Yes, look lively everyone, the 2017 Dartmoor walking season is officially open. Boots dubbed and at the ready because we're off.
Can someone volunteer to do the flasks of hot chocolate and we'll need someone to do the sarnies.
That's not to say my Walking Friend and I haven't been meeting weekly through the winter and meaning to get out on the Moors, but the biggest obstacle, apart from the weather and the mist, has been her kitchen table and its close proximity to a Rayburn. We have managed a few excursions just not as many as we meant to.
But then March dawned and we were determined to be determined.
My WF lives in a cottage on Dartmoor; we can actually walk from her door right onto the hallowed peat and tor, but we decided it was time to venture further afield than a four mile radius of her home. We'd consult maps and walking guides, drive out, tog up and get on out there with the added bonus of soup in the Fox Tor Cafe afterwards. If the mist is down we don't stray from our familiar paths. The railway track around King Tor or the track to South Hessary Tor and Peat Cot beyond, because neither of us wants to get lost, damaged or benighted (thank you Dan Richards and his book Climbing Days for that word and the associated terror it invokes in my imagination). We like to think we carry enough clobber that we'd survive (albeit uncomfortably) if we were...bivvy bag, waterproofs, head torch, space blanket, heat pads, first aid kit, warm layers, water etc etc. As well as actual map and compass I do have the entire OS map of Dartmoor on my phone which, signal and battery permitting, will give us a GPS location but it would be folly to depend on it. Rescue in an emergency is helped enormously by an exact grid reference so being paper map-aware is essential.
'Let's go to The Grey Wethers,' I suggested, emboldened by the most amazing bowl of parsnip and parmesan , and the fact that we are definitely Women of a Certain Age Who are Getting Fitter. So we sat in the Fox Tor with our map, sorted out a route, decided it was do-able and the next week we convened in readiness.
The Grey Wethers are two stone circles up on High Dartmoor (high being the operative word) and so off we set from Postbridge trekking up the valley of the East Dart river...
Me channelling my inner Alice Oswald as her poem Dart flitted in and out of my imagination, because this is not that far from the head of the river, where the Dart 'lying low in darkness calls out...' and is 'trying to summon itself by speaking' up at its source at Cranmere Pool. On the outward we were actually walking Alice Oswald in reverse...Postbridge, Hartyland, Sittaford, Sandyhole, under Cut Hill, through Broadmarsh.
The day had dawned surprisingly sunny and clear so the omens were good and we were soon shedding layers as we scratched our way through gorse (not shown on the map) and waded through boggy bits (sort of shown on the map) both of us blessing the inventor of walking poles.
Poles serve every known purpose including testing boggy bits for a firmer footing before making the leap of faith. The East Dart flowed alongside us back down to Postbridge and we even wondered vaguely about a bit of wild swimming later in the season... just wondered that's all, don't panic no definite plans, we don't want to scare the horses.
The moor soon opened up into Alice Oswald's 'unfolding emptiness', the vastness that I see in the distance from the car and want to be walking, stretching out ahead as the skylarks danced around and above us...
Alice Oswald had seen the skylarks too ..
High on our list of map references that would confirm our route was the Beehive Hut...
The Grey Wethers is a canny feature, 'wethers' another name for sheep and the stones often mistaken for a flock from afar; we kept seeing mirages and thinking we'd spotted them on the horizon, only to get there and find it was no such thing. We even asked a group of walkers coming towards us to 'Please tell us that The Grey Wethers are over that hill you've just crossed...' They looked worryingly blank, shrugged and said they had no idea, which didn't fill us with much hope that we were ever going to find them.
So tell me, how on earth could they have just walked through this, with maps in hand, and NOT realised that here was one of Dartmoor's most astonishing and iconic sites...
We could have kissed those Grey Wethers we were that pleased to see them, because by this time we had been walking for three hours. There are in fact two stone circles, almost impossible to squeeze into a single picture, and who can ever know why they are there, or what purpose they served. A sort of mini Ring of Brodgar here in the South West.
Sacred site or not we picked a stone each and, suitably settled, we ate our lunch, marvelled at the view, marvelled at the weather, glorified the azure blue sky, thanked the Powers That Be that there was not a breath of wind (because I'll bet it rages up there) and praised, with some incredulity, the fact that we'd arrived, before realising that it was a heck of a long way back to the car.
Anyway, going back is always quicker isn't it...mostly...but for a slight deviation (talking too much and following a footpath rather than checking the map) that saw us on the wrong side of the East Dart (neither of us noticing that it seemed to be flowing the wrong way) to a place called Waterfalls. Waterfalls does what it says on the tin and we had to walk back down quite a way, over tussock, bog and boulder before finding a safe place to cross, but duly done we strode up over Broad Down, back towards Postbridge and knew we were nearly there when relaxed strollers in jeans and Converse trainers came towards us.
It's always good to look back and realise that we'd walked all the way up and over there and beyond yonder and would you just look at that sky now...
Having set off at 10 am it was 3.30pm when we got back to the car. The Fox Tor cafe beckoned and we fell on the carrot and ginger soup with indecent haste whilst planning our next week's trek.
Meanwhile you will be pleased to know that on the way home I stopped in town and stocked up on this...
Aren't I good to you. If you could form an orderly queue, the hot water has been on since lunchtime and then be prepared to sleep for at least nine hours (it may have been more) and your boots will need a jolly good polish tomorrow.