Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 3

…continued from Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 2

I awoke on day three to find that the third night had not been good to me. One of the shock-cord tie-outs on the tarp had rubbed against the rocks in the night and eventually snapped allowing rain to periodically splash me in the face through the opening of the bivvy bag. I’d taken action by rolling over to point the breathe-hole toward the sleeping mat to prevent getting any more wet. But with all my clothes already soaked from the day before, and with the howling wind, it was not a warm night. I didn’t sleep well. And when I awoke in the morning I realised I’d made a catastrophic mistake in my choice of location.

On Dartmoor, you see, the wind invariably seems to change direction in the night. That was part of my reasoning for building the shelter I had: A lean-to against the rocks with no openings. The naturally formed corner in the rocks already protected me from the wind on two sides, and the tarp protected me from wind on the other two sides when it inevitably changed. I’d put a lot of thought into the wind protection and it had worked pretty well in that regard I suppose. But what I didn’t consider was the rain. Up against a tall rock formation the rain was hitting the rocks, then rolling straight down to where I was camped. And of course a tarp can’t be made flush against the rocks, so the water carried on down and into my camping area.

Worse still, the area I was in was flat with a raised lip all the way round. This should probably have been a warning to me: This area became a pond of sorts in wet weather. A pond with me sleeping in the middle of it. My coat was waterlogged when I woke up, as if it had just come out of the washing machine. So too were my “waterproof” trousers. And my socks, and my shoes. Imagine getting up in the morning, going to your washing machine to find your only clothes weren’t drained after washing and so are waterlogged. I don’t mean damp and I don’t mean wet. I mean waterlogged, with water pouring out of them as you pick them up. And imagine having to put them on. Outside, in the cold howling wind that’s so strong it hurts when the rain hits you. That was me on the morning of Sunday 3rd May.

My rucksack was soaked too, but that was the least of my worries. Getting into a sleeping bag with soaked clothes on isn’t ideal. Putting that sleeping bag inside of a semi-breathable bivvy bag is even less ideal, as the bag can only breathe so much water each night, and that’s not much at the best of times. But since the tarp had failed to keep me dry with rain water bouncing off the rocks and soaking me, the bivvy had been unable to breathe at all overnight, and all of the water I’d taken into the sleeping bag with me on my clothes was now on both my clothes and all over my sleeping bag. It too was drenched.

So there I was on Dartmoor in gale force winds desperately trying to fold my tarp up to put it away, and facing a big decision. Taking the quickest route possible straight back to the car (quickest, but not the most direct route) I had an 18 mile hike ahead of me. Or the alternative was risking hypothermia doing another night of camping with a soaked bivvy bag, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tarp and clothes.

This seemed like a risky idea. Cutting my adventure a day short and hiking 18 miles seemed like the more sensible idea.

18 miles from High WIllhays (top left) to Top Tor (bottom right)
18 miles from High WIllhays (top left) to Top Tor (bottom right)

I looked at the distances I’d covered on the map on Friday and Saturday. Both days worked out at pretty much exactly 10 miles each, and each day had taken roughly 5 hours to cover. But then I’d not been in a rush either day and I knew I had more speed than that in me. But to cover nearly twice that distance in a day I knew I would tire, and I knew my pace would drop. And I was certain I wasn’t fit enough for an 18 mile hike really, and on top of all of that I’d already covered 20 miles over the past 2 days. The chances of me covering 18 miles before it went dark seemed slim. Very slim. But it was that, or risk freezing in the night.

I gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just waded in
I gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just waded in

So… I bit the bullet and set off at warp 9 hiking speed. I knew if I was going to make it before nightfall I was going to have to not mess about at any point, even when it came to crossing streams. At the first ford I made an executive decision: My feet were already soaked, and they weren’t going to get any wetter by walking straight through the stream, so I rolled my trousers up and marched straight through. I reached Hangingstone Hill in record time where I stopped for an energy bar snack, and with slightly better visibility than the previous day was then able to find the path I should have been following. I followed this all the way to Quintin’s Man where I stopped for another energy bar and some water. I gaped at the map and realised that, if I was able to keep this pace (which I knew full well I wouldn’t be able to) I’d reach the car by 6pm that evening: A good three hours before sunset.

I put on my grim “it’s-time-to-get-out-of-here” face and carried on back through the streams at Little Varacombe, enjoying the cold of the water on my sore feet and knees, up Sittaford Tor hill, down to The Grey Wethers again, back to the bridle path that Mr and Mrs OS had drawn so badly, and then realised quite suddenly that my feet were getting very sore from blisters. Marching through each stream with no attempt to keep my feet dry was, clearly, not proving to be the greatest idea ever. I stopped for some lunch thinking that might help my feet settle down a little. My knee was hurting pretty badly by now too, having covered 10 miles in less than three hours.

Back across Hanginstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill and Quintin's Man
Back across Hanginstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill and Quintin’s Man

After lunch I stood up to carry on, but neither my blister nor my knee felt much better. I took two steps and then a stabbing agony in my foot told me the blister had just burst. I stopped again to administer first aid, only to discover I’d never included any blister patches in my first aid kit. What the hell? How could I make such a massive oversight?! I started knocking back painkillers instead. I was over half way now, and I’d done it in just over a third of the time I had estimated! I couldn’t give up now, so I limped on.

The next mile felt like three: I simply couldn’t work out which leg to limp on. The ruptured blister on my right foot made me limp to my left leg, where my knee would send an electric shock of agony which would make me limp back to my right leg. I took more painkillers in the hope of dulling the accumulating aches and pains, but at twice the maximum stated safe dosage for both paracetamol and ibuprofen I was already seriously pushing the limits.

I found myself stopping more and more often for water, snacks and painkillers.

At Postbridge I picked up the road to Widecombe In The Moor, then at Lower Blackaton I made my way back onto a bridle path with a steep 100 metre climb up followed by a 170 metre descent into Widecombe In The Moor. Every single step was agony, my pace had been slowing ever since I’d stopped for lunch and I’d lost count now of the number of times I’d had to stop and thought I’d not be able to go on. But on I’d gone as there was nowhere to stop for the night now: I was in a rural part of the moor.

When I finally limped into Widecombe In The Moor I cursed the fresh-faced tourists who’d simply stepped off a tour bus to wander around the village, which was completely closed, being a Sunday and all. I wondered what the hell they were doing there. But then I saw the hill I needed to climb to reach the Top Tor car park where the car would, hopefully, still be waiting for me. My heart sank. It was another 160 metres up a 20% incline on a main road with no verges.

With no alternative available I set off up the final obstacle Dartmoor had put between me and my car. I can tell you now that hill went on forever. Every step was excruciatingly painful in both knees and both feet. I’d hit rock bottom and had enough. Dartmoor was clearly trying to kill me, but I wasn’t going to let it. Eventually, with sweat pouring off me, I saw the car park and my heart leapt. I’d finally made it! Except, where was the car?

Where was the effing car?! And come to think about it, wasn’t there a sign at the entrance to the car park when I arrived? And there was definitely a path leading off to Top Tor on the other side of the road. And, wait, the car park was definitely on the crest of the hill. I looked up the hill and realised this wasn’t the same car park. There was still plenty more hill to cover. The realisation was crushing, but I had no choice but to carry on. Up and up and up thinking about nothing but the agony in my legs and feet.

When I finally reached the car, which thankfully hadn’t been stolen, set on fire, or otherwise incapacitated, I nearly cried. It had been a very long, hard day. I praised myself for having had the foresight to leave some dry socks and shoes in the car, so I climbed into the back seat of the car and started peeling wet layers of clothes off me as the wind battered the car. And then I checked the time: It was exactly 6pm. I’ve still no idea how I’d made it back on time, but I had. Quite broken, but back safe.

Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 2

…continued from Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 1

Dense fog
Dense fog

The morning of day 2 on the moors saw a transformation in the weather. Friday had been clear and sunny with a bracing wind, but Saturday saw the moors covered in dense mist, rain and gale force winds. How all three of those weather patterns could somehow exist at the same time, to me, defies all logic. Then a problem became very apparent: My jacket was not waterproof. At all. Not even a little. The rain was landing on the jacket and being actively absorbed by the material. That’s not what wet weather gear is supposed to do. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s quite the opposite of what wet weather gear should do.

I’d obviously made a serious mistake while reproofing my gear the day before heading out. I must have used the Tech Wash bottle rather than the Wash-In Direct bottle and, in my haste, not realised.

I pondered this for about 3 seconds and then decided not to worry about it. It was just water! I’d survive. I’ve been surviving for over 30 years in the presence of water, why should it be any different this time?

The map showed a suspiciously straight bridle path heading almost exactly due North just a little way to the West from Stannon Tor where I’d camped, so I marched out into the fog with a visibility of about two to three metres following a bearing on the compass to direct me towards the path, passing through the remains of a settlement. As expected this bridle path didn’t seem to exist in anything like its rigidly-straight form shown on the OS map. Mr and Mrs OS had clearly cheated on this area of moor: It seemed they were aware of a path, but presumably not bothered to send anyone out to actually trace it onto a map. In reality there were 3 paths all heading off on slightly different bearings, none of which were quite the bearing shown on the map. I picked the one that seemed most appropriate and puffed my way up the hill.

The Grey Wethers: Easily mistaken for sheep
The Grey Wethers: Easily mistaken for sheep

Eventually I reached The Grey Wethers stone circle, a pair of restored stone circles within sight of Fernworthy Forest. Folklore tells us that the locals here once sold a drunk farmer a fine flock of sheep that, in the sober light of the morning, turned out to be the stones of the Grey Wethers. After snapping a few photos I carried on up the hill of Sittaford Tor, then down the other side to Little Varacombe where I stopped to collect water. Here I saw two other hikers, the first people I’d seen for over 12 hours.

I may have fallen in a bit while crossing this one...
I may have fallen in a bit while crossing this one…

They were even more surprised to see me than I was to see them: They’d already covered 10 miles that day and hadn’t seen a single soul along their route. Given the weather this wasn’t so surprising, I suppose: They could possibly have passed within a few metres of another person and not seen them in the fog. They warned me that the hill I was heading for, Quintin’s Man/Whitehorse Hill/Hangingstone Hill, was thick with fog, howling wind and horizontal rain with absolutely no visibility. They painted a grim picture.

You don't need to be drunk to appreciate the Grey Wethers
You don’t need to be drunk to appreciate the Grey Wethers

After watching them disappear into the mist, almost as if they’d never existed, I pressed on up the hill to Quintin’s Man and set out North West following the path to Whitehorse Hill. Or so I thought, at least. In fact the path vanished and I am now convinced I had mistaken a sheep path for the path I wanted. I was trying to head North towards Hangingstone Hill but the path was getting sparse. Along the way I stumbled across a hut circle that wasn’t even listed on the map and took the opportunity to make lunch. I didn’t see anyone while I was there. In fact I didn’t see anything, just fog. Fog and rain. And wind. How can all three things occur at once?!

The Grey Wethers up close
The Grey Wethers up close

After lunch I went to head off and realised I’d completely lost track of which direction I’d even arrived from. With no visual cues it’s easy to get disoriented. It’s a good thing I carry a compass as a matter of course or I’d have been royally screwed on this trip. My clothes were soaked by this point with both my “waterproof” trousers and “waterproof” coat soaking up every drop of rain that landed on them. Fortunately my warm gear is synthetic meaning it does a good job of retaining heat even when wet, so I soon warmed up despite the wet once I started walking.

Unlike Stonehenge you can interact with these stones
Unlike Stonehenge you can interact with these stones

As I continued North the path went from sparse to non-existent to difficult terrain to outright bog, and then almost-impassable. I found myself wading through water that came up to my shins, cursing Dartmoor with every step and wishing I could get off this wretched hill. People have died crossing the bogs on Dartmoor, and who could help me if things were to go wrong? There was no way a helicopter could land up here, no way anyone would spot me, no way anyone would hear me in the fog, no way my phone would work with so much water in the air, and with wet gear that absorbs water and high winds I’d not have long before hypothermia got me… I tried not to think about it.

The hardest part of the walk
The hardest part of the walk

The map showed I was too far West so I tried heading North East to get out of the bog. I eventually gave up on that idea, set a course due North and powered my way through; I made a decision I was getting out of there as fast as I could knowing there were good paths after Whitehorse Hill, and my goal of reaching the southernmost point of my previous Dartmoor adventure was now within spitting distance.

I found myself on Whitehorse Hill all of an unexpected sudden. A small military hut was just visible through the mist, so I headed toward it to try and get out of the wind for a little while, and found myself face to face with a group of guys with dogs who’d had the same idea. We chatted for a while about what lay before them before I carried on North on the now, thankfully, well-defined path. The path became a track, and suddenly I was at the fork where, 6 months earlier, I had opted to stop walking South and start heading back in a loop towards the northern edge of the moor. The map showed there weren’t many good spots for a good night’s sleep, other than to retrace my steps from MA#3 and head for Yes Tor or High Willhays

After MA#3 I’d been slightly disappointed that I hadn’t slept on High Willhays – the highest point in the moors and even southern England, instead opting for Yes Tor for various reasons of practicality. The height differential was a mere 18 metres, and I’d had a fantastic night on Yes Tor, but the lack of bragging rights had really got under my skin. Maybe this would be my opportunity to set that right? It was still a long way to High Willhays, on MA#3 it was taking me – in a roundabout way – back towards my starting point and thus shaving a few miles of walking off the next day’s hike. But this time it was merely leading me further and further away from the car. But at least it was on proper tracks rather than through bog.

Half way between High Willhays and Yes Tor
The wind kicked up into the fiercest gales I’ve ever experienced

The final scramble up the torturous hill from New Bridge to the point half way between Yes Tor and High Willhays all but destroyed my now very tired legs. My right knee was twinging with every step. I could feel small blisters on both feet. I was soaked to the skin and the wind was beginning to have a real cold bite to it. I’d brought with me a tripod for my camera which I’d used on this journey a grand total of, oh, never, and I cursed myself for being so stupid as to bring something so heavy. I’d covered ten miles and gained and lost a total of at least 640 metres of altitude and I’d carried those extra kilograms the whole time for no reason at all.

Now, as the path curled South onto the summit of High Willhays, the wind kicked up into the fiercest gales I’ve ever experienced. The only thing that comes close was when I took a catamaran ferry to Ireland: Standing on the deck the wind was so fierce that the water-spray hitting me in the face felt like sand in the wind. At the top of High Willhays it was windier and wetter even than on the catamaran and the rain felt like hail. I was contemplating going back to Yes Tor but my legs, feet and shoulders all hurt and I was exhausted, I wanted to sleep and the sun was not going to be up for much longer. I dropped my bag and started scouting for a place to pitch the basha where I would be out of the wind.

The perfect spot was eventually found in a naturally formed corner on the main rock of the tor with a perfectly flat area of ground beneath it. This was the only place out of the wind, and the only place with a suitably flat area of ground. After the previous night’s success with a lean-to setup I thought I’d repeat the experience. It took me a long time to get a structure in place, and I was never entirely happy with what I’d built, but as the sun began to dip and my thoughts turned to my empty stomach I eventually decided it’d have to do.

I quickly cooked, ate, and set up my bed for the night. This time with a bivvy bag, with the rain travelling horizontally it would have been madness not to. I fought my way into my sleeping bag with my soaking wet gear on and placed my coat, “waterproof” trousers, socks and shoes all next to me under the tarp to dry out overnight.

That night was not a good night… Continued in Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 3

Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 1

April, My Year of Microadventure - #YYOM

Regular readers of my blog (ha! I know you don’t exist but it makes me feel like writing this isn’t a complete waste of my time if I pretend I have an audience… 🙂 ) will know that I spent two nights on Dartmoor back in the autumn. And I loved it. And I wanted to do it again.

Well I did. I did it again, and it was awesome. Again.

My eighth microadventure was at the very end of April crossing over into May, but this was April’s microadventure as far as my year of microadventure goes. I was still catching up after my serious illness in February, and this microadventure just about brought me back up to speed.

A ten mile hike from Top Tor (bottom right) to Stannon Tor (top left)
A ten mile hike from Top Tor (bottom right) to Stannon Tor (top left)

For this trip to Dartmoor I wanted to see a different part of the moors, and having recently been bought a copy of the absolutely fantastic book Wilderness Weekends by Phoebe Smith and noted some of the sights she recommended on the moors, I chose to make her walk my starting point for my microadventure. But I wanted to go further, see more, and do more than her walk suggested.

For one thing I had more time: I was heading down last thing on a Thursday night after work having taken the Friday off to turn the bank holiday weekend into a four day affair. So rather than just Saturday and a bit of Sunday, I had all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and a bit of Monday to really see the moors!

My plan was to really soak up the moors and get close to them. Oh yes.

Before setting off I decided to re-proof my wet weather gear as I’d realised my ageing jacket and trousers were no longer waterproof. I re-proofed them in a hurry the day before I set off knowing there was a good chance I’d need wet weather gear on the moors.

In the spirit of microadventuring I didn’t want a route plan as such, just a vague “I’ll start here and let’s see what happens” attitude. I arrived at the tiny car park near the summit of Top Tor around 11pm, wandered to the summit of Top Tor, picked a suitably grassy spot and pitched my basha before climbing into my sleeping bag – sans bivvy for the first time ever – and going to sleep. Having found my 2-season bag to not be warm enough on my previous microadventure I’d opted to use my 3-season bag for Dartmoor. With a 4-night outing planned I didn’t want to discover I’d not brought enough insulation to cope with the wild Dartmoor weather, so I figured the extra weight was worthwhile. Turned out I needn’t have bothered, I woke up sweating in the night and had to peel layers off to keep from basting in my own juices.

Friday morning I set off bright and early after scaring the hell out of a woman walking her dog. I popped out from my camouflaged basha just as she walked past, she was pretty much next to me and hadn’t spotted it so the camouflage definitely does its job.

I packed up and headed for Hound Tor, the first stop on the Wilderness Weekends walk. Along the way I picked up smallish pieces of wood that I could carve into additional tent pegs having found myself lacking in the peg department.

Hound Tor was pretty and I took the time to stop and, despite the long walk ahead, I climbed to the top of the rocks to look at the spectacular views. At the very top I had to completely flatten myself against the smooth rock to keep from being blown off to what would have undoubtedly been my death. Alone on a 4 day hike in the middle of Dartmoor taking unnecessary risks is probably a bad idea I reminded myself, and so I promptly but carefully descended back to safety. I found a letterbox which I signed before continuing.

Jay's grave
Jay’s grave

Jay’s Grave was the next stop: According to local folklore this is the final resting place of a girl who committed suicide in the 18th century, possibly as a result of having become pregnant out of wedlock. The story goes that she hanged herself in a nearby barn, and her body had been buried in an unmarked grave. This was was later reopened and her remains reburied in a proper coffin with a proper headstone. For years the appearance of fresh flowers was a mystery until it was eventually discovered that the local author Beatrice Chase was responsible, at least for a while, of maintaining the flowers at the grave. As the story of the maid’s suicide became more and more embellished with time the grave became more and more of a tourist attraction and now all manner of offerings are made at the grave by passing folk. There are as many ghost tales from this part of the moor as there are visitors to this part of the moor…

A simple wild camping lightweight lunch
A simple wild camping lightweight lunch

I continued past the grave though Natsworthy and up to the top of Hameldown Tor where I stopped for a lunch in the gale force winds, sheltering my Trangia as best I could behind a rock. Getting the stove started in the first place was tricky as my lighter was repeatedly blown out by the wind. Note to self: Buy a storm-proof lighter. Oh and a wind-breaker for the stove.

Man vs. food vs. the Dartmoor weather
Man vs. food vs. the Dartmoor weather

After lunch I headed back down the hill into Grimspound, the remains of a bronze age settlement built around 1300 BC. It’s a fascinating area: A large outer circle that had been the wall of the village, and a series of hut circles. Most of what can be seen here now is a reconstruction, but it gives you an idea of what had been. Despite being a reconstruction you can still reach out and touch a piece of history in this place, and that feeling imbues the location with an air of mystery and history. The air is thick with it.

Carrying on through Grimspound I climbed up Hookney Tor, which was beautiful. My heart was torn at this point: Carry on walking… or camp here for the night? Eventually I decided to carry on, I didn’t feel like I’d done enough walking for one day to justify making camp, and it was still very early. I made a note to come back and camp here on the Saturday or Sunday, but it sadly never happened.

Following the Two Moors Way for a short while I found myself alongside Fernworthy Forest near Assycombe Hill. When I’d looked at the map back at Hookney Tor I’d thought I would camp here, but on arrival it was all bog. I now knew I needed a Tor: The rocks provide drainage and give protection from the wind, so I headed over towards Stannon Tor. By this point I had begun to realise that my route was taking me surprisingly close to the southernmost point of my previous Dartmoor adventure‘s hike, and I was keen to keep pushing on North West with the intention of linking up with my last Dartmoor adventure’s route. To that end Stannon Tor seemed a good location to camp the night.

Hand-carved wooden tent pegs
Hand-carved wooden tent pegs

On Stannon Tor, as it had been on Hameldown Tor and Hookney Tor, the wind was at gale force. I spent a little while trying to scout out a good location for my basha, eventually settling on a lean-to set-up alongside the large granite rocks at the very top of the tor. I carved the strips of wood I’d collected along the way into additional tent pegs to make up the numbers in order to build a better shelter and again I slept without a bivvy bag, despite it raining during the night. A little water got onto part of my sleeping bag where water had dripped off the rocks and onto my sleeping mat, but it didn’t get wet enough to pose a problem. Again I was too warm during the night, so the 3-season bag proved to be overkill.

Rectangular tarp rigged as a lean-to
Rectangular tarp rigged as a lean-to
Camouflaged tarp shelter - can you see it?
Camouflaged tarp shelter – can you see it?

The morning of day 2 on the moors saw a transformation in the weather… Continued in Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 2

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.