No bikes, for a change
This week, my mate Caspar and I went hiking on Dartmoor. For those that don’t know, Dartmoor is the last wilderness left in England. Situated entirely within the county of Devon, it is also the only place in England where wild-camping is perfectly legal.
In search of history…
The part of Dartmoor we went hiking on is the southern section, and we set off from Ivybridge. The forecast was fairly grim, and we knew that sooner or later we’d get wet. Our first destination was an old, long-disused china-clay mine, called Redlake. To get there is quite simple: just follow the Puffing Billy track to its very end. That track is the remains of the railway that was built to move the clay off the moor, and it’s mostly easy walking, with just a few perma-flooded segments to contend with.
In search of the Bronze Age
Redlake wasn’t our destination for the day. No, we were aiming for Erme Pound – the remains of a Bronze Age village, right on the banks of the river Erme (it’s pronounced “err-me”). Along with that, we wanted to visit the standing stones – it’s the longest row of ancient standing stones in the world. Usually, people would divert from the Puffing Billy track well before reaching Redlake, but we were on an adventure. Besides, how bad could it get, right?
Would the real Redlake please stand up?
So far, I’ve been referring to the china-clay mine as Redlake. However, the mine got it’s name from the mire nearby, which feeds the Erme. Because we headed around the pond at the mine, it meant we had some very boggy ground to cross. Even during a dry summer, it can be very wet underfoot there. We didn’t take a compass, so mostly made it up as we went along. The result was a route that was quite sub-optimal, and ended up with both of us have properly wet feet before crossing the Redlake stream, shortly before it runs into the Erme.
Wet, with a chance of more wetness
The weather was at times grim and we were often walking into a strong headwind, in thick fog. However, the forecast was for quite a lot of rain between 16h00 and 18h00, so we were keen to get to Erme Pound and pitch our tents before the rain set in. When rounding the pond at the clay mine, we were practically on the edge of the spoil heap before we could see the spoil heap. That made visual navigation tricky at times, and we simply couldn’t see the ridge on the far side of the Erme, even when we reached the river. Still, we knew it was merely a case of turning left, and following the river downstream for a bit.
The remains of Erme Pound are imposing, bearing in mind settlement there dates from 1 700BC – yes, over 3 700 years ago that village was founded! Erme Pound is a listed monument, and is one of the most complete such sites in the UK, and certainly the largest on Dartmoor. There’s a seriously important message in that: if ever you visit it, leave it exactly as you found it. Do NOT move any of the stones.
The name is simple: Erme, from the river, and Pound, which is derived from the very early Anglo-Saxon word “pund”, meaning “enclosure”. When you stand in Erme Pound, you’re standing on ground that saw countless generations of people pass through. Tiny babies were born here, grew up, and often grew old here. There will undoubtedly have been fierce battles at times, though archaeologists believe the villagers were mainly farmers.
There are approximately 29 stone hut circles, though sadly none of them are in anywhere near as good state of repair as the kilometre-long perimeter wall. When you see the size of the stones used to build that wall, and you realise it was built with manual labour, you start appreciating what an incredible place it is. Standing in Erme Pound with eyes closed means you can imagine the Bronze Aged people bustling around you. Standing in Erme Pound is standing in ancient history.
Erme Pound is legally recognised as an ancient monument. This means causing any harm or damage to it is illegal. Obviously, causing any damage to it also means you’d be quite a despicable person.
If camping near a site like Erme Pound, you need to exercise great care not to cause any harm. Caspar and I found a flat area, very close to the river, and pitched our tents. The forecast rain was well late, which was good, as we only pitched our tents at around 17h00. I brewed us a coffee, the Caspar cooked his meal on his camping stove, while I cooked mine.
When I say “cooked”, the reality is I warmed up my Wayfairer camping meal. I had pasta Bolognese, which was delicious. For afters I had a Wayfairer sticky toffee pudding, and that was disgusting! Soon after sunset (we couldn’t see it, because of the fog) we decided to call it a day and to have a very early night. Soon after we got inside our tents, the rain started.
A new dawn
We woke early, before sunrise (according to the clock, as we still couldn’t see it). Though brighter, there was still a grey skies quite low overhead. Caspar had another appointment to keep later in the day, so we skipped breakfast (but not coffee!) and packed up early.
During a rubbish sweep, Caspar found two unopened tuna containers, and we removed that from the moor too. Don’t you just hate litterbugs?
The benefits of sleeping next to a river is you hear the soothing sounds all night long. The disadvantages include having to leave the valley, which meant going uphill. The path we followed was cleverly disguised as a mini stream, and if my boots weren’t wet before, they would soon have gotten soaked!
All too soon, we started seeing signs of returning to civilisation, and not long after we descended into Ivybridge. I was quite glad that the walking while carrying a heavy backpack bit was over, as I’m so not used to doing that anymore, and was suffering a tad. Caspar however seemed fine, and after a brunch stop at a café in the town, he chose to walk back to the train station.