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Hisley Wood

Hisley Wood

The breeze was oozing through the network of boughs as through a strainer; the trunks and larger branches stood against the light of the sky in the forms of sentinels, giant candelabra, pikes, halberds, lances, and whatever else the fancy chose to make of them.’

Thomas Hardy – The Woodlanders.

I was first introduced to Hisley Wood some fifteen years ago when I was taken to see the ‘Packhorse Bridge’ which turned out to be a most awe inspiring scene. I don’t know what it is about the bridge but, for me, it has a kind of majestic presence and is certainly something I have never forgotten. The bridge displays a definite feeling of sedate antiquity and just as the waters of the River Bovey flow beneath so numerous and forgotten footsteps have surely tramped across its stony floor.

For ages I have been meaning to return and get some decent photographs in order to post a page on this website but just never got around to it. I have also read some reports that Hisley Wood is a good place to spot the elusive Dipper bird, for a long time I have been wanting some photos of it for the website but have never managed to get any. So, these were two excellent reasons to finally get around ‘tuit’ and return once more and also it would make a change from tramping the moor.

Today, Hisley Woods forms part of what the Woodland Trust call ‘Bovey Valley Woods’, this is in fact a combination of Houndtor, Pullabrook and Hisley Woods. They all dwell in the River Bovey valley, this being a peri-glacial formation of granite and Culm measures thus containing the torrent river. The Bovey Valley Woods contain a blend of ‘Coniferised Ancient Woodland’ and ‘Semi Natural Ancient High Forest Woodland’ with a whole range of habitats. These include dry oak woodland, open meadowland, mires and valley side bogs all of which support a vast range of flora and fauna. As well as oak there are various other varieties of trees growing in the wood, such as; beech, sycamore. ash larch, Douglas fir, and sycamore.

Of the three, Hisley Woods is by far the largest woodland as it covers 42.04 hectares (103.88 acres). The wood has an impressive list of designations, these being; National Nature Reserve, Special Area of Conservation, Planted Ancient Woodland Site, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Ancient Semi Natural Woodland (part) and Planted Ancient Woodland Site. A small section of Hisley Wood is incorporated into the adjacent East Dartmoor Woods and Heath National Nature Reserve. Nobody as far as I can discover has written much about the history of this ancient woodland so it was a case of ‘finding what you see’.

Lovers of beautiful scenery will do well to take the road from Lustleigh Station to Hisley and through the woods, from which a lovely view up the Cleave is obtained, enhanced as I saw it by the end of a gorgeous rainbow, dipping into the valley.’

Chudleigh, 1987, p.35.

So basically this page is merely a ‘walklog’ or in other words – “wat ‘appened waz“… Depending on what interweb weather page you looked at the day was forecast to be anything from a sunny to a cloudy day with 20% risk of precipitation. As always take that with a pinch of salt because here we are talking about Dartmoor, borderlands this may be but still Dartmoor. Well that was my typical, the ‘glass is half empty’ outlook which proved exactly right, the day I planned to visit I awoke with a throat that felt like it has been scrubbed with a Brillo pad and a head full of ‘manflu’. Not wishing to dramatise things but it was that bad I could hardly smoke a cigarette?

Having recovered the second attempt proved much more successful and as the early morning mist began to clear a fine, sunny day was in store. As mentioned before, it was a good fifteen years since the first and only time I visited these woods and I must admit we got lost. My excuse being that the OS map does not start until you are nearly at the woods and I overshot the turning at Reddaford Water cross. So we drove up to the small carpark by Holne Brake to make a ‘Uey’ when we came across a couple of elderly ladies who had clearly parked their campervan overnight. Now here’s a lesson about why not to feed the Dartmoor Ponies, one of the ladies was enjoying her cup of early morning coffee and feeding a group of about three ponies. Not wishing to be left out their friends decided they could do with a free feed and the group of three soon turned into a herd of seven, all clustered around the door of the van. Then lady number two opened the van door and emerged along with two dogs, all of this ensemble were slightly taken aback to find themselves surrounded by ponies, so much so the dogs quickly shot back into the van. Being inquisitive animals, a couple of the ponies wanted to acquaint themselves further with the dogs and tried to follow them into the campervan. The scene then transformed itself into something akin to a rodeo show as the two women tried to chase the ponies away who incidentally were having none of it. At this point we drove off, very ungallant maybe but if the numerous warnings had been observed that would not have happened – don’t feed the ponies!

There runs a pathway through the wood
Where lace the boughs and all is good.
The beech-boles don a robe of white
And gleam like ghosts at dayspring light,
When first the pure, canorous note
Throbs from a waking blackbird’s throat ;
And down the long aisle dim
Another answers him
.’

In a Wood – Eden Phillpotts.

We finally found the carpark at Drakeford Bridge, decamped, booted up and set off down the track onto which the early morning sun was beginning to cast long shadows. All around the birds were greeting the morn with tuneful songs and the air was filled with the scent of honeysuckle which was in abundance. We then came across another of nature’s spectacles in the form of a field full of foxgloves, all standing soldier straight as they welcomed the numerous bees who were busily pollen collecting. Beside the track I noticed a bright yellow object lying on the floor, at first I just took it to be some litter but on a second glance it seemed something more. I certainly had never seen anything of the like before, the appearance was more of a shiny lichen but with a vibrancy and colour akin to a Cadbury’s Flake wrapper (see photo below) . Rhys kindly took a photograph and his later research revealed that it was Flugio Septica sometimes known as ‘Dog Vomit Slime Mould’ or ‘Scrambled Egg Slime’. For such an attractive mould it seems a shame that it has not been given a more appropriate name, however the interweb says that it can cause asthma and rhinitis in susceptible people so maybe not.

Hisley Wood

Bovey Woods

Hisley Wood

Honeysuckle

Hisley Wood

Field of Foxgloves

Hisley Wood

Flugio septica

 

The first hint that you are nearing Hisley Bridge is a huge boil-like granite boulder erupting on the right-hand side of the track which the noticeboard previously identified as the ‘Pudding Stone’. I have no idea whether this was a traditional name or one that the Woodland Trust had christened it with? Being such a prominent landscape feature, the Pudding Stone did not escape the eye of a Ordnance Surveyor as the inscribed bench mark will testify.

If you log onto Google and do a search for ‘Hisley Bridge’ you will get around 13,000 returns, most of which are for photographs so clearly the old bridge provides some excellent photographic opportunities. Many of these pictures are titled ‘Packhorse Bridge’ but it has been suggested that along with packhorse trains it would have been used by pedestrians, horse riders and livestock drovers. In fact there are two crossing places, on the upstream side of the bridge is an old ford which would have been used in times of low river flow and then the bridge itself for when the waters were high. It is noticeable with this bridge how low its parapets are, which some consider is to allow for the crooks and packsaddles that hung low on the horses. However, another reason may well be that they were purposely built this way to save money on construction costs. The actual bridge itself spans the River Bovey and was built with uncoursed rubble moorstone with a single, slightly irregular arch. It has a span of 5.18 metres and a width of 2.13 metres between the parapets and has a construction date of somewhere between the seventeenth and mid nineteenth centuries which somewhat dispels the myth of its ‘medieval’ tag, Thomas, 1997, p.167. On the west side of the bridge is a slotted gatepost which would suggest that at one time the bridge was gated with spars which fitted into the recesses. The rusty hinge would also indicate that at some time the gate was modernised by a later hanging gate. The blocking stone, again on the western approach was clearly to prevent something but as to what I have no idea. Obviously it would stop motor or horse drawn vehicles but as to when it was placed there, again, ’tis a mystery to me. 

As part of the mission was to get a photograph of a dipper, and reportedly a pair are often seen around the bridge we decided to linger a while in the hope that one or both might appear. Sadly this plan never worked thanks to the appearance of some muppet who was taking great joy in lobbing large rocks into the river and who incidentally was far too old to be playing that game.

Hisley Wood

Pudding Stone

Hisley Wood

OS Bench Mark

Hisley Wood

Hisley Bridge

Hisley Wood

Slotted Gatepost

Hisley Wood

Blocking Stone

Hisley Wood

Hisley Bridge

Hisley Wood

Bridge – Downstream

Hisley Wood

Bridge – Upstream

From Hisley Bridge we wandered further upstream and much to our utter amazement came across a Piskie Stool located beside the track. These are seldom ever seen on Dartmoor and are where on the nights of a piskie revel the sentry piskie sits to ensure that no moor folk gate-crash their party. Should any interloper come along then the piskie guard will immediately cast a spell which would result in the hapless traveler becoming ‘Piskie Led‘. This truly was an unforgettable find and if anyone would like the secret GPS reference for the location just drop me an email.

 

We then came across a fairly new bridge which unless you were heading back downstream would give you access to a wilderness that would challenge Bear Grylls, the point of which I have no idea? After a quick crossing and back again it was time to continue the quest for the elusive dipper bird. Incidentally, the Ordnance Survey people need to mark this on their map or maybe I need to get a new one?

Just like the cuckoo heralds Springtime then on Dartmoor one of the things that suggests Summertime has arrived are the whortleberries or as they are locally known – hurts. So on that occasion, having found the first ‘hurt’ of the year it can officially be claimed that summer has arrived.  With still no sign of a dipper we decided to carry on up to the next footbridge just below Woodash at the bottom of Lustleigh Cleave.  This bridge appeared to be a later one than Hisley but try as I have I can find no name for it or any details regarding its history.

On the opposite side of the river, sat just atop the bank was what appeared to be a large compost heap which on closer inspection turned out to be a wood ants nest. Just previously Rhys had remarked about the numbers of ants in the locality and this explained the reason why.

Hisley Wood

Piskie Stool

Hisley Wood

Dartmoor Hurt

Hisley Wood

(Woodash) Bridge

Hisley Wood

Wood Ants Nest

 

Despite stealthily crashing around as we followed the river there still was no sign of the elusive dipper and it was noticeable that the gradient of the Bovey was getting steeper, a fact bourn out by the appearance of a small waterfall. I would not have said that the flow of water down the river was particularly high on this occasion but when it is there must be a sight to behold judging by the large tree branches and limbs that had been carried down by the river. The amazing thing about these woods is the diversity of plant life to be found (well this goes for any woods really, it’s just these were the first ones I had been in for many years), one such micro-example of this was a small cluster of plants, mosses and lichens gathered around a rotting tree trunk. As can be seen below, this mini Kew Gardens has at least seven species in an area of less than a square metre and probably more that a botanist could identify. 

With still no evidence, both visual or audible, of a dipper the decision to start heading back down to calmer waters was made. On the way we came across a couple more botanical marvels in the shape of a very pornographic young common stinkhorn or Phallus impudicus as the Latinos would have it. Both names aptly describe this fungi because it goes without saying that it does resemble a phallus and when ripe it stinks of rotting meat, apparently the purpose of its stench is to attract flies who then kindly disperse the spores. It is said that parts of the stinkhorn are edible and seemingly the French consider it a delicacy but then they also deem frog’s legs as such?. Folklore also considers that extracts of the stinkhorn help cure gout and also are an ingredient of love potions which when its shape is taken into account is not surprising. The other plant we came across was a lone wall pennywort or getting scientific again Umbilicus rupestris and according to the old herbalists is good for curing hemorrhoids amongst a whole host of other things.

Hisley Wood

Waterfall

Hisley Wood

Mini Kew Gardens

Hisley Wood

Stinkhorn

Hisley Wood

Wall Pennywort

As you wander around these woods there are some hints of what went on before as far as land use is concerned, the first tell tale signs are the numerous clumps of coppiced hazel. This would suggest that as well as being a managed woodland today it was also carefully nurtured in the past in order to supply wood for the many uses once practiced around the moor. Also present are old enclosure walls which along with well worn trackways which indicate farming activity. The big problem with identifying any land use or archaeological remains in woodlands are the trees and undergrowth which smother such features. Unlike open landscapes where aerial photographs are very useful for detecting landscape features woodlands do not afford this luxury and therefore one must physically visit the woods to spot anything. The problem with this is the sheer size of land involved, Hisley wood for example covers over 42 hectares and you aren’t going to spot much on a day trip. However, in recent years the use of LIDAR or ‘Light Detection And Radar Surveys have come to the forefront. Such surveys can potentially reveal hitherto hidden features which would hidden under the tree canopies to normal aerial photography. The method involves flying an aircraft which has a fitted ‘eye safe laser’ over woodland and scanning the terrain. The beams then penetrate through the vegetation and bounce back to a receiver, the data collected in effect strips away most of the foliage leaving a 3D model of the landscape. This is a very, very simplified explanation of the process but a much more detailed one can be found on the Forestry Commission’s website – HERE. The Forestry Commission have been carrying out such surveys since 2006 and maybe one day they will conduct a fly past over Hisley Wood thus revealing its hidden secrets.

We eventually returned to Hisley Bridge and this time decided to return via the opposite river bank which afforded a better view of the river bed and took us alongside Pullabrook Wood. About a quarter of a mile downstream I spotted a fleeting glimpse of a dipper as it darted, wings a whirring back upstream. I must confess I got rather excited at this and so we decided to split up and wait at different points to see if it returned. I must also fess-up to the fact that I will never make a wildlife photographer because after about fifteen minutes of watching the River Bovey float by I got bored out of my wits. The fact that I was secreted in a small and prickly holly bush didn’t help matters either. Minute by minute ticked by and not a dicky bird showed itself never mind the elusive dipper. I did spot a man with his two dogs coming down the track however, he clearly could not see me and it was not until the dogs came near that they air-scented me and came bounding and barking to my hidy-hole. Well, that surely put paid to any visit from the dipper, but then I had a brilliant brainwave. On my phone I have a bird identification app that includes the various bird songs, so dialed up the dipper page, turned up the volume and started to play the call. Well, if you have ever watched a programme where some poor soul is in a torture chamber having repetitive ‘white noise’ played to them then you can get an idea of what ten minutes of me listing to a five second recording of a dipper’s call looping around and around would be like. In the end I gave up and went in search of Rhys who I found about fifty metres away and was stood stock still with his camera to his eye. Bleep, bleep went his camera and when he had finished I went over and asked what he had been photographing only to be told – a bloody dipper. I would imagine this bird was the partner to the one I saw flitting off in the opposite direction. So in a way I did see one, albeit very briefly, a dipper and we did get a photograph of one although it was not on my camera.

Pullabrook Wood ends abruptly and the path then enters upon a long wide field which eventually takes one back to Drakeford Bridge. All day we had seen warning signs about sheep attacks and keeping dogs on a lead which seemed mighty odd as we had never even seen a sheep. But then on entering this field all became clear, there was a large flock all sunbathing in the mid-day sun. These sheep were in no hurry to move as we approached, often getting within two metres before they even considered getting up. There was one large ewe crashed out under a tree beside the river which we though had died, I gently poked it with my stick and it never moved a muscle. Rhys gently poked it with his stick, it never stirred so just before pronouncing the beast deceased he lightly tapped it on the head. The sheep then lazily opened one eye, realised there were two humans stood beside it and darted of to join her mates. Just down from the dossing ewe we came across a tree that looked like it had a full service of dinner plates sticking out of its trunk. On closer inspection the plates morphed into a fair crop of Dryad’s Saddle fungi which some people will say are ‘good tucker’ when fried along with bacon. Although resplendent on this occasion they do rapidly decay to nothing in a few days so we found this crop at just the right time. 

It’s always advisable never to assume that a sheep track will take you where you want to go because on most occasions it just vanishes normally somewhere you’d of rather it hadn’t. Apparently the same goes for the lowlands, we happily traipsed along what was seemingly a path only to find that it ended abruptly at the end of the field. This either meant trawling back to the last gate we saw or scrambling over an overgrown, rickety, corrugated sheet metal fence – I’ll let you decide the outcome of that one. Once onto the lane we had arrived back at Drakeford Bridge and I must admit that it does not give its age away. Outwardly it looks fairly modern but that is until you see the tablet in the side of the parapet stating that it was repaired in 1684

Hisley Wood

Old Trackway

Hisley Wood

Elusive Dipper

Hisley Wood

Dryad’s Saddle

Hisley Wood Drakeford Bridge Tablet

I must add that the route we took was slightly dangerous at times and not advisable for young children to be taking. However there are plenty of good tracks to follow that present no issues to pushchairs etc and these routes are displayed on the information board in Drakeford Bridge car park.

Hisley Wood

Map of Area

Hisley Wood

Map of Route

 

Hisley Wood

Chudleigh, J. 1987. An Exploration of Dartmoor’s Antiquities, Kent: John Pegg Publishing.

Thomas, D. L. R. 1997. Bridges on the Teign Rivers – Transactions of the Devonshire Association – Vol. 129.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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One comment

  1. fantastic read of this very mystical place,it is a truly amazing place, i can imagine the story of “who`s crossing my bridge ” deriving fom here..yes dippers can be elusive at the best of times and as a bird photographer i know that they are not very human tollerant , although i hear that otters have been spotted near the bridge which is fantastic, thank you for a great write up on a wonderful area that is so magical

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