Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Dartmoor: A cold winter walk to the north of Princetown

Matthew and I at Herne Hole. Photo courtesy of +Phil Sorrell 
All week +Matthew King+Phil Sorrell and I had been chatting online about the prospects of snow on Dartmoor at the weekend. As the time to depart drew closer, the forecast confirmed it. It promised lots of it too, so much so that I became increasingly concerned about committing to a weekend up in Princetown, when there was every chance that I may not actually get back for work the following Monday.

Come Friday afternoon, Matthew and Phil were already down there, taking solo routes and bagging lots of lovely tors. Mid-afternoon, Neil Rooke joined the Twitter conversation, Phil invited him along and he jumped at the offer of a weekend of fresh air. Later still, +Richard Flint was on board! That evening, I picked Rich up at Amersham and we were driving into the unknown.

The journey down was long; a snarl up outside Swindon delayed us, but the weather was calm and it was a pretty clear night drive down as far as Exeter. We were even treated to a meteor entering the atmosphere as we drove down the M5! As soon as we hit the A30, however, the heavens opened.

Negotiating ponies caught in my headlights, the Dartmoor roads were relatively kind and I only encountered one short slide on the climb from Merrivale, just to keep me on my toes. We arrived before midnight, as the snow flurries began, and I was appreciative of the pint of Dragon's Breath in the Plume of Feathers.

It seemed there had been a lot of talk in the pub earlier, and the conclusion was that it might not be a good idea to drive too far on the Saturday, just in case we couldn't get back. I went to bed that night, apprehensive of what would greet us the next morning.

A bit of a lie in (courtesy of the Fox Tor Cafe winter opening hours), we awoke to a good layer of snow. The car park was in a pretty bad state and none of us fancied moving our cars, so, with the forecast predicting more snow on the way, Phil suggested a route from Princetown. For me, it only provided the chance of two more bags on the Dartmoor Tors and Rocks bagging list, but we all agreed it was a good option. Given the conditions, it was a tad ambitious, but the route provided plenty of opportunity to cut the walk short.

Fed and watered, we made the effort to brave the weather. Straight out of the town, and up the hill to North Hessary Tor, we were immediately met with hail and snow, driven by a vicious northwind. By the time we reached the tor, I was already privately questioning the sense of being out in these conditions.

North Hessary Tor
North Hessary Tor
Barely half an hour in and the wind chill had already penetrated my face, nipping my cheeks and this pain was accompanied by an "ice cream" headache that had formed. I was starting to think my right eye was getting frostbite; At the time, I wasn't even sure if that were possible, but, as I write this, a quick Google search has proved it is, although to be fair I would have probably lost half my face beforehand, so my concerns were a tad over dramatic!!

I decided it was too early to bail out. Summoning up the spirits of my heroes; Mawson, Shackleton and Scott, I pulled up my buff to conceal my bare skin as best I could, and stepped out of the granite windshield to head for Herne Hole Tor.

The step ladder over the wall was icy and difficult to scale. Once over, Herne Hole Tor is a short walk away. I found a good bit of shelter in a hollow between the granite while the others stepped up to stand atop.
Matthew at Herne Hole Tor
Matthew at Herne Hole Tor
We returned to the other side of the wall, some of us by a gate surrounded by its own moat; the risk of wet feet more preferable to a fall from a dry stone wall.

I imagine the walk over to Rundlestone Tor was easier, as our direction changed from head on into the wind. I don't remember much about it, to be honest, as thoughts were likely elsewhere; trekking along a pristine beach in sunny South-Western Australia, perhaps! ;-)

Hollow Tor
Hollow Tor
By the time we reached Hollow Tor, the snow storm had relented and the task ahead was now less arduous.

We dropped down to the B3357, and followed it towards Merrivale as far as a track that turned right, climbing to Little Mis and Great Mis Tors.

Track to Little Mis Tor
Track to Little Mis Tor
Looking back to King's Tor
Looking back to King's Tor
On our walk up we got a glimpse of blue sky, the vistas improved, and all of a sudden, it was great to be out! We rested at Little Mis Tor and I cracked open the hot Ribena, as Matthew handed round some digestive cookies.

Neil and Phil on Little Mis Tor
Neil and Phil enjoy the sun at Little Mis Tor
View from Little Mis Tor
View from Little Mis Tor
At Great Mis Tor, the next band of snow arrived. We spent about ten minutes at the tor, regrouping after we took two different routes through the expanse of granite. Back together, we dropped down to an army shed.

We huddled out of the wind, while Rich took a bearing for Clay Tor, or rather where we believed Clay Tor to be. Traversing across the boggy Greena Ball, in a horizontal snow storm, we were adapting to the awful weather nicely. We caught sight of the River Walkham and contoured above it towards our waypoint. On the north bank of the Walkham, we noticed there was an obvious outcrop, but it didn't tally with the Social Hiking coordinates which placed the tor on the south of the river. We passed our expected destination, with nothing but a few insignificant rocks to enthuse us.  We came to the conclusion an error had occurred when converting Ken Ringwood's grid reference to Lat, Long Coordinates, and it would have to be rectified.

Approaching Black Dunghill
Approaching Blackbrook Head
Ascending Black Dunghill
Rich ascending Black Dunghill
So, with one of my two potential bags missed, we joined a rough bridleway to cross the Prison Leat, we soldiered on through Blackbrook Head to Black Dunghill. Whilst not possessing a tor, or on the Database of British Hills, this tussocky, boggy expanse had somehow made it onto our list. You could debate that it needs to be changed to "Dartmoor Tors, Rocks and Hills". Whatever, it does possess a good 360 view though.

View from Black Dunghill
View from Black Dunghill
As we stood on its heighest point in a respite from the weather, a quick look north told us things were going to change again. At least, this time, the worst was now at our backs.

Leaving Black Dunghill
Following a path to Holming Beam
We followed a semblance of a path, with the odd occasional shout as a leg was lost in snow covered bog. We passed through a gate and eventually another, then onto a metalled track at Holming Beam.

Fence between Black Dunghill and Holming Beam
Fence line en route to Holming Beam
Phil's foot was suffering, and he announced he would be cutting his walk short at the road to Princetown. I had already figured it was a good plan as it was three o'clock and the intended route would have had us wandering into town in the dark.

We stopped briefly in shelter behind a farm shed and trees. Long enough for me to polish off my warming flask of soup. The track at Holming Beam is a couple of kilometres long, straight and true. It has an unofficial car park at its northern end, perfect to save a bit of time when wanting to explore the north moor. We reached the main road, turned left and went down hill to a bridleway that crossed a large field, and the Devonport Leat, to the next road.

As we crossed the field, we got a good look at the moor in the east. There wasn't a single patch of snow to be seen! Our original walk; a perambulation of Fernworthy Forest from the Warren House Inn, would have likely been a doddle! Oh well, never mind. Despite its chilly beginnings, I had grown into this walk and eventually enjoyed the elements. The weekend would have been poorer had we not got out into the snow.

Looking east, and no snow! Photo courtesy of +Phil Sorrell 
We reached the road, turned right and began the laborious walk back into Princetown, arriving about 4pm. The amount of traffic was testament that the roads were certainly passable, which reassured us. The local authorities gritting lorries had done a stirling job keeping Princetown open for business. With more snow expected that night, tomorrow promised fairer weather. It was good to know we weren't going to be stranded.

And the route: