19th of July 2016
It was a beautifully warm day when I arrived at the gravel car park near the scout hut not too far from Sheepstor. Here the road comes to an end for us civilians, as there is a deep ford and a sign that warns that only military vehicles are allowed to proceed onwards. It had been a bit of a week of things back home and I felt I needed an escape to the moors, I couldn’t have timed the weather better. Clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight, not even the mildest of breezes which is unusual for Dartmoor, as from my experience it’s usually always windy.
I swapped my shoes for walking boots and gaiters and headed off with my backpack past the scout hut and over the moors. My first destination was Ditsworthy Warren house, the same house which was used in the filming of “War Horse”. The house which is now abandoned soon came into view as I reached the top of the hill. Its situated in a lovely part of the moor and although not a long walk from the car, already one can achieve a feeling of solitude and wilderness all around.
The house was first recorded in the history books as far back as 1474 but the structure we see today dates back to the late 18th century at the earliest. It was originally built as a house for a family of “Warriners” or people who farmed rabbits in warrens. These man-made rabbit warrens known locally as “Pillow Mounds” are scattered all around, there are a total of 56 in the area, some of them 16 metres in length. The house also has a walled compound area where the owners kept the dogs which were used for catching the rabbits. The walls of this compound have kennels to house the dogs built into them, a very unusual feature.
The house is now secured against entry by a metal gate on the door and the windows are covered in metal shutters. I noticed that one of these shutters was ajar, so cautiously poking my head through I took a peek. It was a scorching hot day but going through the window up to my waist I was taken aback at the extremely cold temperature within. Hence to say I took a quick few snaps, shut the window and backed off. I had an odd feeling that I was being watched from within so I made a quick exit!
The house was abandoned in 1947, I don’t know why but I can only imagine that times were hard after the end of the war, or maybe rabbit as a food source just went out of fashion. The roof tiles soon started to fall in, so it was preserved by the addition of a felt roof which can be seen to this day.
Once I’d finished exploring the old house and being thoroughly spooked by the unseen presence of something monitoring me, it was time to move on towards the next item on the agenda. The Drizzlecombe complex of prehistoric monuments. After a short walk for about twenty minutes from Ditsworthy one can first see a standing stone in the distance. This is what is known as “The Bone Stone” possibly getting its name from the fact that it looks like a large bone. And a rather phallic bone at that.
This prehistoric standing stone at just over 4.2 metres is the tallest of all the menhirs on Dartmoor. It has a stone row leading away from it which ends in a small burial cairn. There are three of these stone rows at Drizzlecombe all of which are constructed in the same manner with a large monolith and cairn associated.
I must have spent a good hour here trying to figure it all out and as usual I’m none the wiser. I found a useful snippet of information when I returned home which I shall include here. Apparently the stone row which is connected to this standing stone is actually orientated 42º east of grid north and at 3.00pm on the Winter Solstice (21st of December) the pillar’s shadow aligns with its stone row. I’ve never been one for astronomical alignments, preferring to think of these monuments as a bit more random, but when I read this I am a bit less sceptical. Could it be coincidence that the tallest stone on Dartmoor does actually cast a shadow down the stone row transforming it into what could be a processional route? If so it still doesn’t answer the question as to what our ancestors were up to out here thousands of years ago.
I don’t wish to sound morbid, but I always like to think of these as places of fertility rites, death and sacrifice. A bit like our modern churches but without a roof, as one needed to see the skies to worship the gods back then. Who knows, It could be a game lost in time, ancient goal posts or an over engineered washing line. Until I invent that time machine I’ll have no real answer, maybe the fact that these sites keeps one guessing is what makes them so wondrous.
Not far from the Bone stone is a very large burial cairn or barrow known as the “Giants Basin”. It really is quite massive, but sadly its been robbed of some of its stones by farmers to build stone walls, so it must have been huge at once. Whoever was interred here must of been a very important person, a tribal leader or king from the past. Or maybe somebody so horrible they thought it best to cover them up with as many stones as possible.
I was soon on my way to look for a camping spot for the evening and after checking the OS map I decided to follow the valley path above the river Plym and then skirt off to the right following the Langcombe brook. It was the first time that I’d been out to this part of the moor so I didn’t really know what to expect. My main objective was to find “Grims Grave” which is a Bronze age kerbed cairn and cist. The first part of this walk was along a rocky path following the river Plym which I could see running its course down in the valley to my right. After about one mile I could see a small brook heading off up another valley, this was the Langcombe. So I headed down the valley and after negotiating a way across the river I started following a new direction.
I soon came to a jumble of stones which I still haven’t been able to identify. It was definitely an old settlement of some description, possibly an old tin workings. Whatever it once was it made for some ankle breaking walking. I proceeded cautiously as not having a phone signal and breaking a leg out here on my own was not a good idea.
Onwards past the ruins I went, along the valley keeping check on my compass bearing and keeping my eyes peeled for Grims Grave. It was tough going as here there was no path, so I’m guessing not many people wander this way. It was mainly hummocks of grass known as “Babies heads” which are a nightmare to navigate through, so with that and the small streams, rocks and piles of stones which I assume were deposits from tin mining I persevered on my way.
As the sun was beating down on me I applied some more sun block, popped my wide-brimmed hat on and started thinking this walk was becoming a bit difficult for my liking. I came to the conclusion that after an hour of scrabbling about that I must of walked too far. So after checking my compass and map yet again I sat there scratching my head puzzled as to where this monument could be. I wasn’t lost, just confused as to why I still hadn’t seen it. According to my calculations I should be right on top of it. There was one thing left, I resorted to my monocular and scoured the landscape. Suddenly no more than a hundred metres away I could see on the opposite bank of the brook some stones, which could not have randomly settled in a circle, hence these were placed by the hands of man! I picked myself up and headed straight for them. I had finally reached the Grims Grave.
Named “Grims” after the old Saxon word Grim, for the Devil, this is a Bronze age kerbed cairn with a “Kistvaen” or stone box. It was constructed around 1500 BC by the beaker people. It has nine remaining kerb stones and the central stone box would have held the remains of a burial in the foetal position.
The monument has suffered quite a lot of erosion due to cattle using it to rub against and as shelter from the driving rain. But considering its been standing out here for 3500 years it’s survived quite well. I found it strange that it had been built on the side of a valley and not somewhere more prominent but that’s probably due to my modern way of seeing things. Who know’s what the ancient people were thinking?
It had dawned on me that after walking all the way out here, not once had I seen a suitable wild camping spot. The ground was either too rough or on a slope. I decided that my best bet was to head back the way I had come and camp down by the river Plym near Ditsworthy warren house, but far enough away that whatever I had felt had been watching me would not see me again..
After about an hour and a half and a stop off to filter some water from the Langcombe brook I arrived at my spot for the night. A nice flat spot by the river which was quite rocky and difficult to get a tent-peg in, but close to water, dry and sheltered.
After half an hour my tent was pitched, sleeping mat and bag inside, tea made and I was ready for some dinner. I’d skipped lunch as breakfast at the Fox Tor cafe in Princetown had been a large affair.
Dinner was the usual veggie curry followed by some chocolate and more tea. It was now about six thirty in the evening so I decided to go for a walk back up to Ditsworthy warren house. I took along with me some finest single malt whisky and more chocolate and awaited the sunset. I was a bit miffed that some cloud seemed to be heading my way, but I was quite happy sitting up on an old dry-stone wall by the farm house overlooking my camping spot. It turned out to be the perfect end to a long and interesting day with the evenings final rays of sun lighting up the old farm in a golden glow.
Before the whisky took too much of an effect upon my ability to make it safely back to my tent, I headed down the hill to catch the last bit of twilight and quietly listen to some relaxing tunes, whilst pondering the days events and planning tomorrows adventure with my map and head torch.
Soon the darkness has enveloped all, sadly tonight I was deprived of a night sky full of stars so I opted for an early night and an early start. I zipped myself inside my tent with my book and soon dozed off.
20th of July 2016
After a good nights sleep I awoke to a cloudy morning, breakfasted on tea and porridge I headed back to the car, ready to explore another undiscovered part of the moor.
I was soon back at the car and driving off towards Princetown where I parked up a short distance before the old abandoned tin workings of Whiteworks. I’d camped there a few times in the past, but today I was heading in the other direction to Combeshead Tor, via Nuns Cross farm and the Down Tor stone circle and row.
Once I had parked up doing my best to hide the car from any passing traffic, of which there is little due to this road leading to nowhere, I traipsed off across the moor. This was an easy start to the walk as all I had to do was follow a track to Nuns Cross Farm. It’s a well used track as the military use this part of the moor, and the farm is used by youths doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards.
The old farm soon came into view and I knew that when I reached the cross itself all I had to do was take a compass bearing and take a sharp right across the open moor towards Down Tor stone row and circle.
After a ten minute break and taking numerous photos I headed across the open moor to my next destination. Even though I’m quite comfortable with a map I always get the jitters at this stage, I doubt myself and get concerned that I may get completely lost. I guess it’s not a bad thing as over confidence can be your own worst enemy. I always treble check my bearings before changing direction. I had however no need to be concerned, apart from the rough terrain this one turned out to be a walk in the park, albeit a boggy one.
Via the use of my monocular I could soon see Down Tor circle and row in the distance, it looked incredible even from a distance. Within twenty minutes I was at the start of the row and followed it downhill to the circle.
The stone row itself starts with a five foot tall standing stone and the row runs away to the circle for 349 metres or 1145 feet and consists of 174 stones. The circle is 11 metres in diameter and contains a burial cairn which has been robbed in the distant past. There are 25 stones surrounding the cairn the tallest of which is 2.7 metres. As with all of these monuments its Bronze age in origin. The circle is also known as the Hingston hill circle as it stands on the hill of that name. Whatever one wishes to call it by it’s an incredible monument. It also has an alignment on the summer solstice, where the shadow of the sun runs the entire length of the stone row. No coincidence there I think..
After my usual time taken to fruitlessly ponder on the meaning of these sites I headed off to look for a spot to camp for the night. I planned to camp up at Combeshead Tor, but having never been there before I couldn’t be certain that there was going to be any decent flat spots within reach of an essential water supply. From where I was looking it seemed to be a good prospect but one can never really tell until it’s too late.
So I headed off towards the Tor and as I scrambled up the slopes it wasn’t looking too promising. Much to my relief as I reached the top, there in front of me was the perfect flat plateau sheltered from the wind that I had yet seen on Dartmoor. It currently remains as the best spot I’ve found to date. I soon had my tent up earlier than I usually do, but I was in the mood for a chill out with my new book “12 years a slave”
Before pitching the tent I had dumped my rucksack off and headed down the opposing slope to where the map showed a small brook. If I was to stay here I would need some water. So with Sawyer mini filter and several empty pouches, I went in search. It wasn’t the easiest walk down to the brook and back up to my tent, but worthwhile considering the spot I’d found to stay at. The brook was a nice fast running one so I filled up all of my pouches and returned to base camp a happy camper (excuse the pun).
After some late lunch I reclined against the rocks and read for a few hours, I was quite lost in time when I suddenly heard someone saying “hello”. It Turns out that this guy who was on holiday had gone for a walk with his friend and had become separated and completely lost. He had no idea where he had come from and his mate had the map. It never ceases to amaze me how people wander into the moors completely unprepared. This chap was in his fifties and wearing shorts and a shirt, trainers and a baseball cap. I soon ascertained that he had come from Princetown where he was staying, so I showed him the map and gave him some water and directions before he happily went on his way without a care in the world. I never did hear any police reports about missing people on the moor over the next few days, so I can only guess he survived. Either that or his “friend” lost him on purpose and his bones are bleaching in the sun out there somewhere..
So I whiled away the hours by eating and reading and had a thoroughly peaceful time. My only complaint was that I had a full signal on my phone which took away that feeling of remoteness, I did however put it onto silent in case someone did wish to disturb my peace.
So basically that summed up my afternoon and evening, food and books. It was comfortably warm and there was very little in the way of wind, just a gentle cooling breeze to keep the midges away. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect camp site. The sunset wasn’t too bad either considering the cloud that came and went.
I settled down for the night soon after the moon made an appearance and I quickly fell asleep. A rather uneventful evening but a peaceful time was had. I awoke early and headed off back across the moor to Whiteworks paying a quick visit to the stone circle on the way out.
To my surprise I found much a easier route on the way back by following a track past the old Devonport Leat. This is a man made structure built in the 1790’s to carry water from five of Dartmoor’s rivers down to the docks at Plymouth. By the late 18th century Plymouth’s docks had expanded so much that a fresh water supply had become a serious issue.
Right next to the leat I discovered an old ruined building that appeared to be a long forgotten cottage of some description. I took a look inside, not much to see apart from the old fireplace that was still in situ and tree roots growing through the walls from the massive tree that had grown on top of the ramshackle ruins.
I later discovered that this ruin is called “Old Farm”. It was never used as a farm but was purpose built in 1793 as a tool sharpening shed for workers on the Devonport leat. Once the leat was completed it was used as a shelter by tin miners from the nearby mines. These days its sole inhabitants are cattle sheltering from the weather.
That was the end of my two day foray as I was soon back at the car and heading home. It was possibly one of the best camping trips I’d yet completed and I’ll be back soon, of that there is no doubt.