'In a land as densely populated as Britain, openness can be hard to find. It is difficult to reach places where the horizon is experienced as a long unbroken line, or where the blue of the distance becomes invisible...'
So says Robert Macfarlane in his chapter entitled Moor, in The Wild Places..
'Openness is rare but its importance is proportionately great...whenever I return from the moors, I feel a lightness up behind my eyes, as though my vision has been opened out by twenty degress to either side.'
A copy of Crossings Guide to Dartmoor, all 500 pages of it, has sat on our shelves for as many years as we have lived nearby, which is heading for thirty-seven now.
We quickly realised when we decided to settle here after marrying in 1976, that Dartmoor was going to become a favourite place, and though it has waxed and waned in our attentions, and the time we may free up to go walking there, we do drive across high Dartmoor frequently and always love it for its remote beauty and vast open spaces.
For many years it was of course my working patch too, hours and hours spent driving to see new babies on remote farms along muddy tracks in that pouring rain so unique to Dartmoor (very wet, very windy, instant death to any hairstyle) opening and shutting umpteen gates only to find no one home.
...or having to be towed out of muddy ditches which didn't seem to be there when I parked up, but an hour long visit and a torrential storm later and my car would be surrounded.
... or fending off the very eager attentions of the farm dogs as I load up with my baby scales and bag and other clutter, thus arriving at farmhouse doors with a succession of muddy paw prints, or worse, up my trouser legs.
...or parking up with my lunch at one of my secret places and just staring at the view.
The year of the foot and mouth was terrible... just knowing we couldn't stop and have a leg-stretch even if we wanted to made us appreciate it even more.
So over the years we have accumulated a good collection of books about Dartmoor and no collection is complete without a copy of Crossing's. Published in 1909 it is still considered to be one of the few definitive topographical Dartmoor guides, and I imagine it to be the walkers' equivalent of the Bradshaw's train guide that Michael Portillo has been using in his recent TV series.
William Crossing was born in Plymouth in 1847 and from an early age fell in love with Dartmoor and clearly couldn't ever be far from it. Emigrating to Canada to work, the young Crossing was back home by the age of twenty, and for the rest of his life lived and breathed the moor, walking or riding across it and recording his journeys in close detail whenever he could and in all weathers. Poor as a church mouse and barely making a living from his writing for local newspapers disaster struck when in mid-book all his papers were inadvertently destroyed. I weep enough about a lost blog post when I somehow press the wrong button...poor Crossing must have been distraught. William Crossing died in 1928 and is buried in nearby Mary Tavy churchyard in a grave with a view of the moors which are less than a mile away.
But what a revelation the book has been. I have barely glanced at it since we've had it until now, but on a recent outing we parked just above Peter Tavy and walked up to White Tor which meant we passed Stephens' Grave and I needed to know more, so Crossing's was the obvious place to start.
'Stephens' Grave marks the site where a suicide was buried with the barbarous rites once customary. George Stephens was a youth of Peter Tavy, and was driven to take his life by the unfaithfulness of the girl to whom he was betrothed. It is said that at the moment he was laid here some linen that was hanging out to bleach at Higher Godsworthy was caught up in the air and never more seen.'
Other sources offer variations of that explanation with added extras such as George was really called John, that it happened in 1762, that he killed the girl with deadly nightshade first and I am guessing that discrepancies will always be the case with Crossing's. But how unusual it is to come across such obvious human traces, and a memorial out on the moors too. Jay's Grave is another with an equally poignant story attached. I like a bit of legend so I am going to stick with Crossing's for our re-discovery of Dartmoor, and with a bit of Eric Hemery's High Dartmoor mixed in, another book I will write about soon.
The views from Stephens' Grave (you'd pay good money and still never get permission to be buried there today) and White Tor looking across to Roos Tor and Staple Tor (I think) were breathtaking. That ridge is the one we have in our sights to walk very soon. Vast and limitless, ours and ours alone for an hour or two, not a soul in sight and easy to let your spirits soar as you walk...
...and of course, need you ask, Nell loved it too.
Final words to Robert Macfarlane quoting Wallace Stegner..
'...we need wild places because they remind us of the world beyond the human....they can give people a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.'
It is certainly good to be finding them again... any vision-extending 'openness' out your way??