Limited visibility

Recently asked about my favourite day, my answer was either a May morning on the RSPB’s Ynys-Hir reserve in North Wales, or else winter midday on the northern moor. The latter is not a day for birding, but often bright and cold: an opportunity for long views and with the ground frozen less chance of wet feet. The picture that heads all these Dartmoor Letters posts is of the Belstone Ridge one New Year’s Day.

But as most of its visitors have found, Dartmoor weather is unpredictable. This is part of its charm, if that is the right word; and with the right clothing, and a map and compass, the weather is part and parcel of the experience. This is not to say that it doesn’t present its own challenges. We left the house two Sundays ago in sun, but looking towards the top of Cosdon as we drove north, all we could see was low cloud. Okehampton was gloomy, and by the time were at the camp, it was grey and spitting with rain. We walked away, up the military road towards Yes Tor, and as we climbed we entered the cloud. On the top visibility was down to little more than 50 metres as we turned south, first for High Willhays and then Dinger Tor.

Walking and birdwatching do not really go together, but at High Willhays a solitary Raven slowly lifted off the tor into the cloud no more than 20 metres ahead of us, lost in nothingness almost before we had had time to see him; and ten minutes later we heard first, and then saw, a small flock (about 20) Golden Plover.

The track down to Dinger from High Willhays is well trodden and usually easy to follow, but with no real visibility, and the ground spongy and waterlogged, we strayed off course. Stopping, retracing our steps and taking more care than often, we eventually reached Dinger with a certain measure of relief. To the right of the track, running down into the West Okement, the ground is always boggy and finding yourself in that, with poor light and a short day would have been little fun. At Dinger there was a small group of Royal Engineers, most wrapped up and sleeping in bivvy bags, with a solitary, wet and miserable looking picket, cradling a light machine gun. He told us they had been out on exercise for two days and had another five to go: he didn’t look happy.

From Dinger we walked the easy route back, with the weather worsening.

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