On the 23rd of September (2017) Channel 4 screened the first episode in a new series of ‘Britain’s Ancient Tracks with Tony Robinson. It was filmed and produced by the Irish Doubleband Films Company and featured the Abbot’s Way and the Lych Way as it’s ancient tracks on Dartmoor. This particular episode held a particular interest for me as you will see later. I suppose it is fair to say that any programme or film which features Dartmoor is going to be logistically hard to produce. Firstly any film company will be faced with time constraints and budget restrictions. Secondly many of Dartmoor’s places of interest are remote to say the least which poses problems actually getting film crews to them. Lastly most productions will be at the mercy of the Dartmoor weather which at times can be challenging to say the least. Bearing in mind the above constraints producing any Dartmoor factual programme is going to be open to fierce criticism from Dartmoor lovers and aficionados (myself included). So having said that what is my personal opinion of the programme.
The first thing that struck me was how unfortunate a programme involving tramping ancient tracks should be sponsored by Scholl and their ‘ingrowing toenail kits’? As with any series the first few minutes are always taken up with what the whole series is about before reaching the featured location, this was no different – 2 minutes and 6 seconds before getting to the nitty gritty. Then a dramatic moorland landscape rolls out with fast scudding clouds and Tony Robinson announces that Dartmoor has been described as; “England’s last great wilderness.” He then goes onto say that it; “covers and area of some 370 square miles,” then comes the sound a a buzzard screeling in disgust. Why? unless Dartmoor mysteriously has grown by 2 square miles the researcher got their facts wrong. Now I have always been a great fan of Tony Robinson right from his Baldrick days all through the fantastic Time Team series, but, and I know I cannot talk, it struck me how much weight he has put on. It will be interesting to see how much he loses over the course of the next four episodes.
The first ancient track Tony followed was the Abbot’s Way and the programme began at Buckfast Abbey which logically is the southern starting point of the trackway. After a quick spin around the abbey and a few shots of the famous ‘Buckfast Bees’ the centre of attention was drawn to what is now described as the first of the ancient crosses that stand along the route. Shame they didn’t show the other ancient cross which sits nearby. Then ‘the‘ book was produced which was to be the; “guide to enlighten his journey,” which infact was G. Dysart’s 1935 booklet – The Abbot’s Way, but it wasn’t a book at all, more of that later. Under azure blue skies Mr. Robinson is seen tramping along the trackway towards Nun’s Cross, passing a PCWW stone as he goes. Along the way he suddenly comes across a man, nonchalantly leaning against a large boulder, singing a medieval song (dressed in medieval jeans and tee shirt?). The pair then amble onto Nun’s Cross where a short preamble is delivered. Oddly enough no mention was made of the cross’ inscriptions? Then suddenly the programme shifts some seven kilometres in a south westerly direction to what Mr. Robinson calls, “Piper’s Hill,’ where he recounts the legend of ‘The Pipers’ which are infact rock piles on Pupers (not Piper’s) Hill. After that quick back-track we are then swiftly moved on to the prehistoric remains at Drizzlecombe and in particular – ‘The Bone‘, wonder where that name came from? It is at this point the subject of the infamous Dartmoor piskies is broached and, sorry Mr. Robinson, but I could not help thinking that being 5 foot 4 inches tall he did somewhat resemble one of the ‘Little Folk’ himself. But in time honoured tradition Tony turns his coat inside out in order to prevent being ‘piskie-led‘. Inexplicably the programme then zooms over to, “nearby Ottery St. Mary,” to show hoards of demented kids running around the streets dressed as elves and piskies on ‘Pixy Day’. Firstly ‘nearby Ottery St. Mary‘ is, as the crow flies, some forty kilometres away from Dartmoor? and secondly why did they not kidnap a few and take them to the moor for filming? Once again we are transported back to Dartmoor to visit the ‘piskie cave‘ on Sheepstor and I must admit they did well to find it. Question – is Mr. Robinson extremely careful with his money? Because how many people today could put their hands in their pockets and produce two half crowns to leave as offerings to the piskies when a couple of pins would have sufficed? Then the subject of the Abbot’s Way is abandoned in order to spend an unwarranted amount of time discussing Conan Doyle and the Hound of the Baskervilles. For effect a huge great friendly black mastiff came slobbering into shot when just possibly an Irish Wolfhound would have played the part somewhat better? I wasn’t sure if there was an attempt to create some atmospheric fake fog here or one of the film crew was smoking a cigar and accidentally film it? Either way it did little to impersonate a true Dartmoor mist. From Sheepstor we are then once again transported backwards to Fox Tor mires alias the Grimpen Mire which once again he departed in a shroud of cigar smoke. Having exhausted the subject of Conan Doyle there is a short trip over to Bellever Forest to do a spot of pony peeking with a couple of splendid examples of the breed. Time and tide await for no man and so it was time to zig zag back to bottomless Crazywell Pool and the story of the bell ropes. Then another walk back to Princetown for a short piece on the infamous prison which was followed by a visit to the prehistoric Merrivale complex where a DNPA archaeologist was busy scanning one of the stones in the row for its microchip. Oddly enough having stated that at one time there may have been a, “thriving community,” in the area they did not show the nearby hut circles in which they would have lived. Then Mr. Robinson took a hop skip and a jump over to Vixen Tor, alias ‘The Sphinx‘, to hear about the legend of the wicked witch Vixiana who lured unsuspecting travellers into the nearby bog. Just to add a little ‘atmosphere’ to the tale Mr. Robinson stepped into a small puddle which was meant to play the part of the quaking bog? It was interesting to see that he dared not cross the wall and visit the ‘Forbidden Tor‘ itself. Unfortunately an opportunity was missed here having not explained the saga behind the tor and how it’s on private property. At long last after tramping mile after mile – yeah right – backwards and forwards across the moor the journey was nearing its end at Tavistock. That was not before just popping over to Pixies Cross to tell that tale along with an angry bull which obviously wasn’t very angry.
Phew, after that mind spinning tour along the Abbot’s Way and numerous other points off it the programme moved up to Bellever in order to follow the ‘Lych Way‘. I suppose that for effect it was stated that the Lych Way was used by the moorfolk to carry their dead to Lydford. To demonstrate this point some people dressed in medieval costume were shown hauling a coffin around. It may have been useful to note that they also used the route to attend services at the church as well? Enter stage left another singist who provided a musical diversion with a song about the Lych Way, maybe the film’s budget wouldn’t stretch to getting Seth Lakeman to perform his song of the ‘Lych Way’. After being sufficiently serenaded Mr. Robinson ambled down to ‘Wistman’s Wood‘ where he met a member of the bards, ovids and druids plucking solemnly on some kind of stringed instrument. Having left the ‘wiseman’ of Wistman and as if on a magic carpet the programme nears its end at Lydford church. The final story being that of the famous ‘Watchmaker’s Tomb‘ or more to be precise its lid and after relating its history the programme ended with the words; “I’ve finally achieved my ambition, I’ve walked all the way across Dartmoor.”
So, impressions? I think there was no logical order to the features along the route, surely it would have been better to screen them as one would encounter them if actually walking the route and not zig zag all around the moor like an pissed pony. The inclusion of the Ottery pixie party was completely pointless and ‘The Pipers’ feature was most odd as it never seemed to tie into the purpose of the programme. All in all the programme will be of interest to many visitors to Dartmoor which shows much of the beautiful landscape and possibly inspire them to get out an explore. But sadly it will not appeal to some locals and Dartmoor lovers. As I have mentioned previously, I like Tony Robinson and the way he presents and so it’s worth remembering in most cases he is simply repeating the work of the script writers and researchers along with whatever the director and producers demand of him.
Here are just a few comments placed on various Dartmoor related Facebook pages; “Since when was Ottery St Mary a town close to Dartmoor? Must say wasn’t that impressed with the program! Some odd non Dartmoor people interviewed! Typically done for the Grock in my opinion.” – “Would have liked to have seen it include more of the folk who know and live their lives on the moor and not so much of the “experts“. – “Too much “fluff” and too many musicians! Such a shame as I was really looking forward to it.” – “Yes, lacking content, he should have had the book with him.” (impossible, see below) – “The real heart of Dartmoor is the people. I would like to have seen locals interviewed/included for their depth of knowledge and experiences too. It was a “butterfly” programme that just flitted from one standing waymarker to another. OK informative but didn’t capture the essence of this stunning landscape.” Sadly there are many more similar to these.
As you may gather by the number of above links to other pages on this Legendary Dartmoor website I did have a tiny amount of input towards the programme. In April the film company contacted me for a ‘chat’ based around what they had found on my Legendary Dartmoor website. They were particularly interested in a quote on my Abbot’s Way page from G. Dysart’s 1935 booklet – The Abbot’s Way. It seems they wanted a copy for a sequence with the programme’s famous presenter, Tony Robinson, reading from the book. The only problem was that it is out of print and seemingly there was not a copy for sale anywhere. So I was asked if I could let them borrow my copy. Two things, when it comes to books – never a borrower or lender be and more importantly being 82 years old my copy is in a very fragile condition, certainly too fragile to post. So I was then asked if I could possibly drive down to Dartmoor (250 mile round trip) on the day of filming and take the book with me? Yeah right. Having been told, very politely that this ‘ain’t gonna happen’ I was then asked if I could photograph the pages of the book so they could possibly; “try and mock up a copy for Tony to carry.” This I duly did and so if you look very carefully at the ‘book’ you can see it is a ‘mock up’ used to read just a few lines. This certainly does go to prove the extraordinary lengths film companies will go it in order to get some ‘authenticity’ to their productions. As you can see above my ‘five minutes of fame’.