Tag Archives: dartmoor

On the Ridgeway Road – Lockdown Nature Walks 11

Here we are again in another Lockdown. The rules prevent us travelling away from the local area and while I support this, it feels much more constraining this time with winter weather and pandemic fatigue.  The only answer is to make the best of it so we are taking daily exercise walks around the town and the nearby countryside looking at the non-human world as winter gives way to spring. 

During the first Lockdown, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lockdown Nature Walks and I intend to do the same during the current hiatus.  In the first of these new Lockdown Nature Walks (taken on January 13th 2021) I go up to one of the high points above the town of Totnes in south Devon.  As well as the description of my walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, The Rainbow by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and some photos of what I saw. 

Harper’s Hill

I started on the western edge of the town and walked up Harper’s Hill with its unpredictable surface and its 1 in 3 gradients (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7).  The sides of this ancient sunken track showed plenty of growth, mainly ferns and pennywort but I did find a few clumps of dark green spears piercing the leaf mould cover.  The white swellings at the top of these spears told me that these were snowdrops, getting ready to flower, a welcome indication that the year was moving on.  

The lane levelled out and at Tristford Cross, I turned right on to the old ridgeway road.  The trees that had been providing some shelter petered out and I began to feel the full force of the bitterly cold wind that blew from the west.   To the north, the land fell away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lay to the east some 100 metres below.  It felt very exposed on the ridgeway road and curious things were happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow formed and faded repeatedly as if memories of past events were attempting to replay.  These transient hints of colour really did feel spectral but, in reality, they were the result of a significant meteorological battle.  Thick grey cloud was trying to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun got the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green.  Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle were also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours. 

Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks.   Even in mid-winter, though, I found a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves on the roadside bank with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through.  This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature.  Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush showed above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This was butterbur (Petasites hybridus), having emerged very early, and I noticed multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.  

Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves.  Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name. 

Rain arrived from the west driving me back down Harper’s Hill towards home but also reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.

………………………………

The Rainbow by James Thomson

Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
And hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

Snowdrops piercing the leaf mould on Harper’s Hill

Fragments of rainbow form and fade above the valley

The ridgeway road with a bank of winter heliotrope and a rainbow fragment
Winter heliotrope

Butterbur growing by the ridgeway road

Butterbur, showing the pink and white florets

A Dartmoor Cuckoo Chorus – Lockdown Nature Walks 6

With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks.  So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood.  Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.

We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river.  With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather.  Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”.    A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley.  Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called.  Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below.  The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off.  Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.

Wistman’s Wood (taken 19th May 2018)

 

We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks.  By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks.  A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay.  The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside.   Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about.  Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment.  Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley.  We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail.  Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.  We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped.jpg
A cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:

The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me.  In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year.  With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation.  Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.

After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river.  Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy.  I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather.  We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away.  Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself.  We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path].  This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so.  Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.

About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood.  At first, their calls came at different times from different locations.  One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer.  This call and answer pattern was then repeated.  But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped.   For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.

The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times.  “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round.  A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.

When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.

We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here

The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart.  Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.

The colours of a Dartmoor Sunset

Last week, on a clear, warmish evening, we went up to Haytor on the south eastern corner of Dartmoor to watch the sunset.  Haytor consists of two huge outcrops of granite, one larger, one smaller, set on a hill some 450 metres above sea level. The two huge outcrops of granite are a local landmark visible for miles around, and the position of the Tor affords panoramic views across the surrounding countryside.

Haytor contrails
Approaching the larger of the Haytor rocks from the east; contrails in the sky

 

A wide, grassy track led steeply up to Haytor from the car park. The sun was setting directly behind the great granite outcrop that evening so the path and the surrounding countryside were in shadow, bathed in an eerie twilight.  Stands of yellow gorse and vivid purple bell heather lined the path and a few crows pottered about on the track ahead of us.  The rock itself was a flat grey in this light but, behind it, the sky was a luminous pale blue engraved with contrails left by passing aircraft, brilliant white shooting stars.  Turning to look back, there were long but slightly hazy views across rolling countryside to Newton Abbot and on to the sea more than 10 miles away at Teignmouth.  Much of this land was still illuminated by the sun and we could see woodland, small towns and the white scars of clay mine workings.  Increasingly, however, a portion of the land lay in shadow as the sun set.

Eastern view
The view to the east from Haytor towards the sea

 

Heather and gorse
Heather and gorse

 

Under the eastern flank of the larger rock, shadow dominated and the air was cool but upon reaching the western side it was as though we had entered a different, more optimistic world – a world of orange light, brightness and warmth.  The sun was still some distance above the horizon but its low rays created a curious moonscape on the nearby moorland.  Every tussock of grass and every craggy stone were illuminated along with the occasional sheep; every object cast a long shadow.  The rich light lent a warm glow to the grey Haytor stone probing every crack, crevice and fissure.  Two German children and later, several local lads in reverse baseball caps clambered in to an alcove in the rock to enjoy the view.  One or two small birds tracked across the landscape together with a lone bee returning to its burrow. In the distance the western hills acquired an apricot halo.

Dartmoor moonscape
Dartmoor “moonscape”

 

Moonscape on Haytor
The smaller of the Haytor rocks with the “moonscape” created by the setting sun

 

As the earth turned, the sun continued to approach the horizon but for some time, corresponding changes in the landscape were slow.  Looking back to the east, increasing amounts of land were enclosed in shadow, and, around the Tor, shadows lengthened.  The colour of the rock changed slowly from a warm pale brown at 20.00 to a deep reddish brown over the next twenty minutes.

Haytor rock 2002
The larger Haytor rock at 20.02

 

Then events seemed to accelerate and I detected a change in the light level as if someone were turning down a dimmer switch.  I suppose the sun had begun to dip below the horizon but it was difficult to be sure as it was still too bright to look.  Shadows became longer still and the rock took on a pinker almost red hue, not unlike the colour of the stone used in some of south Devon’s older buildings.  For a few minutes, the sun painted the landscape surrounding the rock in the surreal colours of pink and a luminous green.

Haytor rock 2024
The larger Haytor rock at 20.24

 

Haytor rock 2027
The larger Haytor rock at 20.27

 

The colour of the rock continued to change and by 20.25, with the sun about half way below the horizon, (based on a photograph), the colour lost its warmth as if it were being drained away.  By 20.26, grey started to insinuate and a minute later the sun had disappeared.  The rock was now a uniform grey and the sun had set.

Sunset Haytor 2027
The western view at 20.27

 

All that was left on the western horizon was an orange glow above the hills, a memory of the sun, with increasing apricot fringes either side.  Overflying aircraft and their contrails were now tinged with pink and, above all this colour, the sky was a very washed out, pale blue.

Eastern view 2

 

We walked back to the car in the half light, the air cooler now.  Ahead of us and in the distance, the eastern hills were bathed in a hazy dark blue light that extended above the land for a short distance.  Above this blue layer was a distinctive red layer that shaded to orange and yellow before merging with the clear blue sky above.

A white moon, almost full but not quite, now hung in the sky like a ghostly eye.

…………………………..

I’ve seen many impressive sunsets but I don’t recall ever being able to follow the changes so clearly.   What we witnessed that evening was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a celestial light show.

But can we understand how all these colours arise?  The explanation comes from considering the position of the sun at different times of the day and the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on the sun’s light.

Although the light coming from the sun is white, we know from looking at rainbows that it is in fact composed of light of different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).  These colours of light have different physical properties that mean that they respond differentially when they meet particles in the atmosphere.

For much of the day, the sun is roughly overhead and as its light travels through the earth’s atmosphere it encounters molecules in the air (nitrogen and oxygen mainly) and some of the light is scattered during this encounter.  The blue light, and the violet, are scattered more than the other colours and our eyes preferentially detect this scattered blue light; this gives the sky its colour.  Because a small part of the blue light is lost through this scattering, sunlight appears slightly yellow rather than pure white.

When the sun is very low in the sky, towards the end of the day (sunset) and also near the beginning (sunrise), sunlight has to travel much further through the atmosphere.  Blue light is scattered as before but, because there is so much more atmosphere to traverse, the blue light is eventually lost, so that red and orange colours dominate at sunset and sunrise.

 

But what about the colours in the eastern sky?  The layer I described as “hazy dark blue light” was actually the earth’s shadow, where our planet casts a shadow on the atmosphere as the sun sinks below the horizon.  As the sun falls further, this shadow layer increases, only to disappear eventually in to the deepening blue of the night sky. The red layer goes by the wonderful name of the Belt of Venus and arises from residual sunlight encountering dust particles in the atmosphere.  These particles scatter the light (red by now) backwards.

 

Thanks go to Hazel who had the idea for sunset watching.

Leats, larks and cuckoos on a Dartmoor ramble

Water bubbled and splashed in a purposeful manner along a rough, narrow trench cut in the high moor. This watercourse is the Devonport Leat, built towards the end of the 18th century to feed drinking water from Dartmoor streams to the growing south Devon port, some 10 miles away. Our walk followed the course of the Leat as it crossed rocky upland scrub and as it cascaded down Raddick Hill to cross the River Meavy on a short aqueduct to flow down a brick-lined channel through a conifer plantation.

Aquaduct & sluice gate Devonport leat
A view of the aqueduct and sluice gate from Raddick hill showing how the watercourse “turns” left after crossing the River Meavy

Aquaduct Devonport leat
A close-up shot of the aqueduct

We had reached the Leat on the high moor after climbing steadily up a rough, rocky track from the car park at Norsworthy Bridge. The soundtrack to our walk was the constantly questioning song of skylarks high above. This was the only sound until a faint “cuckoo, cuckoo” floated across the scrubby moorland, receiving a reply from a bird much closer. Then, ahead of us, we saw two large birds glide across the track in to neighbouring woodland. From their silhouettes, we guessed one of these was the answering cuckoo.

Later, as we were crossing open moorland, we noticed a large grey bird accompanied by a much smaller bird approaching a lone tree not far from the track. The large bird landed rather clumsily and the smaller bird flew off. Through my binoculars, I watched the larger bird trying to steady itself on the branch. It was surprisingly long and wobbled back and forth, wings down and long stubby tail up as though it hadn’t completely mastered the art of balancing. Its breast was white with clear horizontal black stripes as if it were wearing a Breton sailor’s shirt. This, together with its white wing bars told me that here was another cuckoo and from its comically ungainly behaviour, I presumed it must have been a juvenile. The smaller bird would have been its surrogate parent, working hard to provide food for its voracious “offspring”.

Cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

It’s a nice coincidence that, at the time the Devonport Leat was being constructed, Edward Jenner, who became one of the pioneers of vaccination, was studying the parasitic habits of cuckoos in rural Gloucestershire. He was the first to show that, after a female cuckoo has laid her egg in the nest of another species of bird, it is the young cuckoo that ejects all the other eggs and nestlings. The surrogate parents can then concentrate solely on the welfare of the much larger interloper.

The photos of the aqueduct were taken by Hazel Strange.

Our walk comes from “Dartmoor, great short walks for all of the family”, Crimson Publishing. We walked the route on June 1st 2014.

Next time you see Nelson’s Column, think of Dartmoor.

Dartmoor is the largest and wildest area of open country in the south of England but despite the wildness, the human imprint is never far away. For many years, the moor has been exploited by industry which has shaped the landscape and continues to do so. We walked on the moor recently, and stumbled across surprising traces of Dartmoor’s industrial past and present. Even at our starting point, the car park near where Cadover Bridge crosses the River Plym, there were signs warning of the dangers of a disused china clay pit nearby.

We began by heading up hill towards Cadover Cross. This is one of many Dartmoor Crosses, made of local granite and thought to have been landmarks for travellers in this remote countryside often plagued by bad weather. Cadover Cross may have been associated with important 12th century routes that used the river crossing.

Cadover Cross, Dartmoor
The view downhill from Cadover Cross showing the bridge over the River Plym and wide expanses of open moorland typical of this part of Dartmoor. This was one of the landscapes used by Stephen Spielberg in the Warhorse. The spoil heaps of the disused clay pit are visible on the right.

View from Dewerstone Rock
View from Dewerstone Rock

Leaving the Cross, we continued over scrubby grassland interspersed with bracken and gorse, sharing the route with sheep, a few ponies and one cow. We kept the heavily wooded Plym valley on our left but we could not yet hear the river; the only sound was the gossip of a few passing birds. Eventually we reached the highest point on this walk, Dewerstone Rock, where traces of ancient settlements have been found. From the Rock, there were panoramic views towards the coast with Plymouth Sound clearly visible. On this dull, slightly misty day, it was just possible to make out the Wheel of Plymouth on the Hoe near where, according to popular anecdote, Drake played bowls as the Armada threatened.

Cut in to the rock, and now rather eroded, is the inscription

CARRINGTON
Obit Septembris
MDCCCXXX

This is a memorial to the teacher and local poet Noel Carrington who died in Bath in 1830.

From Dewerstone Rock, we dropped steeply down through oak woods passing the remains of disused 19th century quarries and the bed of a railway that was once used to transport blocks of granite down the hillside. The rails have long gone but the sleepers, regularly placed granite blocks, and the fixing holes in some of the blocks were clearly visible.

Granite sleepers, Dewerstone Woods
Granite blocks forming sleepers of the old railway

Fixing holes on granite sleeper
Fixing holes in granite block from old railway

Granite forms the bedrock of the high moor and has been used as a building material for as long as humans have inhabited Dartmoor. Many local buildings including Dartmoor Prison and the large church at Widecombe used local granite and the material has also been used in London, notably in the old London Bridge (now in Arizona) and Nelson’s Column.
The path continued in zig-zags through woodland down the side of the river valley. We could hear the river before we could see it but eventually it was there, bubbling over rocks near Shaugh Bridge. This was the half-way point of the walk and a pleasant place for us to eat our sandwiches.

P91The River Plym near Shaugh Bridge
The river Plym near Shaugh Bridge

Having crossed the river Plym, we picked up the woodland path back to Cadover Bridge. Now, all around us were traces of a second Dartmoor industry, china clay mining.

China clay was first discovered in the UK in Cornwall in the 18th century, and has been mined continuously on Dartmoor since the mid 1800s. China clay, or kaolin, was originally used to make porcelain but nowadays it is used in many processes including the manufacture of paper, ceramics and toothpaste. Kaolin is a breakdown product of granite and, for many years was mined using powerful jets of water. The water washed out the soft kaolin in a crude mixture with stones, gravel and sand. After the coarse particles were filtered out, the kaolin slurry was put in to huge settling tanks. The compacted kaolin was then dried to produce blocks of china clay for transport.
In this part of the moor, the kaolin suspension was piped more than a mile from the now disused quarry near Cadover Bridge to settling tanks and then to “drys” near Shaugh Bridge. We saw the remains of the “drys” in the National Trust Car Park. In the woods we found the settling tanks and for much of the rest of the walk we followed the ceramic pipeline that carried the crude kaolin suspension. How different this area must have been in the heyday of the granite and china clay industries.

Ceramic pipeline, Plym Valley, Dartmoor
Ceramic pipeline

We continued through woodland for a mile or more but were always conscious of the river not far below on our left; its presence reassured us that we were following the correct path. At this time of year, the landscape was mostly green so it was a surprise to come across a clutch of Rowan Trees. Their shocking orange berries will provide welcome food for hungry birds in a few weeks’ time. According to Richard Mabey, the berries, mixed with a few crab-apples, can also be used to make a “sharp, marmaladish jelly, traditionally served with game and lamb”.

P9110028
Rowan Tree

Nearby, where springs wet the ground, we found the small purple flowers of Devil’s Bit Scabious. Devil’s Bit refers, in folk tales, to the short black root, bitten off by the Devil angered by the plant’s ability to treat scabies. This seemed appropriate as across the river valley were the Dewerstone Crags or Devil’s Rocks, beloved of climbers; Dewer is the ancient Celtic name for the Devil.

Devil's Bit Scabious, Dartmoor, Devon
Devil’s Bit Scabious

Dewerstone Crags, Dartmoor
Dewerstone Crags

Further on, the path dropped down to meet the fast flowing river, a perfect place for Dippers. On cue, one of the plump, chocolate-brown birds was there, standing on a rock, bobbing up and down, proudly displaying his white waistcoat while the water flowed swiftly past. We watched until the Dipper decided to leave and then we walked the short distance back to the car.

Dipper on the River Plym
Dipper

This walk comes from “Dartmoor, Great short walks for all the family”, by Sue Viccars, Crimson Publishing, 2009.

Thanks go to Hazel Strange for the lovely photos.