Ewe Shall Not Pass

By Colin McFadden
This post is part of a series called UK 2021
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Our last day in the UK, and our last day in Dartmoor. Before we could get out on a hike, we had a little housekeeping to do – a drive up to Exeter to get our pre-departure COVID tests (both negative, yay!) and a trip to Tesco to load up on British snacks for the office. We also stopped in town to get a coffee and pastry at a really cute quay-side cafe.

Since we were already to the north and east of Dartmoor, we decided to do a hike on the north side of the park. We identified a route leaving from South Zeal which promised to expose us to the true wild side of Dartmoor.

Confession time – prior to this trip, if you’d asked either of us what a “moor” was, we’d have described a peat bog. Very muddy, partially rotting. So, we’ve been a little surprised by our experience of Dartmoor so far. The descriptions of today’s hike promised a bit more bog!

Both because of our location and because it’s no longer a holiday, we had the moor to ourselves. We hiked across rolling hills, grassland, and bog, interrupted only by cows and sheep. We were roughly following a route described by a hiking guide in our Airbnb, which highlighted a few Bronze Age sites along the way. The first was a long row of standing stones and a stone circle, likely a burial for someone important.

A second stone circle at the southern tip of our walk was essentially totally undocumented in our guidebook, but it was neat to stand in the middle of. We should have brought our healing crystals to recharge with the powers of the ancients.

From about the halfway point on the hike, the trail went from mostly straightforward with some diversions around bog, to mostly imaginary. Finally all the warnings about not venturing onto the moor without a map and a compass made sense. It would be incredibly easy to become disoriented – overcast skies mean you lose a sense of the sun and all the hills look alike. You could end up walking in circles for hours. Fortunately we had our phones and were able to follow the waypoints from our guidebook, but it involved a lot of trail breaking and doubling back to find paths across bogs.

We did manage to find more Bronze Age settlements, this time happily occupied by sheep. The endless grassy hills swayed with a chilly breeze that felt very refreshing after the week of intense sun. Along the way, we helped ourselves to the wild blackberries and blueberries that are all around in Dartmoor. As we got closer to the northern edge of the hike (and thus closer to some villages) we met one or two locals out for walks with their dogs.

Rather than returning to where we started, we dropped down into the down of Sticklepath because it promised a cafe and some scones. In fact, it turned out even better – the narrow path through the forest dumped us into the backyard of a National Trust site, the Finch Foundry. When providence guides you to a historic forge (turns out, Mr. Finch named it a foundry somewhat aspirationally), you take them up on the offer of a tour.

Even though we’re simple yokels from across the pond, we do know a thing or two about water power. In this case, the entire forge is powered by a leat that drives three different water wheels. Normally, they run the equipment for demonstrations, but a few weeks ago a wooden crossbeam supporting the leat failed and they had to drain it until it can be repaired. As with all things in this country, it’s almost unfathomably old. The leat which takes water from the river and directs it to the mills (what we’d call a tailrace back home) is at least 900 years old, but probably much older. The forge itself only started operating in the early 1800s, but they’ve done dendrochronology on the wood supporting the hammers and found that it was felled in the 1700s and may have been reused from a ship.

The forge operated up through 1960, when a catastrophic roof failure shut it down. Eventually it was reopened as a museum and passed into the hands of the National Trust in the 1990s.

We did eventually get our coffee and scones, before making the final hike back to the car. We made it back to the Airbnb and grilled some burgers, did some work, and started our packing. It’s been a great adventure, and given us a taste of much we’d like to explore further in the UK.

3 thoughts on “Ewe Shall Not Pass

  • Judy August 31, 2021 at 9:48 pm Reply

    Wow – this seems to be an adventure that keeps on giving !! You have experienced and learned so much and I have a feeling that this is just the beginning !!

  • Susan August 31, 2021 at 9:58 pm Reply

    Glad you didn’t get lost in the bog. Love all the photos—so interesting about the forge and the leat. Hope tomorrow’s travels are smooth and on time. What a great adventure!

  • Debra Marsh September 1, 2021 at 12:14 am Reply

    What a fabulous trip and I’m really sorry it is over. Please take another one soon! We have some moss friends who would have absolutely loved the places you visited yesterday. Hoping I get “leat” in a crossword soon!

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