Microadventure #3: 2 Nights on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of the few places in England where wild camping is allowed. I’d read a lot about Dartmoor, but I still felt like the more I read the less I knew about how it feels. Everything seemed to suggest that you can’t know anything about Dartmoor until you’ve been there and experienced it. I loved the idea of a weekend spent on the moor: It would give me an opportunity to finally get my basha out and use it, and it would be an opportunity to try camping in more extreme conditions (Dartmoor is known for its wild weather).

The more I read the more I knew I was going to be doing it. In the true spirit of microadventuring I didn’t want to spend an age planning the trip, only enough planning to be safe and to ensure an enjoyable adventure. I scanned the Ordnance Survey maps until I spotted a reservoir: Meldon Reservoir.

Meldon Reservoir

Just imagine waking up on a hill with a light wind blowing, watching a gorgeous fat red sunrise reflected off an enormous body of water, firing up the stove for a cup of coffee and having a flapjack to fire up the metabolism ready for a day of walking. Idyllic? Yep. I checked and, sure enough, camping was permitted on the hill overlooking the reservoir. There was parking at the reservoir too which would serve as a base from which to walk on the first night (since I’d be arriving late) before heading further into the moors on the second day, and with plenty of other points of interest nearby the second day would be great. It was away from the firing ranges and easy to drive to. Perfect!

I packed and, after work on the Friday, started the three hour drive to Dartmoor. It was about 10pm when I arrived at the car park I had so carefully planned to park in, but on the gate was a sign that stated very plainly “no overnight parking”. There were a few expletives shouted into the wind as I got out of the car and walked around, trying to work out what to do next. The nearest car parks all seemed to be on the South moor, but I’d not done any planning for the South moor and I’d given my wife an outline of my expected movements for the weekend for obvious safety reasons. To change moors at this stage seemed like a bad idea. Frustrated, I came close to just driving home.

Taking inspiration from my first microadventure where I’d simply parked in a village, I decided to try driving around the edge of the moor in the hope that I’d find a village I could park in and use as a base to get onto the moors. As I did I saw a signpost for Belstone and so stopped to check it out on the map: A car park! Somehow I’d not noticed it before. I immediately headed towards Belstone and dropped the car off. I was now quite some way East of my originally planned starting point, and it was far too late, dark and windy to attempt a hike back to the reservoir, so I simply stumbled my way through the driving wind and rain in the dark to the nearest hill: Belstone Tor. It wasn’t easy going in the dark, I cursed myself for ever thinking that sleeping on Dartmoor in the late autumn would be a good idea.

About half way up the tor I found a relatively flat grassy patch and set about pitching the basha for the first time ever. In near-gale-force winds. And pitch black darkness. Everything I’d read about bashas said “you need to know how to put one up before you have to do it in the lashing wind and rain in the middle of the night on the side of an unforgiving hill”. I cursed myself for having paid no attention to this obvious good advice as I fumbled with the wretched tarp in the wind and rain. I got something vaguely tent-shaped in place and then curled up under it in my bivvy bag, exhausted.

What I’d constructed turned out to be barely fit for purpose: The tarp was basically a gigantic rain collector with the opening of the bivvy bag (and therefore my head) at the bottom of the funnel. The tarp would collect all the rain it could over the space of an hour or so, and then the wind would lift the tarp and dump the rain directly onto my face. It wasn’t the best night of sleep ever, but it could have been worse. After all I could have just got up and re-pitched the basha, but instead I just put up with it.

Late Autumn bivying on Dartmoor with a basha tarp
“The rugged landscape took me entirely by surprise and I immediately forgot the lack of sleep.”

Morning happened very suddenly. I was woken by the sound of a large group of rowdy teenagers climbing the tor, presumably training for the Ten Tors challenge. I slid out from under my tarp and sat up to squint at the incredible view. And I don’t just mean “ahh isn’t that nice”. I’d stared out into the dark the night before wondering what would lay ahead of me when the sun rose, but I’d not expected anything like this. The rugged landscape took me entirely by surprise and I immediately forgot the lack of sleep.

Blown away by this transformed view, I quickly scoffed a weird breakfast of pasta-that-had-been-intended-for-dinner-the-night-before and a cup of coffee. All I wanted was to square away my kit so that I could climb the tor and get more of the view. Where I’d slept I was looking North from the Northern edge of the moors – i.e. straight back into civilisation. If this seemingly perfect view was the view AWAY from the moors, then what would lie to the South? I needed to find out. I quickly dried my gear and stuffed everything back into the back pack, looked at the map, and then headed up the hill. A quick chat with some fellow hikers who were clearly much more familiar with the area than I was gave me some waypoints to head for.

The view from the top of Belstone Tor, Dartmoor
“From the top it seemed like the land time forgot.”
"Being only on the edge of the moors there were still plenty of people around."
“Being only on the edge of the moors there were still plenty of people around.”

The top of the tor was worth the short climb. Being only on the edge of the moors there were still plenty of people around, yet from the top it still seemed like the land time forgot. I adjusted my pack, picked out the ridges I wanted to follow and set off through the rocks, swamp, mud, grass and more rocks.

To say Dartmoor is rugged is an understatement. It is also surprisingly variable: One moment you are scrambling over boulders to get to the top of a tor, the next you are up to your ankles in swamp, then navigating your way around a “stream” that is much too large to jump, then scrambling up the side of a grassy hill before climbing more boulders.

"To say Dartmoor is rugged is an understatement."
“To say Dartmoor is rugged is an understatement.”

After walking South for about 4 hours from peak-of-tor to peak-of-tor it suddenly occurred to me that–at some point–I’d need to start heading North in order to make my intended destination, Yes Tor, before nightfall. So keen to take in the scenery I had been that I’d simply put the map away and hiked without the worry of cartography. Now that I had stopped and located myself on the map I realised I’d gone quite some way further South than I’d originally intended, and getting all the way back to Yes Tor before dark, and with enough time spare to set up camp in the light, was going to involve some fairly intense hiking. I inhaled my lunch, put a grim, determined look on my face and headed in the direction of the Yes Tor path.

A small cairn on the peak of a Tor.
A small cairn on the peak of a Tor.

So with a renewed vigour I trekked the route all the way to Yes Tor, stopping frequently to allow my jaw to drop open at the amazing scenery, beautiful rivers and streams, and strangely juxtaposed military shooting ranges.

A strangely juxtaposed military shooting range.
A strangely juxtaposed military shooting range.

By the time I reached the end of the path that led to the base of Yes Tor a thick fog had rolled in quite suddenly from absolutely nowhere. I found myself barely able to see more than a couple of metres in front of me. Picking my way carefully over rocks and boulders to the top of the Tor I scouted my way around the last layers of grass before the summit to find a suitable spot to pitch the basha. In the thick fog I could have been the only living person on the face of the planet. I found a nice long patch of grass shielded on three sides by long boulders which looked purpose-built for a basha site and popped the tarp over the top to create an awesome shelter.

"The end of the path that led to the base of Yes Tor. A thick fog had rolled in quite suddenly from absolutely nowhere."
“The end of the path that led to the base of Yes Tor. A thick fog had rolled in quite suddenly from absolutely nowhere.”

With the night descending I cooked a light meal which I ate as the last of the light melted away and the scenery was sucked into the black of night around me, and then I wondered what to do with myself. Surely 6pm is too early for bed? Realising my hands were numb from the cold I decided bed was actually quite an appealing option. Besides, I’d spent the day hiking over tough terrain after little sleep, so an early night could only do me good. I climbed into the thermal liner, then the sleeping bag, then the bivvy, and then did the caterpillar to get under the basha. Who knew that disco moves have a place in camping? My little nook between the rocks was more cosy and comfortable than our expensive Outwell 4-man tent. The weather got very rough in the night, but I slept better that night than most nights in my own bed at home.

I’ve no idea how cold it was when I awoke. I had felt a bit chilly in the bivvy bag at times – not cold per sé, but not as warm as I could have been. Looking out of the open end of the basha I could see the sun had risen and the fog was finally gone, and I realised I was quite dehydrated. A swig of water from the hydration pack caused me to break the silence with a tirade of profanity: The water was so cold that it hurt to drink it. From the teeth all the way to the stomach hurt, like trying to eat snow.

I climbed out of the basha and surveyed the land. It felt like the world was revolving around me from my vantage point on the tor… My heart beat faster looking at the untouched landscape steeped in history, but then sank as I realised that my adventure was coming to an end already: It seemed at once like both an eternity and no time had passed all at the same time. I could see, in the distance, the peak of Belstone Tor where I’d slept the night before. Beyond that I could just make out the edge of Belstone village where I’d parked the car. And in-between there was a lot of ground to cover. I’d have to walk each and every step of it back to the car in the next few hours in order to arrive back home at a sensible time.