Leading myself astray on Dartmoor

From an immense rolling mound on Dartmoor, South Devon England unfolded before me in an expanse of billowing hills of color, evenly divided farmland and the minute tip of the English Channel teasing me from beyond. The smell of rain off in the distant Plymouth fusing with the scent of the bog and nearby sheep, all working to further raise my heightened senses.

Dartmoor-Cecelia Marshall1C
Photo Courtesy: Cecelia Marshall

I looked down to my map and up at my surroundings. Then back down to the map and then up again. To anyone standing close by, it would have looked as if I was agreeing enthusiastically to an invisible being. I stared deeply into the worn and creased map full of squiggles, numbers, and various dotted lines that pointed out supposed trails. The big encircled red mark was where I had begun; clumsily following a path marked by dots took me to a trail which had by then dissolved into nothing but grass and uneven rock. As from a signal from the moor itself, a silent gust full of force blew my map closed with a snap. A wrestle between the gale and myself ensued, however, not wanting to put up a struggle or look anymore ridiculous, I collapsed it in the finality of its use. I sighed, beaming up at the iridescent blue sky as clouds of cotton balls whooshed past.

“Success!” I whispered to myself, hoping the wind wouldn’t hear. Finally, I had done it. I had gotten myself lost. You heard me correctly. It had been my intention to get completely and utterly lost on the moor.

Dartmoor-Cecelia Marshall3C
Photo Courtesy: Cecelia Marshall

Hiking most often involves choosing a point, landmark or pinnacle to climb or reach for a sense of accomplishment. Hidden waterfalls, 14,000ft snow packed peaks, or ancient ruins. These hiking targets seem to give meaning to the journey of hikers, a point in which to brag to others by pointing at a map and decreeing “we hiked all the way up to there!”  But as cliché as it is true, the experience is as much as it is about the journey as it is about the destination.

Living in southern England, in a small town called South Brent, which shouldered up along the historic Dartmoor, the afternoons of freedom from the bed and breakfast tasks allowed me to depart into nature. I thought I could tame the moor, make it my own and become familiar with this beast. However, it was only on my second attempt to go hike to a given point within the map that I realized my attempts were futile.

Dartmoor-Tony Harley3C
Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

On my first attempted trek, I had laid out illustrious plans. Ugborough Beacon Tor wasn’t too far, so it had seemed from the map, and I judged that my past hiking experience could get me there well before sunset. However, once on the moor, I realized how all the terrain appeared the same, almost as if a hypnotic coma encased me and I began confusing the stream underfoot with a marked path or the group of brambles with the mound of granite I was hoping to scale. Clouds soon rolled in along with the sinking of the sun and feeling weary, my jelly legs pulsing with strain, I lay down defeated. I stared up in the sky with light tears and raindrops dabbing my cheeks. A herd of Moorland ponies nibbling grasses a hundred yards away kept me company. And that’s when I realized – this is what I need to accomplish. Loss and mindfulness- something only Dartmoor can provide if you let yourself succumb to it.

Dartmoor-Tony Harley2C
Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

The whooshing wind. The trickle from a small spring. Or pure silence. My mind became hyper-connected to the present and the forces around me. As I walked without a target, I paid attention to the details in the clouds, how my boots felt around my ankle and the taste of inhaling the clear air.

Dartmoor is one of the largest national parks in England. It stretches over 954 square kilometers connecting Plymouth to Exeter. Scarcely any tall deciduous trees grow on the moor, therefore, once you walk to the center of it all, it’s easy to see for miles and miles-although making out a person from a small tor, is something of great difficulty. Locals who walk through the moor often learn this quickly that it’s difficult to climb to the “top” of things on Dartmoor since once scaling a high peak, looking out you realize that a sister hill 5 km away is in fact higher, raising another challenge for any hiking enthusiast. The highest point on Dartmoor is High Willhays, only 621 meters – hardly anything for an experienced avid hiker to write home about.

Dartmoor-Tony Harley4C
Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

Tors pop up from the rolling grass like pimples. Tors are made of stacked layers of granite and not constructed by humans but over centuries were used as distinguishing points in the topography when people travelled across or as watchtowers from invaders. Each year, over two thousand people attempt  the “Ten Tors Challenge”  a strenuous walk from ten tors ranging from a route of 56 km to 88km.

Since moving to South Devon, I had accumulated inexplicit knowledge and lessons from both the surrounding nature and locals. “Hiking” was not a term used by locals and instead their often times fifteen to twenty kilometer escapades along the moor were known humbly as a “walk” or “stroll.” I was told there is no point in bringing a phone unless all I was anticipating to use it for was taking pictures of the moor.

Dartmoor-Tony Harley5C
Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

There is never service, 3G or WIFI to speak of and even a snap of a photo, even with the best Instagram filters and editing skills, don’t do the moor justice.  And of course, it’s pertinent to remember to bring along sweets, a snack, or pasty since sometimes you never know how long you’ll be out there for. And given my new custom of getting lost, my bag was full of snacks aplenty-especially a couple carrots for the moorland ponies.


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