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The Dartmoor Tops Tour / 3 days / 56 miles (90km)

OS Route Map → Map Route file →

Date: 21 Apr 2010
Start / Finish: Belstone. Large free car park SX 621938.
Maps: Explorer OL28 Dartmoor or Harvey Superscale Dartmoor.

Access

Sections of the route pass through the Okehampton and Merrivale MOD military training areas: public access is allowed only on specified dates.
The MOD publish access dates for their Dartmoor ranges (note: the ranges have different access dates, it is necessary to check both Okehampton and Merrivale). There are guaranteed access days published for a year in advance, plus other days which are allocated at shorter notice. The current access times can be found here:

MOD Dartmoor site: Dartmoor Training Area

Day 1Yes Tor to Higher White Tor16.5 miles / 2910 feet (26.6km / 887m)
Day 2Beardown Tor to Hamel Down23.5 miles / 3510 feet (37.8km / 1070m)
Day 3White Ridge to Cosdon Hill15.5 miles / 2180 feet (25.0km / 664m)

Pitch on Higher White Tor

A grand tour of the listed tops of Dartmoor:- a second visit to the two Nuttall mountains of the region and thirteen new 500m+ Dewey tops, including two of the small group that top 600m.

A Dartmoor backpack had been on the radar for some time, our only previous visit being a day walk in 1995 for the two Nuttalls. A plot of all the tops on Memory-Map suggested a grandslam of the whole group totalling around 56 miles, an ambitious route for 3 days given the long drive there and back, but one that would take me through the wild and remote heartland and out to some of the distinctive tors for which Dartmoor is so renowned. It would have been more relaxed and comfortable over 4 days, but I had 3 and the forecast predicted fine dry weather in the south - the challenge was on.

The heartland of northern Dartmoor is a vast expanse of domed hills and sinuous valleys dotted with rocky tors, a landscape that can test navigation skills for the unfamiliar. On this backpack in clear and mainly sunny weather, I utilized my compass and scrutinized the map detail and contours extensively, far more than on any other trip for years.

The central region of the northern moor is also famed for its bogs, but the recent lack of significant rain was another enticement for this trip. I encountered only a handful of very brief boggy bits and most of those were not up on the high moor, in fact most of the moorland seemed parched - more of a soft crunch than a squelch.

Day 1 - Yes Tor to Higher White Tor

Underestimating the jams at the M6/M5 junction as always, I arrived rather later than expected at Belstone car park on the edge of the village, where the Dartmoor horses wander freely and occasionally mingle with residents and visitors. Walking SW through the attractive village and past the telephone box, the signed 'No through road' climbs to a gate onto the open hillside with an information board and the first enticing view into the moor.

The first section of the route as far as Yes Tor and High Willhays is all on good easy tracks and gentle gradients, making these the easiest of mountains to climb from this starting point. The first track leads down to Cullever Steps on Black-a-ven Brook that is designated a 'ford' on the map, but there is also a bridge there.

First view into the Dartmoor heartland
First view into the Dartmoor heartland (21 Apr 2010__11:11:48)
Cullever Steps
Cullever Steps (21 Apr 2010__11:23:27)

After the bridge there are numerous military tracks and roads in the area to assist swift progress and I made good time on this first ascent. I took the route that climbs gently around Rowtor and West Mill Tor to the infant Red-a-ven Brook at the foot of Yes Tor, giving ever improving views in the quite chilly breeze. Shortly after the crossing I left the track to make a beeline over rock strewn ground for the summit tor, which has a trig point and the common addition hereabouts of military paraphernalia. The distant views to the west over the lowlands are extensive while the heartland stretches out in a wide vista of rolling hills.

A short stroll of a mere few minutes on a good path gains High Willhays, the second Nuttall and highest point of Dartmoor but the less imposing of the pair. It does however rank #2 in the England 'Supersummits' list with a domain of 83 miles, i.e. the nearest higher ground is 83 miles away.

The final approach to Yes Tor
The final approach to Yes Tor (21 Apr 2010__12:22:19)
View from Yes Tor
View from Yes Tor (21 Apr 2010__12:24:53)
High Willhays
High Willhays (21 Apr 2010__12:43:21)

The next two objectives are clearly in view to the SW across the deep valley of the West Okemont River, a lovely spot and one of the few clear memories I retained from our first visit. This time I decided on a direct descent, continuing on the initially clear path SW which faded as it descended near another military 'box' at Fordsland Ledge, but was clear enough as it snaked down to Sandy Ford. I thought I might have to wade across this but the shallow water was just fordable.

A steady climb roughly following a bubbling stream up the pathless eastern flank of Amicombe Hill gained the flat summit area, an unremarkable top really with more unwelcome manmade bits and more tracks on the ground. I didn't linger here, I set off on a good track towards the much more inviting profile of Great Links Tor to the west.

As the track reached its highest point I left it for an easy walk to the rocky towers, passing a solitary standing stone near the foot of the main group. The bold summit tors take the form of two stacks of rock plates with the 586m trig point seated on the lower stack, an airy perch in the chilly wind today once I found the easy way up.

Great Links Tor
Great Links Tor (21 Apr 2010__14:23:15)
Great Links Tor
Great Links Tor (21 Apr 2010__14:36:19)

To the SE are the two outcrops of Higher and Lower Dunna Goat: I followed a faint grassy path to the Lower one until it petered out, then descended to the clear track along Rattle Brook valley just south of the ruins of Bleak House. I recrossed the broad pathless shoulder of Amicombe Hill to locate the long thin saddle at the foot of Great Kneeset where the West Okemont River flows north and Amicombe Brook flows south: this spot felt like a gateway to the remote interior.

I climbed to the low outcrops of Great Kneeset and scanned the vast bleak landscape ahead: the entire 4½-mile section from here to Cut Hill and Flat Tor is shown as boggy ground on the maps, but it presented no difficulty at all today with only a few slightly squelchy bits. I walked around the left side of the small rise of Black Ridge and curved around to Black Hill, which surprisingly has a little low cairn on its flat top, and on to the main summit of Cut Hill. This hill in the centre of the wilderness looks and feels very remote.

I descended southwards to locate the 'peat pass' and followed it SE: time for some serious map and compass work to sort out the various river clefts and hill curves, not helped by an enticing but misleading trail near the military danger posts that begs you to follow it, plus the fact that Flat Tor really is flat with no height gain at all and has no tor worth mentioning. I stuck with my convictions and ignored the trail, setting off over rough pathless ground and periodically checking the line. I crossed a tributary of the East Dart River, made my way along Flat Tor and descended southwards to find myself safely on course above the West Dart River, contouring around the hillside to reach the ruins of Brown's House.

The last summit of Higher White Tor was now in sight and I walked a wide arc around some boggy ground near the ruins and climbed easily southwards to the top via Lower White Tor. The summit tor is unremarkable, the far more impressive Longaford Tor a short way south would be a more worthy top but is lower. The last view of the day from the tent was a quite pleasing and calming sunset - there was a big day ahead.

Sunset from pitch on Higher White Tor
Sunset from pitch on Higher White Tor (21 Apr 2010__20:25:23)

Day 2 - Beardown Tor to Hamel Down

The dawn was dull and grey with some early morning mist blowing over the hills as I descended westwards on the north side of the wall to the West Dart River which is very easily forded on large boulders. A path continues west to ford a side stream and turns south to a ladder stile. Just beyond I ascended sharp right to avoid boggy ground and climbed to the northernmost of the three BearDown Tors and onwards SW to the highest 513m summit tor. The grey murky atmosphere still held sway and I moved quickly on, descending WSW on a good path of cropped grass towards Holming Beam where there is a footbridge across the Cowsic river (not shown on the map).

Valley of the Cowsic River at Holming Beam
Valley of the Cowsic River at Holming Beam (22 Apr 2010__07:51:28)

I took the left fork of the military track up to a stile in a boundary fence and contemplated the best line to continue westwards: a rough mangled line straight on through the tussocks seemed as good as any and I started walking, whereupon a land rover came zooming down the track from the nearby plantation and peeping on the horn. Being a military area I thought I'd better pay heed and the guy told me they were hoisting the red flags today, pointing out the one already flying on Great Mis Tor. I'd checked the Public Access webpage for the Okehampton range but I hadn't noticed that this part of the route just edged into the Merrivale range which has different access dates. Fortunately it didn't make much difference in this case, he just directed me to the line of danger posts about 200m south and told me to keep to the left of them. After a brief tussocky start a fairly good walkable line develops alongside the posts to the opposite fence which is barbed wire: some careful gymnastics and I was through.

The sun had triumphed as I walked the easy cropped grass and rock to Great Mis Tor, again passing a single standing stone on the approach just like Great Links Tor, and once atop the summit rocks the views were excellent.

Approach to Great Mis Tor
Approach to Great Mis Tor (22 Apr 2010__08:52:38)
View from Great Mis Tor
View from Great Mis Tor (22 Apr 2010__08:55:46)
View from Great Mis Tor
View from Great Mis Tor (22 Apr 2010__09:01:33)
View from Great Mis Tor
View from Great Mis Tor (22 Apr 2010__09:01:58)

There is no doubt about the next top to the SE: North Hessary Tor is home to a huge television station mast that I had seen from the tent last night with its glowing column of red lights. Returning to the fence corner, a footpath leads SE and across the road at Rundleston directly up to the summit tor, a small outcrop of rock near the station buildings and completely spanned by the structure of the mast supports.

The path continues down into Princetown, where I took the minor road eastwards to Bullpark and the start of a good track that runs straight as a die for nearly two miles: this is the old Tavistock ↔ Ashburton packhorse trail and enables rapid progress. The track becomes a path and is enclosed between gorse bushes as it approaches the footbridge across the River Swincombe. Across the bridge an obvious track follows the river but the bridleway path is indicated by a well hidden signpost in the gorse and ascends the hillside.

The map shows no paths at all ascending Ryder's Hill, so I quickly left the bridleway and climbed southwards towards some enclosures. Fortunately I found a stile over the barbed wire, possibly provided for people to access the historical remains hereabouts, and continued upwards with no further obstacles on the left of the uppermost enclosure wall to the open hill. The vast sprawl of this hill looks even bigger on the ground than I imagined from the map, and after a long but easy climb I recognised the first distinct features: the rough ravine of Skir Gut and the small rise of Ter Hill. After these the land levels out and I swung eastwards well before the boggy expanse of Avon Head Mires to pick up a path leading to the final northern slopes. The summit has a trig point, standing stone and boundary stone, along with good views.

For the descent I headed NE to a clear scar containing a forlorn boundary stone and followed it down to a second stone at Mardle Head. Here I contoured NE over easy pathless ground to pick up a path heading northwards from the old tin mine workings to the car park at Combestone Tor.

Summit of Ryder’s Hill
Summit of Ryder’s Hill (22 Apr 2010__13:15:22)
Combestone Tor
Combestone Tor (22 Apr 2010__15:06:11)

A bridleway runs north from the car park to the stepping stones across the West Dart River at Dartmeet. From there I knuckled down for the road verge hike over to Ponsworthy where I picked up the Two Moors Way (TMW) through the woodland alongside the West Webburn River: this riverside path had the most disgusting bog of all, not the relatively clean kind of peat job of high moorland but standing water on top of deep clinging sludge. With some ingenuity using a few broken branches I made a lattice to support my weight and muddled across.

The TMW heads NE on a minor road and onto a wide and well used track over the open moor of Hamel Down, the easterly outpost of the tour and a hill of stunted heather and wiry moorland grasses that evoked the Black Mountains. A couple of runners passed me on their way down but I saw nobody else at this late stage in the day. The true summit looked a long way away in the low evening sunshine as I plodded towards Hameldown Beacon, just a small mound with a cairn. Finally I reached the 532m top, endowed with the legend 'Broad Barrow' on the map and not the best vantage point of the hill: the lower trig point is further north. I made an excellent comfortable pitch but alas no good views this time from the flat saddle, however after a long and hard day I was too weary to be fussy!.

Day 3 - White Ridge to Cosdon Hill

Dawn brought a cloudless sky, a frost on the tent and great clarity: just right to capture the early light on the cairn and trig point at the northern end.

Early light on Hamel Down trig point
Early light on Hamel Down trig point (23 Apr 2010__06:29:13)

A good trail descends to Grimspound, a well visited preserved late Bronze Age settlement bounded by a stone wall, and down to the minor road. I walked up the road almost to the highest point and cut across on a good track to rejoin the TMW for a fine early morning promenade over the moor to Bush Down car park and up onto the flank of Water Hill. Where the TMW path turns right I continued upwards on easy grassy tracks towards Assycombe Hill where I saw a group of tents pitched near the forest perimeter.

The descent is easy on short grass alongside the forest wall but there is a brief badass bog at the bottom before a ladder stile heralds easy dry ground again for the ascent to the next top White Ridge at 506m. The summit is a short walk westwards from the wall in tussocky grass, an undistinguished spot but the twin stone circles of Grey Wethers can be clearly seen to the NW on the far hillside, the next checkpoint on the tour. There is no clear route to them from this side, I returned to the forest wall and played it by ear, slanting down on the best lines I could spot in the tussocky grass and trying unsuccessfully to circumnavigate another swampy morass at the bottom that I crossed by weaving around and tussock-hopping.

A short climb beyond the circles is Sittaford Tor, giving a good prospect of the route ahead back into the heartland.

Grey Wethers stone circles
Grey Wethers stone circles (23 Apr 2010__08:53:21)
View from Sittaford Tor
View from Sittaford Tor (23 Apr 2010__09:11:28)

The walking is easy once more alongside the wall down to Little Varracombe, crossing the streams that form the infant North Teign River and diverging from the wall to reach Quintin's Man cairn. A wide track of sorts continues NNW, but I felt it was heading too far right and left it for a pathless climb onto the expanse of Whitehorse Hill, another spot that feels splendidly remote. Turning NE a track later appeared, I don't know if it was the same one but it led directly to the small cairn perched on a peat hag that marks this summit, if such it can be called. The very shallow col between here and Hangingstone Hill is a bog of peat hags but I easily weaved around on the right side with no difficulty to the small but all-too-prominent military outpost building at the 603m summit.

Whitehorse Hill looking towards Hangingstone Hill
Whitehorse Hill looking towards Hangingstone Hill (23 Apr 2010__10:27:44)
Bog between Whitehorse Hill and Hangingstone Hill
Bog between Whitehorse Hill and Hangingstone Hill (23 Apr 2010__10:37:43)

A clear trail descends northwards to join a very hard knobbly military track curving around towards the penultimate objective Steeperton Tor, reason enough for the evolution of a more agreeable beaten path alongside it for some of the way, but the walk is an excellent one with spacious views to the hills ahead. There is a good path from the col directly to the summit tor.

Steeperton Tor
Steeperton Tor (23 Apr 2010__11:34:41)
View from Steeperton Tor
View from Steeperton Tor (23 Apr 2010__11:36:51)

Surveying the scene ahead, Cosdon Hill looked a long way away - or perhaps it was the warm sunshine after such gruelling days that made it seem that way. I descended SSE to ford Steeperton Brook and join a good path around the flanks of Wild Tor and Hound Tor to another stone circle at the foot of Little Hound Tor. The path then climbs at an agreeable angle to the last summit of the tour with trig point and cairn.

Steeperton Brook and Cosdon Hill
Steeperton Brook and Cosdon Hill (23 Apr 2010__11:49:11)
Cosdon Hill
Cosdon Hill (23 Apr 2010__13:01:48)

The maps show no paths on the ground descending north from Cosdon Hill but there is a clear one that appears to follow the line of the bridleway. I followed this for a time but I was inevitably forced to swing left lower down, even finding a path for a while but it later lost itself in a frustrating maze of false trails and gorse bushes. Eventually I found myself on a well worn path descending steeply alongside the tumbling stream of Ivy Tor Water to the River Taw where the map shows a footbridge: I couldn't find it in the tangle of trees and bushes in the marked location. There was however a good woodland path on this south side of the river that led easily to Belstone whose footbridge was present and correct. Crossing the bridge and climbing the steep path to the village, I looked back and there was a clear track coming down directly from Cosdon Hill to this very spot.

Arriving back at the car I contemplated this backpack: a grand tour indeed and a very tiring one of nearly 56 miles, much of it in splendidly wild and remote country. The horses at the car park gazed at me for a few moments and continued lazily munching and strolling around, they were not impressed.