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South East Dartmoor 3 days / 36 miles (58km)

OS Route Map → Map Route file →

Date: 23 Mar 2011
Start / Finish: Princetown. High Moor Visitor Centre car park (donation box).
Maps: Explorer OL28 Dartmoor or Harvey Superscale Dartmoor.

Access

The northern loop of the route passes through the Merrivale MOD military training area: public access is allowed only on specified dates.
The MOD publish access dates for their Dartmoor ranges: there are guaranteed access days published for a year in advance, plus other days which are allocated at shorter notice. The current access times and information on the Visitor Centre can be found here:

MOD Dartmoor site: Dartmoor Training Area
Princetown Visitor Centre Information: High Moorland Visitor Centre

Day 1Great Mis Tor & Higher White Tor8.5miles / 1612 feet (13.7km / 491m)
Day 2Bellever Tor, Ryder's Hill & Two Moors Way18.0miles / 1878 feet (29.0km / 572m)
Day 3Abbot's Way & South Hessary Tor9.6miles / 784 feet (15.5km / 238m)
Pitch below the tor

A 3-day trek around the south-eastern part of Dartmoor, taking in several tors and fragments of the Two Moors Way (TMW) and Abbot's Way (AW). The outward arc is via Great Mis Tor across the Merrivale heartland to Higher White Tor and Bellever Tor, crossing the West Dart Valley to Ryder's Hill. The TMW heads west along the wild Avon Valley for an out-and-back along the south moor to Sharp Tor, and the AW makes a fine walk along the remote Erme valley to pick up an easy return by a traverse of South Hessary Tor.

A high pressure area established itself over southern Britain and signalled a fine weather slot for my second backpack on Dartmoor, but this time the views were very thick and hazy despite the fresh chilly wind on the high moor, the photos needing much processing to bring out the desaturated colour and detail captured in the raw images. This would be a trip to appreciate the local detail and wild atmosphere of the moor rather than the broad vistas.

I remarked before that Dartmoor's vast expanse of hills and sinuous valleys dotted with little rocky tors can test navigation skills, and once again the map and compass were working overtime on a few occasions to check the line, even in these clear sunny conditions. The fragments of the TMW and AW covered on this route largely follow clear mown tracks through the wild tussocky regions that give excellent easy walking, the problem is false tracks that look equally prominent. They have no signs or waymarks of any kind - you're on your own!.

Day 1 - Great Mis Tor & Higher White Tor

A bum-numbing 4-hour drive from Cheshire is hardly ideal preparation for a backpack, and the Visitor Centre car park was already filling up, quite surprising for a weekday in March, and a coachload of tourists arrived shortly after. I noticed the slight chill in the breeze as a contingent of r--bl-rs were booting up for a walk, and which way did they turn out to be heading?. Towards North Hessary Tor of course, my outward route onto the moor that starts at a footpath sign a short way west along the road opposite the fire station. I held back a good distance behind the multicoloured pole-wielding crocodile on the ascent, but as I arrived at the summit they had disappeared. The top has a trig point perched on the small tor but the whole summit area is dwarfed by the tall mast and its supports.

North Hessary Tor
North Hessary Tor (23 Mar 2011__10:57:35)

An easy walk NW on the public footpath down to Rundleston and up onto the moor leads to Great Mis Tor, a fine rocky bastion on the edge of the MOD Merrivale range but not yielding such extensive views as on my visit last year. The strengthening chilly wind made me stop to put on my shell jacket, a touch of overkill really, but by some lapse of logic I hadn't packed my light Pertex windshell this time as I normally would.

Great Mis Tor
Great Mis Tor (23 Mar 2011__11:39:26)
Hazy view from Great Mis Tor
Hazy view from Great Mis Tor (23 Mar 2011__11:54:50)

To the north beyond the flat plain of Mistor Marsh lies the vast open heartland of the moor. I descended the easy slopes to pick up a tractor track across the small rise of Greena Ball and down into the valley of the River Walkham, a lovely spot that seems to exude that quintessentially Dartmoor atmosphere.

I ascended the opposite slope northwards following a tiny tributary to cross the rise of Cocks Hill and took the best line to reach the crossing bridleway track. This track gives more fine easy walking eastwards over the southern shoulder of Conies Down, where I met the first of the many horses that graze the Dartmoor landscape, quite unperturbed by passing walkers. Descending eastwards towards the Cowsic River, the line becomes indistinct approaching Broad Hole but any line is easy enough, and another fine wild location is spread out below. The continuation of the bridleway track on the far side can be clearly seen curving around the lower hillside.

River Walkham below Cocks Hill
River Walkham below Cocks Hill (23 Mar 2011__12:21:37)
Conies Down Water & Cowsic River at Broad Hole
Conies Down Water & Cowsic River at Broad Hole (23 Mar 2011__13:54:54)
View back over Broad Hole to Conies Down
View back over Broad Hole to Conies Down (23 Mar 2011__14:04:35)

I left the mapped line of the bridleway to ascend alongside the wall eastwards to Lydford Tor. The tor is on the south side but there are numerous ladder stiles in the walls running eastwards all the way to Higher White Tor.

Continuing eastwards I descended to the spot I knew from the last trip, first crossing a small tributary and walking across the lower hillside to reach the West Dart River, easily forded on large boulders.

Lydford Tor and distant Beardown Tors
Lydford Tor and distant Beardown Tors (23 Mar 2011__14:23:45)
West Dart River
West Dart River (23 Mar 2011__14:54:07)

An easy climb gains Higher White Tor where a farm tractor was busy threshing the rough tussocky moorland grass below the summit rocks: I've seen farmers on quad-bikes tending sheep on high moorland but I've never seen this in any wild uncultivated areas before.

Longaford Tor is an easy stroll south, a bigger and bolder affair with much rock to explore and a satisfying point to end the first day.

View from Higher White Tor
View from Higher White Tor (23 Mar 2011__15:14:42)
Longaford Tor
Longaford Tor (23 Mar 2011__15:25:50)

Day 2 - Bellever Tor, Ryder's Hill & Two Moors Way

The early conditions were much the same as yesterday, haze thick enough to obscure some higher tops. Reaching the flat area just south of the tor, I turned east to locate the bridleway which descends through a wall gap. Lower down the mapped line sensibly keeps well to the right to avoid the boggy area around a stream head but there is only sporadic evidence on the ground. The tall chimney finally comes into view at Cherry Brook.

Chimney near Cherry Brook
Chimney near Cherry Brook (24 Mar 2011__07:06:36)

Crossing the bridge over Cherry Brook, a good track ascends to a wall gate: through the gate, the correct track swings left and contours NE some distance to avoid boggy ground before turning SE on a good path to the B3212 road. Directly opposite I continued on a good track through the forest to the open hill and joined a well worn highway to Bellever Tor, endowed with the OS viewpoint symbol but sadly lacking in such glory today.

Bellever Tor
Bellever Tor (24 Mar 2011__07:54:50)

A good path descends southwards towards the forest corner and a gate onto the extensive moor below Laughter Tor. My route was the bridleway crossing diagonally SE, a spongey track arriving at firmer ground at a standing stone near the cross wall: once through the wall, I happened to choose a quite good track that crossed the moor north of the mapped line and ended at the opposite forest corner, leaving an easy descent near the forest boundary to the B3357 road.

I descended into the Dart valley via the lane through Hexworthy and up steeply past the inn to a T-junction.

Standing stone below Laughter Tor
Standing stone below Laughter Tor (24 Mar 2011__08:16:23)
West Dart River at Hexworthy
West Dart River at Hexworthy (24 Mar 2011__08:59:01)

The Access Land is gained via a stile onto a good path ascending the north-eastern slope of Ryder's Hill, a Dewey top at 515m that I climbed via a different route on the last trip, and a hill that makes up for its modest height by its enormous sprawling extent. It would appear that the few walkers that come here do so from the SE, not really surprising since its northern, western and southern slopes are so extensive and remote.

The path becomes an old mine track that contours around the eastern flank, a fine easy walk passing one of the Dartmoor crosses and later turning left to arrive at the disused mine workings. There are no paths ascending Ryder's Hill from this side, so I crossed O Brook and ascended southwards, at first on easy grass but later reaching tussocky ground. I picked up an old tractor track through the tussocks that greatly facilitated the walking and eventually the trig point came into view.

From this grassy oasis, through three points of the compass, a vast ocean of gently undulating slopes of bleached tussocks. The cairned humps of Snowdon and Pupers Hill lie a short walk SE.

Cross by old mine track ascending Ryder’s Hill
Cross by old mine track ascending Ryder’s Hill (24 Mar 2011__09:55:08)
Ryder’s Hill summit
Ryder’s Hill summit (24 Mar 2011__10:55:49)
View back to Snowdon and Ryder's Hill from Pupers Hill
View back to Snowdon and Ryder's Hill from Pupers Hill (24 Mar 2011__11:30:11)

From Pupers Hill I walked SE to pick up the crossing line of the TMW, and here is a trap for the unwary: the first prominent track is not the TMW, it's an old mine track. Cross this track and the TMW is a less prominent path a little further on.

The next section is very good walking and, judging by a study of the map, probably one of the best sections of the TMW. The line crosses Hickaton Hill, passing some of the settlement remains, and descends into the remote, wild and peaceful Avon Valley. The route follows the river to a clapper bridge where it crosses the infant river and exits the valley via a short steep climb directly up the slope.

Descending to the River Avon valley
Descending to the River Avon valley (24 Mar 2011__11:58:18)
The River Avon
The River Avon (24 Mar 2011__12:04:58)
Clapper bridge across the River Avon
Clapper bridge across the River Avon (24 Mar 2011__12:20:15)
View back down the Avon valley
View back down the Avon valley (24 Mar 2011__12:23:44)

The TMW has moved its line hereabouts over the years, the options shown confusingly on the latest OS map, but they all come together as the route crosses the shoulder of the hillside and descends to the dismantled tramway. The conical 'peak' at the Red Lake China Clay Works is a striking sight, like a volcanic island rising from the huge flat sea of moorland grass around it.

The TMW swings around generally southwards on the old tramway: this is very easy walking for a while, but I find these long, uniform horizontal tracks strangely tiring and I soon develop what I call 'leg-lock', I have to stop periodically and do a few squats to bend my legs and exercise some different muscles and joints. I wasn't planning to go very far anyway, this was to be the variable part of the trip depending on the time and how I felt. Passing Sharp Tor, I turned to climb to its top and walked back northwards on the tramway track. The sun had shone constantly and the views were pleasing enough, but good clarity is needed to bring out the best in this section.

View across to the old Red Lake China Clay Works
View across to the old Red Lake China Clay Works (24 Mar 2011__12:40:04)
Sharp Tor
Sharp Tor (24 Mar 2011__14:31:46)

I had been conscious of the quite stiff easterly wind along the tramway and - as always - viewing the surrounding landscape with a wild camper's eye. Much of the track is flanked by tussocky and/or sloping ground, not that I would like to pitch close to the track anyway (I saw just one group of three backpackers on this section, nobody else). I reckoned my best bet for good pitching and shelter was somewhere near the pool at Leftlake Mires and I found some very good ground well out on the western side, sheltered from the main force of the wind.

Pool and dismantled tramway at Leftlake Mires
Pool and dismantled tramway at Leftlake Mires (24 Mar 2011__15:27:46)

Day 3 - Abbot's Way & South Hessary Tor

The morning began with hazy sunshine and a subdued wind, perfect for an early stroll back northwards on the track with the reeds and grasses set aglow by the low sun with Stall Moor as a backdrop.

Early morning view across to Stall Moor
Early morning view across to Stall Moor (25 Mar 2011__07:19:54)

Yesterday I had studied the map carefully and noted the line of the AW descending towards the Erme Valley from the tramway, and also a grassy track descending to join it a little further on. I returned to locate the track and joined the clear AW, but a short way further there were several divergent possible 'paths' on the rough hillside, some of which descended to a mess of bog and reeds around Red Lake Mire. Be not deceived, keep left on higher ground until the true Red Lake Ford comes into view where the river gathers a little strength in an area strewn with large rocks. The onward path can be clearly seen exiting the ravine on the far side.

The Erme Valley section is a fine one, similar to the Avon Valley section of the TMW yesterday, following the river upstream to the remains at Erme Pits.

Red Lake Ford
Red Lake Ford (25 Mar 2011__08:20:51)
The Abbot’s Way descends into the Erme Valley
The Abbot’s Way descends into the Erme Valley (25 Mar 2011__08:33:11)
Blacklane Brook joining the River Erme
Blacklane Brook joining the River Erme (25 Mar 2011__08:46:13)

The path seemed to peter out in the topological chaos at Erme Head and I headed NW across a rather wet area to pick it up again as a broad mown track contouring the hillside around to Plym Ford. After the ford the mapped line goes NE but I was faced with two distinct tracks, one almost north and one almost east initially. I picked the latter and ended up somewhere on the western flank of Crane Hill, so I turned and descended the rough slopes NW directly to the stream heads at Nun's Cross Ford. Beyond the buildings I could see Nun's Cross and an indistinct line heading for it.

The last leg is a very long gradual ascent in a dead straight line to South Hessary Tor, evidently a popular path and very well worn. It continues down to the centre of Princetown.

Siward’s Cross (Nun’s Cross)
Siward’s Cross (Nun’s Cross) (25 Mar 2011__10:56:14)
South Hessary Tor
South Hessary Tor (25 Mar 2011__11:31:47)