Dartmoor National Park, Devon

24 10 2004

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people… As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hillsides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door, fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

Perceptive readers will recognise the above passage from the most thrilling novel of Sherlock Holmes, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Arthur Conan Doyle was describing the setting of the novel, the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. (One would suppose that it was not a national park when the novel was written.) My experience of the same has been different but just as exciting.

As African elephants ponder in silence for hours before their long summer journey across the arid Savannahs, so did I looking across heather-filled slopes to the blank sheet of white fog that hung heavily on the Dartmoor hills. Beyond these slopes is a land exposed to the harshest forces of nature, uninhabited and shelterless, cold and grim, made all the more mysterious and dangerous by the blanketing fog. Nonetheless, to cross the moor under such conditions of bleak weather would be an experience of a lifetime that is not easily forgone.

Thus I start on a 7-hour trek from Ivybridge to Buckfastleigh under rain and gale. Every step is an act of balance and a couple of times I am blown off the path. Rain hits from behind and pierces the ground before me like a thousand arrows from an invading army. At times when walking against the wind, rain hits the face like a thousand needles. Every few steps the map and compass are checked since visibility is reduced to a mere 10 meters. After a while the map becomes useless as paths become indistinct, overgrown with grass or criss-crossed by cattle and sheep. Thus I begin to see the truth in J. Krishnamurthi’s famous words, “Truth is a pathless land”.

I lose the way but with the compass and landmarks find it again. The river Avon flows at a furious pace. The necessity to cross it has me waist-deep in water. River crossings are never easy. Still waters run deep. Narrow waters flow fast. The character of autumn is etched in every visible feature of the land. Cold October rain bathes the hills rich in colour. Evergreen pines rise straight and tall. In majestic stand they follow the contours of the hills. Wind or rain, wild ponies, sheep and cattle, maintain their monotonous task of grazing the green slopes. They find contentment in their ordinary lives. Their world is limited to the lush pastures that flourish between the deadly mires of the moor.

Every step takes me deeper into the heart of the moor and farther from civilization. Once within the folds of the enveloping fog I belong to a world of mystery and adventure. Who can tell what lies beyond? The fog is thick upon the moor. Clouds rush past at great speeds. Tussock grass and heather are bent with the force of the wind and in forced supplication kiss the ground. No trees or shrubs exist here. The skull and horns of a dead sheep lie along the path and fluffs of wool cling desperately to the grass. A cow moos somewhere and the sound assumes eerie tones. Is it in despair or in fear? All that matters is how one hears it.

Occasionally I cross abandoned tin mines. The stone circles, stone rows, remains of burial grounds and barrows are the only signs of ancient occupation. These are the settlements of our hardy ancestors from the Bronze Age (2000-550 BC) or perhaps even earlier. To touch one of these rocks is to connect with our ancient folks, long gone but who left behind their world for us. Our existence is an important dichotomy. We are insignificant in ourselves but at the same time represent the cumulative progress of the entire human race. Our ancestors have roamed these lands from the Palaeolithic times, about 250,000 years ago. The monuments they have left behind are simple yet mysterious. Is it that we have progressed that we fail to understand them?

Despite such weather there have been a few moments of such exceptional beauty that they have been rendered unforgettable. When the fog thins, just for a few moments, a sudden light filters from above and fills the scene with a subtle glow. Beyond the outer reaches of the moor the sky clears and the distant hills are crowned with patches of sunlight that make a perfect contrast to the character of the moor. The river Avon meanders between green hills patterned with circles and lines. Wild ponies, their manes freely blowing in the wind, complete the isolation of the moor. Dark clouds move dramatically in the distance and more rain is imminent.

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