Field Trip: Dartmoor

Campo in the grotto on Dartmoor © Dominick Tyler 2013

Campo in the grotto on Dartmoor © Dominick Tyler 2013

Five cosy nights in the van, 600 miles driven, 10 tors climbed, two logans rocked, one mire sunk-into, four beaches wandered, two pasties and four saffron buns consumed and sixteen rolls of film waiting to be processed. Last week’s field trip to Devon and Cornwall was exhausting but productive and was a great learning experience for future trips.

I arrived at the edge of Dartmoor on the evening of the feast of St Jude, a few hours hours after a storm, given the same name, had swept over the south of England. Storms don’t usually rate a christening but arriving to coincide with the feast day of the patron saint of depression, lost causes, and desperate situations must have made the association too tempting for the Met Office. In any case it wasn’t the most auspicious start and there was certainly still a lot of water around, some still falling, as I drove along narrow, winding rivers that were once roads to a spot on the map that looked a likely campsite. It was pitch black when I arrived, the sweep of the headlights showed a small tree-studded cliff to the North and when I turned off the engine all around was the sound of water running over rocks. It felt like I had parked in a pixie grotto.

In the morning my grotto looked a lot more welcoming than it had seemed the night before and there was even a break of two in the clouds when I set off to tramp up, down and around the moor in search of rock basins and logans. For a long time I found neither and then finally I found both in the same place up on Roos Tor. I shot some video that day, which I’ll edit and post in due course.

Rock basins are quite common on the moors, they form on the tops of granite rocks when years and years of freeze-thaw erosion fracture feldspar crystals in the stone and allowed them to be blow away. As the process continues the growing indentation in the rock collects water, which freezes, breaking out more crystals and so on. The resulting basins are so beautifully formed that for a long time they were thought to have been carved for use in druidic rites. These druidic rites and probably the druids themselves were conjured from the fevered imaginings of C19th antiquarians who seemed to be obsessed with macabre goings on (a basin on top of a Tor, why that would be just perfect to catch the blood gushing from the jugular of a sacrificial virgin clad in wispy muslin).

Druids were also held responsible for the sometimes huge rocking stones called logans and for the tors themselves, especially those that look as though they have been carefully stacked up by a titanic toddler.

After Roos Tor I drove to Two Bridges and walked to Wistman’s Wood, a pocket of ancient woodland where stunted, gnarled oaks grow from between moss-covered boulders. Being inside Wistman’s wood is like being in a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki film, the moss and the trees and the ferns growing on the trees and the lichen draping the branches, it’s all very verdant and lovely. You could easily image finding a woodland spirit here, only it’s a tiny patch of what once covered the whole moor so I imagine that it would be a rather forlorn and lonely spirit, restricted to it’s little wild ghetto while the sheep patrol the edges, nibbling away at any saplings that might fall within their reach.

I drove into Tavistock in the afternoon and found it much the same as it was 20 years ago. A lot of the shops were different versions their former selves but the pannier market was almost unchanged and as I walked between stalls of bulk pet food, DVDs and books I remembered that this market was where I’d bought my very first camera (a used RICOH KR5) in 1993. In the streets small groups of teenagers milled and loitered in exactly the way I’d done with my friends when we were young, bored and desperate for some stimulation, painfully aware that we weren’t where “it” was at, even if we didn’t know what “it” was.

When I returned to the grotto that evening I was tired from the walking but also listless and uneasy. Maybe it was the memories of boredom, or being away from the family routine, or just plain fatigue, but my spirits slumped low that evening and I even considered wrapping up the whole project before it had even got going. After I’d eaten something I felt a bit better and ventured out of the van to look at the night. The evening before it had rained solidly but this evening was clear and above the grotto the stars were doing their thing. I fetched my camera and shot some long exposures, something that I’ve often found myself doing when fighting doubts. There is something about the magic of night interpreted by a camera that pulls my confidence together, darkness becomes dramatic, lit with only a flicker of a torch or a distant star.

The next day was a better day. An early start to find and photograph a rock basin on Great Mis Tor called “The Mistor Pan” or, more imaginatively “The Devil’s Frying pan” got me an etherial view of sunrise through a bank of (Mistor) mist and then, after brewing important coffee in a lay-by, I drove on down to Cornwall.

Landforms photographed: Tor, Logan, Rock Basin, Clitter/Clatter, Mire

Lesson learned: Lots of things I took but didn’t need and several things I didn’t bring I really missed, like a pillow. While I did reluctantly manage without a pillow I couldn’t have managed without my stovetop espresso maker, no amount of driving rain, mist, wind and mud can withstand the uplift of a mug of hot, strong coffee enjoyed in the amicable shelter of a camper-van.

Next field-trip: Cornwall