It’s rather pleasant to retrace the footsteps of years ago, seeing if your memories measure the lie of the land – and even better to do so when you use an ancient track, and a very picturesque one at that.
On a bright but rather blowy day, we set out from Ambleside to walk up to the Scandale Pass, before passing on to Little Hart Crag, then returning over Dove Crag and the last bits of the Fairfield Horseshoe – High and Low Pikes.
I haven’t walked the Fairfield Horseshoe in its entirety for a dozen years, and it was twenty-two years since I last stood on the top of Little Hart Crag.
Actually, I remember that occasion well – it was 26th June 1997, on a very wild day.
I noted that:
The rain had eased off, but the wind was ferocious as I climbed this Dartmoor tor plonked on top of a Lakeland mountain – a wonderful brooding guardian of the fells. I had to climb over the summit crouched down to avoid being blown off. A brilliant rocky world is revealed from the top.
I remember very well being buffeted as I returned to Ambleside, and dripping with rain in a tea-shop afterward. As it was my last day in the Lake District, I bought a rather pricey rucksack to take away with me.
The weather was a tad calmer the other day, though there was enough easterly wind to make it interesting. We followed the path to High Sweden Bridge, surely one of the most picturesque river spans in Britain, and sat there for a while admiring the Scandale Beck. This path, from Ambleside to the top of the Scandale Pass, is particularly old, used for centuries by people passing over the fells to Patterdale. It is, in itself, well worth walking, though we followed it only to the head of the Pass.
The track runs through some very fine scenery, first alongside the beck in woodland, then through intakes, where it is enclosed by stone walls, then out on to more open fellside as it crests the ridge.
Little Hart Crag was as magnificent as I remembered, a good burst of rock coming from a dramatic position on the ridge – a good viewpoint too, over Brothers Water and towards Place Fell. And it’s a very good viewpoint for the stunning cliffs of Dove Crag, where so many rock climbers put up routes over so many years.
We climbed there before turning down to High Pike and then Low Pike, admiring the views over the northern end of Windermere. The descent took longer than I remembered, perhaps because I’ve got older and was bothered my arthritic ankle. Rougher too than I recalled. Funny how the memory plays tricks.
But the two Pikes are the usual end (or beginning) of the Fairfield Horseshoe and worthy tops for that adventure – though trampers in the earlier years of the last century favoured finishing the route down Red Screes to the east.
However, the Pikes do offer terrific views down into Scandale, and it was interesting seeing the way we had come earlier in the day.
And grand too visiting a top I hadn’t been to for twenty-two years – Little Hart Crag.
I recall that last time as if it were yesterday. Where have all those years gone?
I’ve noticed that whenever I walk somewhere I haven’t been for years, it doesn’t seem possible that so much time has fled by…
The Sedbergh Quaker Trail is an eleven mile walk through some very attractive countryside, close to Sedbergh, exploring the world of the early Quakers, the Westmorland Seekers in the 17th century, when Quaker meetings had to be held in secret because of religious intolerance. This splendid trail has been devised by the Sedbergh Area Walking and Cycling Group with the support of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
The group has produced a splendid pamphlet to the trail, which is available from the local tourist information centre. Well worth getting and only £1.50 and worth every penny.
Walk this trail and you’ll be treading in the footsteps of George Fox and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. You’ll also find yourselves in beautiful and wild countryside along the banks of the River Lune and the high ground beyond, with splendid views of the Howgill Fells and up into Dentdale.
I’m not a Quaker, but I find the history of the movement fascinating. Men like George Fox marched to the beat of a different drummer in those troublous days of the 17th century, when politics and religion were closely entwined.
We walked first to Sedbergh Church, where George Fox preached, standing on a bench under a yew tree, in the churchyard in the Whitsun week of 1652, refusing to go inside the building on the grounds that a church is the people and not the building. We followed country paths across to the Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House, which I blogged about on January 9th. The Meeting House was built in 1675, though there was a strong Quaker tradition in the area.
We walked on to Ingmire Hall and then along some paths to Lincoln’s Inn Bridge. We had a bright day for our walk, with just a couple of light showers, but there has been a great deal of rain lately and we skirted several pools of standing water in the fields. Lots of lambs about, though, and a real feeling that spring is in the air.
From Lincoln’s Inn, where there is a magnificent bridge, we climbed steeply up to Hawkrigg Wood (looks like it’s going to be great for bluebells in a couple of months) and then high up to the wilder fell country around Master Knott and Firbank Fell.
Just off the lane is Fox’s Pulpit, the rock where George Fox preached for three hours to over a thousand of the Westmorland Seekers, and Yorkshire Seekers too, in 1652, at the secret meeting which is thought to be the beginnings of the Quaker Movement. There’s a plaque on the rock which declares:
Let your lives speak
Here or near this rock George Fox preached to about one thousand seekers for three hours on Sunday, June 13, 1652. Great power inspired his message and the meeting proved of first importance in gathering the Society of Friends known as Quakers. Many men and women convinced of the truth on this fell and in other parts of the northern counties went forth through the land and over the seas with the living word of the Lord enduring great hardships and winning multitudes to Christ.
Or as George Fox recorded in his journal: ‘While others were gone to dinner, I went to a brook, got a little water, and then came and sat down on the top of a rock hard by the chapel. In the afternoon the people gathered about me, with several of their preachers. It was judged there were above a thousand people; to whom I declared God’s everlasting truth and Word of life freely and largely for about the space of three hours.‘
It’s a moody, atmospheric place, when you think what happened there. You wonder what the weather was like and whether Fox could see the wide range of views we did. Strange that something happened there that changed the world a bit, when you think of the persecutions that led not only to the growth of the Quaker Movement, but to religious exile and, in particular, its influences in the growth of the USA.
Nearby, once stood a chapel, now gone and rebuilt in nearby Firbank, and there is a Quaker burial ground adjacent to the spot where Fox spoke.
One thing is certain. Those thousand Westmorland Seekers walked up to the pulpit using the old ways, the ancient tracks, we were now walking. Indeed, Fox walked up there probably along the very paths we were now taking from Draw Well, now part of Bramaskew Farm, where he was staying with the Blaykling Family. Jumping ahead, the barn there was the scene of a further meeting, when – in 1665 – the militia were sent out to arrest worshipping Quakers. In 1676, a further conference was held there which was attended by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. How history is made in such quiet places.
We descended down to the farmhouse with the lovely name of Goodies, and crossed the River Lune by the recently restored Fishermen’s Bridge. The original crossing was washed away in Storm Desmond, and this replacement was built last year at the cost of £110,000 pounds – restoring access to the rights of way network, given that it is the only crossing for miles – a big thank you to the many organisations that contributed to the costs. It has been beautifully done by real craftsmen.
From Hole House, where the path, now part of the Dales Way, runs through the back yard of the house, before climbing through the fields to the farmstead of Nether Bainbridge, and then along to Bramaskew, which I mentioned earlier.
We returned to Sedbergh by way of Howgill Lane, though there’s an alternative route which skirts the foot of Winder, that attractive Howgill Fell. As Sedbergh is a book town, we spent a pleasant hour browsing in the booshops – always a delight.
But my mind wandered back to the wild and lonely countryside we had tramped through, and to those persecuted Westmorland Seekers who had had to use wild countryside and these secret paths as they endeavoured to worship without persecution.
Walk the old paths near the coast and you are almost certainly walking in the footsteps of smugglers. I’ve walked a great deal in Devon and Dorset, using paths, tracks and hollow ways which would certainly have known the passage of smugglers – for smuggling was a boom industry until recent times. As late as the 1960s, a smuggling gang was busted in the town of Teignmouth in Devon.
I was there at the time. I remember the arrests. Several old Teignmouth families were involved, and I was at school with some of their children. Whatever the law thought, many of the folk of Teignmouth shrugged and smiled, for the smugglers were following a long local tradition. A cheeky smuggler appeared on the “Welcome to Teignmouth” signs, and some childhood friends of mine won first prize in the local fete’s fancy dress as Teignmouth smugglers.
The Teignmouth smugglers’ methods were different to the ways used by the smugglers of old – no longer landing cargo at lonely coves and using packhorses and donkeys to bring the goods inland. Transference from ship to boat is the more unromantic and modern method.
But look around our coastline and walk the paths leading up from the quiet beaches and you can understand how it was done in older times. The traces are still there. There’s a lane at Holcombe, close to Teignmouth, still called Smugglers Lane. And it was certainly used for that purpose, coming to the end of its “working” life only when the railway line was built along its coastal end in Victorian times. Walk many of the paths on the present-day Teignmouth and Dawlish Way and you are using smuggling paths.
These Devon paths were much used by the great smugglers of the 18th and 19th centuries – John ‘Jack’ Rattenbury of Beer, who lived to write his memoirs and to enjoy a small pension given to him by the local landowner Lord Rolle – a gent who’d probably benefited from smuggled goods. Then there was ‘Resurrection’ Bob Elliott of Brixham, who faked his own death so that smuggled goods could be transported in his very large coffin.
When I first explored the paths of Devon and Dorset, I’d discuss the smugglers with many an old man or woman in the villages. A few times I was taken to see some old smugglers’ hiding places in cottages in places like Beer and Branscombe. I often wonder if their present-day owners are even aware of them? All along the English coast are coastguard cottages, such as those at Birling Gap in Sussex and East Prawle in Devon, built right on the coast as a deterrent and so the Revenue men were right on the spot.
If you’ve ever walked all or part of the South West Coast Path, then you are using paths not just used by smugglers, but also the Revenue men whose job it was to catch them. A dangerous profession at times. In Branscombe Churchyard is the tomb of a Revenue man who was found dead at the foot of the local cliffs. Another was found drowned in the marshes at Dawlish Warren. Smuggling gangs like those operating out of Hawkshurst in Kent were particularly vicious.
But many a Revenue man probably turned a blind eye in exchange for a consideration from the smugglers. Local landowners, magistrates and even vicars were often in the smugglers pay.
Some even went further. Places like Otterton and East Budleigh in east Devon were hotbeds of smuggling, with probably all the villagers involved, much of it run by the local vicars the Reverend Mundy and Ambrose Stapleton, notorious smuggling churchmen, rather like the fictional Doctor Syn in Russell Thorndike’s famous smuggling novels set in Kent on Romney Marsh (do read them, they are quite wonderful, and were one of the inspirations for my own William Quest novels.)
This was no makeshift industry, smuggling was run on a very commercial basis, with active workers, shareholders and customers from all sections of society, including shipowners and inland transporters, who would move and, where necessary, conceal contraband in well-prepared hiding places. In the Poldark novels of Winston Graham, that author portrays – very accurately – the activities of the smuggling leader Mr Trencrom. That’s how it would have been.
Walk up the old paths in places like East Devon and Dorset and you can well imagine what it must have been like, as smugglers brought contraband up for secret coves for distribution inland. Many a local would have been told to “watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by” as in Kipling’s famous poem.
Another poet, who would have heard the tales, was Thomas Hardy, who captures the mood in his poem Winter Night in Woodland:
Out there, on the verge, where a path wavers through,
Dark figures, filed singly, thrid quickly the view,
Yet heavily laden: land-carriers are they
In the hire of smugglers from some nearest bay,
Each bears his two ‘tubs’, slung across, one in front, one behind,
To a further snug hiding, which non but themselves are to find.
Many a time I’ve walked these old tracks at night, when only the foxes and badgers are about. You can almost sense the phantoms of the old smuggling gentry if you explore our old ways when nobody else is about.
Smuggling seems to appeal to the lawless side of the British character, people who wouldn’t tolerate other crimes. I can remember walking a path up from Beer with an old walking pal when we half-seriously discussed resurrecting the old smuggling methods. We did both live in Teignmouth, after all!
On reflection we decided against it, which was probably just as well.
But many years later, in a Cornish village, not far from the coast, I found myself in an interesting situation where something morally right was being done, even though it was infringing the law of the land. Two old ladies telephoned their fellow villagers, insisting that they “didn’t look out of their windows for a couple of hours, lest they see something they shouldn’t.”
The villagers obliged and there were no witnesses.
For a while I felt I was living in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ASmuggler’s Song:
IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet, Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.
Five and twenty ponies, Trotting through the dark – Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk. Laces for a lady; letters for a spy, Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine, Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play. Put the brishwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day !
If you see the stable-door setting open wide; If you see a tired horse lying down inside; If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore; If the lining’s wet and warm – don’t you ask no more !
If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red, You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said. If they call you ” pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin, Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been !
Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark – You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark. Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by !
‘If You do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance, You’ll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France, With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood – A present from the Gentlemen, along ‘o being good !
Five and twenty ponies, Trotting through the dark – Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk. Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie – Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by !
Richard Jefferies, the Victorian country chronicler, was always full of praise for country footpaths – “always get over a stile” was his motto. And he was right. You never know what you might find when you take a walk down a public footpath or bridleway that you haven’t been down before.
A few blogs ago, I mentioned that we had started to explore public footpaths to the west of the Cumbrian (properly Westmorland) village of Maulds Meaburn. We just scratched the surface last time. This time we walked further into unknown countryside.
And what did we see? Well, how about two modern stone circles? A house lived in by a Victorian artist? A quiet and peaceful hamlet with a coal-mining history? Not to mention some very peaceful and, I suspect, mostly untrodden countryside – and I mean that. While locals may use these paths, there were few signs that ramblers from further afield come here very often.
We set off from Crosby Ravensworth, following the now familiar Servants’ Path (see blogs passim) past Flass House to Maulds Meaburn, that charming village where sheep still graze on the village greens.
Just past Low Bridge, we took the footpath to Howebeck Bridge, where there is a splendid and ancient stone step stile out on to the lane. At the foot of Morland Bank, we took the footpath past the charmingly named Prickly Bank Wood towards Reagill hamlet. Judging by the lack of footprints, not many people walk this way, though the path runs through charming countryside with good view over the Pennines. There are also some splendid old agricultural buildings along the route.
Before we got to Reagill, below Beechwood Farm, we noticed that someone had built a small but well made stone circle, to a prehistoric design. And not much further on, just before we struck the Reagill lane, we saw another modern circle, inscribed with mystical words. I’d be fascinated to know more about these and why they were built. if you know, please comment below.
Reagill seems to be one of the hamlets that time forgot, though it has an interesting history. It was once called Renegill, and the nearby Grange was the home of the 19th century artist and sculptor Thomas Bland, who decorated the neighbourhood with some of his sculpted work. In centuries past, the rich seem of coal that runs underground here was worked on a small-scale, though there a record of at least one fatality.
But now Reagill is a place of peace, clinging to its hillside, high above the Eden valley, with vast views across to the Pennines. Apart from locals, you wonder who ever comes here? Yet there are a number of public footpaths around the place, which deserve to be better known and used.
We followed the lane down past Reagill Grange, once the home of Thomas Bland, taking the bridleway and then a footpath to the very small hamlet of Witherslack (lovely name!) which is little more than a working farm.
Although you can walk back to Crosby Ravensworth by paths, we chose to follow the quiet lanes, as they offer wide views across the valley of the River Lyvenett.
All through our walk we didn’t see another walker, despite this being unspoiled and very attractive countryside. Yet walking the old ways is important. Without regular use, they may simply be lost.
How splendid if guidebook writers would abandon the well-walked areas and turn their pens to writing up walks on the little-used footpaths and bridleways…
One of Dartmoor’s oldest paths is under threat of being stopped up – and you have just a few days to object.
The footpath, running through Okehampton Battlecamp, on the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park, is facing closure by the Ministry of Defence, despite the fact that it existed long before the battlecamp was built. The path has never been closed, even when the battlecamp was fully garrisoned. Now the camp is only used sporadically when troops train on Dartmoor.
The proposed new path, mostly running around the edge of the battlecamp, is not as commodious to users as the present route. It is longer, nowhere near as attractive and not as convenient to walkers who wish to access the open moorland beyond the camp. Walkers would be obliged to walk further to regain the point they would have used by following the original path. Some of the proposed alternative is already accessible to walkers.
The MoD and Defence Estates have not made out the case as to why the path should be stopped up. This path existed long before the camp and has been there throughout the camp’s history. It was NOT deemed inconvenient when the path had almost a permanent garrison, nor was it removed during the IRA emergencies. The former commandant of the camp told me in the 1990s that he didn’t consider the path to be a problem.
I’ve used this path for over fifty years, and I don’t judge that my presence has been any sort of inconvenience to the military. Nor them to me.
The stopping up will increase the amount of road traffic going up to Moor Gate, as walkers seek to cut down the length of the proposed alternative.
When the battlecamp was built the people of Okehampton were promised that the path would remain as it is. It is one of Dartmoor’s ancient paths.
The Ministry of Defence never cease to baffle me. They are underfunded by over seven billion pounds, they are having difficulties recruiting and can hardly afford to properly equip our troops. We now have the smallest standing army since the Crimean War, yet they are holding on to almost as much land – at great expense – as they had at the height of National Service.
Yet they seem to be prepared to blue taxpayers’ cash pursuing footpath stopping up orders like this one. And only recently they seized the Commoners’ Rights of farmers in the parishes of Hilton and Murton in Cumbria in a shameful bit of land-grabbing.
Shouldn’t this underfunded government department be getting its priorities right?
The Webburn might not be the first river that comes to mind when you think of Dartmoor rivers, but I think of it as one of the best.
The Webburn is surely Dartmoor’s most secret river, even if one of its branches does flow through Widecombe in the Moor – the Moor’s most popular tourist village. It is an elusive flow, occasionally encountered but rarely followed from its twin sources to its end in the swirling waters of the River Dart, below New Bridge.
To seek out its hidden places involves much trespass or the omission of great stretches of its waters. So come trespassing with me.
Rather like those pioneers of British exploration it makes some sense to follow the Webburn upstream, not least because the end of the river – at Buckland Bridge – is easily accessible and following the first section of the river presents no problems. The bridge spans the Webburn immediately above its confluence with the Dart and was rightly described by William Crossing as a charming scene.
It was here that the Widecombe authoress Beatrice Chase liked to linger and about which she wrote on a number of occasions. The lovely wooded valley upstream is a nature reserve, a haunt of otters and water birds. A path takes the wanderer upstream to the joining of the East and West Webburns at Lizwell Meet. All of this is land declared open to roam under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. On the hillside above is the fine viewpoint of Blackadon Down, with the stony piles of Blackadon Tor and Logwell Rock. It is a seldom visited area in comparison with other parts of Dartmoor.
The wooded valley splits here, one branch following the West Webburn upstream to Ponsworthy Bridge and then along the East Webburn to Cockingford Bridge. There are good paths by the banks of both of these rivers, but though well used they are not rights of way and you will be trespassing. I’ve walked them often over the years and all the tracks pass through delightful scenery. A good excuse to exercise your freedom to roam.
Let us follow the western river first. At Ponsworthy, the Webburn is easily walked using a public footpath which is now part of the Two Moors Way. It is a rough and stony track, often very near the edge of the water, a very good place for a lunch break. The river bends to the north west at the hamlet of Jordan.
It was near here that I often met the actor and fisherman, the late Sir Michael Hordern, a great champion of freedom to roam, who spent his boyhood nearby and often returned. Sir Michael walked and fished the Webburn and neighbouring rivers at all hours of the day and night and few people had a greater knowledge of the local waters.
A bridleway takes the tramper above a further stretch of the Webburn, below the hill known as Jordan Ball to the appropriately named Shallowford. From above here the West Webburn drains a broad and marshy valley. Those Dartmoor walkers who have explored the old mineral workings around Vitifer and Birch Tor will have already seen the headwaters of the West Webburn, but before we proceed thither, let us look at where some of the tiny streams around Broadaford actually pass.
One tiny stream heads up towards Blackaton Manor and Gamble Cottage. Older ramblers on Dartmoor will remember when the latter was the home of Dr Alan and Mrs Gwenna Barwell, wonderful leaders of moorland walks. I walked with both of them on many occasions; expeditions which often concluded with sumptuous feasts at Gamble Cottage, which went on long into the night. Alan and Gwenna have passed on now, but I have fond memories of them both and enjoy looking at the painting of Bowerman’s Nose that Gwenna painted for me as a calendar one Christmas many years ago.
A westwards stream goes near to Cator, once the home of Dartmoor’s greatest conservationist, (Lady) Sylvia Sayer. How she is missed in these days when Dartmoor preservationists seem more interested in preserving the Dartmoor Establishment rather than Dartmoor itself.
The principal waters of the Webburn flow on under Challacombe to the mineral workings at Vitifer. A good bridleway and open moorland gives good access to the river from this point and there is a great deal of fascinating industrial archaeology in the vicinity.
Back then to Lizwell Meet, where a woodland path (private) leads to Cockingford Bridge.
If you are averse to trespassing, a footpath cuts the corner from Cockingford to the lane into Widecombe, offering limited views of the next stretch of the East Webburn as it heads towards the village.
It passes below Venton Farm, once the home of Olive Katherine Parr, or Beatrice Chase as she was better known. This once-famous authoress is buried in Widecombe churchyard, where her gravestone bears both names. She crossed swords with many people, not least the archaeologist and DPA secretary Richard Hansford Worth. In the days when I worked for the Dartmoor Preservation Association, I used to delight in reading their often vitriolic correspondence, which is housed in the DPA archive. It should be made available to a wider readership.
What can one say about Widecombe-in-the-Moor? Despite the crowds, the hype, and the occasional tackiness, I still think it a delightful place in one of the most beautiful of settings.
The Webburn slips by all this hustle and bustle and is scarcely noticed. But the valley beyond is truly dramatic, mountainous in aspect, and perhaps deserving of a mightier river. Access to the Webburn is again limited until open moorland is reached at Natsworthy Gate. Here the main branch of the Webburn makes a sharp turn to the west, climbing the steep slopes of Hameldon to a source near to the Blue Jug boundary stone, scarce a mile from the headwaters of its sister river the East Webburn.
If you like your river sources to be in stark and beautiful places, then this will do for you as the head of the Webburn. But a case can be made for the tiny brook that proceeds up the valley past Heathercombe, below Barramoor and up to near Lettaford Cross as being the final flow of the Webburn. This may be followed, with a subsidiary watercourse up on to Shapley Common.
The first part of this may be seen from the footpath through the woodlands of Heathercombe Brake and the Shapley tributary from the Mariners Way. In dry weather some of the highest parts dry out, but it is surely the highest flow of this elusive river.
If you have been a bold trespasser and followed much of the two courses of the Webburn you will have passed through a quiet and secret landscape. The Webburn deserves to be better known and perhaps in future years increased access legislation or new rights of way will make this lovely river far more accessible.
This is an extract from my Devon book, now out in paperback and on Kindle…
Here’s the blurb…
“The novelist John Bainbridge has walked in the Devon countryside for over fifty years, and is well known as a writer and broadcaster on the county.
In this miscellany of country essays, he explores many of the quiet corners of Devon, from the wild moorlands of Dartmoor and Exmoor to its spectacular coastline and peaceful pastoral landscapes.
John Bainbridge is the author of the country books The Compleat Trespasser and Wayfarer’s Dole.
“As a rambler, I’ve spent much of the past half century roaming through the Devon countryside, exploring the county’s quiet villages, winding footpaths and bridleways, lonely moorland and dramatic coast. I’ve had the privilege of leading walking groups to share what I know of this land. For much of that time I’ve also written and broadcast about Devon – in a number of books and many newspaper and magazine articles and for a local radio station. In fact, my first published work was an article about Dartmoor, written and sold when I was sixteen.
Devon has changed a great deal since I began my walks there – not altogether for the better. Ill-thought out development has blighted some of the countryside I knew. I salute those campaigners who are fighting to protect what remains. I spent nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, so I appreciate the hard work involved in saving the beauties for future generations to enjoy.
But even with all these changes there are still the quiet secret places there to discover, and what better way to seek them out than on foot? I’ve enjoyed my Devon walks, both alone and in the company of other ramblers.
I’ve written about Devon in my two earlier walking books Wayfarer’s Dole and The Compleat Trespasser, which give accounts of some of my longer walks. But there are some shorter pieces I’ve written, many previously published as magazine articles, which didn’t fit into the themes of those titles – fugitive pieces which I thought might make a collection on their own, hence this little volume.
This is no definitive account of Devon, nor yet a walks guide, though there are snippets of history, legend and topography in the pages which follow. Footloose in Devon is rather a bedside book, a volume to be dipped into when the reader has a quiet moment. I hope the places mentioned might inspire some rambles and expeditions into the heart of this very lovely county.”
There’s no doubt that the people who lived in this country in what we call prehistory regarding the land as sacred. Just look around and see the stone circles, henges and stone rows they left behind. It is hard for us to enter their mindset, though most folk still experience a sense of wonder when they visit these historic sites.
The question that often occurs to me is whether the places where the circles, rows etc. now stand were in some way held to be sacred before those structures were erected. That might explain why, in some cases, stones for these antiquities were often brought considerable distances to the sites where they now stand. Why bother? Why not just use the stones of the local area, or erect these monuments close to where the source stones were?
I’m an amateur antiquarian and not an archaeologist, so I’m not qualified to give an opinion. If you are please comment below with your thoughts…
But just look at the surviving sites – the great monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, the rich archaeology of Dartmoor, the many stone circles of Aberdeenshire, the wonders of Kilmartin Glen in Argyll – the list goes on.
I was considering this the other day when we were taking one of our regular walks on the edge of the Lake District, across the fells of Askham and Moor Divock.
There’s no doubt that this wide stretch of moorland was one of these sacred stretches of landscape – the evidence is there for all to see with the remnants of rows, an excellent stone circle now called The Cockpit, banks and ditches. In my Dartmoor days we would have described it as a sanctuary.
And where these ancient people went – and we should think of them not as savages but as human beings as mentally sophisticated as we are – we have a multiplicity of trackways. The ways that these men and women took not only to survive day to day, but to access sacred sites.
On the fells around Moor Divock, there are a great many tracks. Some undoubtedly of recent origin, but others which must have existed for thousands of years.
Crossing the hillside is the Roman road known as High Street. Was it built by the Romans? I don’t think so. I think it was a prehistoric way across the eastern Lake District fells, that the Romans adopted and probably improved.
Take a walk along it and consider that – High Street not a relatively recent Roman road, but one of the oldest roads in Britain. Perhaps dating back to Neolithic times when the men and women who dwelt in these hills first felt the need to travel regularly, unlike their ancestors, the hunters who had no defined routes, but simply followed the herds of animals they needed for food.
When we walk the old ways, we are often walking in the steps of the most ancient of our ancestors. So take a walk along the old tracks and visit these old sites – the circles, henges and row. Take a walk and wonder as well as wander.