A Hill from Home
The children are at mum’s and we have run to the hills – the Tors of Dartmoor, to be exact. But it seems we have homed in on a familiar shape. From our starting point in pretty South Zeal, the ‘Dome of Dartmoor’ looms against a blessedly fair sky that I attempt to ‘read’ as if I were at home. Cosdon Hill is one of Dartmoor’s highest (550m) yet it has the deceptive whaleback curve of our downlands. Its shape makes it hill rather than tor, but the don (or dun) in its name, also makes it a down.
The holloways onto the open moor are mossy and cool in the dappled shade of flowering mountain ash and copper beech; pink campion and valerian grow among the ‘bellybuttons’ of navelwort on the walls, a haven for wrens, stoats and weasels. Tiny walled fields enclose furled bracken, buttercups and still, bluebells.
A cuckoo calls and my eyes prick unexpectedly; or perhaps not: all this sudden space and freedom and a bird, loaded with significance that I’ve barely heard this year. I try and call it in (for what I increasingly feel might be a last look) making a kind of explosive pock-coo. It doesn’t work like it does at home, on the River Kennet. Perhaps my accent is wrong.
The vast moor looks nothing like the downs. It is patched black and tan under scudding cloud, with the trickiness of little pools, rills and stone ‘clitter’ underfoot. Wild ponies look up through windswept forelocks, recalling childhood Dartmoors whose names and velvet noses I remember yet: Prince, Liquorish, Shady.
Before our proper climb are the atmospheric triple Stone Rows, then cairns, cists, burial chambers and hut circles. This is a potent and special place. The path peters and whilst we have map and compass, visibility is good and we simply walk to the skyline without fear of wandering into treacherous Raybarrow Mire.
The views are far reaching and spectacular – from Exmoor to North Devon and closer, to High Willhays (621m), Hound Tor and Hangingstone. With Belstone on our left, crossing Foxes Holt, I’m reminded of a favourite childhood read, David Rook’s sad and beautiful Ballad of the Belstone Fox and then again, when we reach Skaigh Woods we descend to the peat filtered, golden-ale coloured River Taw, the haunt of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. Williamson went to extremes in his fieldwork: his Dartmoor does not consider the panoramic sweep of the human eye. It is fierce, intimate, sensual and immersive; at times, a relentless, animal assault on the senses. Rewritten 17 times, each word was ‘chipped from the breastbone’.
At Sticklepath, we watch the noisy fledging of a treecreeper; its white mouse-belly pressed tight to the tree, its fine bill already precision-curved like a leatherwork needle to prise insects from fissures. Its parent shimmies up to feed this bump in the bark. A bird ingrained – until she approaches – and a spot on the tree quivers into feathers.
Back in Zeal, there is high tea and a warm welcome at the dark, manorial, stone-flagged and mullioned Oxenham Arms, built of granite and oak in the 12th Century around a massive Neolithic Menhir. It is late. There are rooms. I should love to stay – and walk again tomorrow.