DARTMOOR

What to say about Dartmoor? It is difficult for me to express the multitude of feelings I have for this unique landscape in Devon, south west England. It is a love affair. Almost one thousand square kilometers, its boundaries contain a variety of features. The fringes have many farms, quite a few small villages, even a couple of towns and the inevitable pubs - this is England, after all. Yet the high, open moorland dominates, especially in the north and this wilderness of grasses, bogs, heather, gorse and rocks is what I loved most. In terms of scale, Dartmoor is not so dramatic. For a National Park, it does not cover a massive area and its highest rocky outcrop, or tor, is only 621 metres above sea level. Paradoxically, within a short walk from almost anywhere on the high ground, we can reach an expanse both open and uninhabited as far as the eye can see. From here it is easy to feel our absolute aloneness.

There are traces of human activity, everywhere, some dating from before 10,000 BC when the climate was warmer. They include stone rows and circles, flints, burrows and burial mounds. More recent remnants of earning a living also abound. Mining for tin, copper and arsenic flourished over several hundred years. As well as noticeable digging, the miners altered the water courses with an extensive system of tiny canals known as leats. Large swathes of peat, which covers the massive granite bed of the moor, were excavated for sale. There was even a scheme for creating shallow pools of ice to be sold off in chunks to the local fish markets. This latter enterprise, as you may imagine, was not very successful and even the more lucrative efforts have eventually disappeared. So many human endeavours have come and gone. Devoured by the wilderness, they are now mere traces that nature has claimed for its own. They include stone boundaries of what were once commercial rabbit warrens, extensive ghostly evidence of railway tracks, occasional crumbling cottages and sites of waterwheels that had personal names like 'Betsy' and 'Jewell'.

Farmers do still graze their cows and sheep in the summer, even on some of the remote parts of the moor and the wild rabbits and ponies remain all year round. The army even continues to train regularly in the north. Yet there is a sense of transience in all these activities. Civilisation could never get a firm enough grip on the wildness that lies at the very heart of Dartmoor, which holds an enduring silence. With this in mind, a walk on the moor can be an act of surrender to nature, whether we think of it that way, or not. Balmy sunshine does come and go. Unpredictable weather, however, can bring sudden high wind, thickly shrouding mist or a deluge of rain that turns paths into streams. The rivers suddenly swell and can only be crossed on slippery, submerged boulders. The perennial threat of chaos helps to emphasise our vulnerability in the face of nature.

Although the high moorland is open and vast, there is incredible variety in the details of its landscape. On a relatively small scale, the terrain changes dramatically, from flat, to incline, to near cliff and back again. The moor is crossed by rivers, streams and leats and spread with generous bogs. There are lone trees and a few small, woods here and there. It is dotted with more than 160 tors, each with its own shape and display of naturally sculpted rocks. The undulating surrounding, hills nearly always have their own special features often supported by the unique, half hidden remnants of human activity. The plethora of vegetation is a matter of scientific interest and adds specific colours and textures to each part of the terrain. When carefully observed, there are individual distinctions in each small area and separate hikes to various parts of the moor can feel like visits to completely different areas.