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Blackall’s Drive

Blackall's Drive

The thing I love about maps are some of the place names you find that always beg a question of some kind, one such example is the simple entry of ‘Dr. Blackall’s Drive‘ which can be found at OS grid reference SX 698 718. So, what is it? Who was he? Why did he have such a long drive which seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere?

To find the answers we need to travel back to the late 1800s in search of one Dr. Thomas Blackall of Exeter. He came from a very prominent Exeter family, his father John was a eminent and noted doctor a career which Thomas shared. In 1862 there was a Thomas Blackall serving as the sheriff of the City of Exeter a place where he spent most of his time. However, he did own Spitchwick Manor and had a love of Dartmoor which is the very reason for Dr. Blackall’s Drive. He decided that to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Dart valley he would build a drive which would capture the views in all their splendour. Accordingly,  one Gerald Warren and other members of his family set to and completed the task sometime around 1880s, (Hemery, p.587). When in residence at the manor there was nothing he enjoyed better than taking the scenic tour in his carriage which must have been a smallish one as at it’s widest the track is about eight foot wide. It is interesting to see that some of the aspects of his drive still survive in place names today. There is ‘Brake Corner‘ which presumably was a spot where the carriage and horses needed to slow down as the track makes a virtual 90° turn. However, as with most place names the obvious is not always the real etymology and it could well be that the ‘brake’ element refers to an enclosure? There is also another corner called ‘Stumble Corner‘, (Brown, p.9) again could this refer to an aspect of the track? But Hemery (p.588) refers to this as ‘Stumley Corner‘, so again it is hard to establish who is right.

Blackall's Drive

The Moorland Section of Dr. Blackall’s Drive

Thomas Blackall died in 1899 and in accordance of his love of Dartmoor was buried at the nearby church of Leusdon which in turn afforded another splendid view of Dartmoor thus providing an apt final resting place.

Blackall's Drive

There is however one slight complication here, as noted above Mike Brown suggests that it was Thomas Blackall who instigated the building of the carriage drive, however, Hemery (p.588) clearly states that it was ‘Dr. Joseph Blackall’. I think on this occasion I will go with Mike Brown and Thomas Blackall. It has been said (in very quiet tones) that on certain dark nights a ghostly figure wearing a top hat can be seen at various spots along the drive although nobody seems to venture as to whom it is/was?

So, having read the book so to speak it was time to see the film and on checking the weather forecast things seemed ok for a trip down Dr. Blackall’s Drive. The ‘Man from the Met’ said there would be early rain and strong winds giving way to a sunny day and he was not kidding. I left home at 5.15am and the windsock on the Severn Bridge was horizontal as was the rain which very much was the same all the way down to Dartmoor. To add to the gloom and doom there was a very depressing programme on the radio whining on about not accomplishing things in life and how to handle such disappointment. However, I did accomplish the journey and on arriving at Bel Tor Corner was rewarded with a knicker size patch of blue sky which gradually spread across the horizon – woo hoo, game on. The first section of the drive goes down a stony Miltor Lane and on to Stumble Corner which afforded some good views of a sun tinged Mel Tor along with some berry laden holly trees. Just below the eastern flanks of the tor was a small cluster of two prehistoric hut circles (Pastscape Monument Number 442860) which had recently been relieved of their covering of gorse. I am not sure who did the rescue work but I know the Dartmoor Preservation Society have initiated such things in the past. In some ways it’s a shame because unless you know the hut circles are there they could easily be passed by and all that hard work would have been in vain. The 1:25,000 OS map is slightly confusing as a cursory glance suggests they are on the eastern side of the drive when in fact they are on the western side.

Blackall's Drive

Dartmoor Sunrise

Blackall's Drive

Dartmoor Holly

Blackall's Drive

Mel Tor

Blackall's Drive

Hut Circle

After dropping into the ancient dwelling and bidding the ancestors good morning I continued my stroll along the drive to the accompaniment of wakening bird song and the urgent screeing of a lone buzzard sat in the opposite field. On approaching the nearby southern slopes of Mel Tor the rush of the river Dart below can be heard and it is at this spot why you can see the reason for this drive. In the deep valley below the waters cascade over the age worn boulders and the ‘Song of the Dart’ wafts skywards. This section of the drive should be called ‘Walking with Eagles’ as the numerous birds floating above the valley are literally at head height such is it’s depth, well ok there were no eagles but plenty of crows, seagulls and buzzards. Time to find a rock and sit and stare at not only the dramatic landscape but also the melodic soundscape of the wind, the water and the wildlife. There is a massive bed-like boulder sitting above a huge holly tree that is ideal for taking five and losing oneself completely. It was from here that I spotted a strange holly tree, again laden with berries except they were all growing on one side, most weird. Below the granite ‘bed’ I found a letterbox hidden in an old ammo can (which is now a big no-no as there have been tragedies when children mistake live shells for these things). Although I had no letterboxing kit with me I decided to take a look and wished I hadn’t, the stamp depicted Pooh Bear. As far as I know A. A. Milne never wrote about Pooh visiting Dartmoor and the only ‘Pooh’ I have ever seen on the moor has come from either a sheep, cow or pony so why show him on a Dartmoor Letterbox?

Blackall's Drive

Lone Buzzard

Blackall's Drive

The Dart Valley

Blackall's Drive

Holly Tree

Blackall's Drive

Letterbox

Having resisted the urge to consign the offending container and its contents to the waters below it was time to move on and casting my eyes toward the south could see soggy the drive glistening like the Yellow Brick Road in the distance as it wound its way around to ‘Brake Corner‘. The section of the drive opposite Bench or Benjy Tor afford some dramatic views of the River Dart both upstream and downstream along with a solitary pony tucking into its morning browse. Up to this point this pony was the first living mammal I had seen which suited me fine but that was soon to change.

The Glistening Track

Downstream Dart

Upstream Dart

Browsing Pony

The drive then gently descends towards Brake Corner and loops around the lower slopes of Aish Tor before dropping down to join the Princetown – Ashburton road on Newbridge Hill and this is basically where the moorland section of Dr. Blackall’s Drive ends. But the nice thing was that having enjoyed the views on the way down there were the opposite ones on the way back. Having never been on Aish Tor I decided to make a short detour off the drive to have a quick dekko, hell, what a disappointment as far as tors go, pathetic, I’ve got more granite on my kitchen worktop! But, and there is a but, there are some fine views across towards Leusden that more than compensate. And as noted above, the gleaming church is where Dr. Blackall now lies in eternal rest so in a way a quick nod of the head was a fitting tribute having walked his carriage drive. Having dropped back down onto the drive I couldn’t help noticing what seemed a large white object further down the track and it was only when I got nearer that I could see it was a white pony almost looking like a mythical unicorn amongst the gorse. Having walked up to get a picture I then decided to follow the enclosure walls. I have this weird habit of looking at walls to see if there are any undiscovered archaeological goodies embedded in them. Sadly on this occasion there was no hidden cross shaft or the like, just some fine examples of slotted granite gateposts and a rather spectacular sloe tree draped in lichen. Incidentally, the drive has now become part of The Two Moors Way and The Dartmoor Way both of which intersect by Bel Tor and continue down to Newbridge.

Far off Leusden

Dartmoor Unicorn

Hedgerow Harvest

Slotted Gatepost

I did mention earlier about living souls and how apart from the birds and animals I never came across anybody, well that’s not completely true. I know it should be a case of live and let live but this walk was spoilt by a group of mountain bikers who it appears were continuously riding around the carriage drive in order to get some kick out of the gradients and corners. If they wanted some exhilaration all they had to do was go a few miles down the road and try going down Dartmeet Hill without using their brakes. The thought struck me, we have a convoy of lorries, a fleet of cars, a flotilla of boats so what could we call a group of cyclists? – an embuggerance of mountain bikers is what I say. The only consolation of having them whizzing by was that on returning to Mel Tor two of them were mending punctures – proper job – note to self, next time take a pocket full of tin tacks. And whilst I am in full whinge, on the way back I called into Princetown and the High Moorland Visitor Centre. Not having been there for ages I decided to have a look at the Exhibition Rooms only to be hauled out by a very excited member of staff who informed me I couldn’t go in without paying my entry fee. It transpired that since April one has to pay £1.50 to see the exhibition rooms whose contents have not changed since the year dot (see HERE). What really amuses me is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority are always banging on about how ‘green’ they are and how much paper they save and now they give every visitor to their exhibition a printed ticket. I have no idea how many people go through in a year but I bet it’s many thousands and all are issued with a 8 x 16.5cm ticket and that’s saving paper? And another thing if you want a pee in the Princetown public toilets it will now cots 20p, is Charlie that hard up?

Brown, M. 1998, Dartmoor Field Guides – vol. 25. Plymouth: The Dartmoor Press.

Hemery, E. 1983, High Dartmoor, London: Robert Hale.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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