A two night wild camp on Dartmoor Part one – Bleak House

27th of May 2016

I don’t always go wild camping on my own, it’s usually due to my friend Phil and I both working opposite shifts in different jobs and never managing to have days off that coincide. On this occasion we managed to finally organise a trip away. Phil had just finished a 12 hour night shift and driven across from Middle Wallop to my place in Salisbury, before I took over the drive to Dartmoor. He certainly loves Dartmoor as much as myself, even in a state of mild exhaustion nothing was going to prevent him from missing out on this adventure. I on the other hand was well rested after a good nights sleep.

So soon after our arrival at Dartmoor we paid a quick visit to Lydford Castle which is just inside of the National park. Originally built as a castle by the Normans to quell the rebellious Devon folk in 1068, two years after William the Bastard had invaded England. By the middle ages it had earned itself the reputation as one of the worst prisons in England. If you happened to be unfortunate enough to find yourself imprisoned here it was very unlikely that you would be fed if you couldn’t pay the gaolers. Most people be they innocent or guilty usually starved to death awaiting sentencing, due to the assizes court only coming to the region a couple of times a year.

The civil war added to its reputation when it was held by the Royalists and used as a prison for unfortunate Parliamentarian prisoners. Most of them were starved, beaten and tortured to death.

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Lydford Castle. A place of ill repute

Even when visited today this ruin has an air of evil emanating from its walls. The interior is cold and dark, with a walkway looking down into the green algae covered dungeons. Well worth a visit during the day time but I wouldn’t want to be here in the dark..

Soon after our wander about the castle we headed off up the road and parked the car. We checked our gear, maps and route and proceeded towards a small ford at the base of Brat tor. It was a clear blue sky and the sun was shining down upon us.

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Looking like a glorious day ahead with the sun shining in the car park near  Lydford

That unfortunately didn’t last as within ten minutes we were hit by snow. This wasn’t forecast but on Dartmoor one never quite knows what to expect. So it was a quick change into Gaiters and waterproofs before we headed across the ford and uphill past Widgery cross.

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The snow descends with Brat Tor in the background

After a quick “layer up”on the clothing front we crossed the ford and started our walk in the direction of bleak house. It’s quite an incline to the top of Brat Tor, especially for Phil who I mentioned had only had a couple  of hours sleep, and unknown to me at the time had packed enough in his rucksack to spend a week in the Himalayas.

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Phil crosses the stepping stones as the snow gets heavier

After roughly a mile the ground levelled out and we were making good time. The wind was bitingly cold as we stopped for a look from our viewpoint, the skies now cleared and we were feeling positive after getting the journey under way.

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The skies cleared as we passed Widgery cross

We passed Great Links Tor on our left and stuck to the rough track leading to our destination. Phil had taken charge of the route on this occasion and was doing a great job of getting us there. Although it wasn’t a long walk, it’s always best to be wary when venturing into territory that neither of us had been before.

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Phil takes a breather at the top of the hill whilst carrying enough provisions for a small village and a case of sleep deprivation

As we walked we could see Lower Dunna Goat off to our left confirming that we were close to Bleak house. Once again the snow arrived accompanied by a cold wind, so it was hoods up and heads down. We came to a small stream which was our last obstacle before Bleak house, Phil crossed with ease into the driving snow.

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Crossing the river of death!

I stopped for a bit and considered the slippery looking rocks in front of me. I wasn’t using walking poles having always been sceptical of them. Phil had suffered endless ridicule at my hands for his use of these “pointless sticks” as I’d been naming them for years. On this occasion however I responded to his offer of the use of them with a resounding “Yes”!

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Using Phil’s walking poles. Where no one can see me..

I have to admit that I’d eaten a huge slice of humble pie. Since that day I have been the proud owner of a pair of my  own. They have many a time saved me from a fall, and without a doubt helped my knees and back from too much strain. They’re even handy for poking one another with, and flicking bits of cow pat and rabbit droppings at each other in the attempt of general irritation. Plus many other uses.

So having crossed the massive roaring current of the stream of death we arrived at Bleak house. It certainly has a very apt name. It’s a house which is bleak. It is now a crumbled ruin with only a couple of surviving walls.

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Bleak house comes into view

Originally “Dunnagoat cottage” as it was once called, was built in the late 19th century to house the manager of a newly opened peat works on the moor. By the 1930’s the peat works had ceased to be viable and the last occupant was allegedly a German scientist during WWII, locals were said  to have suspected him to be a spy!

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Bit rocky for a tent hereabouts but a good hideout for a spy

I now discovered that my mate had brought with him a tarp to set up a shelter at the ruin, but on closer inspection this was not going to be possible. The ground was strewn with rubble from the crumbling walls. I think the original plan we had was to camp next to the house and use the tarp as an extension to our tents, creating a small sheltered area. Alas it looked like we were going to have a look about for a more suitable spot, which when one considers the size of Dartmoor this wasn’t really a major dilemma.

Firstly we decided to explore the ruins. Ten seconds later when the exploring was completed we sheltered as best as we could manage from the wind, for a spot of lunch. Phil did however find a tin of baked beans and an all day breakfast in a hole in the walls, which was an odd find. I can only assume somebody  had been camping out here and didn’t want to carry  them out. So no doubting they would come in handy considering he has the appetite of ten men.

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Lunchtime

After warming up with some hot food and drinks it was time to find a spot to pitch our tents. Upon discovering a reasonably flat spot about a hundred metres away from the rubble we both agreed to set up camp.

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Camping within sight of the ruins

By now we were both to be fair, feeling the cold and needed a bit of respite from the wind chill.

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Tents pitched under threatening skies

We both decided after the tents were up to get inside and warm up for a bit, I had a read for an hour whilst the wind buffeted the flysheet. Phil did the same with his book on wild foods, not that there was anything growing out here worth foraging for.

After a while we both got outside, made some hot drinks and enjoyed the break in the weather, Phil took some pictures whilst I did my best to photo bomb them.

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Photo bombing time!

After some general larking around and enjoying the feeling of freedom which is a pleasant side effect  of camping in the wild, we went for an explore of nearby Green Tor. Much to my delight I found a sheep skull in what can only be described as a small piskies cave.

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I am the sheep God!

It was then back to the camp site to filter some water, once again using the Sawyer mini filter, an excellent bit of kit which is an essential if you wish to avoid carrying water around. It’s a satisfying thing filtering water from a stream to drink, makes you feel at one with nature. Much better than turning on a tap any day, and it tastes a sight better. Especially with the addition of a drop of single malt whisky.

The evening arrived early as the sun started dropping behind Lower Dunna Goat, so as I sat in the mouth of my tent preparing some dinner I took a few pictures to keep myself occupied. Phil had headed off to his tent a little earlier and collapsed with tiredness, after all he’d been awake a lot longer than myself by this time.

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The final rays of sun as it drops behind Lower Dunna Goat.

It wasn’t long before I could hear snoring coming from the adjacent tent so I went for a short stroll with a hot toddy. It wasn’t long however before I was driven back inside due to the snow and cold.

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The weather front heads back in

So that was basically day one over with. An enjoyable if not cold one. I’ll leave you with a random picture of a miniature Dartmoor tree.

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I awoke just before six in the morning whislt it was still dark and quietly bolied some water on the Trangia. It was a cold but still morning with a hard ground frost. After making myself a hot drink I pulled on my boots and headed up to Green Tor with a mug of tea to catch the sunnrise. Phil was still quiet in his tent so I assumed he was either still fast asleep or dead from exposure.

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Just before dawn the sky begins to brighten

As the skyline took on a tinge of pink from the morning sun I sat on the granite outcrop of the tor with tea in hand, awaiting the dawning of the day. As I sat there I could hear Phil approaching up the hill. He had arrived just in time, as no more than two minutes later we were greeted with a beautiful sunrise.

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The sun rises to bring some warmth to a frosty mornng

It was looking like we had a promising day ahead of us and I was hoping for some better weather than the previous afternoon. We spent some time admiring the golden glow on the landscape and enjoying the spectacular views in every direction, before deciding to head down the slope and have some breakfast.

Once breakfasted we packed our tents away and headed back past Lower Dunna Goat and onwards to Brat Tor and Widgery cross.

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Packed away leaving no trace of our stay

Eventually we returned to where I had parked the car and taking a look at the map we planned tonights wild camping spot. Phil wanted to camp in the woods and I wished to camp on the open moors, we agreed to take a walk out to Shovel Down near Chagford where both options were open to us.

A few comments from Phil…

Hi Phil here. Graeme has Kindly offered me the chance to add a paragraph or two to the blog posts I’m included in, to add my own comments, or in this case defend myself from his mockery.
We planned this trip around a map in a pub, and set a date. (before I knew I was on nights) Then it was supposed to be two days on the moor continuously crossing the army range and making a circle before heading back to the car. So I had packed 48hrs worth of food and spare clothing, where as Graeme only packed for 24. Hence my bag being considerably heavier than his.
As Graeme said I had just finished a night shift Which involves on average driving 100 miles a night and walking anything between 6-10 miles. The night before had been no different. I felt ok, I was excited to be getting out on Dartmoor for the first time that year. When I saw the view in front of me though I knew it would kill me. I lagged behind Graeme all the way up the hill. Despite being 17 years his junior. But I must say each time I stopped which was often I turned round looking the way we had come and the views were astounding.
The weather frustrated me. It changed so fast from cold wind and rain to clear skies and warm sunshine I couldn’t change in and out of my waterproofs and fleece to avoid sweating fast enough. In the end I opted to keep my gear on and just move slowly and stop often. While being mocked of course. I had a clothing failure here. I had just purchased new boots (Hanwag Tatra GTX) an excellent item of footwear I must say however it wasn’t until now I discovered I cant pull my waterproof trousers on without taking them off, like I could with my old boots.
We reached Bleak House in the snow, it looked miserable. I couldn’t imagine anyone living there even if the house was in working order. After lunch and pitching our tents. I was annoyed, I’d brought my new DD tarp with me in the hope of building somewhere for us to shelter outside of our tents but clearly it wasn’t going to happen. an extra 1200g I didn’t need to carry.
The name Bleak house was truly well-earned. It was bleak. and it was cold. I ate all my food and couldn’t drink enough hot drinks but I was freezing. being awake over 24hrs by this point really didn’t help either. I became tired and clumsy for example I lost my KFS washing them in a stream. Stupidly I plunged my arms in trying to save them. I ended up with wet sleeves and gloves. No KFS and now useless hands. Which Graeme kept pointing out to me as I was dependant on him to roll my cigarettes as I couldn’t. I was diving into my sleeping bag for 30 minutes at a time just to warm up. I lasted until the sunset then had to call it a day. Only to wake up several times in the night shivering. my 3-4 season sleeping bag claims it’s comfort level is to -9C I call Bulls&!t.
I got out my tent when it was still dark to go to the toilet. I found my water bottles had frozen, inside my tent and went back to sleep until Graeme woke me for the sunrise. The sunrise was stunning breath taking across the frozen landscape but after breakfast I was glad to be heading down the hill and away.

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