A wild camp in Cranbrook Castle and Tor / hill bagging near Castle Drogo and river Teign valley [Dartmoor Trip – Part 1]
It turns out that a lifetime of watching horror films does not mentally equip you for being alone in a bivvy (the hoop is no consolation) within the fog shrouded earthworks of an Iron Age hill fort. As I lay unable to sleep in the moonlit stillness, my mind drifted to thoughts of long dead warriors rising from the damp ground to extract their revenge on the person rudely sleeping on their graves! Not that I know anything about Cranbrook Castle, let alone what is buried underneath the ferns – the internet acknowledges its existence but that’s about it, but it was not history that brought me to this spooky place. It met an exacting set of criteria for my first wild camp of my week on Dartmoor: it is the nearest bit of Dartmoor to me where you can legally camp (the fact it is a short walk from a pub and a peak you can ‘bag’ on Social Hiking was just a bonus!).
I was meant to be spending the night on Long Mynd in Shropshire, followed by a walk the next day with Rob (@WelshRacer) before heading down to Dartmoor, but an unexpected (and unaffordable) MOT failure meant a rapid change of plan (oddly the thought of spending the night amongst Bronze Age tombs did not trouble me in the least!). It was either sulking at home for the night followed by an early start to meet Paul (@paulgbuck) in Devon, or heading down early for a sneaky bonus wild camp. A quick look at the Dartmoor wild camping map crossed referenced against Paul’s curated list of Dartmoor features (rocks, tors and hills) on Social Hiking and I was out of the door and on my way* (*sequenced shortened).
I arrived at Drewsteignton, just off the A30, about 5:30pm, left the car in the village car park behind the church (from memory a few £ donation) and set off (admittedly initially the wrong way before I got my bearings!) My route followed a path through the woods ultimately looking to join Hunter’s Path from Castle Drogo heading to Fingle Bridge. At one point the path heads in the wrong direction in parallel to the tantalisingly close Hunter’s Path, but I did not mind the extra distance as it was a beautiful evening and warm… really warm…. it felt more like mid-July rather than mid-September! Joining Hunter’s Path gave me my first view of the picturesque Teign Valley.
Hunter’s Path runs high above the river Teign, although I joined it just as the ‘breathtaking’ views described by National Trust run out and the path starts dropping down to Fingle Bridge. Safe in the knowledge my return leg tomorrow had them covered, I practically skipped down the hill to the bridge and the conveniently located pub (did I mention it was warm…. I wanted, no needed, a cider!) From the beer garden of the pub you get a fantastic view of the Grade II* listed 17th century bridge just slightly upstream.
Suitably refreshed (I was on holiday – don’t judge me!) I crossed the bridge and begrudgingly started the slog up towards Cranbrook Castle – it was tough going (it was warm damnit!) but the brief view up the valley towards Castle Drogo (covered in plastic sheeting due to the refurbishment) and the setting sun more than made up for the exertion.
As I left the unclassified road I had followed from the bridge to make the final ascent up Uppacott Down to Cranbrook Castle, I past a couple who had cleared an area of ferns for their tent. They had originally planned to camp higher up, but found little fern-free space (although I am sure being next to their car helped their decision making!) Safe in the knowledge my bivvy only needed a tiny patch of grass I pressed on to the top. Beyond a tiny area of grass by the entrance (dotted with fire burn patches) the area within the earthwork mounds looked entirely covered in ferns. I wandered around a bit (searching for the sweet spot to get my Social Hiking notification I had ‘bagged’ the hill) before following the earthworks around to find a more suitable fern-free patch of grass. I set up the bivvy, cooked dinner (a can of Stag chilli and boil in the bag rice) and sat watching the last of the light fade. Awesome.
As this was my first field test in the bivvy and I was surrounded by bug-infested ferns, I opted to keep the top open but with the netting closed. The weather forecast worried me though – there was no expected rain, but humidity was set to rise to 100%. You know I said it was warm – that was my body, which relies (at least partially) on evaporation to cool down, struggling in the humidity. This is going to be an issue for the bivvy too. In a nutshell (as far as I understand it anyway) humans leak water whilst we sleep (gross right) – assuming the sleeping bag does its job, this water gets released onto the bivvy inner surface as condensation. The breathable fabric of the bivvy then tries to get rid of this water through the fabric using evaporation (without letting water in obviously) into the surrounding air but at high humidity the air is already full of water (and did I mention there was no wind?). Net result – I will probably wake up wet. Indeed, as I lay there with thoughts of the undead rising around me, my breath was already condensing above me.
I awoke at dawn and whilst it was dry in my sleeping bag, as expected the bivvy was drenched inside with my expelled water. I stepped out to a mist covered Dartmoor to discover the outside of the bivvy, the ground and the vegetation was drenched in dew. With no chance of a sunrise (I did not even see the sun until lunchtime), I put on my damp clothes and shoes, chucked my damp kit into the damp rucksack, and headed towards Butterdon Hill, surprisingly cheerful despite the minor misery. Butterdon Hill briefly challenged that.
The ‘summit’ of Butterdon Hill
In winter bagging Butterdon Hill would be a piece of cake…. in September it is entirely covered with thick vegetation, now damp with the dew. Within minutes I was wet, a few minutes later soaked and by the time I reach the ‘top’ (allegedly there is a cairn, presumably hidden in the ferns) I was drenched. We do this for fun right? It does not even have a Tor on it! Actually it was fairly fun (with bonus misery) and my spirits remained high even after the disappointment of missing Willingstone Rock which I confused with the bottom outcrop of Pin Tor – the first Tor of this trip and a suitable coffee stop.
I am probably in danger of sounding like a broken record, but these hunks of rock stir something in me (I even got caught stoking one on a recent trip!) It is really hard to put into words sensibly – magical, powerful or awesome do not quite cut it! There is just something about them that keeps pulling me back.
Coffee drunk, I dropped down to the road and followed it back into the woodland above river Teign and headed up the valley. There was probably a shorter route, but I had plenty of time and was enjoying the walk (and more importantly my trousers had dried!). I heard the river below before I saw it as the path gently dropped down to the bank and back to Fingle Bridge. The pub was shut (it was 10am!), but I stopped for breakfast and to refill my Sawyer Squeeze, before heading down Fisherman’s Path, which runs along the river parallel to Hunter’s Path high above.
It is an enjoyable riverside walk, although recent repair work has perhaps sanitised it in places from the original path still mostly visible. The National Trust website says that Fisherman’s, along with Hunter’s, is the most famous walk on Dartmoor, so it is understandable it needs to withstand lots of feet as well as erosion by the river itself. After passing a weir (and an interesting building on the other bank) I began the climb towards Castle Drogo, before doubling back to reach Hunter Tor. I did not loiter long on top of the Tor due to the large nest of giant ants (you know in horror films when they think the floor is moving…. that!) but instead headed to the furthest outcrop.
Wow. In one direction the stunning wood lined river valley with a glimpse of Sharp Tor, in the other the valley opening out towards Dartmoor proper, and above me Castle Drogo. I stayed as long as I could, drying my still wet socks on the rocks whilst I savoured the views over a coffee, before ants started appearing and drove me off (seriously – had they followed me?!) I continued along the Hunter’s Path towards Sharp Tor – I am glad I got a good view of it from Hunter’s Tor, as from the top it is just basically a few rocks! Finally it was time to bid farewell to the beautiful Teign Valley, and I headed back over the hill to Drewsteignton.
I still had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with Paul so, as the sun was shining, I decided to drive across the moor to Cox Tor car park to dry my kit out. The breeze and sunshine succeed in evaporating away the night’s moisture as I soaked up the views (over another coffee!). Whilst I was here it seemed rude not to visit my favourite Tor – Pew Tor, as well as a few in the area I keep missing – Sampford Tor (just south of Pew Tor), Barn Hill Rocks (quite near the car park) and Prowtytown Rocks. I found all of them fine except Prowtytown Rocks which, once again, I failed completely to track down. Pesky Rocks more like!
For a change I left Dartmoor without the usual sadness – I was coming back the following day!!