Doing Rick Proud

By Colin McFadden
This post is part of a series called UK 2021
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There are a few stands of ancient oak forest within Dartmoor park which host unique ecosystems. The goal for today was to visit one, preferably without a crush of bank holiday tourists around us. To try to achieve that, we got up bright and early and hit the road to visit the evocatively named Wistman’s Wood. One of the things we’ve realized is that most tourists don’t stay within the bounds of the park itself (because there’s very limited housing) so they don’t really roll into the park until mid-to-late morning. We arrived at the trailhead to find a blessedly empty parking lot.

The ancient oak forests of Dartmoor are home to a huge variety of interesting mosses and lichens. The environment is also very otherworldly, which has made them a big draw, especially during pandemic times. We caught sight of a tent at an illegal camp below one of the pockets of ancient oaks. The increased foot traffic, and especially people being careless or intentionally destructive, is putting the ecosystem at risk. A carelessly placed boot can destroy a moss that took hundreds of years to grow. The increased traffic from COVID tourists seems to have caught the parks management off guard, and they’ll likely need to restrict access before too long.

Fully acknowledging that we’re part of the problem, we at least endeavored to leave-not-even-footprints. We carefully poked our way through the wood – we spotted Bank Haircap (Polytrichum formosum), String of Sausages (Usnea articulata) and some leafy liverworts. Eventually, we got to a point where we didn’t feel like we had any safe path forward, so we exited and followed the edge of the wood. As we were carefully picking our way around the moss and lichen, a dozen hikers plunged haphazardly into the woodland. Kat’s heart broke more than a little watching them tromp through the ancient moss covered boulders.

From the end of the wood, the trail continued in open moorland, including some fun boggy bits with their own unique ecology. At the halfway point, the trail crossed a river and then paralleled a leat (a canal that doesn’t carry boats). It’s quite a bit of engineering – at one point it was part of a system that carried water 27 miles down to Plymouth by the sea. We met a few other hikers, many sheep, and some suspicious cows.

The hike ended at the Two Bridges Hotel, which had been recommended to us as a great place to get a scone and tea. Who are we to say no? They were, indeed, nice scones.

Since we were only about 20 minutes from the Airbnb, we decided to head back to make some lunch and flop around for a bit. Kat took a nap in the hammock, all curled up in a blanket, popping her head out to receive her grilled cheese.

Mid-afternoon, we got a note from Diane, the leader of our llama walk. She’d mentioned that she still had some yarn from when they raised a larger heard of alpacas, and offered to sell some to Kat. We drove over to their farm (again, just a few minutes away) and Diane invited us to sit for some tea and cakes. It was one of those delightful “meet the locals” experiences that Rick Steves is always encouraging. Diane and her husband Steve told us about their land, the local politics around bats and building permits, their own fears about climate change and the way things have already changed, tourism and over-tourism, geology, and so on. We left with a lot of yarn.

We were able to squeeze in one more hike before losing the sun – a loop around Hembury Woods. The trail is conveniently located about 3 steps from our front door. It’s a cute little 5 mile loop bounded by a number of rivers and streams which look like they’d be absolutely delightful on a hot summer day. There are a lot of snarky signs scolding dog owners for bagging their dog’s poop and then leaving the poop bags on the trail. It feels like there’s a lot of uniquely British psychology tied up in that behavior.

We made it home around sunset and made some pasta and zucchini for dinner, while planning our day tomorrow. One more day in the UK – we’ve got a lot to squeeze in!

One thought on “Doing Rick Proud

  • Susan August 30, 2021 at 11:05 pm Reply

    Fascinating about the ancient ecosystem of the oak forest, but sad about the destruction. I fondly recall the lichen earrings Kat made a few years ago. Can’t wait to see what she’ll do with that yarn! I like the way you describe a “cute, little” 5 mile hike. You sure found a great place to stay.

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