Monday, 23 November 2015

Dartmoor: The Tors and Rocks out of Castle Drogo

Sharp Tor (Castle Drogo)
Sharp Tor (Castle Drogo)

I've been down every weekend since I bought the place in Okehampton, at the end of September, but I've been so preoccupied with my new base camp, I've been neglecting the very reason I have moved down here; Dartmoor! This weekend, I was determined to remedy that, and I chose to explore an area I've never visited before; the Teign Valley below Castle Drogo.

Thankfully, the predicted snow stayed well away and it was a beautiful sunny day, albeit with a biting north wind on the exposed tops. Down among the trees in the valley, however, it was mild and a joy to be out.

Out of the car park, I soon picked up the Hunters Path, and followed it in the direction of Fingle Bridge. High up, with great views, I was genuinely surprised by the depth of this valley, cut by the Teign. Remembering its humble beginnings up above Fernworthy Reservoir, once again I was feeling the urge to follow its length from moor to sea.

A project for the longer days of summer, perhaps, because today I was conscious of time and biting off more than I could chew. First up was Sharp Tor (Castle Drogo). Little deviation from the path bags this one, it's a wonderful lookout with views both down the valley and up onto the north moor.

Hunters Path
Hunter's Path
The path to Fingle Bridge is well maintained and a lovely gentle walk before the drop to the river. Judging from the amount of people labouring up in the opposite direction, I did wonder, momentarily, if I was missing a trick here and the best views were behind me. Once among the trees, the vistas were hard to come by, so the direction mattered little and anyway, I'd rather not start a hike straight into a climb; best to get the legs warmed up first.

Track to Fingle Bridge
The path to Fingle Bridge
Woodland above the Teign
Woodland above the Teign

Down at the river, I crossed Fingle Bridge and marvelled at the location for the Fingle Bridge Inn. Now I was understanding the reason to start and end a ramble here!

Fingle Bridge
Fingle Bridge
Fingle Bridge Inn
The Fingle Bridge Inn

Whereas, most folk would bang a right and follow the Teign back towards Castle Drogo, I began my ascent up to Uppacott Down. The wide vehicle track meanders up the side of the valley, welcome benches plotted along its route. My hill legs haven't had a workout for a month but they worked well. I was my hill lungs that were complaining, and I took two breaks before I met the brow of the down.

Through a gate onto open access land, I strode out to Uppacott Down, to visit the remains of an Iron Age hill fort called Cranbrook Castle. I recalled Phil Sorrell's (@daylightgambler) account of his visit here for a wild camp, post here for your delectation, and his reference to the extensive bracken. No such problems today.

Cranbrook Castle views
Cranbrook Castle (Uppacott Down)

Cranbrook Castle has good views of its surrounds, but as ramparts go, there is no compulsion to explore longer than needed, especially with a chill wind rushing over it. I returned to the track and joined the footpath to Butterdon.

Off to Butterdon Hill
Off to Butterdon

Once again, I wasn't encountering any of the problems Phil had with bracken or mist, and he was quite right, ascending the hill in winter is easy! All that was required, on the ascent, was to enjoy the scenery on offer.

Standing Stone, Butterdon Hill
Standing Stone on Butterdon Hill
360 from Butterdon Hill
The view from Butterdon Hill

Once at the top, however, I lost any path there may have been and it took me a while to find a route off the down, to Butterdon Farm. 

Past the farm, up a sunken lane to a footpath through more woodland suffering from Ramorum disease. With the warning signs heeded, I climbed the stile and followed it in search of Willingstone Rock.

Ramorum disease on larch
Ramorum disease on the larch

Now, if I had done my homework properly, and read Phil's blog post BEFORE I had started out, I would have seen that he didn't find Willingstone Rock, and therefore it wasn't in the location marked on Social Hiking. I crossed into the field below the obvious Pin Tor, thinking the rock would be in the woodland below. I knew Pin was on open access land but I figured I could bag it and Willingstone by this route. I left the footpath through the field and ascended into the trees, rather excited to be seeking out a hidden tor. What I found was a wealth of excellent outcrops, but none of which I could imagine stood out to be named as separate to Pin Tor, whose summit sat tantalisingly on the other side of an uninviting barbed wire fence. 

Pin Tor outcrops
Pin Tor

I realised that they were all just an extension of Pin Tor (as did Phil). With time ticking on, I figured there would be no need for me to back track,  return to the road, then enter the open access land just to avoid the fence. It was within spitting distance, I had been all over its lower outcrops; I was bagging it here.

Pin Tor outcrops
Pin Tor

I was still bemused by the missing rock, though, but when I came back out of the trees, to return to the path, I spotted it nestled on the hillside above Willingstone Farm, and it couldn't have been more obvious! I left the field and returned to the road. 

Willingstone Rock
Willingstone Rock

Ken Ringwood's book cites the outcrop as being on private land, but it is easy to bag. From the road, it's a simple cheeky step across the cattle grid at the farm entrance. There are no signs indicating that stepping onto the track is trespassing, so I was comfortable with it. There is even an obvious step up into the weathered crack between granite.

Between Willingstone Rock
In Willingstone Rock
Willingstone Rock
Willingstone Rock

Pleased with the bag, it was now time to turn for home. I followed the path back through Cranbrook and joined the footpath back into Hannicombe Wood. Wanting to avoid the same route, I chose to follow the Upper Deer Stalkers Path. This wasn't such a good idea.

Upper Deer Stalkers Path
Upper Deer Stalkers Path

At first, it is an easy stroll, high above the valley I was eventually going to have to cross. It gave me some good alternative views of Castle Drogo and Sharp Tor, but eventually the path switches back to descend. Of course, I didn't want to do that just yet, so my stubbornness won out and I followed an older track towards the deer park, that inevitably petered out.

Castle Drago ahead
Castle Drogo in the distance


The other side of Sharp Tor (Castle Drogo)
Sharp Tor (Castle Drogo) from the other side of the valley

I was now following animal tracks through the woods. As I progressed, I was eyeing up the steep descent to my right, all too aware that I might have to tackle it soon if I don't find salvation in a proper path. The route led me to a large boundary wall and a gate above me that led out into the Whiddon Park Deer Park. I was grateful for that, but it was a brief respite.

The choices were to continue out onto the open downland, or follow the wall to the valley floor. I chose the sunshine of the down.

Following the wall down to the Teign
Following the Whiddon Park Deer Park wall down to the Teign

At first, all seemed good. I stopped to take a photo of Castle Drogo, resembling a discarded plastic bag caught in a tree, flapping noisily in the wind. I'm sure this stately home (not a castle) will look splendid when the restoration is complete, but right now it is an eyesore.

I spooked a few deer, who honestly would have been more than a match for me with their proud antlers. Soon, it was obvious I was still on no path, and the down was beginning to drop away in front of me at an alarming rate. I took the option to return to the wall, and take my chances there.

Castle Drogo from Whiddon Deer Park
Castle Drogo from the Whiddon Down Deer Park

The comfort of the wall was negligible. The ground was a mix of mud, leaves and stone debris I can only assume was left from the construction of the wall. It made for a hairy descent. I could at least see the path below me, but it took a few undignified sessions on my backside before I stepped onto it.

I stopped for a short break. I hadn't bothered with any food today, so had to content myself with a few mouthfuls of cold water. I was near the end now and I had thoughts of a cuppa and cake up the hill at Castle Drogo.

Bridge over the Teign
Footbridge across the Teign
River Teign
The Teign

Across the footbridge over the Teign, I picked up the Two Moors Way, following it up Piddledown Common to rejoin the Hunters Path, with its now familiar views of the Teign valley. This took me to my next bag, where another side path turns right out along the ridge that is Hunters Tor.

Hunters Tor
View up the Teign Valley from Hunter's Tor


View down the Teign Valley
The Teign Valley

Returning to the path, I continued to where I had first joined it at the start of the day. I was sprightly up the steps to the car park, the early signs of drizzle encouraging me, as well as the lure of the Cafe. 

One remaining slice of coffee and walnut cake remained, my luck was in! I also considered whether I should have started at the Fingle Bridge Inn, but with the dropping temperatures, a good cup of tea was more amenable than a pint of ale. Good decision.

Coffee and Walnut Cake, with a cuppa at Castle Drogo cafe
Coffee and Walnut Cake, and a cuppa at Castle Drogo Cafe


And the route: