On a mission or to be exact several missions, firstly Santa brought me a new camera for Christmas and so I was bursting to put it through its numerous paces and where better to do that than on Dartmoor. Secondly, having miraculously re-discovered the Traveller’s Ford Cross I needed to put it back where it belongs. Thirdly I had recently stumbled across a photograph of Beardown Man taken from an unusual angle which enthralled me and so having been inspired I wanted one. Finally we all wanted some exercise to walk off some of the festive feasting and the weather forecast looked reasonable so what better time to visit what I have described as, “Satan and the Cross”.
Having awoken at the recently unaccustomed hour of 6.00am the morning stars were glistening in the heavens and old Jack Frost had been at work with his ice palette, leaving intricate patterns on the car roof. All looked good for the walk, Zeb was piled reluctantly into the boot and the car headed off up to Dartmoor. Daylight began to break and gave tantalising glimpses of blue skies but as the old Devon saying goes, “tis barely enough to patch a pair of knickers”, which means don’t get too excited. How true that prophecy turned out to be, by the time we reached Omen Beam (love that name) the fog was down and the moor was obscured in a shroud of oblivion. It was as if the landscape was drifting in and out of a state of consciousness as the mist rolled backwards and forwards across its barren wastes. “Things can only get better”, no they can’t, they can get worse, I opened the boot to release the hound and found that he had deposited the remnants of his partly digested breakfast on the carpet. So that was from whence the rancid smell was emanating, I thought it may have been the result of last night’s curry but was too polite to suggest such a thing to my wife.
Once booted and rucksacked we three set off towards the moor swaddled in a blanket of swirling mist and walking in complete silence. At the end of the trackway one then meets the old turf ties which can either be a pleasant experience or a slightly daunting one depending on the amount of rainfall. A jack snipe suddenly burst from the tussocks ‘yip yipping’ as it zig-zagged low across the moor, a sure sign one is in for wet feet. Zeb was raring to be unleashed and so as everything all sounded still he was slipped and then promptly vanished into the misty oblivion. He soon gave away his whereabouts as the sound of a loud splashing floated back across the morning air, he had found a water-filled bomb crater and had gone for a dip. Luckily this one was not full of the usual green slime and mud which is normally his preference.
It didn’t take long to reach travellers ford and locate the boulder where the cross was to be re-instated at its original abode. In a silly way I was glad to have put it back as inside I had felt a deep and unexplained feeling of foreboding ever since I discovered the thing. But after a struggle with the Araldite it was safely anchored inside a small crystal grotto lined with emerald green lichen where the tiny cross could once again keep a watchful eye over travellers on the ancient, “Way of the Dead“, – see illustration No. 1 opposite.
Having completed the ‘Holy Quest’ and restored the cross it was now time to move from the saintly realms of Christianity and walk over to meet a Pagan relic and even worse the diabolical abode of Satan himself. So from the hillside it was time to cross Conies Down Water and head off up to Conies Down Tor to collect a letterbox. Yes, I forgot to say there were a few boxes I wanted to collect on the way around which looking at the mist was going to be a tad difficult. By the time we reached the Tor there was a short window where the mist rolled away long enough to get the bearings and pinpoint the letterbox. The Tor is normally a busy place with sheep grazing along its slopes and normally a herd of about 20 Dartmoor ponies are somewhere in the locality – today nothing – see illustration 2. It was about this time there were tantalising signs that maybe the mist was about to dissolve and unveil the splendours of the Cowsic Valley, but not just yet. By the time we had reached the eastern side of Conies Down Tor there was enough visibility to see Satan’s diabolical home, namely Devil’s Tor, on the opposite hillside. Below flowed the three waters that form ‘The Trident’ which gives a boost to the infant Cowsic River – see illustration 3. I have a feeling that the name was the invention of Eric Hemery as in his book, High Dartmoor, he notes: “Near Cowsic Head, where trident streamlets meet, the water is clear and sparkling despite the proximity of the fen“. But how apt, above this meeting of streamlets sits Devil’s Tor and we all know that he is nearly always depicted holding a trident. There certainly is no arguing with Hemery about the crystal clear waters and on this day they were certainly sparkling as the tiny waterfalls proudly performed for us – see illustration 4. In fact I was so inspired with this tiny waterfall that I had a ‘Spielberg’ moment and thought it would be a great idea to capture the moment on video. Santa’s camera had a video option with it and here I must confess as with most things my motto is, “if all else fails read the instructions“. So not having read the manual I selected the video option, stood in the stream, yelled out, “lights, camera and action” and began to roll the film. At the time it did seem a bit strange that all I could see through the viewfinder was total darkness but hey, ho give it a go. I would like to now share with you my very first attempt at a Dartmoor blockbuster, simply click the thumbnail below:
Don’t tell me the video didn’t work, well I do humbly apologise but that is because I never read the manual where I am sure it would have said to remove the lens cap before recording begins. In essence I got a good soaking for nothing just a black video and a terribly loud roaring noise, I promise to endeavour to do better next time?
However, at the time I was sure I had captured an Oscar winning piece of footage so proudly led the way up the hillside to Beardown Man. By now the mists had just about cleared but even so it had left a very grey, murky, sky that was not going to give me that much coveted shot of the menhir. It was at the standing stone that we met the first fellow walker of the day who it seemed was also after a photograph of the megalith. He too had his dog with him who took an exception to Zeb’s rather homosexual greeting and who could blame the poor thing. Angela keeps saying we should have his knackers off but it seems a bit extreme to me afterall Zeb’s voracious appetite normally only manifests itself on his blanket which although disgusting is fairly innocuous – I digress. It did not take long to find the required viewpoint but sadly the background was dismal, just grey, grey, dull grey and it certainly would not give me the result I required. Sulkily I suggested we have a coffee and a smoke and sat down on the nearby Tor to reflect our woes, well more than likely my woes, I don’t think Angela and Zeb could give a toss, well ok maybe Zeb could easily have? Then it happened as it always does – people probably think I am crazy but I firmly believe that there is a ‘spirit’ of Dartmoor who looks kindly on its believers. I have had this same experience many times. You go out on Dartmoor with the specific intent on seeing or photographing something and all the way their you are either shrouded in mist or rain-soaked. But as soon as you get to your intended goal there is a very, very brief interval where the sun bursts through allowing you to fulfil your aim. Today was to be no exception, without warning the clouds parted and the sun radiated through, casting shadows and highlights over the menhir. It gave me a window of about 3 minutes before the golden rays slid back behind the cover of the grey skies, but that was long enough – see illustration 5.
So, we had gone from the Christian to the Pagan and visited Satan’s lair, incidentally the tor is not named after the Devil because of some evil connection. William Crossing was told whilst discussing the place with a moorman: “the pillar (Beardown Man) represented the Devil, and that the tor, which can hardly be truely regarded as such, was plenty good enough vur he”.
From Devils Tor it was then just a case of finding a few more letterboxes and heading for home. When we arrived at the so-called ‘unnamed Tor’ it was time for lunch and it appeared the mist had rolled away leaving wide reaching views in all directions. Whilst eating the last vestiges of the Christmas ham it occurred to me that this small rock-pile should have a name, afterall every other one on this ridge had such a privilege so why not this one. If you really squint at the right-hand edge of the central outcrop, and I mean really squint it takes on the appearance of a silhouette of a Frenchman wearing a beret and so as nobody else has bothered to name the tor I now christen it ‘Froggy Tor’ – see illustration 6.
I will admit the journey across the ridge between Froggy Tor and Lydford Tor was not the most enjoyable of experiences as everywhere was water-logged and Zeb seemed to want to drag us all into the bog. Squelching through that shit also served as a reminder that once dry, which would probably be in three weeks time, I must re-proof my boots. Sadly I don’t think there are going to be too many more re-proofings as those boots have just about come to the end of their leather, well its Gortex actually but it didn’t sound the same. Ah, those trusty boots must be a good 10 years old, they have tramped over countless miles, been stolen and recovered and must be as much a part of Dartmoor as the very peat upon which they tread – it will be a sad day when they finally retire.
On reaching Lydford Tor all that was left was to saunter down the hillside to the bridge and wander up the track to the car park. Every time I come down off Beardown I must sound like a proper whinging git (what’s new Angela says) because I can remember the time when there was no such thing as a poncy bridge, if you wanted to cross the Cowsic you bloody well waded across and got a good soaking. Youngsters of today have got it made, all Gortex and Gaiters!
“You are never too old to learn”, and today was to be no exception, on the way back along the track I spotted a small hummock plastered with what appeared to be the remnants of a bucket of wallpaper paste. “Oh look,” I exclaimed, “toad spawn” and then proceeded to launch into a tirade about global warming. Out came the camera and a nice shot was taken. Angela produced her camera and took a photograph which she could show at some appropriate moment to her primary school class. I have just come to put the picture on this page and thought in the interests of accuracy I would confirm it was toad spawn. Oh dear, how far from the truth can one be, it is in fact known as ‘White Jelly fungus’ and has nothing to with a toad or a bucket of wallpaper paste – oops – see illustration 7.
For some obscure reason some people have said how much they like to see photographs of Zeb so here he is having lunch on Froggy Tor – see illustration 8. If you are wondering why he looks so disgusted it’s because just out of camera shot and the reach of his tether is a huge succulent piece of festive ham roll which he can’t get to – ah, bless.
It has also been suggested that on these Xplorations it would be nice to see some of the letterbox stamps that are collected, so for this particular day – see illustration 9. These stamps do not reflect the true extent of the day’s crop of letterboxes, I would guess that in total we must have found about 15 most of which were chance finds. So why only 5 copies? Well, not wishing to be elitist, yes, sorry I will be elitist, I refused to waste card and ink on the rest. There were letterboxes whose topics were nothing to do with Dartmoor, others depicted features that at best were a good 6 miles away from the subject they were portraying and others, well God only knows what they were meant to be. Having said that the examples shown are really nice stamps, all have a Dartmoor place-name, each and everyone has been thoughtfully designed and I would happily walk miles just to find them. In fact I did because for all of these I took the clues along in order to specifically find them. I must admit I didn’t get one of the ones I wanted because as we were nearing its location I was too busy bollacking Zeb for dragging me into the bogs that I walked straight passed it. By the time I realised what had happened we were about a mile away but hey that’s letterboxing for you.
So, if you fancy doing the same walk it’s quite easy, park at Omen Beam (SX 59172 76458) and simply follow the Cowsic river up its left hand side until you reach The Trident. Then cross over to the right hand bank and follow the river back down to the south-westerly outcrop of Beardown Tor and walk down to the bridge and follow the track back up to the car park. All in all it’s roughly five miles so nothing too strenuous.