As I walk more and more of Dartmoor National Park in Devon, my curiosity, my sense of adventure draws me deeper into the vast expanse. It is so easy in fact to get off the beaten track that you are spoilt for choice. On a previous walk I had looked with envy as a lone hiker walked Great Gnats’ Head after crossing Plym Ford. With names like that you can see my enthusiasm for adventure.
Sheepstor to Plym Ford – Dartmoor Walks
I parked in the scout hut car park at the foot of Gutter Tor, the dead-end track is signposted Nattor, you’ll find it on the OS Map. Dave my border collie was eager to explore, so without wasting too much time I kitted up and walked east towards Eylesbarrow Tin Mine.
I have walked this path several times, never-failing to be impressed with the vanishing-point views and never-ending sky. Dave the collie was off sniffing and exploring. I was soaking up the ambience and already feeling the well-being benefits. 1/2 mile from the car; Dartmoor does that.
Ponies had gathered as usual at Eylesbarrow Tin Mine, Dave gave them a healthy wide-berth and I said hello; everyone talks to the Dartmoor ponies don’t they?
At the tin mine there is a path that branches off east towards Plym Ford, that was my route today. Good hiking weather was overhead but a strong wind pushed me along briskly. Autumn was here.
The ford at the River Plym is typical of Dartmoor and many other wild spaces. Not a concrete river crossing but a shallow section of water with a smattering of flat and gently curved stones to step across. Dave the collie was across the river in no-time. I was a little more cautious, picking my rocks with care.
Erme Pits – Curvaceous Dartmoor
The wonderfully named Great Gnats’ Head is a vast grassy hill, the Abbot’s Way trail can be seen easily meandering up the slope. A collection of foot prints and farmer’s quad bike trails leading the way. You get a real sense of isolation here even though the footprints suggest a popular route in summer months.
Unlike walking city streets where hidden gems are in fact very well hidden until the last-minute, Dartmoor gives you long tantalising glimpses of gems on occasions. The first such location was Erme Pits. A collection of medieval and later tin workings, an industrial eyesore turned good.
The spoil tips and pits now weathered and watered, mother nature reclaiming her mineral rights. I walked around the pits fascinated by the sharp angles which contrast with the massive curvature of Langcombe Hill.
Water glistened in the pits under the autumn sun, creating sparkles of light that peered around the spoils. Dave explored and posed for the camera on the granite slabs. Blue sky overhead and green grass underfoot, not a bad day at all to be making my own adventure.
This now peaceful lunar-like landscape would once have been a busy, dangerous industrial scene, unfriendly and uninviting for man and his dog. Now you can walk amongst the mounds and listen to nothing but the relentless wind on the moor.
Between Erme Pits and Red Lake you view Erme Plains, an area I shall explore on another walk; stone rows and settlements make the map busy, lots to investigate. I crossed several small fords, rivers running crystal clear; Dry Lake Ford, Red Lake Ford and headed towards a Marker Stone, where the tramway to Red Lake intersected the Abbot’s Way trail.
Red Lake China Clay Works
Reluctantly leaving Erme Pits behind, Dave and I followed the Abbot’s Way trail as it wandered through the wild moor. Keeping the valley on my right I walked south-east as the spoil tip at Red Lake grew larger and larger on the horizon.
Looking like a junior volcano, reminiscent in a way of The Great Sugar Loaf near Bray in Co Wicklow, Ireland. Though the spoil tip is of course man-made but it did have that similar volcano appeal.
A glance at the OS Map will reveal this is a busy part of Dartmoor, trails and tramways meet at a Marker Stone. The Abbot’s Way, Two Moors Way and tramway all head off in different directions. My route was going to be along the path of a 1911 constructed tramway, once used to transport material and workers to and from the china clay works.
After walking many miles of open moorland it felt a little peculiar to be walking along an almost level pathway of uniform width. It didn’t take long to find the flooded sections of tramway meaning a walk along the grass banks. I spoke too soon!
The narrow gauge tramway sits in a depression in the ground, giving shelter from the persistent moorland breeze, the sun was still shining high in the sky; blissful walking. The track bed runs for 8 miles, though I was only walking the final short section to the now long abandoned china clay works.
The roaring 1920s saw a lot of activity at Red Lake, over 100 people would be involved in the extraction of clay from the ground. A pipeline runs alongside the tramway and this can still be seen in places along the route to Bittaford near Ivybridge. Slurry would flow through the pipeline, to be further processed.
All that is left are less than romantic ruins, a short-lived extraction, all over by 1933. I wandered around the brick, iron, concrete and stone wondering what important role each piece had played. The wind whipped up ripples on the deep water as I emerged from the shelter of the tramway embankments.
Red Lake – Dartmoor Devon
The wind was howling now, as I stepped from the relative calm of the ruins; ripples rushed across the lakes making mesmerising patterns that chased each other across the surface. Dave and I watched the lake come alive with every strong gust of moorland breeze. Like a blue tablecloth being thrown across the surface repeatedly.
Abandoned locations have a certain charm, every angle begs for a photo; a desire to catch the industrial memories before wind and rain steal them away forever. Red Lake is no different; the bleak and barren location is the main attraction.
I climbed up the spoil tip; Dave my border collie struggling to keep his footing as the wind whistled across the landscape. Imagine a winter working here in 1920; how different would it have been? The view in 2015 was that of a blue lake reflecting the autumn sunshine; silence when turned out of the wind.
I couldn’t see another living person in any direction, if you want to get back to nature, detox from technology, walk with the wild wind, then Dartmoor can offer a slice of that escapism. Dave and I sat at the top of the spoil tip and huddled down out of the wind. I took photos of the heart shaped lake and the smaller ponds.
My return route would be simple; retrace my footsteps all the way back from Red Lake to Plym Ford, Eylesbarrow Mine and finally Guttor Tor car park; before that though I still had daylight hours left to explore Red Lake with the camera.
Erme Pits To Guttor Tor
Leaving Red Lake behind me, I walked back along the tramway, with an empty mind. No hurry, I had daylight on my side and the route was the reverse. Soon enough after fording several small streams I was back at Erme Pits, the curvaceous tin workings. I took a slightly different route back around and over the mounds; taking photos and keeping an eye on Dave as he did his own exploring.
The trail disappears amongst the tin workings so a glance at the map and a compass bearing proved useful, this is the land of big sky and big hills and it can be very easy to lose the well-walked trail. Saying that, the moors in most areas allow for open-access walking so provided it is safe to do so and you are not damaging the land, you can walk off trail.
I was soon heading over Great Gnats’ Head and down towards Plym Ford where I picked up the trail towards Eylesbarrow Tin Mine and eventually Guttor Tor car park.
The ponies at Eylesbarrow Tin Mine were heading towards the shelter of the abandoned stone walls, as the sun dropped low in the sky and the temperature of the day followed. I walked the last mile back to the car park with a sense of achievement. I had walked a new route along using map, compass and landmarks. I had discovered Erme Pits; a moonscape environment that was very photogenic.
Red Lake had shown me that bleak can be beautiful; that barren can be plentiful. Adventure is in the eye of the beholder. I had seen perhaps 4 people in over 13 miles of hiking; yet I was perhaps only 35 mins drive from the City of Plymouth.
Back at the start of the 1900s people had taken a chance, a gamble and built a china clay works in a bleak landscape; In October 2015 I had taken a chance and hiked a new route across a featureless landscape; only of course it wasn’t featureless at all. It was rich in adventure.
Route: Guttor Tor car park to Red Lake and back.
Download Map of Route
Distance: 13.5 miles (21.7 km)
Sheepstor car park: OS Grid Ref: SX 57898 67322
Eylesbarrow Tin Mine: OS Grid Ref: SX 59821 68160
Plym Ford: OS Grid Ref: SX 61056 68420
Erme Pits: OS Grid Ref: SX 62463 66835
Marker Stone and tramway: OS Grid Ref: SX 64748 65945
Red Lake China Clay Works: OS Grid Ref: SX 64611 66872