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Sun, sea, storm Katie and a mis-calculation – the start to #CountyCastleCaper

Day 1 – Tintagel Castle, Cornwall to Lydford Castle, Devon (by cycle)

Considering the level of logistical planning required for the first leg of the #CountyCastleCaper, I could have made a bit more of an effort to check the tide tables! We arrived at Trebarwith Strand ready to get our Cornwall swim in before Tintagel Castle, just up the coast, opened, to be greeted by the sight of the sea smashing into the cliffs just below us. Trebarwith Strand is apparently an excellent swimming beach at low tide – sadly in a few hours time! Our plans already beginning to unravel, we retreated to Tintagel to enjoy a coffee and a second (light) breakfast in the unexpected sunshine as we killed time before the castle opened and the tide retreated.

Tintagel Castle, allegedly where King Arthur was conceived, is a cliff top ruin which sits on an outcrop overlooking a small beach ‘Tintagel Haven’. As tourists began to arrive on the beach to visit Merlin’s Cave (and the controversial Merlin sculpture, which we failed to see), we stripped off and went for our swim (well dip) in the sea with the waves crashing around us. Unlike Dartmoor streams, the sea was surprisingly non-freezing so there was no need for a warming hot drink. After avoiding flashing the ever increasing numbers of tourists as we changed, we headed up the numerous steps to the castle.

Tintagel Haven from Tintagel Castle

This was my second time at Tintagel Castle, and once again I felt slightly underwhelmed – it is a stunning location, but the site was already crawling with tourists so, after a brief wander over the top of ‘The Island’ (unexpectedly claiming a Social Hiking bagged peak!), we retraced our steps back up the hill to our bikes. The forecast for the day was the best of the weekend and we set off from Tintagel in glorious sunshine with just a light wind at our backs. Small mercies though as the first obstacle of our route east was Condolden Barrow – the second highest point outside Bodmin Moor (apparantly). Looking back, I am proud I not just got up it, but voluntarily extended our route to bag the top. At the time though…. it was horrid! As I recovered a little before continuing, we soaked up the view across Cornwall to the mass of Bodmin Moor in the distance.

View towards Bodmin Moor from Condolden Barrow

After an hour of cycling from the barrow we joined up with the National Cycle Network 327. There is not a huge amount of information to find on the internet about NCN 327 (beyond acknowledgement that it exists). It starts near Trelash as a branch coming off NCN 3 and follows quiet (and pretty) country lanes (mostly single track) through Cornwall and, after passing through Launceston, Devon, before joining NCN 27 at Tavistock (oh I get it…. 3 -> 27… 327…. who knew there was logic to this!!) With one notable exception the route is well sign posted throughout and, after a hot cross bun stop in Egloskerry, we arrived in Launceston.

Of course the problem with cycling to castles are the damn things tend to be on hills. Launceston Castle sits on a steep hill in the middle of the town and it is no wonder the (very helpful and friendly lady) manning the English Heritage ticket office was so surprised that someone might want cycle parking! The castle itself, a stone motte and bailey castle with well preserved inner keep, has a stunning view across the Tamar valley towards the brooding mass of Dartmoor in the distance.

View from Launceston Castle across to Dartmoor

Launceston Castle, Cornwall

After a coffee and a bite to eat,  we set off on the final leg of the day. We quickly entered Devon, but any jubilation of completing our first county disappeared as we started cycling up the first (and smallest) of three large hills. At least one of the hills (Ashleigh Hill) counts as a bagged peak on Social Hiking! Legs were getting tired and I have to admit to walking up the steeper parts of the hills! At North Brentor we turned off NCN 327 and joined NCN 27 for the final few miles to Lydford. Lydford Castle could wait however – after loading the bikes into the car we headed into The Castle Inn for refreshments before returning to Tintagel to collect the remaining car ready for the next day.

Day 1: 2 castles, 1 swim, 36.8 miles, -3723 ft downhill, 4162 ft uphill, 333 ft min alt, 1184 ft max alt (excluding walk to and from Tintagel Castle) [view map]

Day 2: Lydford Castle to Powermills, Dartmoor via Lich Way (by foot)

The weather forecast for our first planned day on Dartmoor was frankly shocking – a few hours of showers followed by constant heavy rain. Our planned route was to follow the Lych Way towards Bellever, spending the night at The Powdermills bunkhouse en-route. The Lych Way (or ‘The Way of The Dead’) is an ancient track across Dartmoor that residents of tenements in the East and West Dart valleys used to trek over to Lydford for burials and church services. Despite the weather, my occasional companion Kate (@DiveSciDiva) decided to join us for the day and, after a quick photo opportunity in front of Lydford Castle, we set off towards the moor.

Myself, Sarah and Kate in front of Lydford Castle (photo by Paul Buck)

To start with, it was fairly easy going as we followed the ancient track up onto the moor. The rain was occasional (albeit heavy) and the wind, whilst gusty, was bearable. Visibility was also not too bad, although there was not much to see of the rifle ranges on the Willsworthy Range as we past by. We crossed the mine leat before leaving the range and open moor behind us to follow another ancient track between fields. On advice from Paul (@MoorlandWalker), we took the permissive path with a footbridge over River Tavy rather than attempting the stepping stones. In front of us was an overloaded and tired looking group of DofE or Ten Tor kids, who we overtook as we climbed up the farm track to Brousentor Farm.

Crossing the River Tavy

As we returned to open moor and climbed up to Bagga Tor, we were hit with the full force of Dartmoor’s fury. The heavens opened and the rain,  driven horizontal by the wind, whipped into us and so, with only a moment’s hesitation to ‘bag’ the tor, we sought shelter from the elements to enjoy another hot cross bun (this time with do-it-yourself cross decorations made from marzipan!). Conditions had got worse as we left our sheltered outcrop and returned to the path (passing the kids sheltering in a storm tent next to their teacher’s car) and, as we climbed ever upwards, the wind picked up as visibility worsened. We kept within sight of the wall for as long as possible but eventually we had to take a bearing and head out into the moor – conveniently just as the path we were following disappeared. We made it to White Barrow, rain still hammering down, after a crossing a small bog and began following the more obvious dip containing the track (now a river) eastwards. As we past a group of sensible ponies sheltering from the elements in a dip and got our first glimpse of River Walkham, my heart sank as I realised the massive miscalculation I had made…

Dartmoor ponies with more sense than us!

Dartmoor rivers can rise very quickly. Whilst the River Tavy we crossed seemed fairly normal a few hours before, the constant downpour had caused the rivers higher up to swell and flood. The ford across the River Walkham was em-passable – at least thigh deep with a very fast looking central channel. Shit. I had stupidly not expected this and had no backup plan. To add further ‘peril’ to the situation – jackets were starting to saturate with rain and we (at least Sarah and I – Kate was fairly snug throughout in her new expensive jacket!) were starting to get cold. After a quick investigation upstream we ruled out heading deeper into the moor to find somewhere to cross, so we decided to head downstream to the next ford (allowing us to escape the moor at Holming Beam). Dartmoor at this point decided to up the ante with wind-propelled hail! The next ford was, unsurprisingly, equally as bad. This left three options to escape – follow the river to Merrivale (and the Dartmoor Inn), climb up and over Cox Tor via Roos Tor to the popular car park or follow the track back west ultimately towards Peter Tavy.

The decision was to follow the track to Peter Tavy. Whilst perhaps the longer distance on the map, the track meant our pace should be quicker, which would keep us warm and get us off the moor quicker. I also wanted to maximise the chance of ensuring a warm place to stop at the end – whilst I like the Dartmoor Inn in Merrivale, it’s opening hours can be a bit hit and miss. As we climbed up and around Cocks Hill again (now seemed an inappropriate time to properly bag nearby Clay Tor!) and signal returned, I managed to fire off a text message to Paul (who as it happens was loitering in the area for just such an occurrence) to let him know our plans. We picked up the pace and, heads down, trudged head on into the storm (Katy). It took us just over an hour before we past White Tor and Stephen’s Grave and meet Paul just above Furze Tor.

Dartmoor had thrown us back with our #CountyCastleCaper plans completely in tatters. After drying off and warming up in the bunkhouse, we headed off to the Warren House Inn for a fire, a hearty dinner and to work out our plan B over a few pints……. to be continued….

(We later learnt that several rescues had taken place overnight of people who found themselves in a similar situation to us – trapped on Dartmoor in storm Katie by un-crossable rivers. Whilst we were in a sticky situation, I am confident that we had several more hours before our situation would have become dangerous. There are definite learning lessons, not least the reminder to plan thoroughly for possible eventualities, but I am glad we all made it off Dartmoor with smiles!)

Day 2: 1 castle, 11.3 miles, -2050 ft descent, 2191 ft uphill, 850 ft min alt, 1802 ft max alt [view map]

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