You’ll read it and hear it over and over again; do not walk Dartmoor without a proper map. With that in mind my first few walks were along well-defined tracks in a straight line. There and back. My reason for a lack of map was simple, I wasn’t planning on visiting Dartmoor or indeed living in Devon; life changes and a map was on order.
Walking Ancient Dartmoor
The many streams, rivers and leats make the moor a very wet place, even after a dry July and early August. I wanted to visit a clapper bridge that I knew was a moderate walk from the easily accessible Avon Dam Reservoir near South Brent, Devon.
The weather for the day of my walk was forecast to be dry all day, no chance of rain. An ideal opportunity for me to brush up on my map reading and navigational skills and also to experience walking in boggy and sometimes treacherous conditions underfoot.
I parked at the busy Shipley Bridge car park and set off, with as always my Border Collie ‘Dave’ as my hiking companion. He is becoming an accomplished Dartmoor hiker in his own canine way. Other than a little guidance when around people and livestock he follows or leads never losing sight of me. For 6 months old I am impressed with his abilities.
I walked along the tarmac water company road to a point on my map where a path was shown following the banks of the fast flowing River Avon. The path through the lush trees and moss looked wet but passable. I took perhaps 40 steps off of the tarmac and sank to the top of my shins in a bog, both boots.
Black Tor, Shipley Bridge
An important point about Dartmoor, it’s always wet and boggy somewhere; the maps mark the larger of the mires but even in areas marked as scrub, you can never be sure you wont sink suddenly. As I type this blog post several days later, I have walked more miles and bogs and I am learning to spot the tell-tale signs. More about that in another blog post.
I retraced my muddy steps back to the tarmac road and consulted my map, I had seen a gap in the ferns a short distance back towards the car park and indeed this led to a scramble up to Black Tor, the first of many photo opportunities along the walk.
It is all too easy for me to remain too long in one place, I watch the landscape, the patterns of the sky reflected on the ground. I listen to the wind blowing and scan the horizon. I spotted a lone hiker in the distance heading towards me, well towards Black Tor.
A Friendly Hiker Chat
I waited for the lone hiker to arrive where I was standing, the small dot on the landscape becoming larger and colourful against the dark tones of the moor. We had a chat about the waking conditions along my proposed route, wet was the general opinion but he was standing in front of me in good spirits; so that didn’t dampen my excitement.
With a cheerful wave goodbye I consulted map and compass and walked to my first chosen landmark, Eastern White Barrow which was located approximately north-west from my current location; so let’s walk.
Eastern White Barrow – Burial Cairn
The walking was easy-going by Dartmoor standards, tufts of grass and firmly packed moss; wild ponies watched me in curiosity and sheep head-butted each other in the background; a typical wildlife scene.
Eastern White Barrow is a Bronze Age cairn and a very impressive structure, a burial chamber that commands views and your undivided attention. You cannot avoid walking directly to the base and feeling humble.
I knew nothing of the cairn when I walked to the base, it was my first time here and I hadn’t researched the landmarks en-route, my destination being the clapper bridge. I am glad that the cairn was directly on my chosen path, it was a special place to walk.
Dartmoor Bogs – Sinking and Floating
After admiring the cairn I walked north-west a few paces and picked out my next landmark, this was easy with clear visibility, the next place to stop was the clapper bridge. Far below me spanning the River Avon, itself spanning the moor like a reflective bubbling ribbon. Unbeknown to me, somewhat of a novice on Dartmoor locations was a large bog directly between the cairn and the banks of the Avon far below.
Valley mire and blanket bog are just some of the terms you will hear when speaking about Dartmoor and hiking. Equally important is map consultation and above all else, recognition of the plant growth associated with bogs. Especially Sphagnum mosses.
This moss holds vast amounts of water within its cells, trust me you cannot cross this type of bog safely. The water can be deep, a walking stick should be used to test the ground before each and every step. You could be stepping into 0.5 metre of peat or into a 2 metre granite crevice.
The safest thing to do is find an alternative route across firm ground.
Huntingdon Warren Clapper Bridge
After walking a torturous route through and around the bog I finally arrived at the banks of the River Avon but not before a good soaking when I sank shin deep attempting to jump to a tuft of marsh grass. What I thought was firm ground was moss over water. Both feet sank immediately and my momentum carried me face first into the water. A heavy rucksack added to the drama by making sure I was lying in several inches of water.
Let that be a lesson to me and you. Don’t bog jump!
Always have a dry escape back-route, you can very easily find yourself seemingly surrounded by vegetation floating over water, dangerous in daylight, deadly at night.
Drama over it was time for a dramatic view; the water of the River Avon as it bubbled and broke. Rocks created eddies that swirled the water every direction. The noise was hypnotic; a bubbling, rushing, swishing.
As sunshine broke through brooding clouds, the river took on the look of a blue ribbon, drifting through the moor, carefree yet determined. No sooner had the sun appeared then Dartmoor clouds eclipsed the fiery ball; the blue ribbon of water now a dark black scar.
Every direction took your breath away; clouds formed the theatrical backdrop, green moorland formed the stage, swirling water the props and the clapper bridge the rising star.
Man-made and weathered, no artificial materials, no fixtures and fixings, the clapper bridge was a work of art.
I took photos, many photos. I will share them here for you to appreciate but if you get the opportunity, come visit Dartmoor’s many bridges for yourself at least once.
Huntingdon Cross, Dartmoor
Leaving the tranquil, evocative clapper bridge behind I walked alongside the River Avon for a short distance east to Huntingdon Cross, a boundary marker erected by Sir William Petre, as one of four crosses used to mark the boundary of his manor. Huntingdon Cross also marks the path of the historic Abbot’s Way across the moors.
Easy to miss when walking the moors, the cross stands only 4 feet 6 inches tall, tiny in comparison to the tors looking down from above.
When walking I like quirky locations and hidden treasures, Dartmoor fortunately has many preserved curiosities to discover, not always easy to get to but always worth the hike. The route back from Huntingdon Cross to Avon Dam Reservoir is via a well trodden path. The route I took via Eastern White Barrow over the top of the moor was the hard way; a good introduction to hiking on a moor.
The clouds were casting shadows as time marched on, I walked a short distance to the River Avon junction with Western Wella Brook, a busy rushing of water. The OS Map marks a ford at this location, a few metres from the Huntingdon Cross. I found a shallow spot, tips of granite boulders making for natural stepping-stones. Hundreds maybe thousands of years ago those boulders may well have been placed by my ancestors to keep feet dry.
Huntingdon Warren to Avon Dam
I had walked from Shipley Bridge to the ford across the Avon at Huntingdon Cross before, on a day with moody skies. I’ll share some of those images on this post as the circular walk I did here takes in the same return route as previously; from Huntingdon Cross to the Avon Dam.
Once across the ford, the route back follows the River Avon to the reservoir and then the impressive dam structure. As with any location where there is water, the reflections of the sky cast beautiful images, a distortion of reality.
Following the relentless black ribbon, that the Avon had become I looked to the reservoir; a calming influence on the turbulent waters tumbling into the lake. The sunlight reflected off the lake, water destined for 1000s of Plymouth homes rippled in the late afternoon breeze.
Families had gone home now from the banks of the reservoir, it was that magic hour when the light was perfect and the silence was deafening. Gentle ripples against granite, perhaps the only sound for miles.
The final part of the walk was along the tarmac access road from the dam back to the car park, it was nice to not have to worry about bogs and marsh for a mile or so. I could reflect mentally on the hike, the positive thoughts already kicking in for the next few days.
Route: Shipley Bridge to Huntingdon Warren Clapper Bridge Circular Walk
Download Map of Route
Distance: 7 miles (11.2 km)
Shipley Bridge Car Park: OS Grid Ref: SX 68071 62906
Black Tor: OS Grid Ref: SX 67886 63571
Eastern White Barrow: OS Grid Ref: SX 66536 65166
Huntingdon Warren Clapper Bridge: OS Grid Ref: SX 65706 66196
Avon Dam Reservoir: OS Grid Ref: SX 67891 65573
Avon Dam Access Road: OS Grid Ref: SX 68103 64221