At this time of year Dartmoor weather is, at best, mixed. Yesterday was a beautiful January day: bright and sunny, not too cold and as we drove the slow road to Okehampton to collect the new gas stove, all we really wanted to do was get out and walk the moor.
It wasn’t to be: the stove came first and then we paused at the farmers’ market (third Saturday of each month and excellent North Devon fish, if the boats have been able to get out from Bideford) and poked around in Red Lion Yard, looking for a table. It was too late to walk by the time we were home and there were (as there always are) jobs to do in the garden. This time taking out the David Austin roses we planted five years ago, which we have reprieved each year despite their constant failure, and replacing them with five Roseraie de l’Hay Rugosas. These have spent the winter in containers and so should be thankful to be out and in the soil. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will do better than their predecessors.
January is a quiet month in the garden, but there are signs of spring everywhere, buds on the clematis, red tipped peony shoots breaking the surface and the early green of daffodils and crocus. It is still winter, with colder weather forecast for next week, but everything is getting going. As we packed up for the day, we agreed that a short walk over Hound Tor would be just right for today.
Instead of the sun we expected, we woke to a grey, cloudy morning. For a number of reasons, we haven’t had a proper walk on the moor this year, and the route we intended was scarcely difficult. Nonetheless it is a pretty route, down from Hound Tor through the remains of the mediaeval village and across Becka Brook before a steepish climb up to Smallacombe Rocks and then round, down and back across the Brook. All in all, it cannot be more than four miles and all along well-trodden paths. Only at the last moment did we decide to take the OS map, as we reckoned we knew the way well.
The Hound Tor car park was half full although the cloud was too low to see the Tor. It cleared as we skirted the ruined village. Abandoned at the time of the Black Death, each time we walk past it, I wonder what life was like living on Dartmoor 600 years ago. Although the village is tucked down, sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, it must have been hard and bleak sheep farming right on the edge of the moor, especially in winter.
It was good to be “out and doing”, aware of muscles softened by the Christmas lay off and enjoying the freedom we always feel when walking. Under Smallacombe Rocks we climbed into the cloud base – and lost our bearings. We struck off south but followed the wrong route. It was a matter of degrees only but with no landmarks to guide us, we then took a wrong turn, compounding the error. Instead of meeting the old granite tramway, we missed it, probably by little more than 100 yards. Busy talking, we quickly found ourselves some half a mile further on than we should have been. It was then map and compass work (and thank goodness we had them), and back across the gorse, neither of us wearing gaiters but wishing we had, before we found the tramway, and the route.
The weather lifted for the last mile and in boots and waterproofs, with sticks, we felt rather overdressed among the Sunday morning walkers on Hound Tor. Next week we will be back on the northern moor, and there will be no question of not taking map and compass.