The Return To Combeshead Tor And Three Days Of Random Wandering On The Moor.

 

Day One 

On a wet and misty early September day Phil and I arrived at Dartmoor. Due to the wet, mist and extremely poor visibility we decided on a walk around the prehistoric monuments known as the Merrivale complex. We were hoping that in doing so it would give a chance for the weather to clear. We parked up at the Four Winds car park and took a five minute stroll across the moor, soon arriving within sight of a few stones rearing out of the mist.

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One of the many standing stones at Merrivale. This one is associated with a small stone circle

The Merrivale complex has three stone rows, a stone circle, several standing stones, burial cairns and a large settlement area nearby consisting of many hut circles. It was inhabited and constructed sometime around 2500 BC during the bronze age, by a civilisation we now call the “Beaker people” so-called due to the beaker style pottery which is often found in relation to their settlements.

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The terminal stones belonging to one of the three stone rows at Merrivale

Merrivale was once known as the “Plague Market”. This name came about due to the stones being used in medieval times for the people of Tavistock to leave food upon during times when the Black Death was stalking its way across the moors. If you were unfortunate enough to be infected you would have found yourself moved out of the nearby town of Tavistock to this desolate part of the moor to live out your final days. I guess the stones would have been used to demarcate a sort of barrier between the living and the dying, a sombre thought to say the least.

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A Bronze age burial cist with damaged cap stone. Possibly one of the places where food would have been left for the plague ridden folk of Tavistock

After we completed our wander amongst the stones we returned to the car, we realised by now that this mist wasn’t going anywhere. We decided to crack on with our wild camp all the same and head towards Whiteworks just past Princetown, walking from there to Nun’s Cross farm and up to Combeshead Tor. I’d camped on my own at Combeshead Tor back in the summer and wanted to show Phil what a great camping spot it was, the weather however was to make it a different experience to the solo camp I’d experienced back in sunnier and warmer days.

Having parked up and donning waterpoofs we were soon heading into the mist towards Nuns Cross farm. This part of the walk required no map and compass due to the ability to follow a gravel track all the way to granite cross. After a few photos of the cross we then took some compass bearings and double checked our route before heading into the moor proper.

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Nuns Cross. The nearby  farmhouse wasn’t visible today.

Although it was only a couple of miles across the moor to Combeshead Tor we took it slowly. The visibility was extremely poor and one could only see about 50 metres in any direction, it would be an easy thing to become disoriented in this weather. A wrong turn here could prove to be a major issue leaving us completely lost. At one point whilst following the compass bearing I was convinced we were heading the wrong way, even though the compass doesn’t lie it was an unsettling feeling. However, we persevered and putting our trust in the compass reading we were soon in sight of the Down Tor stone row and circle, from here I knew we couldn’t go far wrong.

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Phil and I arrive at Down Tor circle

Although the ground was wet underfoot we were still keeping dry. The mist was limiting any views of the landscape but it wasn’t enough to get us wet. If anything the inclement weather had added to the atmosphere making one feel as if the clock had stopped, we could almost be back in time a few thousand years.

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Down Tor circle or “Hingston Hill” as its otherwise known

We stayed at the stone circle for a while before walking off towards Combeshead Tor to pitch our tents. Passing by some wild ponies grazing on the grass we were soon on top of the Tor and setting up camp.

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Wild ponies grazing by a windswept stunted tree.

Tents pitched and lunch on the go I spent a few minutes telling Phil that as much as I loved the mists Dartmoor is renowned known for, I was slightly disappointed, as last time I had camped here the views over to Sheepstor and Burrator were incredible. Today we could see very little apart from the granite rocks of the Tor that surrounded us, creating a claustrophobic and alien landscape.

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On top of Combeshead Tor

Despite the lack of scenic views we checked our map and leaving the rucksacks behind we went off to find the nearby  potato cave. There are a few potato caves on Dartmoor, once used by farmers to store their potato harvests. These caves are man-made underground hollows now inhabited by bats. After an hour of hunting we gave up, the cave was nowhere to be found! Frustrating as this was we did find ourselves amongst the ruins of Combeshead or Deancombe farm as it is also known.

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The picturesque ruins of “Deancombe” or Combeshead farm

The farm was inhabited until the late 1920’s by a Mr Pengelly. He refused to move from his house in the 1890’s when the reservoirs were flooded and the dam was built at Burrator. Living out his days in remote isolation he died in 1930 and was the last person on the moors to be given a traditional Dartmoor funeral.

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Mr Pengelly’s house. Now a crumbling ruin covered in moss and lichens

It was fascinating to look around the ruins of the farm, the trees were covered in moss and remnants of the farms working days were everywhere to be seen. I found a piece of old Victorian milk bottle, sadly broken. There were cattle troughs, tumbledown walls, doorways, stone windows and granite blocks which would have once supported a wooden building, long since rotted away.

By now we starting to notice that we were getting wet, the mist had turned to rain, the type of rain that penetrates the best of waterproofs. The temperature was muggy resulting in a layer of dampness under our water proof clothing. We agreed to take a walk back up the Tor to see what could be done to try to dry out, otherwise this could turn out to be a damp and miserable evening.

We clambered up the steep Tor passing Cuckoo rock on the way. A huge rock of massive proportions, Cuckoo rock sits on the slopes of Combeshead Tor in an imposing manner. There are a few ideas of how it got its name, the most obvious is because the top of the rock looks like a Cuckoo, the other idea is from local folklore whereas a local farmer used to hear the first Cuckoo of the year from the on top of the rock. It’s also believed that the numerous mystical Piskies dance around the rock on a moonlit night, no doubt a tale that harks back to more pagan times.

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Cuckoo Rock. Much bigger than it looks in this picture!

Back  at the tents and by now wet through, we went in search of a shelter of any description. We didn’t fancy spending the evening sitting alone in one man tents shouting at each other through a flysheet. I soon found a great shelter, a giant rock balanced on two large stones rather like a Megalithic burial chamber. We grabbed some dry layers, food and drink and made it our home for the duration.

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Our Neanderthal rock shelter

I  changed from my now damp shirt into my Norwegian army shirt which was warm and dry due to all my rucksack contents being stored in dry bags. In all fairness the only item that had let me down was my North Face waterproof jacket, my own fault really as I hadn’t reproofed this layer for at least a year now, and I’d been fortunate with the weather on all my previous trips.

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Inside our shelter with jackets hanging up to dry

This natural shelter turned out to be a lucky find as the weather gradually deteriorated with the rain coming in and soaking everything in sight.

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The damp view from our shelter

Phil had brought along an emergency shelter so we had something dry to sit on off of the ground. A few beers later and we were once again in high spirits!

We talked until it was dark and with head torches we ventured back to the tents and called it a night. The tents had stayed bone dry inside, so a comfortable nights sleep was had.

Day Two

Awaking in the morning after a good nights sleep I layed in my sleeping bag wondering if outside I was going to be greeted with a clear day, or more of the same. I unzipped my tent and poked my head outside, sadly it was the latter. More mist.

I put my boots on and lit the Trangia to make some tea and breakfast. Within ten minutes there was suddenly a break in the weather, the mist rolled away down slopes of the Tor and revealed a wonderful view of the surrounding area. I gave Phil a shout and told him what he was missing, as this view might not last.

Fortunately the clear weather stayed with us for the rest of the day. Phil was soon up and about and I could see that he was impressed with where we had camped the night.

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The weather finally clears revealing Cuckoo rock with Burrator and Sheepstor in the distance. Combeshead farm is down the valley to the right.

I went down the side of the Tor to collect more water from the nearby  brook and after fifteen minutes of becoming disoriented and frustrated I returned to the tents sweating and annoyed with myself for not being able to find the obvious. Phil decided to take on this simple task that I was obviously incapable of, returning five minutes later with all of the Sawyer filter pouches full with fresh water. This gave him much ammunition to ridicule my sense of direction for the rest of the day. All in good humour though as I’d of no doubt given him grief if the tables were turned.

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Phil  gleefully returns with water

Some of our clothing was still damp from yesterdays glorious conditions so we turned the nearest tree into a washing line. There was a slight wind blowing so within an hour or so everything was once again dry and packed away into our rucksacks. The only damp items left were the outers of our tents which after a good shake would soon dry out for this evenings camp.

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The washing line

Breakfast done, equipment dry and rucksacks packed we took the walk back to the car. Stopping at the stone circle on the way and then following the stone row out towards Nuns Cross farm. Before we arrived at the farm we took sometime to investigate the Devonport Leat. Phil decided to check out what he could see down the ladder and into the tunnel, handing him my camera he took some admirable photos showing the excellent craftmanship these 18th century builders were capable of.

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I for one wasn’t going to venture down the ladder and look into the tunnel as it looked quite dangerous, so thanks to Phil for taking the risk.

We were soon back at the car and spent the afternoon driving about the moors and having a pint in the odd pub. Driving through Hexworthy we noticed a sign on a piece of wood saying “Campsite”. Neither of us had ever noticed this before and on closer inspection it appeared to be a nice field right next to the river, we could see signs of several fire pits. The thought of a riverside campsite with a large fire was too much to resist so we knocked on the farmhouse door anticipating a reply. No answer was received, so I decided to give the number on the door a call, but as with most of Dartmoor there was zero phone signal.

We drove off and out of the valley heading up to higher ground where eventually a phone signal was found. No answer on the phone either we headed back to the farm where we bumped into a kid who had just finished school, after bribing him with the offer of a few pounds he went indoors to ring his parents mobile phone to get us permission to camp for the night. He returned a couple of minutes later explaining that he couldn’t get hold of them but they were more than likely at the Forest Inn pub up the hill. We thanked him and a couple of minutes later were talking with the campsite owners, who told us to feel free to set up tents and they’d pop by to see us later!

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Hexworthy campsite

This was a great site, we pitched our tents right next to the river and not far from a fire pit. We managed to get some kindling together and were soon up at the farmhouse being shown the loos and basic facilities. I’m not one for using camp sites but if I do is preferable to find one with nothing but the basics, it tends to keep the average camper away, leaving a quiet site with few people and less noise. By the end of the day the field had a few other occupants, a guy with his dog and a couple in a camper van.

After purchasing a couple of boxes of logs we got a fire on the go and relaxed by the river appreciating the peace and quiet of our surroundings.

Phil had a swing around by the river from a tree and I spent the evening creating a monstrous fire and burning two crates of logs in one go. Much to Phil’s annoyance, as he wished to have a more gentle crackling fire burning a couple of logs at a time. Before we knew it, darkness had descended and the day was over. A lazy day in all honesty, but it’s just what we needed after a thorough drenching the previous day.

Day Three

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A misty start to day three

We awoke to a morning of mist, beautiful all the same and what one would expect camping next to a river at the bottom of a valley. I was sure that the sun would soon burn it off and we’d be rewarded with a clear day. I was on this occasion quite wrong.

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Tents shrouded in mist at Hexworthy

Once we were breakfasted we decided to leave the tents and stay another night at Hexworthy. We were quite comfortable here with the feeling of “Wild Camping” and the ability to have a fire again was too much of a temptation to leave behind. Agreeing to use it as our base camp, we went off to explore the prehistoric remains of the Lakehead Hill area near Bellever Tor. Not long after we found ourselves parked in the Bellever forestry commission car park and started our stroll out to find some Bronze age remains.

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The dampness of  the forest trapped in a spider’s web

The walk started with clambering over a farm gate and up a gradual incline into the forest of Bellever where we soon came upon our first ancient site.

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The path to Lakehead Hill

Lakehead Hill or the “Bellever complex” is a massive area scattered with remains of our bronze age ancestors. These remains include stone rows, circles, hut circles, cists, cairns and a large walled settlement area unfortunately known as Kraps ring.

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One of the stone circles at Lakehead Hill

All of these monuments are approximately 4500 years old and considering their age they are in excellent condition. This is probably due to the remoteness of Dartmoor and their location in the middle of a wooded area, although not a great distance from a road it does require a bit more of a walk than most are prepared to do to reach here.

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A burial cist with cap stone and row of stones leading to it

All of this is in sight of Bellever Tor, a beautiful Tor with commanding views over the area. Sadly as you can see from the mist we were still enduring, we were unable to see much at all in the distance.

There is so much to see in this area that I’ll include a link here of a brilliant website which gives much more detailed information than I could provide. Whilst sitting by the large cairn with the cap stone for a rest we were joined by a couple of older guys who happened to be doing the same as us, so we chatted for half an hour and parted ways.

Walking back to the car park we paid a visit to Kraps Ring, not much to see here but with a little imagination one can picture the walled compound bristling with turf covered huts and smoke from fires, whilst the inhabitants went about their business. Incredible to think generations lived and died here. This little village was once their world.

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A low grass covered ring is all that remains of a once formidable settlement wall. This wall would have protected the inhabitants from wild animals whilst keeping livestock safe from wolves

Now all there is to see is a collapsed moss-covered wall and some remains of the retaining stone walls of many hut circles.

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The remains of a hut circle now with resident Rowan tree

Once our ramblings around Lakehead hill were over we agreed that a pint at the Plume of Feathers in Princetown was in order. Not the best pub on the moor in my opinion but we weren’t too far a drive from it. We were soon at the bar ordering some Jail ale, named after HMP Dartmoor which is only a couple of hundred yards away. Strangely enough we bumped into the same two fellows whom we’d met out near Bellever, so we spent an hour swapping camping stories and comparing kit etc, which us wild campers love to do. An hour passed and we parted ways shaking hands, it had been an odd day so far with no pre planning. But sometimes that makes the day a bit more surprising.

I decided on another small adventure to Grimspound. I wanted to show Phil this magnificent bronze age settlement as he’d not been there before. I had visited on many occasions but shall never tire of this place. Grimspound is a late bronze age walled settlement high up on the slopes overlooking Challacombe and the Warren house Inn. Overlooked by Hookney Tor it contains twenty-four hut circles, some of these contain a central hearth area and curved entrances which would have blocked the prevailing winds entering the hut.

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One of the many hut circles showing the curved entranceway with Hookney Tor to the right

The boundary wall of the settlement is 150 metres in diameter and would originally have stood at a height of 1.7 metres. The surrounding wall also has an entrance which is paved with granite blocks, this would have helped protect the entrance from wear and tear caused by the inhabitants comings and goings.

Believed to be the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”, Grimspound is mentioned in the book with the slightly changed name of “Grimpen mire” and it’s where Lord Baskerville met his death by being mauled to death by a vicious hound. Grimspound derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon God of war “Grim” or more commonly known as Odin or Woden. I probably wouldn’t want to spend the night up here alone to be honest!

Our visit came to an end and we returned to base camp for dinner and a few beers around the fire. Thus our three days and nights came to an end and we had to head home and return to reality. An excellent few days which turned out to be totally different to what we expected, mainly due to the weather and my lack of a waterproof jacket!

 

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