TWO MOORS WAY
Stage 2: Holne to Hamel Down
Friday, May 17, 2019
After a good night's sleep in my shepherd's hut, I cooked myself a modest breakfast, before bidding farewell to my hosts and strolling back up Michelcombe Lane in bright morning sunshine. The chill wind of the previous couple of days could still be heard rustling the treetops, but for the moment I was mostly sheltered from it at ground level.
Along Holne's short main street, I passed the small community shop (not yet open) and the parish church (picture 1), which I hadn't really noticed the previous evening, to return to the Church House Inn. The pub, with its estate agent signs, looked only slightly less forlorn in the sunlight than it had appeared the night before (picture 2). (Happily for future walkers, the inn has since reopened under new management.)
One detail of the pub that I hadn't noticed the first time, was a sign dated A.D. 1329. The Church House Inn began its life as the residence of the parish priest, presumably with somewhat smaller proportions than the building boasts today.
This stage of the Two Moors Way starts by crossing a slightly crooked crossroads and following a lane past a few houses to a T-junction signposted as Butts Cross. Turning left, a signpost only thirty metres along the next lane points through a gate on the right, from which a fenced path runs under a long line of trees just outside a large field (picture 3).
Beginning a long, steady descent into the valley of the River Dart, the Way crosses a stile at the bottom of the field and follows a well worn path that cuts off the corners of three smaller fields, separated by kissing gates, to enter National Trust land, where a bluebell-lined path continues to descend through Holne Woods (picture 4).
Gradually levelling out, and accompanied by the sounds of the rushing waters of the River Dart a short distance through the trees on the left, the well-defined path continues through the woods for almost a kilometre, finally emerging via a small, gated footbridge at the side of a quiet woodland road. A few steps to the left, the Way follows the road across a small bridge then the three-arched New Bridge (picture 5), built of Dartmoor granite in 1413. The medieval bridge spans a picturesque stretch of the River Dart (picture 6), sheltered in the heavily-wooded valley. A large carpark just beyond the bridge gives a clue that this is a popular beauty-spot for tourists, a venue for kayakers and canoeists, and a favourite haunt of fly-fishermen hoping to hook an Atlantic Salmon in the autumn.
Over the bridge, the Two Moors Way circles left, ignoring the carpark to go down steps and join a footpath leading under the New Bridge and onward along the left bank of the river, where several patches of bluebells were in bloom. After a few minutes walking, the confined path opens out onto Deeper Marsh, a flat, grassy area inside a bend of the river (picture 7). As I set off to follow the riverbank around the bend, the sun was covered up by cloud and wouldn't be seen again for a couple of days.
The Way follows the riverbank around the bend and onward to the next bend, where the river broadens into a shallow pool (picture 8). As I passed by, two large dogs ran down to the water in advance of their owner and began gleefully splashing about, not at all worried by the cold temperature that accompanied the disappearance of the sun.
The Two Moors Way turns away from the River Dart here, crossing a quiet road to find the beginning of a rough track that winds its way steeply up the side of the valley, emerging from the trees at a jumble of granite boulders known as Leigh Tor (picture 9). Beyond the tor, the path reaches a small parking area by Newbridge Hill, which snakes its way up from the New Bridge only slightly more directly than the Two Moors Way (picture 10).
A track opposite heads away from the road, soon crossing a tarmac drive and continuing out across the moorland to end at another parking area that looks like it may once have been a small quarry. Just before the parking area, an indistinct path on the right climbs a scrubby slope to reach the much more obvious track of Dr. Blackall's Drive, which the Way follows to the left, initially skirting around the south and west sides of the dome-shaped Aish Tor (picture 11).
This track, a carriage drive, was created around 1880 by Thomas Blackall, a prominent physician from a long family line of medical men and a one-time Sheriff of Exeter, who lived nearby at Spitchwick Manor.
After climbing over the shoulder of Aish Tor to reach Brake Corner, the same magnificent views over the Dart Valley that were once enjoyed by Dr. Blackall's guests in the late-19th century can now be enjoyed by walkers on the Two Moors Way (picture 12).
At Brake Corner, I passed a lone Dartmoor pony at the beginning of a long, steady climb over the shoulder of an unnamed hill (picture 13). As I neared the top, the first of several rain showers arrived and I had to stop to hurriedly pull on my waterproofs.
Once over the little hill, the large granite outcrop of Mel Tor comes into view ahead (picture 14) and the Way continues towards it for a while but doesn't quite get there. Instead, the carriage drive turns right to follow a low stone wall across the face of the hill before being funnelled onto an enclosed track between parallel stone walls. Shortly after a dogleg to the left, the wall on the right turns away and the Two Moors Way leaves Dr. Blackall's Drive here to follow the wall uphill to a carpark by the B3357 at Bel Tor Corner. To the right of the path, across a couple of fields, is Bel Tor (picture 15), while further away to the left of the path is the more substantial peak of Sharp Tor (picture 16).
Across the B3357, a path begins to head downhill across Sherberton Common, where more Dartmoor ponies were grazing amongst the gorse bushes (picture 17), but this path soon peters out, leaving the walker to find their own way across the common.
The double peak of Corndon Tor looms over the common half-left (picture 18), but the Two Moors Way bears further right, aiming for the left corner of a tree-fringed enclosure surrounding the lonely Primm Cottage (picture 19). Having passed this landmark, the Way bears slightly further to the right, eventually picking up one of several vague paths that heads through taller gorse bushes to reach a tarmac lane. Turning right, the Way follows the lane through Locksgate Cross (picture 20), taking the lane signposted for Ponsworthy and Widecombe.
Five hundred metres down the lane, I reached Forder Bridge Cross in the small village of Ponsworthy, where a little stream flows over the road (picture 21). Rather than cross the ford, the Two Moors Way turns left through a wooden gate between the stream and the last of the village's thatched stone cottages.
An enclosed path leads to a second gate and then onward into Corndon Wood, where a large clearing was filled with bluebells (picture 22). The path soon reaches the bank of the River Webburn (picture 23), following it deeper into the wood, where bluebells seemed to be everywhere (picture 24). I don't think I have ever seen so many on a day's walk.
Eventually the Way comes to a wooden footbridge over the River Webburn (picture 25), crossing it to emerge in the yard of a house in the hamlet of Jordan. Following the driveway out to a lane, the Way turns right onto a winding lane that climbs past farms to Drywell Cross, a lonely intersection marked by a stone wayside cross (picture 26).
Straight through the crossroads, the lane keeps climbing through farmland, passing through the hamlet of Dockwell (picture 27) and heading up to another isolated crossroads on the edge of a long ridge of moorland (picture 28), with the lane ahead separating Dunstone Down on the right from Hamel Down on the left.
Leaving the hedges that had been sheltering me from the wind-blown drizzle, I instantly felt about ten degrees colder as I headed onto the exposed moorland. The lane continues ahead over the ridge to the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, but the Two Moors Way turns off left onto Hamel Down after little more than one hundred metres (picture 29). One could leave the Way here and stay on the lane to the village, but I decided to continue across the moorland, knowing that there is a second way down to Widecombe about 1400 metres further on.
The OS map shows a straight path angling up the ridge, but the first part of that path doesn't exist on the ground. Instead one must either bear left of the mapped route to follow a wide gap through the gorse until a vague path runs to the right to pick up the mapped route, or stay on the lane for another five hundred metres to the Two Crosses carpark on the crest of the ridge, where another path runs along the ridgetop.
I chose the former option to stick as closely as possible to the official route, though the path was quite indistinct at times and I was only able to stay on it with the help of my GPS. A useful landmark was the low tor — really just slabs of granite and a few boulders — a little more than three-quarters of the way up the ridge (picture 30).
Another two hundred and fifty metres further on, the official route meets the ridgetop route in an area where more Dartmoor ponies were grazing, seemingly unfazed by the persistent wind and rain (picture 31).
This was also the point where I had planned to leave the Two Moors Way, having covered 11.6km of the official route from Holne. I felt a little relieved that the miserable weather had come along on the shortest stage of the walk rather than a longer one.
A short distance back along the ridgetop path, a track forks off to descend the eastern side of the ridge into the valley of the East Webburn River. Halfway down, the rough moorland gives way to farmland and the track runs between hedges for the rest of the way down to Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
In the centre of the village I found a bench udner a huge tree on the village green (picture 32). A steaming cup of coffee from the kiosk in the adjacent carpark helped me to warm up while I rested my feet for a little while.
I had arrived early in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time to wander around the little village, to top up my supplies at the village shop beside the green and to check out the 14th-century parish church (picture 33) and the National Trust's 16th-century Church House before I headed for the village pub, The Old Inn (picture 34), for a hot dinner and a couple of pints.
With its tall tower, the large Church of St Pancras, built with the profits of local tin-mining, is out of proportion to the size of the village, earning it the nickname The Cathedral of the Moors.
According to the tourist guidebooks, Widecombe is the quintessential Dartmoor village, and this notoriety makes it one of the most visited locations on the moor. While I was there, a succession of coaches, laden mostly with American retirees, pulled in to the main carpark, each staying for an hour or so before loading up and moving on.
After the last bus left, the village was very quiet and I was the only outsider left in the pub until half an hour before dusk, when I headed out into the gloom and drizzle to make the climb up the lane towards Two Crosses in search of a suitable spot for a night's wild camping on Hamel Down. Halfway up the lane, a long stone wall heading away to the right separates the farmers' fields above the village from the higher, more exposed moorland. This wall also delineates the part of Hamel Down where wild camping is permitted.
Following the wall away from the lane, I soon a patch of bare and relatively level ground under a tree at a bend in the wall. I wasn't likely to find a more sheltered spot, so I pitched my tent here (picture 35) and propped myself up against the wall to admire the view down to the village (picture 36) for a few minutes until the rain returned and I decided to retire for the evening.