This moor was once a hive of industry
Walk of the month: Dartmoor - Its mines are now ruins and Dartmoor is better known for sparse, rocky tors. But it blossoms in summer. Mark Rowe steps out
Sunday 08 August 2010
The hay meadows of Dartmoor's western fringes were heavy with foxgloves and lupins, while the butterflies were enjoying their first decent summer in three years.
Such fields – perhaps an unlikely spectacle in an area better known for its sparse moorland and rocky tors – burnished by the sun of late summer, are a glory of the British countryside in August.
I threaded my way through the hay meadows after setting off from St Mary's church in Mary Tavy on a clockwise circular route that skirts the edge of the moors. The village, like its close neighbour, Peter Tavy, is named for its church and the adjacent River Tavy. While drinking in the meadows, I was struck by how the same landscape was pitted with craters, shafts and collapsed earthworks, a legacy of the Devon Friendship Mine, once said to be the world's largest copper mine. Proof, perhaps, that it pays not to get too high-minded about the natural beauty and purity of our national parks.
After a steep climb I passed through a gate on to the high moor of Kingsett Down and looked down on the surrounding valleys, gazing at two enormous birds floating lazily on the light breeze below – this unfamiliar aspect made them resemble a hybrid of golden eagle and carrion crow but an upwards curl to the tip of their wings revealed them to be buzzards.
Down to the left were the mournful remains of the 1860s engine house of Wheal Betsy – silver and lead rather than copper were mined there – while further east the horizon was interrupted by the turret-like silhouette of St Michael's church, perched on the top of Brentor. A string of mighty tors seemed to stand as sentries on the national park boundaries to the north.
Parting company from the hedgeline, I made for the functionalist square structure of the Wheal Jewell pumping house, a strong contender for Dartmoor's ugliest building, before making for the minuscule hamlet of Creason, a line of half-a-dozen buildings fronted by classic sheep-grazed moorland, indented with boulders.
My route dropped down through Chilly Wood, where I came upon a large flock of hedge sparrows edging, atypically, in slow motion, around a dusty hollow on the fringe of the path. My advent usually sends such small birds scuttling, but here they barely bothered to keep their distance, as though caught in time, half-dozing in the heat of high summer.
Passing through a gate after Hill Bridge farm, I reached Hill Bridge weir, traversed by one of Dartmoor's classic, endlessly meandering lanes that don't really seem to go anywhere. The bridge here is one of the moor's landmarks, even though it is tucked away in a valley. You could strike out north-east from here towards Standon Down along the old coffin trail, but instead I dropped down to the leat that runs from the weir. For years the only way to reach it was by wriggling through a "ribcage" ladder – it still remains in place, attached to the wall.
Fingers crossed for good weather as you walk this stretch through Creason Wood: the sunlight flickering through the shaded canopy of birch and oak laid a gleam of copper on the leat, which in turn was bursting with life, full of fish, damselflies, dragonflies the colour of deepest green velvet and frogs skipping away from your feet. Where the wood thins out you can stray from the path to the edge of the Tavy.
All good things have to end, and after a mile I clambered over a stile on to a tiny path. This was a road in the days when everyone drove cars the size of those owned by Mr Toad, but now you have this bridleway and its brambles to yourself.
Soon, I reached Horndon, where villagers were busy whitewashing walls and pruning their tastefully tended gardens. "You're nearly at the pub," came an unprompted cry from the top of a ladder. I hadn't far to go. The Elephant's Nest Inn, with one of the finest beer garden views you could imagine, was a few paces away. Refuelled, the final section of the walk was a delightful stroll through high-sided Devon lanes back to the church of Mary Tavy. Just beyond the church is Devon's first hydro-electric power station, which started work in 1932.
By car, park by the side of the road next to St Mary's church in Mary Tavy. By bus, the No 118 route runs between Tavistock and Okehampton – ask to be dropped off by the Mary Tavy Inn on the A386. Walk back up the road to the bridge over Cholwell Brook and keep ahead going uphill, past the school and ignoring the lane signposted to Horndon on the right.
After half a mile, cross a bridge and take the path to the right. Cross a stile and turn right along the field edge. After 100 yards, turn sharp left, following the unmarked signpost, parallel to a ditch. Walk through five fields, keeping the stream to your left.
After the fifth field, climb a stone step stile to reach a lane at Axna and turn left uphill. Continue to the end of the path on to the moor. Keep the hedge on your right. After passing a coppice, the path bends right. Bear right in front of the pumping house and follow the stony track downhill to Creason.
Turn left, then first right, and follow the path to Hill Bridge weir. Bear right, keep the river on your left, the leat to your right. After one mile, turn right up a small track to Horndon. Bear left along the lane past The Elephant's Nest pub to Mary Tavy.
Two to three hours
Dartmoor OL 28
Mark Rowe stayed at The Elephant's Nest Inn, Horndon, Mary Tavy, near Tavistock (01822 810273; elephantsnest.co.uk), which has rooms from £85 per night.
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