Bogs and Mires
You aren't a Dartmoor 'aficionado until you have ended up at least knee deep in a stinking bog or mire, it's what the place is all about. From the terrifying 'Grimpen Mire' of Sherlock Holmes's fame to the real nightmare of Raybarrow Pool, bogs and mires abound on Dartmoor. But fear not because normally with sensible navigation and a keen eye they can be avoided but firstly it may be an idea to see exactly what a bog and a mire is. Basically if you take the combination of impervious granite and high rainfall these two factors will lead to the growth of sphagnum moss. This then decays and forms a layer of peat which when gets to a depth greater than 0.5 m. and covers an extensive area is known as a 'blanket bog'. These are found on the high moors and effectively the sphagnum moss and the underlying peat forms what could be described as a 'mega-sponge' that absorbs the rainfall and slowly releases it. The blanket bogs of Dartmoor cover about 120 square kilometres of Dartmoor and can be found mainly on the higher, central parts of the north moor and the higher northern part of the south moor.
Valley mires are found, surprise, surprise in valley bottoms where there are deep deposits of peat which soon becomes waterlogged. At an altitude of around 300 metres they often occur as 'basin mires' and are also known as 'featherbeds' or 'quakers'. Stand on one and you will soon see why, it feels as if you are on a huge, wobbling jelly. Earlier mining activities are also associated with the formation of mires as the stream works in some cases resulted in the damming of valleys which in turn lead to the accumulation of peat.
Another type of valley mire is the rhôs pasture which is found in the valley bottoms and is usually associated with enclosed farmlands. These are typified by their rich pastures of purple moor grass and rushes. Probably one of the best examples of this type of land can be seen around the Broadaford area of Dartmoor.
The final type of wetland is the 'wet woodland' and this occurs where the ground is normally waterlogged. These areas are normally connected with rhôs pasture or oak woods in the valley systems. They tend to be small in size but there are a few larger exception s to be found on the moor.
Needles to say all of these habitats are home to a diverse amount of flora and fauna which are all dependant on the unique environments which the mires and bogs provide. In some cases there are extremely rare species living in and around the wetlands which makes it essential they are preserved. For further information on the wetlands of Dartmoor - click here.
Adapted from the DNPA Fact Sheet - Bogs and Wetlands 2006
Below is a list of some of the better known mires and bogs on Dartmoor. Please note that in a few cases the same place has alternative names, ie Bately and Battery mire. Additionally one or two places are named as a bog and a mire such as Beltor Bog and Beltor Mire.
Having looked briefly at how the bogs and mires are formed let's get to the fun bit - walking amongst the bogs and mires. Hopefully anybody planning to go for a walk on Dartmoor will be looking at a map in order to get a route. The first thing to remember when plotting a route, especially for use with a GPS is that on Dartmoor there is no such thing as walking in a straight line, something will get in the way. So it is useless drawling a line from point a to point b and expecting to faithfully follow it on the moor. This is especially so with mires, the OS surveyors have not yet come up with a way of accurately plotting the true extent of a mire. Yes they give a hint that it may be there but not how far it extends so be prepared for your straight line to deviate if it goes near a mire or bog, especially if there has been a lot of rain. Place-names can also give a clue as to how wet you are going to get, anything with the suffix; mire, bog, marsh, pool or head usually indicates that the going will possibly be wet. Another essential part of equipment is a walking stick, these are very useful for testing the depth of a suspect patch of moor. If after pushing them in they only go down a few inches it will be safe to proceed, if however they plunge in down to the handle then possibly it would be best to avoid proceeding in that direction. Briefly mentioned above is the fact that mining activities can also create bogs and I once encountered a splendid example of this. Following a period of heavy rainfall I was ambling around the old mine working at Whiteworks and walking on what appeared to be grass. All of a sudden the ground underfoot began to 'rock and roll' and it felt like I was standing on the prow of the Titanic. Luckily I managed to leap sideways and luckier still land on firm ground because what I was stood on was a peat filled hollow that had been formed by mining excavations. The natural grasses had grown over the surface and blended in exactly with the rest of the vegetation thus giving no hint of what lay underneath - crafty or what?
The other downside of getting 'stogged', especially in company, is the embarrassment it causes. At this point I will take you through the bewildering array of emotions one feels as you slowly sink into the very bowels of Dartmoor. Firstly there is surprise as the ground seems to simply open up and slowly begins to drag you down. Then comes fear as you wonder exactly how far you are going to sink. This is followed by relief as you detect firm ground under your feet and then realise that you have hit 'rock bottom', (I can't describe how you would feel if you didn't hit firm ground but I would imagine panic would be a good descriptive as the ooze begins to cover your airways). Then comes the worst bit - the embarrassment which comes in two forms. The easiest to cope with is if you are alone and after checking around see that nobody has seen your predicament. In this situation you can flounder around like a beached whale, swear as much as you want and basically revel in your own stupidity. If however you are in company or have been observed from afar then I am sorry you are going to feel a complete arse. As you wallow in the bog or mire you will notice that any spectators firstly look concerned and then they will try to hide their amusement. This tends to be for a short, polite period which is followed by overt mirth and is accompanied by howls of laughter and gesticulations. It is also noticeable how your bosom buddies will not offer a helping hand to extract you for fear of becoming just as filthy. They will however kindly proffer walking sticks, dog leads and the like. Forget trying to retain any dignity as you try to extract yourself from the quagmire, it is impossible to daintily heave yourself out of the thick, oozing mass of peat and stinking vegetation with any kind of decorum. The final and lasting emotion is one of repulsion because for the remainder of the day you will be walking along, probably soaking wet, with an nostril twitching stench clinging to your person like a straight jacket and, "you can wash in water, you can wash in soda, but you'll never get rid of that awful odour." Oh, there may well be one last emotion - anger. This usually depends on to what depths you sunk, because if it was waist-deep then a time will come when you reach for your wallet and discover that the wad of crisp £20 notes you earlier withdrew from the cashpoint has re-cycled itself into a mushy pulp in which a myriad of pond life has taken up residence.
Here is some fatherly advice on Dartmoor wet places from J. Ll. W. Page who was writing in the late 1800's:
"There can be no doubt, however, that an element of danger does exist, particularly with regard to the seething and quaking bog, which consists of a thin layer of sodden moss above a substratum of black slime and water. A slight thrust with a pole will cause the mass to emit a seething and hissing sound, and presently the surface commences to quiver in a manner most unmistakable. It need hardly be stated that the incautious pedestrian who steps upon one of these treacherous patches stands every chance of breaking through; and if he find no bottom, woe betide him, for his life will probably pay the forfeit. But common care will enable him to escape the 'Dartmoor Stables,' as the moor-men expressively call these pitfalls (owing to the loss of an occasional pony therein), and if he carefully avoid the bright green patches he need fear no harm."
Another early moor traveller, William Maton, wrote the following, and remember he was on horseback:
"...The soil is exceedingly swampy and moist, and covered with bogmoss, through which our horses' legs penetrated knee-deep at every step... If we had not been accompanied by the captain of mines, who seems well acquainted with the county, we should have been in unceasing apprehension of sinking deeper than our heads."
There is the first lesson to learn, the featherbeds or basin mires tend to be distinguishable from great distances by their bright green colouration which contrasts dramatically with the darker green surroundings. Page is exactly right when he warns that one ignores this advice at ones peril. I will confess however that I have only once heard a hissing noise coming from a mire and that was in Fox tor mire. The sound was not emanating from the ooze it was coming from a truculent adder who was not going to move out of the way.
In summer the blanket bogs are usually carpeted with cotton grass which is another good indicator of 'stoggy' ground. Clumps of willow trees are also another sure sign of wet, waterlogged ground. On the other hand, you will often see swathes of heather growing beside wet ground which is normally fairly dry walking. An old Dartmoor saying is that, "ponies go where tussocks grow", which basically means that tussocks of grass will normally support a fair weight and are a means of crossing mires and bogs. The standard way of traversing any water-logged area is to 'bog hop' which is basically leaping from tussock to tussock whilst hoping the next tussock will support your weight. The worst thing you can ever do is to falter, he who hesitates is lost. Never stop, once you have forward motion, keep going, stand still and you will go in. Another good tip when walking in a group is to walk in single file with the heaviest person at the front. If the vegetation supports them it should support the rest of the party. If they go down then everyone following knows not to step where they did and hopefully will remain dry(ish). Below is a map showing my own top ten of dire places to be, especially if the water table is high.
Probably the most heinous of them all is Raybarrow Pool, a god forsaken place if I ever saw one. Mind you the area around Cranmere Pool can be no picnic, I remember once having to transverse across it in the dark and that certainly put a new angle on 'bog hopping'. Mind you there are times when mires can be useful things. I remember once being chased by an enormous Aberdeen Angus bull and only managed to escape by walking out on the tussocks of a mire.
A Dictionary of Dartmoor Mires
Bog: Not a place to be.
Bog Hopping: A method of crossing boggy ground whereby you leap from tussock to tussock and hope you don't miss your footing.
Cillit Bang: An excellent product for getting any biological, embarrassing brown stains out of the brand spanking new walking trousers you were wearing when you went into the bog.
Crust: This is the top layer of a featherbed or quaker and consists of either living or dried up vegetation. This you really, really, don't want to break.
Featherbed: These tend to occur in or near valleys and are usually bright green in colour. Their depth can vary depending on how old it is.
Hejected: The end result of trying to enter a Dartmoor pub after getting 'stogged' in a bog.
Lemming: The heaviest person elected to lead a group through a mire or bog.
Mire: The largest mires on Dartmoor are Raybarrow Pool, Aune Head Mires, Fox Tor Mires, Fishlake Mires, Gallaven Mire and Ryders Mire. All can add a fair detour to any walk. They tend to consist of tussocks, floating green vegetation and pools of water. Step in the water you have no idea how far you are going down so the only way of crossing them is hopping from tussock to tussock until you come to a pool that is too big to leap, then you retrace your steps and try another route. Mires usually have willow clumps growing in them and in the summer fluffy cotton grass tails.
Quakers: Moor term sometimes used as an alternative to featherbed but also any boggy ground where you can stand on a 'crust' of vegetation and it is akin to standing on a huge jelly. Under the mat of vegetation is water which makes the whole area wobble. These are great fun as long as you don't break through the crust because then you sink down into the quagmire below.
Sport: A moorland pass-time where you sit on a dry, comfy, vantage point and watch the uninitiated trying to cross a bog or mire, its 50 times more entertaining than, "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here."
Stables: Moor term for deep bogs - ponies are kept in stables and any pony walking into a bog will also be kept there.
Stogged: To become stuck in any of the above features - see also embarrassing, smelly. wet, filthy and unloved.
Stoggee: Any person who becomes 'stogged' in a bog and who invariably will be the source of much amusement to onlookers.
Throw a Wobbler: to unexpectedly land on a 'quaker'.
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