back to the blustery moors

eight years ago this week I returned from spending a semester studying in London. yesterday, prompted by a request for some pictures of standing out on the blustery moor to match the one posing with the Monumento do Peregrino in Galicia, I pulled out the journals from my study-abroad experience and looked back through my photos to find something suitably windswept. in fact, I found a photo of the Nine Maidens standing circle, which I hadn’t found to associate with my last post on the area.

stone circles are scattered across Dartmoor, including the one we visited, and contains the largest collection of Bronze Age tools anywhere in Britain. at that time, the climate was much warmer and trees likely covered much of the moorland, which were cleared by inhabitants using fire in order to make way for farm fields. as the climate cooled and people fled, the acidic soil they left behind made preservation of stone foundations and tools comparatively successful, thus resulting in the plethora of prehistoric tools. when things warmed up again, people returned and used many of the same tactics to construct needed buildings as they had before; some built in this longhouse style remain in use today (with modifications) though many lay abandoned and ruined.

one of the distinct features of Dartmoor are its numerous tors — hills topped with rock outcroppings similar to but markedly less famous than the one in Glastonbury. in early May each year, the British Army arranges a  weekend hike known as the Ten Tors in which youth between the ages of 14 and 19 complete circuits of 35, 45, or 55 miles (depending on age) in teams of six. according to the organizers it’s not technically a race, but more of an endurance test of survival and outdoor skills; obviously that doesn’t stop teams from competing with one another for the best time though. since there are a variety of potential routes, however, you won’t necessarily know which other teams might keep pace with you. the first race took place in 1960 with about 200 people; now participation is capped at 2,400 youth from southwest England. two noteworthy things happened during the 2012 event — the first all-girls team completed the course in a school-record time; and a team on track to complete in sixteen hours diverted upon hearing the distress calls of another team and ensured their rescue before crossing the finish twenty minutes after the official close of the race, which would have barred them from receiving recognition of completion. naturally, the director of the event acknowledged them anyway.

having spent an comparatively mild fall afternoon out on the moor, and reading about the variable if not downright tempestuous weather, it’s amazing to consider anyone would want to undertake a weekend of trekking around the moor, braving whatever the elements seek to dump on you. in more than a few years the weather has necessitated evacuation of teams at some point during the competition or outright cancellation prior to starting out.


Dartmoor was one of the most stunning places I visited while studying in London. after weeks of day-to-day metropolitan bustle, the absolute isolation of the moor was both wonderful and somewhat off-putting. it was one of our last stops before returning to London after several days of traipsing around the relatively quite countryside. southwest England in mid-to-late October isn’t high tourist season.

it took some effort to find our B&B in the dark — through the tiny village of Belstone and up a farm track — but it was worth it. my dad & I watched some Green Wing in the common room before we went up to bed and my mom had a precious encounter with one of the young children of the house who was eating “crisps” (my mom referred to them as “chips,” to which the 3-or-4-year-old replied “they’re not chips! they’re crisps!“). I always imagine Godric’s Hollow to look exactly like Belstone as it did when we stopped in at the pub to ask for directions.

the town is best known for its proximity to the Nine Maidens stone circle, which I’m sure I have a picture of somewhere though, honestly, it didn’t make as much of an impression on me as the other sites we saw walking around the moor or in comparison to the sites at Avebury and Stonehenge. in addition to the Nine Maidens, the area we walked was open grazing land for local sheep and had a variety of stone structures and walls, one of which I have marked as the “Irish Wall,” though now I couldn’t tell you why — whether it was built by Irish invaders to defend their holdings, by indigenous Britons to keep the Irish at bay, or for some other purpose.

Dartmoor has been farmed and inhabited since prehistoric times (and its possible that the characters in Bernard Cornwall’s Arthurian series traverse the moor …). the Domesday Book has record of a castle at Okehampton in 1086 and the first record of tin extraction comes from 70 years later. abandoned tin mines and farmsteads remain scattered across the moorland. today the land is a National Park though over half of it remains under private control (much of it consisting of the Forest of Dartmoor of which is owned by the Duke of Cornwall — aka Prince Charles).

recently, controversy has sprung up around mining and military training. several companies wish to mine the area for china clay but organizations seeking to preserve the environmental integrity of the moor have successfully lobbied the government to prevent projects from going forward. military use of the moor dates back to the Napoleonic War and continues to modern times; the Ministry of Defense uses as much as 11% of the northern expanse of the National Park for live-fire maneuvers. it served as partial setting in a recent episode of (Moffat’s) Sherlock. a military installation at Okehampton also served as an airbase during the Second World War.

Dartmoor is great for trekking and adventuring — that’s partly what brought us to the southwest of England (the Nine Maidens stone circle probably played a bigger role). that trek was also my first introduction to letterbox hunting, which later helped develop geocaching. letterboxing sprung up in the 19th century and coincided with the increased popularity of hill walking on the moor. our B&B hosts explained the pursuit to us before we headed out on our morning trek: people hide watertight containers all over the moor that hold unique rubber stamps and a visitor’s log book. each time you find a letterbox (whether on purpose or by accident), you use the letterbox stamp in your own record book and leave the mark of your personal stamp in the visitor’s log book. geocaching is essentially the same but uses GPS coordinates rather than older map-finding clues like compass bearings and grid references. we didn’t find any letterboxes, though we didn’t look very hard. some can prove incredibly challenging to find — which is half the fun for ardent fans of the activity.