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The Big Routes: Across Dartmoor in a Day

© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com

Infamous for its bogs and tricky navigation, the north-south crossing of Dartmoor is no pushover, says Dan Bailey; but this is also one of the great wild walks of Britain, a lonely journey with a unique atmosphere. Here's how to do it...


While most of southern England seems to groan under the weight of paving and people, Dartmoor remains a wonderful anomaly. An island of peace rising above the throng, this granite upland has a unique atmosphere, ancient and a little mysterious. The wooded fringes may be classically picturesque, but it's in the austere heartland, amid the tussock grass, scattered tors and lurking mires, that lovers of wild places will find their refuge.

Early morning on Oke Tor, heading south   © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Early morning on Oke Tor, heading south
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com

The moor lends itself to challenge walks - not least the annual Ten Tors suffer-fest on which generations of youth have cut their teeth. I'd long nurtured a notion to traverse the National Park at more or less its longest cross-section, a tough journey that promised to live up to the severity of the landscape.

The ground was beginning to take it out of me. I was down to the last few jelly babies, filtering dark peaty stream water to stave off dehydration

Of course like all the best ideas it wasn't in the least original, and armed with route tips from those that know it better, I lit on a north-south crossing from the village of Sticklepath - where we just happened to have booked a cottage - to the town of Ivybridge, a route of around 50km by my rough guesstimate (I wasn't far off: it's 47). Enjoying the legal wild camping for which Dartmoor is unique in England, two days on it would be time well spent; but for my first attempt I fancied the dawn-to-dusk discipline of a light and reasonably speedy one-day crossing.

Sunshine breaks through on Oke Tor  © Dan Bailey
Sunshine breaks through on Oke Tor
© Dan Bailey

A record breaking heatwave probably isn't the best time to push the envelope, but having postponed to a day when the low 30s temperatures were slated to subside into merely high 20s, it was going to have to be now or next year. Passing a lone early dog walker, I followed the lush wooded valley of Belstone Cleave west. A light early mist hung in the trees, and the gurgling River Taw was low in its stony bed. By lucky chance I'd come in a dry spell; after prolonged wet weather the Dartmoor crossing would be a morass probably best enjoyed by masochists.

High Willhays from Oke Tor  © Dan Bailey
High Willhays from Oke Tor
© Dan Bailey

Leaving habitation behind at the village of Belstone, I struck out south onto open ground. Between here and Ivybridge I'd only touch tarmac once, where roads meet in the heart of the moor, and it was solely in the orbit of this mid-point at Two Bridges that it turned out I'd see other people too, at least until spitting distance of the finish that evening. Even at the height of summer the middle of Dartmoor can be a lonely place - and that, for me, is a big attraction. Let no one tell you there are no hills worth the effort in the south; here's a place you can really lose yourself.

The morning haze was burning off as I made my way south into Taw Plain, a wide marshy valley hidden between the rounded rise of Cosdon Beacon and the nibbled skyline of Belstone Tor, two landmark hills defining Dartmoor's northern edge. Cattle and ponies grazed the flats, and all was still.

Up on the rocky ridge of Oke Tor by about 7:30, already the heat was building. From here the horizons broaden into the unfenced expanse of the north moor. Herds of free-roaming cows dotted distant slopes, Dartmoor's version of wildebeest on the savannah. A large gang of them crowded the ridge in front of me, effectively blocking my planned path. Cattle with calves can be nervy, and while you might take the boy out of London you'll never banish his towny wariness of big animals with a mind of their own. Wandering herds on the high summer pasture may be a fact of Dartmoor life, but for walkers they're also an obstacle to be negotiated. Giving them a cautiously extra-wide berth, I was instantly cursing another of Dartmoor's special treats, the knee-deep tussock grass that cloaks the landscape and makes progress off-path a laborious, ankle-twisting affair. Tortuous terrain even in the dry, the moor demands more effort per kilometre than many hills twice the elevation.

Off the paths it can be hard going    © Dan Bailey
Off the paths it can be hard going
© Dan Bailey

Signs of Dartmoor's long human occupation are everywhere, from disused mines to standing stones. Crossing this old, worn upland can feel like a walk back through time

Passing the sharp summit of Steeperton Tor and its artillery lookout post, I followed a military track towards the squat lump of Hangingstone Hill, one of Devon's few 600m summits. This part of the north moor is dominated by the army, who have subdivided it into three firing ranges. Live bombs and bullets could spoil a walker's day, and when warning flags are flying at the range boundaries the public are obliged to stay away. Firing schedules are posted in advance online, a factor that will dictate your plans even more than the weather. I'd naturally timed my visit for an off-day on the Okehampton Range. Journeys onto the moor can often be accompanied by the distant rattle and crump of troops in training, but today only birds and the swish of dry grass against my shoes broke the windless quiet.

Consult the MOD before planning when to visit...  © Dan Bailey
Consult the MOD before planning when to visit...
© Dan Bailey

Beyond my high point the route would all be, for me, unfamiliar ground. I picked over the bogs to Whitehorse Hill - an early taste of foot-wetting fun to come - and followed the ridge down to another lookout post at Quintin's Man. With the Okehampton Range boundary posts as a navigational aid, a rough path, not much more than a series of footmarks, led on into the empty interior of the north moor. Passing a ruin on Statt's House Hill, I descended to Sandy Hole Pass. The secluded river valley of the upper East Dart, this felt like one of the most out-of-the-way spots in England.

Up and over a rise on pathless ground, and ahead were the rocky outlines of Lower White Tor and Higher White Tor. A direct line to them looked feasible, until suddenly it wasn't, as ground turned to jelly underfoot. Denizens of the bigger hills of the north might assume the treacherous reputation of Dartmoor bogs to be soft southern overstatement, but that's a mistake you'd only make once. Mats of vegetation floating on who knows what, the infamous quaking mires are easy to stumble upon unawares - and this one felt like a classic of the genre. Slightly wiser, and somehow still largely dry, I wobbled back onto terra firma, and immediately found a perfectly decent path that'd been there all along.

Most of the north moor done, and I'm still surprisingly dry-footed   © Dan Bailey
Most of the north moor done, and I'm still surprisingly dry-footed
© Dan Bailey

The white tors had looked big from a distance, but shrank to head-high boulders on closer acquaintance. Unlike most uplands, this is a landscape more on the horizontal than the vertical, and the long lines of perspective play tricks with the apparent scale of distant landmarks. Tors may look mountainous from afar, but only a few are really that impressive in person. One such turned out to be my next goal, Longaford Tor, a jagged little ridge that feels like a genuine scrambly mini-mountain summit.

Below lay Wistman's Wood. A fragment of ancient upland oak woodland tucked into a boulder-strewn fold, the wood has inspired literary types for centuries, and has fanciful associations with the ghostly hounds (Wisht in old Devonshire dialect, says Wikipedia) of the mythical Wild Hunt. Clambering among moss-cloaked rocks, in the dappled gloom between twisting trunks, I can't say it felt particularly spooky, but it is an undeniably special place, and all the more so for being such a tiny patch of genuine nature among the treeless expanses of sheep-chomped moorland. One day perhaps we could return a little oak wood to every Devon valley.

It's a bit of a cliche to rave about how special Wistmans Wood is, but...  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
It's a bit of a cliche to rave about how special Wistmans Wood is, but...
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com

Feeling desiccated in the heat, I met the road at Two Bridges, and retreated into the busy inn for a lunchtime pint (of soda). Beyond the localised summer bustle around the pub the footpaths were once again deserted. Most visitors to Dartmoor don't seem to wander far from the car; perhaps the livestock puts them off? At a stile between two fields I hit an impasse, with an enormous bull on one side of the fence, a load of too-curious heifers on the other, and me perched in no man's land between. This stand-off went on for a foolish 15 minutes, so with time ticking on and no sign of progress I finally opted for the lesser of two hazards and hooshed the young cows out of my path. Cattle really give me the willies - and I suspect they can tell.

Old stone cross  © Dan Bailey
Old stone cross
© Dan Bailey

Something older still  © Dan Bailey
Something older still
© Dan Bailey

I tend to feel on more familiar ground with hazards of the landscape itself, fixed objects that don't run at you bellowing. But, chastened by my earlier brush with Dartmoor's more watery obstacles, I approached the infamous Foxtor Mires with some caution. A wide marshy depression cradled among bleak hills at the foot of the south moor, it may look innocuous from a distance, but the mire comes with an evil reputation, and is said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle's man-eating bog in the Hound of the Baskervilles. My speculative attempt at a direct crossing soon ran into a maze of rushy tussocks and wobbly sludge, and I could almost believe tales of travellers disappearing without trace. That way madness lay - or at the very least waterlogged socks. Poking about on a wider line, I hit upon a solution - a shoe-wide trail almost hidden in the greenery, a surprise secret dry-shod crossing like something from an adventure story. Foxtor Mire might be passable in a heatwave, but I'm not sure I'd want to revisit in a muddy November.

Foxtor Mires safely negotiated, it's time for the last big leg over the south moor  © Dan Bailey
Foxtor Mires safely negotiated, it's time for the last big leg over the south moor
© Dan Bailey

Neither as high nor as extensive as the north moor, the hills of the south had seemed something of a formality, until I actually got there. Rough underfoot, and in places predictably spongy, the ground was beginning to take it out of me, and I was down to rationing the last few jelly babies for sustenance, and filtering dark peaty stream water to stave off dehydration. Paths marked on the map appeared to be more suggested routes than representative of anything obvious on the ground. Aside from the occasional marker post, the featureless expanse of grass offered little for the eye to latch onto, and though navigation on a blazing hot afternoon consisted of nothing more complicated than following the compass approximately south, this must be a spooky place to negotiate in fog or darkness.

Happy finally to be leaving the bogs behind, I descended through the mounds of an old tin mine into the lonely upper reaches of the Erne valley, yet another of those inaccessible corners that Dartmoor does so well. Today it was deserted but for cows and horses - which by now pretty much summed up my experience of the whole moor. The high valleys weren't always so quiet of course, and signs of Dartmoor's long human occupation are everywhere, from the remnants of old mines and clayworks to the scattered standing stones, stone rows, burial cists and hut circles of the far distant past. Crossing this old, worn upland can feel like a walk back through time.

Heading for Erne Pound, and I've not met a soul since Two Bridges  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Erne Pound, and I've not met a soul since Two Bridges
© Dan Bailey

I'd wanted to check out the prehistoric village of Erne Pound, but little could be seen beneath the summer bracken. After a quick dip in the stream to wash off the grime of hours, and with Ivybridge now perhaps only 10km away, I followed a narrow heather path up onto the ridge overlooking the valley.

In contrast to all the rough going thus far, my final hour or two would be on gloriously easy ground, courtesy of the gravel track marking the course of the old Redlake Railway. Built to serve now-defunct clay works high in the middle of the south moor, this relic of Dartmoor's more recent industrial past winds spectacularly south over and around a series of rounded hills, descending gradually on the moor's long southern ridge, with views out towards the glinting English Channel. With a lift to meet, and the promise of fish and chips in Ivybridge, the legs found some late oomph, and after all that way I surprised myself by breaking into a run. Dartmoor in a day - it's big, and you'll feel it; but with summer daylight and dry ground, this is very much an achievable epic. In fact it's so good you might be tempted to turn around and do it all again.

The end's in sight - I'm about to run out of moor  © Dan Bailey
The end's in sight - I'm about to run out of moor
© Dan Bailey

The route

Distance 47km 

Total ascent 1084m

Time 11 – 13 hours (walking)

Start I chose to start at the village of Sticklepath (park considerately), but with its newly reinstated rail link, Okehampton would be an obvious alternative

Finish Ivybridge train station

Maps Harvey Mountain Map (1:40,000) Dartmoor gives the clearest coverage of the entire moor on a single sheet
OS Explorer OL20 (1:25,000), OS Explorer OL28 (1:25,000), OS Explorer 113 (1:25,000), OS Landranger 191 (1:50,000), OS Landranger 202 (1:50,000) 

Terrain Clear valley footpaths and some stretches on vehicle tracks, but with a lot of pathless or semi-path terrain on the high ground. Dartmoor's typical knee-deep tussock grass makes for hard going. With the occasional mire thrown in for fun, this walk is best saved for a dry spell. The high moors are featureless and very remote, so competent navigation is essential. 

Seasonal notes Perhaps best saved for dry summer weather, unless you're really into a challenge. Genuine winter conditions are infrequent but not unknown, and in proper snow the route will be very hard going (skis, anyone?). With limited winter daylight, expect to be walking some of this in the dark. Wet weather would make things especially gloopy in places, while in high water the crossing of the East Dart will need care.

Public transport Okehampton and Ivybridge are both on train lines and bus routes, but travelling back to the start from the finish via either Exeter or Plymouth is a bit of a faff.



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8 Sep

I enjoyed that read Dan covering much familiar ground. I've traversed Foxtor Mire in both drought and in winter when it really is a challenge. But the tussocks can really be a pain to cross, let alone treating a twisted ankle or worse. Starting from just behind Belstone and passing by Irishman's Wall is a good alternative entry point for this crossing of Dartmoor, and good paths up to Hangingstone Hill. The other problem with the winter traverse is avoiding some of the river crossings, which can be very serious indeed. If at all in doubt, try elsewhere but it might entail and sizable detour. Thanks for posting.

Thanks Sean!

As a highland resident I'm always pleasantly surprised by how empty the middle of Dartmoor feels, and also how great the traverse right across it is: a really unique route.

I spent a lot of my youth on the moors training for Ten Tor’s and just getting out exploring for myself.

Walking from North to South is a lovey way to see the Moors too. Nice article Dan! Next you’ll have to do it in winter to see just how much water Dartmoor can hold!

Unfortunately we rarely seem to visit family in winter. I'm almost sorry not to see it at its best/worst, but to be honest it's soggy enough in a summer heatwave

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