Scribbles from Devon and Cornwall – Part 8

20 05 2007

12-20 May 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9

Lydford Gorge

A photo conveys poorly the roar of water's flow in Lydford Gorge

A photo conveys poorly the roar of water's flow in Lydford Gorge

It appears that this gorge has not only appropriated the name of the village next to it but also its popularity. Ignoring the village, I alighted at the eastern entrance to the gorge. This is a wonderful wooded landscape that follows the course of the river Lyd. Rather, it is the river that has created the gorge by a fascinating geological process known as “river capture”. There used to flow this way the river Burn. The river Lyd used to flow in a separate valley. By a long process of erosion the waters of Lyd cut through the valley. Being a much bigger river than Burn, it captured the latter instead of draining into it. The combined waters of these rivers created Lydford Gorge. It’s almost a symbiotic relationship. The river creates the gorge which in its turn lends a spectacular setting in return. The interesting thing here is that river Burn is seen nowhere on the OS map. We can discover its existence only by tracing it to some underground source. On the surface, it’s just river Lyd that we see.

The National Trust has done a commendable job in this gorge. The paths are steep, narrow and often on wet slippery granite rocks. They have made the paths as safe as possible. By the edge of cliffs, they have placed iron railings. Where necessary, there are steps and bridges. We can walk either upstream or downstream. Paths follow the river at its edge. Paths follow too the wooded slopes high above the river. Sometimes the river is seen clearly through the woods of native trees of oak beech, hazel and ash. At other times we hear its flow but do not see it. In short, a walk along this gorge is a bit of everything and the presence of the river is always with our consciousness.

At one end of the gorge is a waterfall, not a tall one by any world standard. “He dragged me all the way from Birmingham to see this”, joked an Indian woman whose husband was a white British. She was obviously disappointed. I could only agree with her. The waterfall had nothing attractive in its flow. It was not the Lodore Falls of Keswick. A waterfall as this is a little difficult to appreciate. Water gushes violently down a steep cliff and dashes itself against the rocks. This movement is very repetitive and continuous. The same act happens again and again. Continuity of action allows us little time to think or seek a balance. Without pause, it bores too soon. Perhaps, I felt this way after being with the sea for so long. With sea waves, there is always a natural balance. Waves advance and recede. Each cycle ends or begins with a pause. Just as the scene is balanced, so is the sound of waves.

So the only way to appreciate a waterfall as this is in the details. It is one thing to be stunned by beauty at first glance. It is one thing to feel that beauty almost instantly. It is quite another thing to study and analyze in an effort to discover beauty. The former is vastly preferred but when it is lacking we must make the best of the situation. So I began to study the details of this waterfall. Though the flow was continuous and repetitive there was some variety to keep me interested. Water dived along the smooth dark surface of the cliff. At a couple of places it took a little turn when diverted by a rocky projection. It dashed itself on the rocks below and drained into a quieter pool sheltered by the same rocks. From this pool, a rapid stream of narrow span began its journey.

At the other end of the gorge is the “Devil’s Cauldron”. Here was a deafening roar of the river falling into a deep pool. The drop was quite insignificant but the sheer volume of flow made up for it. This deep pool is bound on all side by steep cliffs with only a little gap by which it is accessible on an iron platform. Here the waters dip and rise, twist and turn, gasp for breath and hiss with wild ecstasy. The cauldron is always in a state of thunder. The surrounding rocks are in perpetual deluge. If a branch of wood gets caught in the current it is thrown down without remit. If it is pushed to the side, it gets caught in a ceaseless whirlpool. The waters are always bubbling and rippling. Thus this feature of the gorge merits quite rightly the epithet of a cauldron. Unlike a real cauldron, the water is not boiling hot but ice cold.

Interesting figures made from natural materials

Interesting figures made from natural materials

Coming out of the cauldron, the river tumbles wildly and without restraint. The steady rocks in its path are forced to make way. The river tunnels its way by force making for itself a passage amidst the rocks. Sometimes the flow is narrow and fast. Sometimes a little current escapes into a niche and forms a quiet pool. Sometimes the river flows so broadly that it is even doubtful if it flows. A little downstream from the cauldron, there is no foam and no spray. The river is almost motionless. It is deep at some places. At others it is broad and shallow. We can make out its flow only by the leaf that floats on its surface; only by ripples that move along downstream; only by little currents made by scattered pebbles on the river bed; only by the wavering reflection of the sky. It is hard to believe that just before this quiet stretch, the river passed through an intense struggle against cliffs and rocks, foaming with fury and energy. But deep within, it has always been calm and quiet.

Dartmoor National Park

This is not my first visit to Dartmoor. My previous visit had been a walk from Ivybridge to Buckfastleigh in South Dartmoor. On this trip I was to cover some western and central parts of Dartmoor. Dartmoor covers a wide area. It is an area steeped in prehistory. In a thick mist and a lashing rain of October, I had managed to see some of the prehistoric stone rows. I wanted to see a different face of the moor. I was fortunate. The weather was sunny and dry for the entire two days. Unfortunately, I came to feel that this was not the face of Dartmoor I liked.

Wet, bleak and featureless. This is what we expect of the moor. We expect the low-lying heath, continuously blasted as it is by the wind, to hug the ground closely. Trees are not expected to make a daring stand. Woods, if they are to make a presence at all, are rarely native. At best, they are modern pine plantations. We expect to see the stone monuments in their enigmatic designs penetrating the mist and dripping wet with rain. As the mist rolls in and out of the rolling moorland, we expect these monuments to come to us with glimpses of their eternals secrets.

One of the many tors at Dartmoor

One of the many tors at Dartmoor

Instead, the moorland I really saw was quite different. On the one rare occasion when I had hoped for rain, the days stayed completely dry. The skies seemed to have found a union with the hills and the heath, with no clouds to separate them. The wind was fierce with only some moisture in it. The views were far-reaching. The villages on the moor were more often in full view, denying me the remote feel of a prehistoric landscape. The incongruous prison buildings of Princetown were too modern for this ancient moor. The church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor was too near even from a distance. The pretty villages of North Bovey and Moretonhampstead were not what I had come to see. There was no secretive mist. The secrets of Dartmoor were laid bare. The wild landscape of Dartmoor that I had encountered in my last trip, which I found nowhere else in Britain, was missing. Only once, when the sun momentarily disappeared behind a group of wandering clouds, a sudden chill enveloped the hilltops. The wind took cue. A veil of light rain cut at a steep angle. Dartmoor showed in that instant what it was capable of.

There were other disappointments. I had hoped to walk directly east from the village of Peter Tavy. I was in doubt. I made a phone call. I was told that live firing was taking place on this Friday within Merrivale Range. I had to forego my original plan and all the tors, stone rows and circles that had been along my intended path. I had to take a wide detour. When I reached the village of Merrivale, I was unaware of some notable stone rows and circles. Only later in the day, when I looked at their pictures on the walls in Bellever YHA, I realised what I had missed. I had not done my research.

This landscape is cryptic. True understanding of this landscape is not for the common man. One has to be an expert archaeologist to make sense of the stone monuments of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements. Were these settlements permanent? Were they used only in the summer months? Did they pen their livestock separately? What livestock did they rear? How did they trade such livestock for grain? What was the purpose of these circles, rows and standing stones? If many of these survive today, how have the intervening generations changed them? Have archaeological works destroyed some of the original spirit of the place? Do we see more of restored or reconstructed ruins than their original forms?

Prehistoric stone hut at Grimspound

Prehistoric stone hut at Grimspound

I was left asking some of these questions at Grimspound. Only later did I learn this to be a Bronze Age settlement. However, looking at the wide enclosing wall it is easy to doubt this. The wall is by no means a solid one of stone laid upon stone. It is a wide litter of stones and rocks. Where there is some semblance of a proper wall, it is easy to see that this fragile construction has to be more modern. But even for a common man, much can be gathered from common sense and perceptive observations. To begin with, a settlement of such scale and organization could never have been the work of Neolithic people who were largely hunters and gatherers. They began the early settlements and stone huts but it was only their Bronze Age successors who improved on them. Within this walled enclosure are many hut circles. Circles are most natural of all shapes and primitive man did not seek an alternative. The enclosure is a circle. The stones huts are circles. So are the surrounding hills and the hill-tops. These circles were an unconscious response to the natural landscape that inspired them. None of the remains contain a roof which must have been thatched in some primitive way. Some of these huts have clear walls, an entrance, a step or a walled passage. The ground within the hut is clear and much trampled by visitors. Other huts, perhaps smaller in size, are overgrown with grass. Their features are less obvious. They are less visited. Perhaps, they have been less tampered with by archaeologists and hence more authentic. In some cases, two rooms are joined together. This may indicate the dwelling of a larger family, perhaps even an extended family spanning three generations. This may indicate status and power. Either way, these huts indicate early forms of family and community. I later learnt by online research, that some huts have hearths while others don’t, the latter possibly used only for storage. However, being a common man, I had not seen any hearths. I had seen only a rough assembly of two or three stones within some hut circles.

Here at Grimspound, we can touch the same stones that our ancestors once touched. History is embedded in these stones. Age has left its mark on their surfaces weathered by nature and discoloured by lichens. I am glad to have seen Grimspound. Approaching it from Hameldown Tor and later looking back from Hookney Tor, I was treated to a spectacular sight. We can see the whole settlement framed in one picture. The large stone enclosure contains within it perhaps twenty hut circles. The huts are scattered within the enclosure in no deliberate pattern. A clear path cuts right across this settlement. We can stand on one of the surrounding hills and imagine transported to a day three thousand years ago. We can imagine smoke rising from some opening amongst the stones. At sunset, we can imagine men driving their livestock into the enclosure. We can imagine children playing games we will never really know. We can imagine women cooking or stitching a design on sheepskins. When the day is done, we can imagine them huddling into their little huts to get a good night’s rest.

The OS map marks a number of such monuments of antiquity. Many are not quite obvious, particularly when it’s an isolated standing stone or a barrow of insignificant scale. Any stone casually littering the expanse of Dartmoor is a piece of prehistory. A stone half-sunken into the ground may have been formed by nature but just as likely erected by prehistoric man. It might be a standing stone toppled by age. It might be part of a cairn or a cist overgrown with grass and purple heather. But let’s not carried away by our enthusiasm for antiquity. Rows of stones along some roads and at car parks are certainly not prehistoric.

Stone row in Bellever Forest

Stone row in Bellever Forest

Scattered within and around Bellever Forest are cairns and cists, some of which are sign posted. I visited one of these cists. The cist was made of about five stones sunk into the ground in a circle. They supported horizontally a flat slab of rock. We may suppose that this is a miniature version of Trethevy Quoit in its original form. The curious thing about this cist was that it was within a ring cairn. Only a semi-circle of the ring was left standing. In addition to this, a stone row stretched eastwards from the cist. In this single monument, I managed to see different types of prehistoric monuments.

Bellever YHA, though a youth hostel, is also the office from where the forest is managed. Bellever is a village almost similar to Byrness in Northumberland. The similarity is that their histories are linked to the pine forests they manage. If one day the forests should disappear, the villagers would need to relocate, commute or find another means of livelihood. As for the hostel, I had made my booking at YHA Golant by a system called BABA (Book-A-Bed-Ahead). It works this way. If you are staying at a particular hostel, you can make a booking at another hostel for subsequent nights and pay for them at the current hostel. The hostel issues you a receipt. The booking is also faxed to the other hostel. This is the most suitable option if you don’t have a credit card. In my particular case, I found that there was no consensus on this system. The guy at YHA Golant was confident that he was doing the right thing but he had forgotten to fax my booking. The guy at YHA Bellever claimed that BABA is an obsolete system. It causes lots of problems if the guest loses the receipt or the booking is not faxed. Fortunately for me, I got my bed for both nights without complications.

At this hostel I met a guy from Exeter, a friendly chap with a calm disposition. It was necessary for him to be calm for he had recently suffered a heart attack. He was still recovering. He was undergoing a programme of fitness which included walking. He had come for the weekend to do some walking in Dartmoor. It was obvious that his main problem was obesity. In addition, he had asthma. As a result of his recent illness he had been temporarily relieved from his job. He used to work as a nurse. He hopes to return to work by the end of the year. He lived on benefits. He had to watch his expenses carefully. Hostels provided him with affordable and comfortable accommodation. He cooked his own meals, unable to afford the price of £8.95 for the dinner. As for me, I cooked my own meals as I usually travel on a shoestring budget. Hostels rarely have vegetarian options anyway. Both nights at this hostel were quiet. The hours after dinner were filled with many interesting stories from one of the experienced wardens.

Medieval Clapper Bridge

Medieval Clapper Bridge

Bellever is not far from the village of Postbridge where spans a bridge of curious construction. It is supposedly a 14th century bridge. It is composed simply of four slabs of granite placed horizontally in line on stone piers. These slabs have been sufficient to span the width of the stream that flows under the bridge. It is an ingenious use of natural materials as available in plenty on Dartmoor. Most of Dartmoor is a bed of exposed granite. This bridge is called a “clapper bridge”. The name and the action to which it alludes, points to the simplicity of its construction.

If the landscape of Dartmoor contains signs of long human occupation, it is natural in many other aspects. Of these, the tors stand as sentinels on hilltops. They stand as markers or unworded signposts pointing in the air to another hill topped with another tor. They stand as silent historians, giving us a little information and then directing us to another tor. In this manner, the landscape is alive with a story untold and events unheard. Collectively, the tors recognize and acknowledge one another. They share a common history, the same emotions and the same pain. They contain the secrets of geological history. This history is pretty much the same process that made the Cheesewring. The tors have been formed by a combination of chemical weathering and freeze-thaw action during the Ice Ages. Chemical weathering means that acidic waters have eroded into the granite, leaving the corestone exposed for subsequent weathering. The effect of the Ice Ages has been such that as water froze, it prised away one stack of rocks from another. I saw this clearly on Staple Tors. Unlike the obvious scars of glacial movements (as in Gordale Scar), the tors have suffered less brutally since they stood in a periglacial region. The clitter slopes that surround many of these tors are characteristic of such a region. Further weathering of these rocks led to a gravel which is called growan.

No account of Dartmoor can be complete without a mention of its well-loved icon, something that has become the logo of the National Park – the Dartmoor pony. In fact, it may be said that Dartmoor would not have its special appeal for most visitors without the pony. Some of this appeal comes from certain attributes that we associated with them – wild, free, unbridled, native, colourful, hardy. Some are justified but not all. Although we may see them roaming the moors freely, most are owned by farmers who let them graze on the moors. Not all of them are native. For example, Shetland ponies were introduced into Dartmoor at some point. Even those that are deemed native never really roamed Dartmoor until man introduced them into the landscape long ago. We are justified in doubting if our Bronze Age ancestors lived with these ponies.

Yet these facts have little effect on one who has seen the ponies grazing on the windswept moors. If there is wildness in their wanderings, it is enhanced by open moorland where stone walls are few and less noticeable that those in Cumbria. In isolation or in small herds, they are beautiful additions to a landscape that seems devoid of life. In this harsh landscape, their ability to survive is an inspiration for all. As the wind blows across the moors, their manes wave freely. When they canter down a slope their tails sway freely. There is grace in the movements of their necks, often bent to the ground grazing but sometimes looking up to notice a stranger in the distance. If we believe that they are wild, it’s because they have little interaction with man. In one case, I came across a mare guarding her newborn foal that was possibly less than a week old. She stood up and looked at me suspiciously until I had left them behind by a long way. Her suspicion existed only in my own mind. Who can guess her real thoughts and emotions?

Here in Dartmoor, the most enduring image for me was this: three ponies grazing beside some prehistoric stone ruins scattered amidst the heath, while in the distance a silhouette of tors dramatically accentuated the glow of the setting sun.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9

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