Cherry had booked us in at the Rock Inn, Haytor Vale, to celebrate my birthday on 1st April. We have been enjoying lunches there for many years but had never stayed before. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus lockdown put pay to that.
But, today, 27th July we are heading off to Dartmoor on a rather dull and damp day. Haytor is a great granite outcrop and was the location of one of my first ever memories.
I was just 18 months old. My father had just returned from India where he was seconded to the Indian Army, then preparing to repel the potential Japanese invasion that actually never took place.
He had driven my mother and me to Haytor in his racing green Austin 7 of which he was inordinately fond. The purpose of this trip was to see the Boxing Day Meet of the foxhounds. I was utterly fascinated by the colours of the horses and their riders but fell in love that day with the deliciously coloured foxhounds in their tan black and white coats. I had received a cherry red coat on that Christmas and the hounds licked my face with lolling tongues leaking reservoirs of saliva all over the coat.
My mother was horrified; my father, remember he had only known me for a couple of weeks, was deeply amused. My lifetime love was already concreted – animals and nature. In fact, my first ever words were fish and horse and my parents not being Native Americans were somewhat disappointed.
Haytor and more generally Dartmoor have become one of my favourite areas, fortunately shared by Cherry. We love its moodiness. Great grey clouds in winter, some of the heaviest storms cracking with thunder and lightning around us, the rain running in great torrents and waterfalls down the hills and across the roads, sometimes so deep only four-wheel drive cars can negotiate in those times.
Sometimes the sun is so bright and the air so clear you can see right down to the coast. On other occasion’s you cannot see ten feet in front of you. It is a most fascinating area. Many of the characteristics can happen in one day, hence the local’s comment of, “all four seasons in one day.”
Having arrived at the Rock Inn, we were welcomed by Sue, one of the proprietors and shown to our comfortable characterful room; Troytown, all rooms being named after Grand National winners. We enjoyed some locally brewed beers and wine and a tasty meal and then headed for an early night.
The next day it was clear from the skies at 5am that the weather had turned. Sunlight was breaking through and skies were mainly blue, but with large white grey, fluffy clouds. I had been awoken by the rather harsh calls of ravens and the chattering of magpies, but both Cherry and I slept on ‘til we were delivered of a good hot pot of Earl Grey. We then enjoyed breakfast before we drove up to Haytor and the surrounding moors.
Some say “Haytor” the outcrop has the appearance of an old woman’s face when approached from the west. Cherry and I like to think it looks more like the head of a lion. Around the area many black faced Dartmoor sheep roamed with well-grown lambs, with a backcloth of bracken, gorse, and heather. The gorse for ever-bright yellow and the heather just coming through with bright young buds of purple and mauve. A beautifully crafted high granite stone wall writhed around the area and almost as symbolic of Dartmoor as the multi coloured hill ponies and the much more subtle but smarter bay coloured pure bred creatures.
Buzzards soared over our heads and a distant raven cawed heavily, out of sight while we watched five young brown speckled wheatears given away by the already white flashes above the tails. The odd meadow pipit fluttered across the roads. The pipits are residents but the wheatears will be emigrating before winter. This is the one area you can normally hear a male cuckoo calling earlier in the year, but at this time they are quieter and readying themselves for the long trip back to West Africa.
We drove on taking pictures of those symbols of Dartmoor; Dartmoor black faced sheep and a charming shot of a Dartmoor mare with a very young, quite late, foal. We visited Widecombe in the centre of southern Dartmoor, but like everywhere it is still only half open. Again, I took a photo of the church spire and the ancient National Trust building.
Later in the day, we enjoyed a short walk, then returned to a lovely meal of roast ‘pink’ duck, and again retired for an early night.
Now we are in our third day so we left the Rock Inn thanking them for an enjoyable stay. We made our way straight to one of the best places to view the ‘Haytor Granite Tramlines’.
This is as they cross the road just outside Haytor Vale towards Manaton. Just over 16 kilometres of double granite track were laid from the Haytor Down Granite Quarries to the Stover Canal. The purpose was to move granite to Teignmouth Docks for building purposes in the larger cities.
It was built in 1820, the granite guide lines being 4ft 3 in apart. The wheels of the horse drawn wagons were guided within this tramway. By 1850, the quarry employed 100 men but by 1858 closed because Cornish granite was produced more cheaply. The Stover Canal was built by James Templer between 1790 and 1792. The whole track is called Templer Way and runs through the famous Yarner Woods. The canal is now only evidenced by a dry channel through Stover School and Stover Country Park.
While we were admiring the granite tramway, a young male stonechat was perched on a nearby gorse bush looking extremely smart with his rich chestnut white and black outfit. We watched the ever-present buzzards and ravens but also had two separate sighting of kestrels, one hovering and one flying fast over the moorland.
We drove through Manaton and unwisely decided to go to Moreton Hampstead via North Bovey. Very narrow roads. We were lucky not to have had to reverse more than once.
When Cherry and I were first together, 36 years ago, we often visited a very attractive art and craft gallery in Moreton Hampstead. We bought a pair of fine coloured crayon drawings of an otter and a fox. We still have them, the otter hung in our living room, the fox in our bedroom. Sadly, Moreton Hampstead is reeling from years of deterioration with the final blow of Coronavirus. It really was rather depressing. We returned home over the high moors, popping in to see our friend Peter, the licensee of the highest public house in Devon famous also for its ever-burning fire.
We came home refreshed. From nil to 74 I have loved Dartmoor and fortunately so does Cherry.
- A collection of short stories -
Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.