Rather than head for the road, I descended back down to the tin mine I had passed through earlier in the day, and retraced my route back to the car, just after the sun had set. Despite missing out on a few of my goals, and cutting the route short, I was very content with the day. Very content indeed!

The Route: