Think of Dartmoor and you think of bogs?
Well, I don’t, but some folk do – and that’s a bit unfair as Dartmoor has many other delights. And what’s wrong with bogs anyway? They help store carbon and are a homeland for a great deal of fauna and flora.
Okay, you might get stugged – as they say on the Moor – but it’s usually temporary and messy and really never fatal. Now, we all hear stories about people lost in Dartmoor bogs, and certainly sheep and ponies sometimes perish therein, but is there any real evidence that anyone has actually, provably died in one?
I blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The idea of your villain slipping into the mire is quite a wonderful end – I wish I could do that with one of the characters in the Dartmoor novel I’m writing at the moment. But it’s been done so there. My villain will croak in a very different way…
In many years of Dartmoor walking I’ve only ever once nearly come a cropper and that was entirely my own fault. Back in the 1970s, backpacking on north Dartmoor, I was coming down off the hills with a mighty packframe on my back. Feeling lazy, I decided to cut a corner – across Raybarrow Pool, a valley mire of some reputation.
It was a silly thing to do, particularly as there had been a lot of rain. I sank down almost to my shoulders, and the pack on my back made it difficult to extricate myself. Eventually I did, emerging Grendel-like from the swamp and having to douse myself in the Teign before returning to civilisation.
Not that I was exactly traumatised by the event – bog-trotting and Dartmoor go together. They are just one of those things, like the wind and the rain.
In fact they are fascinating. When I was a young member of the Ramblers Association, I used to go out on group walks with a lovely old lady called Pam Lind, who looked just like a Dresden doll and seemed as fragile. Her great talent was leading groups on botany walks into the heart of the Dartmoor bogs. She knew the name of every flower that grew in these secret places and made the oft-messy journeys well worthwhile.
Inspired by her example, I found myself seeking out the bogs and mires, finding the little paths across and working out just how tough the raim – (ream – the surface) – was. I found lots of ways across Fox Tor Mires, near Princetown, the valley mire that gets hauled out so often by writers and broadcaster seeking a representative bog. Interestingly, the paths I knew first all changed after the Great Drought of 1976, and I had to learn them again. Fox Tor is said to be the inspiration for the Great Grimpen Mire of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel. There’s no doubt it was perhaps more ferocious until it was partially drained in Victorian times.
I have to admit, I’ve never walked a boggier land than Dartmoor. Other bogs in other landscapes never seem to compare. It amuses me up here in the Lake District, when the great Wainwright says a walk is boggy going – the examples he cites would simply be classified as mud patches or surface water on Dartmoor.
I used to find that the small boggy patches on Dartmoor were messier than the valley mires, though the feather beds are fun. You can bounce up and down with great enjoyment, seeing if you go through the raim. And just as much fun to stick your walking stick down to gain some idea of the depth…
So look kindly on the bogs of Dartmoor, or elsewhere. Seek them out and explore them, for we are darned lucky to have them. So what if you get wet feet? Mine got soaked on thousands of Dartmoor expeditions, and I don’t blame those bogs for my arthritic ankles.
And if anyone can give me ONE single example – not anecdotal – of anyone drowning unwillingly in a Dartmoor bog please do let me know…