Follow the Leat
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This Xploration is called 'Follow the Leat', a phrase stolen from the title of a series of books written by John Robbins but perfectly fits this route. It was to be a 'Weather Day', what was the weather going to do? and whether to bother going out on Dartmoor? In the end it was a case of; "he who dares wins", "fortune favours the brave", "if you don't go you won't know", etc. etc. So Rhys and myself set off down to Dartmoor with a very undecided early morning sky, by the time we got to Princetown it had decided - thick fog and heavy rain! The purpose of this visit was threefold; to get photos of Crazywell Pool, some sundew and the ever elusive (in my case) Dipper bird, all for this website. The walk that would give the greatest chance of these encounters was to 'Follow the (Devonport) Leat' from Whiteworks to Crazywell Pool which considering the thick mist was quite a good idea. The other beauty of following a leat is that it's always fairly level walking as the very nature of one is that it allows the water to gently flow downhill over a long distance. This actual route was a return distance of just over six miles and the outward journey can be seen below:
The drive down from Princetown to Whiteworks was somewhat akin to a water park ride with water splashing on all sides of the car and raindrops pelting down which didn't bode too well. I must admit that having driven down the 127 miles with a specific aim of getting some photographs and then finding what could only be described as 'adverse conditions' was slightly irksome. Nevertheless, full waterproof kit was donned and the adventure began, albeit on my behalf very reluctantly. It was impossible to see more than about fifty feet thanks to the thick pall of mist enveloping the moor, I gestured in the direction of the invisible Foxtor Mires and explained to Rhys that this was the supposed Grimpen Mire of Conan Doyle fame.
Just as we were about to leave a group of four young girls loomed out of the mist, all fully kitted out for their Dartmoor experience. It appeared that one of their tasks was to photograph various points on their route so they stopped at the small bridge to record that location for prosperity. Having pulled out their OS map they began to attempt to find what this spot was called but to no avail which was slightly disconcerting in those conditions. Even more worrying was the fact that after I had told them where they were the group headed off towards Foxtor Mires?
After a short distance along the leat it became very clear that there was going to be no Dipper photograph today, the water level was far too high and the current much too fast to see one of those little birds bobbing up and down on a rock. Using the old adage, "horses for courses", although the weather conditions did not particularly suit human activity it certainly did for the numerous black slugs that littered the leat bank, I have never seen so many at one time. The story of the two old women who lived at the Snailey House did come to mind, as their preferred diet was slugs they would have had a field day.
Eventually we arrived at Nun's Cross Farm allthough you would have never known it as the mist seemed even thicker, all that could be seen was a ghostly silhouette of the building. You could almost imagine that this was the setting for a horror film, inside lurked unspeakable evil just awaiting some poor unsuspecting traveller to come along. Now amongst the rain, mist and overgrown vegetation I wanted to find the mystery stone with the coat of arms on it to show Rhys which was/is embedded in one of the enclosure walls. Sadly a failing memory proved the downfall but what Rhys did find was a Geocache, once again hidden in a wall section (which it shouldn't be!). At one time I was an avid letterboxer and so this new(ish) crazy of geocaching seems very 'Mickey Mouse'. Being a traditionalist whereby everything was done with a compass leaves me unable to understand what fulfilment can be gained from simply following a GPS? There certainly is no skill involved but there you go, each to their own but just don't put them in places where the code says not to. Well, as there is a first time for everything we examined the cache and discovered a small disc and some instructions to take the thing and resite it in another cache and to log it at a given website address. Having resisted the temptation to resite it in the leat the thing came home and since then the instructions have been duly followed. After about thirty minutes of messing around with accounts, passwords and simply trying to log it as being found I gave up - not that complicated with letterboxing. So, Joel, if you every read this we found your cache (Number EUAFHF) at Nun's Cross Farm and when out on the moor I will carry it around until I find another cache to leave it in.
To the south of Nun's Cross Farm the leat disappears underground through a 600 yard long tunnel, the entrance and exit of which is closed off with padlocked metal gates. Originally there was another tunnel situated a bit further up which utilised some old adits from Nun's Cross mine but this slowed down the leat's water flow and so the existing tunnel was cut around the 1850s to alleviate the problem. Back in the 1996 three friends and myself were into exploring old mines and on our list was this tunnel. However, there was a slight problem, getting past the metal gates which were even then firmly padlocked. After inspection it became apparent that the only way in was get under the lower gate which meant going underwater and crawling through the gap. To this day I still remember how cold that water was but nevertheless we managed it as can be seen from the (scanned photo) below. I must point out that going into these old mine adits is very dangerous, probably illegal and not advised, we were lucky you may not be!
Just above where the leat exits the tunnel are the ruins of a small building nestled under two large trees. This is known as the 'Old Farm' but in true Dartmoor fashion it was never a farm, this edifice was in fact built around 1793 as a smithy for making and sharpening the tools used by the men who cut the original leat tunnel. Once they had completed their task the building was more than likely used by the miners at Nun's Cross mine. As you can see from the photo and the raindrop on the lens it was still raining hard and the mist was down.
Having once again picked up the leat the route followed it around to Hutchinson's Cross, a modern wayside memorial cross which was erected in 1968 in memory of Lt. Commander B. Hutchinson's mother who died in 1967. It has been suggested that this cross sits in a much earlier socket hole possibly filled by an ancient cross belonging to the series on the Maltern Way? On the eastern side of the cross are the numbers 1887 - 1966 are inscribed denoting the ladies life-span and on the eastern side the letters S.L.H. standing for Sybil L (?) Hutchinson.
From the cross the route then followed the leat around to a small hut and weir over which the water tumbled in a picturesque light show. The next stop was Older Bridge, a smallish clapper that takes the old Walkhampton to Whiteworks track over the leat. Still the rain bucketed down and the mist clung to the moor as if for dear life.
Talking of 'dear life' the next encounter was with a small, solitary lamb sat down in the heather and not looking at all well. Having gone to investigate it soon became evident that the poor creature was lame in both its front and back legs and had been left by its mother to fend for itself. When one comes across such things it is hard to remember that in all reality they are living out in the wild and help is not always at hand. Ideally one should telephone the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, with the animal's condition and location (see their website - HERE) but unfortunately their number was in my other kit bag. As we would be returning back past the same spot it was agreed that we would check on the little creature and re-assess the situation.
The next port of call was Crazywell Pool which we reached after splashing under Chants Hill and Cramber Down. By this time my boots were sodden which was a timely reminder of the lack of attention and waterproofing they had received. So maybe 'squelching' over to Crazywell would be more appropriate.
All the way along this stretch we were accompanied by a Dartmoor pony and her foal who seemed abnormally nervous and just kept cantering ahead, gently nudging the foal if it fell behind. The reason soon became apparent when both horses splashed across the leat and galloped down into a nearby gert to join the rest of their herd.
As we approached Crazywell Pool a patch of blue sky the size of a pair of knickers peered out from the grey leaden skies, was this a sign that things would improve? This pool has in recent years earned a reputation for being a wild swimming location which I think means that it's favourable for free swimming. It certainly appears as one of the Dartmoor spots on the Outdoor Swimming Society website but I think today proved just a little bit too much for the 'outdoor swimmers'. Sadly there were no buxom, bikini clad ladies frolicking in the tranquil waters neither were there any sun bathing beauties. The only sign of life at the pool was a small herd of cattle coming down for their morning drink and the only birds were a mallard duck and her chick. It did not take long to get a photograph of the pool which was one of the main reasons for the walk.
Just to the east of the pool silently sits another old wayside cross simply known as Crazywell Cross which also belongs to the Maltern Way series. It was from here that definite signs of the weather clearing could be seen, the distant tors to the south were slowly drawing their curtains of mist. Down to the west the Burrator reservoir began to emerge from the gloom with small wisps of low cloud spiralling upwards. There is an old saying on Dartmoor; "rain before seven then dry after eleven" and today was proving that to be so, maybe today would not be a right off.
Having photographed the cross we then dropped down onto the old mine track and began to head back up to Older Bridge. No sooner had we turned the bend than we were met by the same nervous pony and her foal only this time she was quite happy to let us get close and take some snaps. One could say that at one point she actually seemed to be showing off her little pride and joy. Then two women with dogs came along and that she decided was too much, with a snort she nudged the foal and they both cantered off down into the bottom end of the gert.
We then headed the short distance to the next cross although if going form east to west it was out of sequence, Crazywell Cross had pushed in one step early. Newleycombe Cross is another in the Maltern Way chain and from where it stands you can clearly see Crazywell Cross poking its head above the horizon. In the other direction the site of Hutchinson's Cross can also be seen which I would suggest pretty well confirms the existence of an earlier cross as mentioned above. This cross takes its name from the Newleycombe Lake which flows beneath its sentry post, eventually ending up in Burrator Reservoir.
Having surveyed the now ever extending view we made our way back to the shed and weir on the leat where we stopped for a break. By now the sky was blue and full of billowing white clouds, it was hard to believe we were in the same day. The weir had taken on an even brighter sparkle and it could be said that as the waters bubbled over they had taken on a more cheerful appearance. The moor had come alive, skylarks were singing high in the sky, various flies and beetles were darting up and down the leat much to the pleasure of the odd small trout who had come out to feed. The whole landscape looked as if someone had come along with a fresh paint palette and restored it to a former glory. To see the absolute contrast, take a look at the photo of Hutchinson's Cross above and then see the self same cross below, it's a perfect example of what is known as; "Dartmoor in All Its Moods". Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention before, we did pass by that little lamb on our way back and it had moved a bit but the good news was that it was busy chomping on some grass. So just maybe it will make it? OK, back on track, having just walked around the leat's corner we returned to the 'Old Farm', even this looked quite picturesque and conjured up images of a busy smithy with the clang of hammer on anvil wafting up into the air where it mingled with the skylark's song.
On returning to Nun's Cross Farm we were greeted with a completely different scene, this time the old building was basked in sunshine and looked quite hospital, even picturesque. So to take advantage of this opportunity we visited the old cross standing nearby, at least it was now visible. Nun's alias Siward's Cross is another in the series of crosses along the Maltern Way, in fact to put them into sequence it should be; Nun's Cross, Hutchinson's Cross (site), Newleycombe Cross and then Crazywell Cross, we just did them arse about face.
This time when I jabbed my stick at Fox Tor Mires they were clearly visible, right down to the head of the Swincombe Valley. The vista was almost pastoral with cows and sheep grazing on the plain, but as always it's beauty hides the treacherous bogs that lie within. Only once have I ever managed to cross from one side to the other and that was early autumn after a long dry spell. But even then, despite hopping the bogs my path was blocked by an angry adder who was going to move for nobody. The leat waters were by now crystal clear and even possibly lower than on our outward bound journey. More fish could be spotted darting to and fro as they chased the flies dapping on the surface and the bright pink foxgloves reflected nicely in the water's mirror but no sign of a Dipper. I will get that photo one day, as with everything it's just a matter of time, I hope. Finally we came to one of the famous Dartmoor sheep leaps that can be found, their purpose was/is to help the sheep cross the leat but I have never seen one used. But having said that there was a clear track leading up to this one so something must be leaping across it.
And that concluded this little Xploration, I got one photo out of three which considering the weather was not bad going. But today certainly goes to show, and to use the old cliché; "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," that the Dartmoor weather can change like the wind, so to speak.