During the winter months Dartmoor can be a magical place for a ramble with unbelievable views of the landscape. However, there can be exceptions especially when snow, fog, ice, along with short days are all concerned. What follows is an account from 1891 detailing the horrors that those conditions can cause especially when all combined together. What seemed to be a reasonable, if not slightly ambitious ramble turned out to be a living nightmare for the two intrepid walkers, there are also some good words to the wise are given at the end.
“It is the latter end of December, the ground is icebound and the air is clear and crisp when we start from the town of Okehampton, intending to walk across the Moor to Postbridge, and from thence across the heart of the Moor to Bridestowe on the other side – a moderate journey for the summer months, but now not likely undertaken. The days are short, our start is early, and the clock barely struck eight as we leave the town and go up the Station Hill to Okehampton Park and moor gate. It is a delightful morning, the sun is shining brightly, the air is keen and exhilarating, and the ground is hard and dry, giving forth that metallic ring as dreaded by huntsmen. In fact everything betokens an ideal day for a walk. In the lowlands and the in-country there are no vestiges of snow on the ground, but up on the Yes Tor range of hills are long white patches and strips which show there is snow on the moor but gives no indication of what we have in store for us. The line we chose was the well-known one over Halstock Down, across the East Okement by Culliver Steps, over Belstone Tors, up the Taw Marsh to Steeperton Tor, then on to Watern Tor, Teign Head, Grey Wethers, and Stannon. At the Okement river we get some idea of the severity of the frost. Huge icicles and masses of ice in all sorts of fantastic shapes hang from the banks and the granite blocks, splashed by the stream in its rapid descent, while at every pool the sides are rimmed with a thin white fringe displaying the most exquisite of natural tracery more beautiful than any human hand can design. At the Belstone Tors a thin layer of snow covers the ground, making grey masses of granite rock appear richer in colour and more clearly defined than at any other time of the year. Taw Marsh is patched with snow and ice – the latter gleaming in the morning sun as burnished silver. Our way is over the shoulder of Steeperton to Watern Tor, but we come across no bullocks, ponies, nor in-country sheep now having their leers in the big district on the route, but all have moved in; even the flocks of lapwings fly far overhead, clearly not intending to search for food in these inhospitable regions; and the occasional track of the fox on his way to his peaty kennel is the only indication of life we see until hard by the Shepherd’s Cottage at Teignhead, where we meet the shepherd himself on his rounds caring after the few Scotch Cheviot sheep wintering in the Teignhead enclosures. A lonely life must that shepherd have – alone in the heart of the moor, no road, no pathway even to the house, only the trackless moor for miles around him, no post nearer than Postbridge, nor daily newspapers to bother him in his retired abode, perhaps differing but little from his early Highland home.
From Teignhead we cross the valley to Grey Wethers, and find there is a slight change in the weather. The sun no longer shines, but drifting clouds of mist every now and then touch the top of the hills. Walking, too, is more difficult; there are occasional little drifts of snow to give trouble and bother, but, though not as pleasant walking, there is nothing either in the mist and snow to cause any anxiety beyond that caused by the delay. It is almost two when we reach Postbridge, to find Perrott’s Temperance Hotel, better known as Webb’s, closed for the winter. At a neighbouring house they give us that best of all beverages for walking – a cup of tea – and some bread and butter; this, and a pipe after, took time, and the valuable time of the mid-day, as that it is half-past three before we are ready to start. There are two courses open, one to pursue the original idea of coming to Bridestowe: and the other, to walk home by the wood by Chagford. Which shall we adopt? “Better do what we intended doing” is the deciding argument, and we are off to Bridestowe. The distance is some eight miles as the crow flies, and the line is practically up the river Dart; then up the Cut Stream to Cut Hill; then, over the hill by Cut Lane; then, over the shoulder of Fur tor to the upper part of the Tavy; then, down the Tavy to Watern Oke; then, across the Reddaven, leaving Tavy Cleave to the left and thence to Bridestowe – a well known line and one traversed dozens of times before. It can be done under ordinary circumstances easily in three hours, and it was calculated that even if we were delayed a little by the snow we should be able to reach Watern Oke before the light failed, and then could easily get away to the peat works, and down the railway; but the old adage about the plans of men and mice is to apply in our case for scarcely have we reached the rock in the Dart, known by some as Kitt’s Rock and by others as Winnifred Basin, when the snow is found to lie unpleasantly deep, and the walking is distinctly heavy. There is a big layer of snow, hard and frozen, covering the rushes, which breaks through on being trodden on, and seems almost to catch hold of the feet in the step. “This won’t last long” is the fallacious hope we express – the wish being father to the thought – and we push along harder than ever, every delay increasing the difficulties of our journey. Now we reach the left-hand tributary of the Dart, and then as we strive onward the main river comes on our right and we settle steadily down to Cut Steam. But the snow is deeper and deeper still, the walk more and more difficult and tiring, and a deep bank of fog is rolling on towards us. “We’ve done wrong, old man in trying this,” is the sentiment. “Don’t talk, follow me; if I can only reach Fur Tor I think I shall be right.” But the fog cloud is on us; we can barely follow, or even see, the stream; we are almost in the centre of the moor; the difficulties of returning by the way we’ve come will be as bad as those in going on. ‘Tis a deuce of a hole to be in; however, there’s nothing for it; we must strike away from all guidance over the rugged masses of snow to the left, in the hope of hitting off the Cut, which will give us a guide down the other valley. In no way can twenty yards be seen. The snow, too, has obliterated the few landmarks that exist. Two or three heavy flounders in the crevasses or frets – many six or seven feet deep – running over this big bed of peat, which is numerous miles in extent. One of two plunges over both head and shoulders, through big snow drifts, shew we’re wrong, and we know we have failed to hit off the line. “It must lie farther to the left,”; and ten or fifteen minutes plunging through the rough and rugged masses of snow in this land of peat doesn’t improve matters. We can go no distance nor make any point in a country so hampered as this. A few minutes consultation and we accept the inevitable. It is no use attempting to cross to Bridestowe; we must try and return the way we’ve come.
Darkness is upon us as we turn for the purpose; we cannot even trace our course in the deep snow, so thick is the darkness and fog. We cannot tell, even whether we are ascending or descending any hill or are on the level, but we keep going on from necessity. It is freezing hard; the fog freezes on our coats; the rushes, wherever they stand above the snow, have great blades of ice on them which rattle in the darkness. We cannot tell where we are going. Then the fog clears a little and we see a star. “We must try and go in some certain direction” is the comment as we plod wearily on, taking it as our guide for some half-an-hour or so. Then another fog cloud robbed us of the slight consolation it afforded, and we have to confess we knew neither where we were nor in what direction to go. This was a pretty state of things, at this time of night, and such a night too. “We must husband our resources, keep as much reserve force as we can, and keep moving if it is ever so slowly. We may be out for the night.” A lighted match tells us it is 6 o’clock which was the time we had arranged to be at Bridestowe. Our food for the day had been of the lightest, and even the thought of dinner was distracting. We must keep going, the cold is intense. If we could only find a stream of water we should even now be right. Hark! What is that? There is a weird oppressive silence over the land which nothing breaks. Hark again! There’s a rippling of water somewhere. “Can you hear it?” “No-yes I can, away to our left.” We steer for it more cheerful than we have for some time. It becomes more apparent as we draw near. Hurrah! We’ve reached it. ‘Tis but the most tiny and trickling of streams, not three inches across, but running by a mass of peat and snow where we had heard it. Which way is it going? So bad and confusing is the light that a torch is necessary to ascertain this, but once known we start with renewed vigour. “Now we’ve only got to follow this up and we shall get out somewhere” but where is impossible to say. The path is rough, snow-covered, and rugged; sometimes morasses over the middle, sometimes a stumble by way of variety; sometimes rough rocks necessitating a scramble and even wade in the river, which keeps increasing in volume, but in the mysterious fog-light we have, is bewildering in size. We have no idea what stream it is – we are inclined to think it is the Tavy, but we cannot say for certain, and any opinion can but be guess work only. One thing, and one thing only, is certain – we shall follow the stream until we get out somewhere. Hullo, here’s a junction; another stream joins us. We can neither see across our stream nor it. It cannot be the Dart. “By jove it is: for I know this rock (a pointed one by the riverside). We’re right; it is only a question of time and endurance, and bar accidents we’re safe.” We divide the last of our flask and plod on – not fast but steadily – leaning well forward in the stride so as to give a better chance of not being hurt in stumbling over the rocks and to fall forward instead of backwards in case of slips – which are very numerous. We march Indian file and almost silent – and almost feeling the way – the weird stillness of the moor, broken only by the water, is oppressive. “How are you getting on?” “I’m all right, but I can scarcely keep my eyes open; I’m getting dreadfully sleepy,” is the reply, not too cheering to the guide. “I should like a bit of rest.” “No,no, that won’t do; we’ll go slower, but we must keep moving.” There are ominous stumbles and laggings; every step has to be watched, and it is freezing hard, almost numbing our extremities, and the work and anxiety is exhausting. We know that a sudden accident such as a sprained ankle or other injury would be disastrous, and the sooner the troubles are over the better.
We follow the river, in all its sinuous windings and difficulties, until we reach Kitt’s Steps or Winnifred Basin. Here the river makes a big bend on our left, and if we can only keep straight we can save half-a-mile or so by crossing Broad Down and hitting off a wall which encloses some of the moorland belonging to Archerton. It will be better walking, but can we do it? A bad scramble over some rocks on our hands and knees makes us decide on trying it, and we leave our guiding stream. ‘Tis scare a mile, but with nothing to guide, no star, no distant rock is in view, nothing but darkness with the patches of snow about, although we’re out of the worst of the snow difficulties – it is still no easy task, though the wind blowing now in our faces gives us some indication of the way – though not a too reliable one. It seems a long journey – doubly long as we are so anxious to accomplish it. We begin to think we have gone wrong again as the wind has shifted – a not uncommon event over the Moor, hence its uncertainty as a guide, especially when something like a bank appears some ten or twelve feet infront of us. “We’re got again into the peatbeds” is the silent comment as we stand still a moment to consider. “Well, we must go on.” A few steps more and hurrah! “Its the wall.” We have gone in the right direction at any rate – now as we scramble over it, “if we’ve come true about 150 yards from here over the Moor we shall come to a reave or ditch.” Hurrah again, “we’ve got it,” and do not mind the skin barked by the rock that we’ve stumbled over. “Now if this is right we shall come to a post on our left, standing by a wall.” The fog has cleared and the light is better; for, though no moon is up, the stars give us a better light than we’ve had for many a weary mile. Hurrah! again, here’s the wall; here too the post. A few yards more, and we shall hit a clearly defined trackway – though rough and rugged, it is true, but affording a good guide if we can only stick to it – which will take us down the roadway to Postbridge. We stick to our line like beagles, in spite of rocks, patches of ice, and all sorts of difficulties which are impossible to describe, but which those who have attempted to walk over the Moor at night or blindfolded will readily appreciate. It is sufficient to say that after stumbling and falling times innumerable we arrive at Postbridge, from which we had started some seven hours before. We arrived with coats fringed with frozen hoar, with knickerbockers, gaiters and boots frozen up to and above the knees so as to require thawing before they could be taken off, and after having been out some fourteen hours from the time we started in the morning and with but little food during that time – not quite a Siberian experience, but quite enough for comfort. Nothing can exceed the kindness of our reception at Postbridge – dry garments given us, picturesque and unsexing, but warm.
Suffice it to say that everything that can be done is done to minister to our comfort and to our wants, and when we are smoking the comfort-giving pipe, our kindly host, who is one born and accustomed to the Moor all his life, gives us many anecdotes of it. Perhaps not the least apropos to our circumstances was his own experience told in reply to a question as to whether he had ever missed his way in a fog. “Oh yes,” says he, ” a fog is terribly confusing. I went out over only last week, and a thick fog came on, and somehow or other I got across the Moreton road and didn’t notice it, and coming upon a house asked my way and found, though I could scarcely believe it, that I was inquiring the way of a neighbour not a quarter of a mile from my own door, whose house I did not know.”
We got home the next day, and a few days afterwards received the following letter, which, as showing the kindly feeling and hospitality of the people of the Moor, is worth recording – “I was yesterday on a tour of the Moor. I went up the same direction as you and your friend, and at about the very same spot as your adventurous tour terminated. I shot three birds – 1 woodcock and 2 snipe – which please accept as a little Christmas present.
P.S. Excuse my saying I should like very much for your friend to help pick their bones and after you have done justice to them, crack a good joke and call it the termination of your adventurous tour via Postbridge, and I hope you thoroughly enjoy them, and that this will find you and your friend quite we;; as it leaves me.”
Now to point out the moral which adorns this tale. What were the causes which led to the adventure? Was it inexperience of the Moor? No. for the writer is intimately acquainted with the ground. Was it for want of a compass or map? No, for the ground traversed was known better than any map could show, and at no time after the difficulties began would a map or compass be of the slightest use, as neither could be seen without lighting a match, and in the rough ground in the darkness no direction could be followed without constant references to both. The stream was the best guide that could be had. No, it was a combination of circumstances – the unexpected deepness of the snow, the coming of the fog, and the shortness of the day. Anyone of these difficulties could be mastered singly, but the three together were too strong. We ought to have turned back immediately we found the thick snow, and to have given up the idea at once instead of getting deeper into the difficulty and hoping that something would turn up for our advantage. The combination of circumstances might happen to anyone with perhaps not so happy an ending, and to keep out of a like adventure let those out for a winter ramble on Dartmoor so plan that they will be able to clear off the Moor before half-past four in the afternoon, remembering that it is a man’s work to get out of them safely, and that “preventure is better than remedy. – The Devon & Exeter Gazette, February 11th, 1891.