The Dartmoor Perambulation
Perambulation is a good word. It’s one of those, like effervescence or closer to home, Paekakariki. A word that not so much runs off the tongue, but skips lightly out of the mouth.
I just walked the Dartmoor Perambulation with my big brother Tim, he’s five years older than me and I’m 58. It was mid-winter and we took four days. We were following in the footsteps of our own father and at a later date our big sister Wendy. I had my own boots but pretty much every other bit of kit was borrowed. I even had Dad’s mitts on, he doesn’t need them, he’s been dead for nine years now. We saw very few other walkers, even on the two good days. We walked and discussed the meaning of life and happiness – as you do. And of course we talked about our Dad.
It’s the oldest recorded route on Dartmoor, set in motion by King Henry III in 1240 to map out the land of his brother, Richard of Cornwall. It’s the boundary of what effectively is the Dartmoor holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall, now presided over by Prince Charles, the current Duke. A dozen knights rode the route that year and then another bunch rode it in 1609. In the last few decades it’s become a popular walking route of approximately fifty miles. Tough enough, yet accessible.
It is not a path as such, more a series of highpoints that delineate the land within the circuit. It is rough going in places, following the compass across tussock and bog, up and over ridges and of course river crossings. Tim and I started in Princetown, Dad back in the day, at Dartmeet. We headed north the first day and camped on top of High Willhays, the highest point of Dartmoor. New Zealand friends will scoff at its altitude of 621 meters, but it is the highest point in the southern half of England. It was mighty cold up there and we enjoyed the sunset and the sunrise but spent most of the fifteen hours between snuggled up fully clothed and hatted inside our sleeping bags, inside our bivvy bags, inside the tent.
The next morning we scooted across to stay with friends, Marion and Patrick, on their farm just off the moor outside Chagford, then day three we made our way south across for a coffee at the Warren House Inn and south again through Dartmeet to Hexworthy for another comfortable night with John, a mate of Tim’s. Day 4 we spent the whole time in the mist barely seeing more than our hand in front of our face. We more or less knew where we were, on the southern part of the moor and made our way in a semi-circle back towards the famous Dartmoor Prison in Princetown.
The moor is a bleak old place, covered in stone circles and scattered with Bronze Age village sites, redundant rabbit warrens and the exposed archeology of ancient mining operations. It is occupied in some valleys by farms and villages. Scattered around the edges are ponies and cattle, and pretty much everywhere you can find sheep, all the animals “enjoying” common grazing. The sheep backs are colourfully marked to denote which farms they belong to.
The tops of most hills are called Tors that usually have granite outcrops. Tin has been mined up there for 2000 years. In the 12th Century tin miners made their own laws and set up parliaments in several “Stannary” towns around the moor. It probably wasn’t just the hunting estate those knights were mapping. More likely, as today, a protectionist approach to mineral rights. The last tin mine closed in 1930 and the area was designated a National Park in 1951.
Back to my Dad. He walked the route and later wrote it up for Strider, a walking publication and it was later reprinted in Dartmoor Magazine. He did it when he was 69 on his own in one massive twenty-one hour, mid-summer day. In some ways he was a complicated man – but he was also dogged, determined and a lot tougher than me. He was a tough old goat alright.
*** On the Wednesday night Tim and I stayed at the very comfortable, The Annexe, Hexworthy, a self-catered 2 bedroom AirBnB unit, on line from 1st March 2020.