Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

Naturally Navigating Dartmoor Part II

Naturally Navigating Dartmoor Part II

Close to the Wind

By Tristan Gooley

(An edited version of the following article by Tristan Gooley was originally published in Navigation News in July 2011.)

The sounds of an American accent passing the ajar door of my room were the first sign that the man from Brooklyn had arrived in Dartmoor.

The best-selling author, Tom Vanderbilt, had been commissioned by the US magazine, Outside, to join me for a taste of natural navigating in a wild place and, following a few email exchanges, we had agreed that Dartmoor would fit the bill. We met at Cadleigh Manor, an excellent B&B in the town of Ivybridge, at the southern tip of Dartmoor.

Tom was suffering from jet-lag, but we still managed to get a lot done in one evening. Packing and unpacking rucksacks, discussing options, archaeology, history and conducting a full interview over the rich food of the Ship Inn in Ugborough. Tom looked more than ready for some rest when we finished for the evening, and if we had known how little sleep we would both be getting over the following forty-eight hours, I’m sure we would both have retired a little earlier.

The plan was simple. Natural navigation plans benefit from a sharp Occam approach, but they all remain imbued with an element of the great unknown. That is, after all, what makes discoveries possible.

We would set off from the centre of Ivybridge using a map and compass, but folding in natural navigation clues and exercises from the start. Using the Two Moors Way as a reference line we would make our way north, into the heart of the moor, before setting up camp where we would pack the map and compass away, hopefully permanently. The following morning we would make our way north across unmarked, wild terrain, complete with ‘mires’ (bogs) and rough ground, using only nature to navigate for five miles and hoping to find our way to the Forest Inn at Hexworthy. Hexworthy is a small and unremarkable village in the heart of the moor. An oasis in the wilderness, perhaps.

The absurdly heavy rains of the previous two days eased and we found ourselves standing not just in the town of Ivybridge, but on the Ivy bridge itself. Steve, proprietor of the aforementioned B&B, dropped us off and informed us that this was the crossing point on the road to London in days gone by. We now knew the way to London, which was of limited use, but still a clue to direction. It fitted neatly into the picture of direction that the town was painting for us. Stepping into St John the Evangelist’s Church and looking towards the altar gave us a clue to east, which was supported by the alignment of the gravestones outside the church. This hypothesis was then given a boost by the TV satellite dish hanging from a house in Station Road. Mosses in greater abundance on one side of Ivybridge completed the picture. We had our compass, but it was easy to add another layer. The water, two days of rainwater pressing determinedly under the bridge, flowed from north to south. The high ground and therefore the moor itself was to our north. This we knew, but there is an important difference between knowing something and sensing it. It is the difference between knowledge and experience, and if knowledge is all that is required then getting the boots on is often not necessary – an armchair and fireside will suffice.

We walked briskly uphill, passing the paper mill and over a railway line that hugged the high ground but kept to the low. Curves in railway lines and major roads often serve as a useful demarcation between high ground and low, they will follow the line of least resistance, straight in low country and sinuous around bumps.

The town gave way to fields and a country path led us north with a little east. We paused to look at the way some young oaks betrayed direction with their heavier southern branches and then continued uphill, leaving some handsome, if not pretty, houses with their well-kept gardens behind us. At the top of a long tree-covered lane, we emerged into an open space. The land in front of us was a gnarled series of grass-covered clumps; one of the many old, disused quarry works.

Time to check our natural compass and this was easy as we had found a spot where some of the trees were exposed. Two beaten old hawthorns were bent over from years of wind and gave us a strong southwest-northeast line. It was time to mix the map with a little natural navigation. The map showed a hill summit to our east, only one kilometre away: Western Beacon.

We checked the direction of the wind on our faces and ears – touch and hearing. It was coming from the west. The low homogenous stratus cloud that was scudding overhead was harder to gauge, but we had enough. We set off with the wind on the backs of our necks. The aim of the exercise was to hold a course using the wind and also to see how long a kilometre took us to walk, uphill, with heavy packs and uneven ground. Twenty-one minutes was the answer. It is a form of cheating of course, a watch is an instrument, but a safety-conscious form of cheating and a very good idea at the start of any such exercise.

The cheating soon stopped as we turned to feel the wind on our left cheek, north, and then inspected the grasses. They did not all point the same way and I explained to Tom that the ‘malleability’ of all plants has a direct correlation with their memory of wind direction. Flimsy, exposed stalks of grass will only tell you what has happened over the past five minutes. Hardy hawthorn trees reveal the trends of the previous several years, if not decades. The grasses on the summit showed a mixture of exposure, hardiness and malleability. We could look back in time at the wind that had veered from southwest round to west.

The first beads of perspiration were visible on Tom’s forehead and I thought it would be kind to distract him from his pulse rate with an elementary, some might say dull, but essential exercise. Since Alexander the Great’s, ‘bematists’ or pace counters, and probably before, it has been known that if you know how many of your paces constitute a fixed distance then you can tell how far you have walked. There is no need to count both paces and I have a preference for counting as my left foot lands. The first time you try this exercise it is surprisingly easy to lose count of the hundreds, but with practice your hands can be used as an abacus, each finger unfurling from a fist as each hundred mark is passed.

It took us 590 of my double-paces and 605 of Tom’s before we had moved one kilometre north to the trig point at the summit of Butterdon Hill. We arrived with number-filled heads and the left side of our faces feeling fresher than the right. We had not used a compass or map, but so far it was easy as the wind held a steady westerly direction and a path joins the two summits. However, we had climbed up above the base layer of the stratus cloud and were now enshrined in fog. After pausing for some water, packs leaning on the triangulation pillar in that reassuring way, I gave Tom the bad news.

“OK, Tom, I’d like you to take us half a kilometre northwest of here.”

“OK.” He said, lowering his gaze to the bent grasses.

Tom succeeded in getting us to within a hundred metres of target, which was rejoining the Two Moors Way. It was well within sight and we stepped over a few more dozen small fluffy hillocks of grass and rejoined the firm gravel.

The Two Moors Way took us north-east until an ominous shape formed as two dark blocks in the mist. Hangershell Rock was a great opportunity to inspect some mosses and lichens. And to put the packs down and lighten them by eating some lunch.

The visibility fluctuated as we continued north, leaving the Two Moors way at the path up to the summit of Three Barrows. There is another trig point there – it is so important to have a definite fix at the start of any pure and testing natural navigation exercise, the doubts that will inevitably creep in, especially when new to this art, multiply exponentially if you are not 100% confident of your starting point. The temptation to ‘rewrite’ your start to fit the observations can be overwhelming and quite dangerous at times.

We knew that if we headed north for 1km and then northwest for 1km we would thread our way between two mapped areas of mires. This would be no guarantee of good-going, but was the best course that it was possible to aim for. The terrain deteriorated quickly and we found ourselves in mild mires, ankle-deep stuff which was heavy-going but not too problematic. The ground was either a hard protrusion of sprouting grass or bog, neither being very kind to the feet. It was slow, hard progress and our initial rate of twenty-minute kilometres uphill fell to over half an hour, even though we were descending initially. There were moments as we reached the low point in altitude where the terrain could have sapped our morale, but the sun, perhaps sensing this, emerged clearly for the first time. It was only out for a few seconds, but its warming rays underscored the direction that the wind, clouds and grasses had given us and gave a welcome boost of energy.

We emerged at a small, curious and uncharted culvert. Clearly man-made and a legacy of mining days it was filled with a thick, dark water that had a layer of bright, almost luminous algae on the surface. We scratched our heads as we peered into the soup and then dropped our packs and I put a brew on.
The Two Moors Way took us north in its sinuous way and then we left it as it headed east and we continued north on the last segments of the old tramway, until we reached the heap of silt and lake and the little that remained of the Red Lake Clay China works.

We pitched the tent more than half-way up the artificial hill that formed an eerie landmark in the heart of the wild country that surrounded us. We were sheltered from the westerly wind by the ridge that carried a path to the summit of the mound. From the summit itself we surveyed our fiefdom. There was no sign of humans in any direction and so if that is your working definition of wilderness… we had arrived.

A supper of Lancashire hot pot, followed by chilli con carne was unorthodox but effective and washed down with a mug of hot chocolate we felt ready for a night of star, moon and planet gazing.

Nature had other ideas and a fog swirled in in seconds, such is its right in the ‘moor. We saw no sign of star or even a near full moon all night. If we were disappointed then it was not this that kept us awake. The wind had veered round to the north and grown to something that resembled a Force 7 gusting 8. My tent is a solid piece of kit, designed for Alpine slopes, and so we needed have no fear of being plucked from the ground, but the noise was not fit for sleep. By four in the morning the wind sounded yet more ferocious and had been joined by a light rain. The tent wanted to be a tumble dryer.

The light of dawn, albeit filtered through the same thick fog, brought an excuse to stop pretending that sleep was an option. We toyed with the idea of making a brew under the canvas, but after a stroll I decided that we were better off away from the noise for a few minutes and I lit the meths burner in the lee of some mining ruins at the foot of the hill.

We climbed to the summit again and were blessed with a brief view of the sun through the fog. It was easy to organise the land around this compass and so we set off. Our destination was not too far away, but in navigation terms in was no mean goal. The small village of Hexworthy was less than five miles north of us, but we would attempt to find it without using a map, compass, GPS or any other navigational instrument. Added to this the ground between our start and finish point was without any marked paths and was riddled with mires. If this were not enough, we were setting off in a thick swirling fog. The sun had disappeared altogether again and we now had only three navigational clues to work with. We would try to hold higher ground, to follow the ridges that seemed to hold a north-south bias in that part of the moor. We would use the wind direction which was still strong and coming from the north-northeast, and we would use the direction that the grasses had been bent by the wind. This last clue required considerable interpretative skill as the weak exposed grasses were now bent from the north and the stronger, more sheltered grasses were bent with the longer term prevailing winds from the southwest.

“The sensible decision at this point would be to delay our departure.” I explained to Tom. “To wait for better conditions.” I added and he nodded. We set off.

“I have a map, compass, GPS, ELT, mobile phone and large first aid kit in my rucksack.” I explained. “I think that the chances of us meeting serious harm are manageable. If we go wrong and get into trouble, providing we do not let it escalate, then we have the means of getting ourselves out of it.” I looked at Tom’s face. He smiled. “But… the chances of us not pulling off this navigational exercise perfectly are extremely high.” And for dramatic effect I summed up with, “I doubt there are many in the world who would feel comfortable taking on this challenge.” This was true. I certainly did not feel comfortable, my concentration levels would need to be far too high for comfort. Still I did not feel that it was reckless or dangerous. The greatest danger I felt was of serious embarrassment if I made a gross navigational mistake; forgiveable though that may have been in the circumstances. Forgivable, that is, providing we both remained unharmed.

The bearings that we had been given by the sun offered us a confident start. Due north lined up nicely with a small rocky ravine, a scar in the hillside about a mile away. Our north-westerly route from the clay works mound onto the high ground first took us down, steeply at first, and then more gently but further down into a saddle of grass tufts and bog. We threaded our way between pockets of mire and streams. From the vantage point of the mound this land had appeared as though it was criss-crossed with paths, either unofficial footpaths (there were no marked paths in this area) or more likely animal tracks between the long grasses, but now that we were down amongst the grass it became clear in a stark and worrying way that these lines were in fact streams. Some of them quite broad and hard to pass. Every tenth step met with a squelch and black soup up to ankle level. It was very hard going. I was trying to remain tuned to some concept of time passed and also loosely counting steps, in the way that has become almost automatic for me at times like this, but our speed and direction were becoming slow and erratic, switching between north and west around the worst patches, and so these yardsticks would need some factoring.

“We must hope that the going improves at that line where the land starts to rise again.” I said, rationally, but optimistically. Fortunately it did, but just as the terrain improved marginally, the visibility deteriorated further. By the time that the ground levelled out at a local summit, we could see no further than 100 metres ahead of us. Fortunately the wind was fairly strong and constant.

We turned north and felt the wind move from our right cheeks to blow more squarely on our faces. Five minutes after turning we had drifted about thirty metres apart and so Tom must have wondered what had happened when I all but disappeared. My leading foot had met with no resistance at all in a small patch of deceptive bog, my pack had taken the momentum of the walk forwards and thrown me face down into the tussocks. The pack was resting high over my shoulders, pinning my head down into the grass and the ground was too infirm to offer me any help from my legs or arms. It took thirty seconds, that felt like ten minutes, to wrestle free of the pack and get back up. Silently I remained glad that it was my foot that had found that spot. I had good ankle support in my walking boots, something that Tom’s shoes did not afford him. I walked with a nagging fear that he could turn an ankle at any moment. Fortunately, I came to realise that Tom’s ankles must have been made from a material that NASA would be proud of.

In the absence of sun we walked for over two hours steering ourselves only by wind direction, grass shape and relief. Once more I offered a pretence at a wiser course, ‘The sensible natural navigation decision at this point would be stop moving, keep ourselves warm and wait for some help from the sky.” Tom nodded. There is always a danger of ‘carry-on-regardless-itis’. It has claimed the lives of walkers, sailors and countless pilots. As a species we do not like to stop in the middle of journeys. The Micronesian sailors have learned that this can be fatal and so if they arrive at an island that they do not know intimately, they heave-to and wait for dawn and her helpful light. In a brief moment of improved visibility we spotted some large boulders in a gentle gully about two hundred metres ahead of us.

“Let’s make our way to the boulders, they’re in the right direction, hopefully, anyway.  Once there we can inspect them for any clear clues to direction from lichens or mosses. If they fail us we will stay put and hope the fog lifts.”

Fortune favoured the decision and before we reached the rocks, the fog became mist, which became cloud and then parted in broad fissures. The sun hit our faces like a slap from a friendly compass-bearer. Using the sun to get a good idea of direction it became clear that we had been heading in very nearly the right direction, but had probably drifted marginally to the west of an ideal northerly line. This was useful, like a deliberate policy of aiming off, it is comforting to you know that your goal is almost certainly on one side of your planned course. It means that you know to turn one way at any forks, whether they come in the form of obstacles of high ground or low. In our case we knew to work our way to the right of some arduous ravines, helping us to make back some east.

The final hour was hard-going over frustatingly uneven ground. Our footing was tested every few steps. Then as the high ground rolled down into a gentle slope a few buildings emerged. Then a road. What seemed like a small eternity after that we were taking boots off and ordering some pub grub. Never any doubt in my mind. Not true, fortunately. A little doubt can preserve life in such places.

Read Naturally Navigating Dartmoor Part I