An Easter adventure on Dartmoor
Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Date: 16 – 17 April, 2022
Location: East Dartmoor National Park, Devon, England
Entry/exit point: Two Bridges
Total distance: ≈ 32 kilometres (20 miles)
Tors summited: 5 (Longaford, Higher White, Lower White, Sittaford, Stannon)
Highlights: Wistman's Woods, Longaford Tor, waking up in a cloud, seeing lambs, swimming at East Dart Waterfall
Summary: Our first camping trip of 2022 – a night on Dartmoor! We enjoyed the sunshine (maybe a bit too much), and experienced some magical moments in forests.
It was Easter weekend and Brett and our friend, Paul, were locked out of their office on campus. What else was there to do than go camping on Dartmoor!? Our original plan had been to find somewhere near Okehampton (which is now accessible by train from Exeter), but Paul offered to drive, meaning we could explore somewhere inaccessible by public transport (i.e. most of the interior of Dartmoor).
The boys had planned the trip earlier in the week, the OS map stretched out on the floor in front of them. When Brett took me through the plans, which included walking over 40 kilometres over the two days, I was worried they were vastly overestimating my current fitness level…
As we got ready for our first camping trip since August 2021, I was excited to get back outside, to explore somewhere new and to sleep next to Brett in our tent again.
Early on Saturday morning, Paul picked us up and we began the drive to Dartmoor National Park. After leaving Exeter, we entered a thick fog which only got worse as we continued to drive. At points we couldn't see more than a couple metres outside the front of the car! Paul drove slowly around the winding country lanes as I sat in the back seat, quite terrified.
As we gained elevation, we suddenly emerged from the clouds. We pulled over to take pictures and watch as the fog rolled in over the hills behind us. Despite the holiday weekend, the roads were still quiet and we felt optimistic about finding a parking spot near our desired trailhead.
Day 1: Two Bridges to Fernworthy via the East Dart Waterfall // 20 kilometres (12.5 miles)
We arrived at the public parking lot at Two Bridges, pleased to see that there were still spaces available. We grabbed our bags, consulted the map and by 8:00 we had set off on our adventure.
Our first destination: Wistman's Wood – the reason we had chosen this spot on Dartmoor for our trip. This small patch of ancient woodland, composed of dwarf oak trees hunched over moss-covered rocks, is a magical spot just two kilometres north of Two Bridges. When we arrived, there was one family there, but soon we had the spot to ourselves. The forest represents a delicate natural environment, one that I didn't want to disturb, so we stayed at the edge of the wood and didn't attempt to venture into its depths.
It felt magical to have this whole spot to ourselves (and was even more incredible in retrospect – when we passed this same spot the next afternoon, it was packed with people). Although we didn't see any faeries, we did enjoy watching a curious bird flit between nearby branches.
After walking the length of the wood, we began to climb up to the nearby Longaford Tor, the most dramatic of the tors we visited on this trip. We ascended to the top of the rocky outcropping, where we stopped to rest. The sun was peaking out from behind the clouds, but the wind was cold, so after we had finished our snacks and consulted the map, we continued our hike.
From there, the route was straightforward as we could see our next destination. We hiked onwards to Higher White Tor and then from there to Lower White Tor. It was on this stretch that we first encountered peatland: soggy, dark patches of ground, that sucked at our boots with each step.
Hiking through these boggy conditions may not be fun, but Dartmoor's peatlands represent an incredibly important ecosystem for Devon, not only in providing a source of clean water, but also in preventing flooding and acting as a significant carbon sink. According to the Dartmoor website, "Dartmoor’s peat soils store an estimated 10 million tonnes of carbon – equivalent to an entire year of carbon dioxide emissions from UK industry." Wow! Despite its importance, research has found that "just 1% of Dartmoor’s peatland area is still intact." Peatland restoration is key in protecting this valuable ecosystem.
After crossing a small brook, we left the trail and continued heading north, in the direction of an ancient stone wall that would point us to our next destination. Unfortunately, the wall, clearly marked on the map, never materialised in real life. Instead, Brett led us on a compass bearing.
The terrain underfoot was peculiar – the soggy ground was covered in tall grasses, making each step a guessing game as to whether your foot would end up submerged in water. It was slow going, but we stuck to the compass bearing and continued hiking until we stumbled onto a stream feeding into the East Dart River. Once we had made it to the river, we paused for lunch nestled among a pair of large boulders. Sitting in the shade, Brett and I munched on olive bread topped with fresh avocado and vegan chorizo slices (a surprisingly good combination).
After lunch, we were back on trail, following the river as it thread its way through a small valley. It felt good to be walking on more solid ground.
While planning the trip, the boys had identified a swim spot on the river: the Sandy Hole Pool. As we followed the river, we saw a few places that may have been the pool, but nowhere that I was especially keen to go swimming. Instead, we continued on towards the East Dart Waterfall. Once there, we took some photos and Brett and I dove into the freezing cold water. We warmed up on a rock in the sun, impressed with how beautiful Dartmoor can look when it isn't grey and raining.
Our route followed the river, before winding off-trail through sharp bushes of gorse and onto a bridlepath. The next destination on our hike was the Grey Wethers Stone Circles, my first time seeing one of these prehistoric monuments in Devon. This location is unique on Dartmoor, as it is the only site where two stone circles lie next to one another. We rested for a few minutes, before hiking up to Sittaford Tor, the highest point of elevation of the trip at 538 metres (1,765 feet).
From there, we followed the path down towards Fernworthy, where we were hoping to find somewhere to camp for the night. We had a break after entering the managed forest, snacking on dried apricots in the sun. The forest roads leading to the reservoir were lined by tightly packed pine trees, planted in rows. I quickly grew bored of the endless conifer plantations, and by the time we made it to the reservoir, I felt exhausted. Despite our desire to find somewhere to camp for the night, we spent awhile resting near a small brook that fed into the reservoir. We filled up our water bottles and I enjoyed sitting with my feet submerged in the cold water, numbing some of the pain.
When we reached the picnic area at the edge of the reservoir, we agreed it was a perfect spot for dinner. Sitting at a picnic table in the sun, we cooked instant rice and 1.5 kilograms of homemade chili that Paul had lugged around in his bag the entire day – what a legend! As we ate, we drank warm tea and ginger beer, quite the spread for a camping trip!
From our picnic spot, we still had to find somewhere to camp. We got a little lost on the roads within Fernworthy, but eventually climbed over a stone wall and made it out onto the moor. The sun was setting as we scouted locations to camp and we were excited to see the full moon rising over the horizon.
At around 21:15, we finally found a flat spot to camp near the edge of the Fernworthy forest, sheltered from the worst of the winds by the tall trees. My stomach was aching, so I crawled into my sleeping bag as soon as our tent was up. After a summer of camping in bivys (essentially just a waterproof bag for your sleeping bag to go in), our tent felt spacious and luxurious.
At one point in the middle of the night, I had to get up to pee. Leaving the tent, I was surprised at how bright it was. I quickly realised that it was the full moon, illuminating our campsite. Brett, who had woken up when I left the tent, joined me as we appreciated our moon shadows.
Day 2: Fernworthy to Two Bridges // 12 kilometres (7.5 miles)
We woke up at 6:00 the next morning to watch sunrise, but when I opened the tent, I discovered that we were completely immersed in a cloud. In the forest, the fog made a dramatic setting for photos. We were surprised at how much warmer it was in the forest than on the moor!
After shooting plenty of photos, we cooked our Easter breakfast (porridge with apple, cinnamon, nuts, and dried cranberries, coconut and mango), packed up our campsite and headed out for the morning.
By the time we left, the fog had lifted and the expansive landscape of Dartmoor was becoming visible once again. In the distance, the rolling hills looked like islands floating in a sea of clouds. We hiked over Assycombe Hill, which, at 497 metres, is the 6144th highest peak in the British Isles and the 700th tallest in England (just in case you were wondering...).
Our second day was less exciting than the first, as we made our way back to Two Bridges. On our way towards Stannon Tor, we passed some Dartmoor ponies, peacefully grazing on the moorland. We were surprised that, despite it being a holiday weekend, the moorland still felt vast and empty.
We walked along the tall stone walls of the Scotch Sheepfold, before making our way back down to the East Dart River. By this point, we were once again off trail, attempting to avoid patches of soggy ground as we looked for a safe place to cross the river. Brett was able to jump from rock to rock, but Paul and I opted to take off our shoes and wade through the cold water to the other side.
From there, our route involved climbing 100 metres directly up the side of a very steep hill. I felt grateful that I had brought my hiking poles with me! The tiny lambs exploring the landscape provided a nice distraction from the steep climb in front of us.
At the top of the hill, we followed one of the stone walls south, heading back in the direction of Two Bridges. We re-crossed the brook, then paused for lunch amongst some rocks. After eating, I napped on the ground, cushioned by the mossy ground underneath. The cold wind woke me and we got ready to finish the day's hike. Our attempt to "contour around" the hill was not entirely successful (as usual...), so we re-joined the path, had another break exploring Longaford Tor and then made our way back down to Wistman's Wood. After seeing how crowded the forest was, we didn't even bother stopping to take pictures.
Aching and ready to eat the Skittles I'd left in the car, we got back to the parking lot. But when we tried unlocking the car doors, they wouldn't open. That's odd...
After trying a few other things, Paul came to the conclusion that the car battery was flat. Our adventure continues!
We popped into the Two Bridges Hotel to use the bathroom. When they didn't have jumper cables, we walked back out to the carpark. Luckily, the first couple Brett spoke to had cables and were willing to help us get the car started. With Paul in the driver's seat, we pushed the car out into the middle of the parking lot and got it hooked up to the other car. I watched from the side, feeling useless and clueless (that's what happens when your family doesn't own a car!). 20 minutes later, Paul got the engine started and we were ready to make the drive back to Exeter.
It wasn't until we got home that we realised how sunburnt we were...oops!
It's worth it to get to Wistman's Wood early, it's much more magical without hoards of tourists
The map shows where the terrain is going to be marshy – avoid that where you can, or be prepared for slow going
Make sure you turn off the car headlights when you leave for a camping trip, or bring jumper cables with you!
This is a section I would like to name, "Styles of Stiles on Dartmoor." Enjoy.
Camping on Dartmoor: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/enjoy-dartmoor/outdoor-activities/camping
OS Map of Dartmoor: https://shop.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/map-of-dartmoor/