First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘The peat fires!’ rhapsodised Sabine Barry Gould in his 1910 Book of Dartmoor. ‘What fires can surpass them? They do not flame, but they glow, and diffuse an aroma that fills the lungs with balm.’
It wasn’t the dream of a lungful of balm that lured so many 19th-century prospectors out into the wilds of Dartmoor, but the chance of turning a fat profit by distilling naphtha oil from the ‘black gold’ of the peat that blanketed the moors. Naphtha oil could be converted into candles and mothballs, as well as the spectrally flickering naphtha flares that lit the evening markets of country towns.
Following the trackbed of the horse-drawn tramway built in 1879 for the Rattlebrook Peat Works, we marvelled at the ingenuity and sheer muscle power that the moorland railway had demanded – the cuttings in the granite rock, the curves and embankments, the granite sleepers hand-bevelled for the rails. A couple of miles out from the Dartmoor Inn, we stopped and took in a mighty view, forty miles across the dun-coloured moor and green farmlands to a broad strip of cobalt Atlantic where the land met the eggshell-blue sky.
Moor ponies grazed the sunny slopes, their long manes and tails streaming wildly in the cold wind. At the end of the old railway line a hundred men once laboured to dig, dry and load the peat. Here we found a couple of tumbledown peat-drying kilns and two venerable rusty boilers.
Nearby on the banks of the Rattle Brook stood the ruin of the aptly named Bleak House, home of the peat company’s caretaker. All around, the moor slopes had been combed into drainage channels for peat cutting. The ditches, like the ancient packhorse tracks we followed back to the Dartmoor Inn, were already half obliterated by the inexorably growing peat.
Tinning, quarrying, farming, peat cutting – man has tried them all in the wilds of Dartmoor and the land has swallowed all his endeavours. The meadow pipits, the moor ponies and the harshly calling ravens are the true masters of these moors.
Start: Car park off A386 near Dartmoor Inn, Lydford, Okehampton, Devon EX20 4AY (OS ref SX 525854)
Getting there: Bus service 11, 118 (Tavistock-Okehampton)
Road: A30 past Okehampton, A386 towards Tavistock. In 4½ miles, 20m before Dartmoor Inn, left up narrow tarmac lane. Car park is beyond gate.
Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL28. NB: online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Follow stony track by left-hand wall to River Lyd stepping stones/footbridge (532857). Don’t cross; turn left beside river for a ⅓ of a mile. Where wall turns left (532863) keep ahead; in 50m, cross old tramway; on up path opposite. In 100m, right (533865) along higher tramway track, passing Great Nodden. In 1¾ miles, reach reversing point/turning circle on Coombe Down (546887). Hairpin back up to right; follow tramway track for 1½ miles to ruined kiln houses (560871). Just before ruin, right on boggy track for 500m. 100m before Bleak House ruin, cross Rattle Brook (560866); follow clear track, bearing away from brook. Pass Lower Dunna Goat tor; in another 250m, turn right/west (557861) on wide, well-walked bridleway path for 1¾ miles to River Lyd footbridge (532857), aiming to descend between Arms Tor and Widgery Cross. Ahead to Dartmoor Inn.
NB: Good boots, hill walking gear. Map, compass, GPS. Not advisable in heavy mist.
Lunch/Accommodation: Dartmoor Inn, Moorside, Lydford (01822-820221, dartmoorinn.com)