Exploring the Wilds of Dartmoor

I drive down to Dartmoor and drift down memory lane…

My hangover from the last night’s session stayed with me for the majority of the journey down to Dartmoor.

Much like my drive down to Devon, I elected to avoid the motorway and settled for the quieter  A roads that wind through the bucolic landscape. For not the first time in my retirement I reflected on what my life would have been like if I had grown up in the countryside – would my love of the outdoors have kept me there? Would I have still gone to university? Would I have entered the same career? With no job or pressing engagements I had plenty of time to explore these thoughts in my head whilst my destination crept ever closer to me.

I passed through humble hamlets and picturesque villages, as I did the landscape began to change from soft, agricultural pastures to harder, more rugged climes. The high thicket hedges soon gave way to more sporadic hedgerows, until they disappeared altogether and were replaced with arresting heather-flecked vistas. As I entered Dartmoor proper, I found myself drifting further back in my memories, to the last time that I’d enjoyed landscapes such as these.

I was 17-years old when my thirst for adventure took me away for the first time. I’d heard about other boys my age hitching lifts over to Germany and from there drifting down to Africa, picking up work along the way. I had no idea how they did it, or what they did for money, all I knew was that I wanted to the same thing. Although I succeeded in leaving my little village, I didn’t manage to escape the country altogether. I hitchhiked aimlessly for a couple of days, staying with rather confused elderly people and the occasional family until I found myself drifting into the north of Wales. I made a decision to stop at the first place that I liked the look of: Gorse Hill Caravan and Lodge Park, to this day it’s still one of my favourite things to do in North Wales.

Although I’m aware that the current incarnation of Gorse Hill is an impressive modern complex (that now has static caravans for sale) back then it was a much more quaint affair. I was dropped off there by a well-meaning local who perhaps saw me as a young man in need of a direction. I was introduced to the manager there of the time and soon found myself (somewhat surprisingly) in gainful employment. My mornings were spent showing new guests to their caravans, whilst the well-trodden paths of the stunning surrounding landscape were at my disposal for the afternoons – I’d not seen such sights until I arrived in Dartmoor.

By the time I arrived in Princetown I found that my hangover had lifted. Being the middle of the week the place was quiet (I had been told that it was a veritable hive of activity during the weekend), I parked up and reflected on my journey south. Although it had taken nearly two hours, it felt like it had gone by in a flash, just like the years that had preceded it.

Driving to Devon

Devon: The Home of Cream Teas, Two Coastlines and Wildlife Galore!

Decades ago, as a young whipper-snapper, I spent many summers romping through the bounteous fields of Devon.

One particular year sticks out in my mind as being worth remembering. The year was 1978, I was 14-years old and hopelessly in love with the great outdoors. Unlike many of my peers (who would dedicate their summers attempting to score drugs from various older teenagers) I was content with the kind of frolicking that was fast growing out of fashion: namely wandering through fields and attempting to spot some of the more elusive animals that roamed through this stately, handsome land.

My memories of that time are of blissful peace, and are no doubt victim to the kind of rose-tinted nostalgia that oversaw the shock result of the Brexit referendum. Still, after many pinches of salt have been taken, I can say with confidence that my memories of this county were not completely clouded by misty-eyed longing. Having just returned from a long weekend in Devon I’m happy to report that this place is perhaps more beguiling that I remember it being, full to the brim with cosy pastoral nooks and a bewildering range of wild creatures.

Driving down to Devon I’m assaulted with the kind of warming sense of comfort akin to eating a time-worn family recipe. It had been decades since I’d visited this part of the world, but somehow the landscape seemed familiar. The M5 motorway is hardly the most picturesque way to be introduced to Devon, but that doesn’t stop me from getting carried away down memory lane. As soon as these familiar rolling hills begin to appear, I took left turn and ordered my Satnav to ignore any more motorway routes, I wanted to delve into the country lanes of my childhood…

As I left behind the noise of the highway, I turned my radio off and rolled the windows down. The balmy summer air, heavy with the scent of flowering buds, wafted through my nose. I found myself drifting back into old memories, until a fox darted out of a hedge forcing me to brake drastically. The creature was momentarily stunned and then lithely padded across the road and into the opposite hedge, on its way to terrorise some chickens, no doubt.

After settling down in my B&B in dusky village, I fumbled my way through a couple of country lanes, in search of a pint of ale. I was pointed in the direction of The Catherine Wheel, which I soon stumbled across in the village of Hemyock. This charming little settlement might not have had much in the way of wildlife, but it was certainly full of some characters. Young locals mingled with their older, craggier counterparts and rowdy conversations got rowdier as the night wore on.

The next day I made my way out of the B&B, battling a rather mean headache, and down to my next destination: Dartmoor.

Ice Sets In Early On Dartmoor

‘Winter’s coming early this year.’

Those were the words that I was greeted with on my first morning in Dartmoor. I’d slept soundly the night before, my belly full of comfort food and my mind brimming with the possibilities of all the wildlife that I was yet to discover. I understand that some people find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep in a new bed, but I’m not one of those people. My time on the road, hefty hangover and large meal was enough to send me off to sleep, but it was the cold that woke me up. Ice misted covered the windows of my room and my yawn emitted a huge plume of steam which hung in the air before my eyes. Looking out the window the moor awaited me, but it had changed over night.

“Frost don’t usually fall so early, sign of the beast I tell you.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. The man was dressed head to toe in weather proof materials, with a wide-brimmed hat gently wavering in the breeze. He was perched on a mossy wall, looking out over the moor with a kind of grim determination that I could not decipher. The man looked serious enough, his eyes firmly set on the horizon and his mouth gently chewing on something. I pulled my coat closer and elected for a curt silent nod in his direction, pulled the gate open and stepped out into the frosty moor.

It was late-September, a time of year that was more associated with Indian Summers than early frosts, but the frost was there nonetheless, defying seasonal expectation and somewhat dampening my spirits. The chances of spotting some of the rare wildlife that I’d got excited for the night before had dropped with the temperature and I hadn’t packed expecting this kind of climate. To make up for this oversight I’d taken the sensible option of putting on all the clothes in my possession. Luckily the shops had not been affected by the cold weather so I was able to stock up on enough food to last me the day. In my rucksack I had packed sandwiches, Kendal mint cake (a firm hiking staple) and plenty of cereal bars to last me a day out on the moor, I’d left at first light and was determined to see something spectacular.

Although I’d read plenty about the creatures and plants that inhabited Dartmoor, I hadn’t expected the moor itself to be the most memorable aspect of my time there. The weather was cold, but it was by no means inhospitable and it had transformed the already rugged landscape into a pearly white sea of crystal shards and granite peaks. I passed a small river that had transformed into a makeshift ice luge, the peat bogs had become sturdier and shifted with a disarming slowness that made them all the more treacherous, whilst Shetland ponies nervously trampled through the thicket.

I might have been initially underwhelmed by the cold weather, but I left Dartmoor that day safe in the knowledge that I’d witnessed something truly special.

Princetown for the Night

A pit stop at The Plume of Feathers

As usual, my rather improvised approach to travelling had left me short of a bed for the night, thankfully I was not travelling in high season so I wasn’t refused a night at the first place that I arrived at. The Plume of Feather is well situated on the very edge of the moorland and I’m sure is usually much busier than I found it that day. When I arrived the temperature had just dropped by a few degrees and I found myself grateful for the log fire that was merrily crackling in the corner of the cosy bar. I closed the door behind me and took a look around the place before sitting down.

A quiet pub is a strange thing. Much like a school or hospital, it takes on an eerie air of silence without the usual background hum of noise that these places are usually associated with. The Plume of Feathers, although handsomely decorated, felt a little abandoned and (dare I say it) a touch haunted as I slowly paced through its environs heightened, no doubt, by the lack of any guests or staff.

Part of me was tempted to call out a beleaguered ‘Hello’, but before I could do so a ruffled looking teenage waiter popped his head out of a door and beat me to it. His greeting shocked me out of my reverie and I held my hand to my heart. ‘Sorry!’, came the response from the sheepish lad, before he showed me to the secondary bar which, thankfully, had a small collection of people warming their hands by the fire and tucking into some hearty looking food.

The familiar smell of pub grub sent some pretty urgent signals to my brain which told me one thing: I was absolutely starving.

The sheepish waiter quickly found me a table near the fire and I quickly ordered my food, based on what I’d seen walking in and settled myself down into a book detailing the natural fauna and flora of Dartmoor. Although sections of the moor (as it’s known to the locals) have been sectioned off for use by the military for over two centuries now, there are still plenty of interesting animals worth making the trip to see.

Dartmoor has not seen much intensive farming or any kind of development as a result of it being categorised as a Special Area of Conservation. Four habitats have been singled out in particular these are: North Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix, European dry heaths, Blanket bog and Old sessile oak woods. Each one of these habitats is apparently home to their own specific species and my mouth quickly salivated at the prospect of spotting so many of these rare and elusive creatures. It wasn’t until I was nudged by the waiter that I realised that I’d been salivating at the handsome plate of food on my table. I promptly dropped the book and tucked in, all the time keeping in mind the cornucopia of natural wonders that laid in store for me out in the moor.

Welcome To My Site!

Hello and Welcome!

This blog is a long time coming but I’m so glad that I’ve finally got round to it…

When I was a youngster (trust me, you don’t want to know how long ago this is) my friends and I used to keep journals. As archaic as this might sound, we would spend hours and hours poring over these notebooks, filling them with all sorts of odds and ends. This was before computers, before mobile phones or even digital cameras – thankfully we had access to PVA glue and scissors…

These journals weren’t school projects, we weren’t told that they would help us with our university applications or that they would make our CVs look good, we created them because we wanted to record our thoughts, our memories and leave for ourselves a snapshot of our lives that we would be able to look back on. Unfortunately, like so many childish pursuits that are started with the best of intentions, at some point these journals were left to one side, forgotten and lost.

Luckily, despite having lost those precious tomes of my youth, the memories of those halcyon days were iconic enough for me to remember them for a lifetime. Long summer days were spent romping through fields of waist-high grass, picking the buds of flowers and building grand dams in rivers. Squashed sandwiches were happily munched throughout the day and cans of pop were shared, all whilst the hunt was always on for new wildlife that we hadn’t seen before. Although a blog can be easily forgotten and laid to one side, those memories still linger in my mind.

Last week marked the day of my retirement. After decades of my life spent in an office, leading boardroom meetings and creating presentations I now have the opportunity to get outside and relive the days of my youth. Although I briefly flirted with the idea of writing a book, the thought of spending hours behind a typewriter or a computer felt like defeating the point of my retirement. I shelved the idea for the first few months of my retirement and decided to dedicate my time to getting outside as much as possible.

During the last few years of my working life I spent much of my spare time watching nature documentaries and films. Thanks to the wonders of on-demand television I was able to lose myself in hours of thrilling wildlife visuals and immerse myself in some gorgeous scenery; with David Attenborough as my guide I travelled to many far off places and saw all kinds of exotic creatures that I’d never have had the chance to see otherwise. Those indulgent evenings, usually accompanied with a glass of wine and a microwave meal were exactly what I needed to get me through the last few years of my working life and bred in me a thirst for real life adventure that I had all but forgotten.

Now that I’ve spent a few months on the road, exploring all sorts of wild and interesting places I feel like I’ve got enough material to start this blog proper. So strap in and get ready for adventure!