After yesterday’s ridge top views of autumnal Dartmoor valleys, I wanted to spend more time in the woods. We’re at the tail end of the vibrant spectacle of autumn now, and it won’t be long before the reds, yellows and everything in between are gone for another year. So with my wife at work, I headed for Fingle Bridge with the boys and one of my oldest friends to explore one of our most extensive, unbroken stretches of woodland.
Fingle Bridge is no secret, and the narrow lanes that lead down from Drewsteignton were busy on half term Monday. The forecast was for sun with scattered showers, and we had brought kites to fly. So we crossed the bridge over the Teign and started the long, slow hike uphill towards Cranbrook Castle.
There are four castles overlooking this stretch of the Teign, although of these only Castle Drogo is instantly recognisable as one. The other three are Iron Age hillforts. Prestonbury Castle is at the top of the steep-sided slopes immediately behind the Fingle Bridge Inn, and sadly the landowner does not allow public access. Further east, Wooston Castle lies deep in the woods and has recently been excavated – if you’re interested in hillforts, check out the Fingle Woods blog which is full of fascinating info about the dig. Our target was Cranbrook Castle, a contour fort at the top of the hill facing Prestonbury across the river.
It’s an energetic hike to the top, especially for small boys. The fort is only 1km from the bridge but is 200m higher, and every time you see the ‘summit’ it turns out there’s another uphill stretch around the corner . There are a couple of amazing viewpoints on the way that overlook the Teign Valley, and we were treated to some beautiful light on the hills and trees around. As we got closer to the top, we could feel the sun on our faces more frequently as the angle of the slope changed and the tree cover thinned. Eventually we came to a gate on the right that led into the field, but there was a hitch. A printed sign on the gate warned of livestock and a bull running free; Kev strode into the field to check it out while I stayed by the gate with the boys. There were no cattle around and not even a pat or hoof print anywhere to be seen, and soon we were all striding across the hill together.
The hillfort itself consists of an inner and outer ring separated by a ditch, with the inner diameter being perhaps 200m across. It appears fairly unspectacular, but you have to remember that at least the inner ring would have probably been circled with log posts and the ditch will have infilled considerably over the years. It would have formed part of a vibrant landscape in the Iron Age, with three forts so close together suggesting a desirable location close to all the resources the communities needed. It must have quite a place at its peak.
We were of course also interested in sandwiches, views and kites. We hunkered down away from the wind outside the inner bank and looked out towards Haytor and Hameldown while we tucked into our sandwiches, then out came the kites. Our box kite flew steadily, high above the fort, while Kev’s parrot kite flew briefly with spectacular dives and crashes.
Passing rainbows alerted us to the chance of rain, and it wasn’t long before a big one headed towards us from Chagford. We scooped up our things and headed back down the hill much more quickly than we ascended it. Somehow we avoided the rain, and with time to spare we sneaked in a swift pint by the riverside at the Fingle Bridge Inn.
Back in the car, we decided to follow the Teign all the way home. The river and woods coincide for a long way; down to Clifford Bridge and Dunsford, Cristow and the Teign Valley and beyond. I love the open moor, but at this time of year the woodlands of Dartmoor really come into their own.