TWO MOORS WAY
Stage 1: Ivybridge to Holne
Thursday, May 16, 2019
The cold wind of the previous evening had not abated when I awoke just before sunrise. I had been hoping to witness a glorious sunrise over the South Hams, but when I emerged from my tent all I could see was a hazy, overcast view over Ivybridge (picture 1).
My efforts to pack up quickly were somewhat hampered by the wind-chill making me feel rather sluggish, but eventually, after double- and triple-checking that I hadn't left anything behind, I headed down the slope to find the track down to Ivybridge.
Ivybridge traces its origins back at least to the 13th century, when the first bridge was built across the River Erme, just north of the present town centre. In time, the bridge became covered in ivy and remained the only dry crossing of the river for more than five centuries until a second bridge was built at the top of Fore Street in the 1830s. From the 16th century, several mills were built in the village, powered by the rushing waters of the Erme. In 1848, a stretch of the South Devon Railway was built across the northern edge of Ivybridge and the line, now part of the Great Western Railway's mainline between London and Penzance, forms part of the southern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park. The village became a town in 1977, and since then has more than doubled in population, now being home to around 12,000 residents.
After securing a hot breakfast and supplies for the next few days, I returned to Glanvilles Mill Carpark and the signpost marking the start of the Two Moors Way (picture 2).
The signpost points a short distance along the edge of the carpark to a waymarked ramp leading up between the retail buildings of Erme Court. Having passed along the front of the first building, the Two Moors Way bears left of the Watermark Arts Centre and passes between bollards to join Costly Street. At the top of Costly Street, the Way crosses Fore Street and follows a riverside path along the left side of the Harford Road Carpark, past an old water turbine (picture 3), taken from one of the town's former mills, and through a little garden with a memorial to American servicemen who stayed in Ivybridge while preparing for D-Day in 1943 and 1944.
A couple of steps lead up from the garden to Harford Road and the Way follows the pavement on the far side, soon passing the original Ivy Bridge then climbing past the Stowford Paper Mill and Ivybridge Community College to reach Cole Lane on the northern edge of town.
Stowford Paper Mill was built in 1787 and operated until 2013. At the time of my visit it was being redeveloped as housing and shops.
Across Cole Lane, a large stone by the end of Stowford Bridge is adorned with a Dartmoor National Park boundary marker (picture 5). The Two Moors Way follows Harford Road over the bridge, crossing the Great Western Mainline and entering the National Park. Two hundred metres beyond the bridge, a signpost that was almost completely hidden in a leafy hedge points to the right along a bridleway track that soon turns left to climb steeply between stone walls (picture 6), reaching a wooden gate on the edge of Harford Moor (picture 7) after a rather strenuous 750 metres.
This spot was where I had left the Way the previous evening to head eastward up to Western Beacon. The Two Moors Way instead takes a roughly north-easterly course across Harford Moor, following a rather indistinct path of lightly-trampled grass that climbs gently in the direction of the distant rounded peak of Butterdon Hill.
Before I set off across the exposed moorland, I put on my new windproof outer jacket as the icy wind seemed to have stepped up another level since the early morning. This was the first decent test of my new jacket, which did seem to do a better job of keeping the wind out than the old one. I wasn't the only one feeling the cold — several small hollows to the left of the path were occupied by sheep and cattle that are grazed on Harford Moor under ancient commoners' rights.
After almost a kilometre, the Way meets a well-defined track at a spot marked on the Ordnance Survey map as the site of a homestead, though aside from a low stone wall beside the track, there is little visible evidence of any former human habitation (picture 8).
Having joined the track, the Two Moors Way sticks with it for the next few hours walking. The track was originally the course of the short-lived narrow-gauge Redlake Tramway. The tramway was laid in 1910 to carry china clay down from pits on the high moorland to the mainline railway at Ivybridge, but by the early 1930s the venture had failed and the rails had been lifted.
Initially, the track swings left to climb over the flank of Weatherdon Hill (picture 9) before curving back around behind the hill. To the left of the track the ground falls away towards farmland, though it was difficult to see any further due to the haze thrown up by the persistent strong winds (picture 10). On a clear day it should be possible to see as far west as Kit Hill, just over the border in Cornwall.
The close-cropped grassy slopes of Weatherdon Hill give way to gorse and the track continues to climb gently as it passes below the small granite tor of Hangarshell Rock (picture 11). The track snakes onward around a couple of gentle bends before levelling out and passing a small, shallow pond that a dozen or so Belted Galloway cows had decided to call home for a while.
The gentle climb soon resumes as the track winds its way across Piles Hill to pass at right angles through two long rows of short standing stones. By now the gorse had mostly been replaced by pale white cottongrass as the track continued on between Sharp Tor on the left and the slightly higher and more distant peak of Three Barrows on the right (picture 12). No prizes for guessing what can be found on the latter summit.
Beyond Sharp Tor, the ground to the left of the track drops away steeply into the valley of the upper River Erme (picture 13), which flows about 130 metres below the level of the track. The view into the valley is fleeting, however, as the track heads out across Ugborough Moor to the site of the Leftlake china clay works, where the foundations of several old buildings and the low spoil heaps stand out against the vast expanse of cottongrass (picture 14).
Just beyond the foundations, the track bends sharply right to cross a small bridge next to the now-flooded china clay pit (picture 15) before resuming its meandering course among the cottongrass (picture 16).
A kilometre beyond the bridge, another sharp right-hand bend in the track offers a view down to Erme Plains (picture 17), site of Bronze-Age settlements, a stone circle, and the world's longest stone row, stretching more than three kilometres across the barren moorland. The track now climbs almost imperceptibly as it curves back to the left to describe a two-kilometre long semicircle across the face of Quickbeam Hill (picture 18) to reach another sharp right-hand bend at Brown Heath.
Around the bend, the track runs down a gentle slope (picture 19) to a pyramidal stone marked with 'MW' and an arrow. Here the Two Moors Way suddenly leaves the old tramway, after almost exactly ten kilometres, climbing a bank on the right. Navigation gets significantly trickier from this point onward, as there is no easily-discernable path for the next three kilometres, nor any waymarking.
Initially the Way climbs a grassy slope, aiming slight right of a squat, square stone building in the distance. After 130 metres the Way bears left, heading slightly north of east for another 160 metres to cross a small dip that was once part of the course of the dismantled 19th-century Zeal Tor Tramway. The Way continues in much the same direction to pass just to the left of a small, square, stone hut (picture 20). I didn't like my odds of finding a better shelter from the strong wind, so I paused here to sit on the grass in the lee of the little building to eat my lunch.
Just beyond the hut, the Way bears a little left and begins to descend a pathless slope into the valley of the infant River Avon, with the outlines of two prehistoric human settlements clearly visible beyond the river on the hillside below Huntingdon Warren and a third further down the valley on the slopes of Hickaton Hill (picture 21). Huntingdon Warren was used for farming rabbits as recently as the 1930s, providing meat for the tin and china clay miners who worked on this part of Dartmoor.
After carefully picking my way down the slope for about 800 metres to the river's edge (picture 22), I followed the bank upstream for about 200 metres to find the 19th-century clapper bridge over the river (picture 23).
(The Ordnance Survey maps are a little confusing regarding the correct route down to the river. An extra green diamond indicates an alternate route, but with no connecting lines it isn't clear that the map is trying to show two different routes rather than one convoluted route.)
The River Avon rises about four kilometres to the north on Ryder's Hill and has been dammed two kilometres further downstream to provide a large reservoir of drinking water. The river eventually flows into the English Channel at Bigbury-on-Sea.
As I reached the bridge, I met the first, and only, walkers that I would see all day; a party of four Germans who were also well rugged up against the wind. I had been passed by a few mountain-bikers on the tramway, but nobody else on foot.
The Way now follows the River Avon downstream across the waterlogged lower slopes of Huntingdon Warren, passing well below the two ancient settlement sites I had seen from a distance earlier. The route keeps about 100 metres away from the river, though I had to deviate higher a couple of times to skirt around the most saturated ground.
On reaching a stone wall by the little Western Wella Brook, one can either hop over the wall and ford the brook, or follow the wall down to the Avon to find a stile by the river (picture 24) and soon a single-slab clapper bridge over the little stream.
After crossing the clapper bridge and bearing away from the river, I soon picked up a well-trampled path that angles up the side of Hickaton Hill. The path passes just above the third of the settlement outlines that I had seen earlier and continues to climb up to the edge of another settlement site just to the right of the summit, where the remains of several circular dwellings can be made out in the grass (picture 25).
Leaving the settlement, the Two Moors Way heads north-east, soon cresting Hickaton Hill and continuing across fairly level ground for a little while before beginning a long and steady descent from the high moorland, soon picking up a well-trampled grassy path heading slightly north of north-east down the sloping Buckfastleigh Moor (picture 26). The path leads down to a footbridge over the River Mardle at Chalk Ford (picture 27), a placename that I found a little incongruous, as there is no chalk on Dartmoor.
A track heading eastward from the ford climbs briefly but soon begins to descend through farmland (picture 28) on a long, but easy, run to the small village of Scorriton. Mercifully, the track was well-sheltered from the biting wind.
Unfortunately, Scorriton's village pub, The Tradesmans Arms, found just off the Two Moors Way to the left of the first T-junction reached in the village, was shut when I arrived. With my thirst unsatisfied for now, I instead followed the road a few paces to the right from the junction to a second junction by a pleasant seating area and small war memorial. Turning left here, the Way follows an unnamed lane that heads eastward out of the village, curving to the left to reach yet another T-junction, where the Way turns left to cross a bridge over a stream at the bottom of Gibby Combe.
Just ahead, the lane turns right by a standing stone raised for the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II (picture 29). The Way leaves the tarmac here, heading up what at first appears to be a grassy green lane but soon becomes very stony and quite steep. I was rather relieved when the path leveled out after 500 metres and merged into a lane a short distance before the Way bears right along the main street of the village of Holne (picture 30).
Some of that relief evaporated when I approached the Church House Inn (picture 31) at the far end of the main street. I had reached the end of the first stage of the Two Moors Way, having covered 22.1 kilometres, which was good, but the pub was closed, and decorated with To Let signs, which was not so good.
I was carrying plenty of food, so that wasn't a problem, but I had been looking forward to a cleansing ale or three. Alas, celebratory beverages would have to wait for another day.
Feeling a little disappointed, I walked back down the main street, turning right then left to follow Michelcombe Lane for just over a kilometre to the hamlet of Michelcombe, where Higher Michelcombe Farm has a small campsite by the stream in Gibby Combe. The farm also has three cozy shepherd's huts (picture 32) and on discovering that one was vacant, I decided to invest my unspent beer money on upgrading my accommodation for the night.
Swings and roundabouts, they say.