Weather-wise, the last couple of weekends have been pretty horrible. In theory I’m happy to go for a walk or bike ride in any weather, but with a long list of little jobs to do at home I have been known to spend a weekend ‘getting a few things done’ rather than going out and braving the elements. Last weekend I bribed the family with a big Sunday roast, but this weekend everyone was going a bit stir crazy, and there’s only one way to really solve that.
The drive up to Princetown was spectacularly autumnal with showers intermingled with glorious sunshine through the woods of the Dart Valley, but by the time we passed North Hessary it was set grim. This was slightly disappointing, as we were heading for Cox Tor, which is famed as being one of the best views on the moor. Set on the edge of the moor above Tavistock, the view from here is stunning in all directions; you can see past Plymouth into the Channel on a clear day, Brent Tor and its church stand Glastonbury-like to the north-west, and Bodmin Moor is also clearly visible (Caradon Hill has a TV mast to rival Princetown’s). The view from Cox Tor car park unfolds to the west and is renowned as being one of the best places in Devon to watch the sunset from – though for me both Hope Cove and nearby Sheepstor run it mighty close. On a summers weekend, the car park is packed, and rightly so. It’s a beautiful spot.
Less so today. As we pulled up, a brief shower of marble-like hailstones battered the car, and I struggled to get my door open in the wind. The chap in the car next to us had given up and was quietly having a read of his newspaper with his car heaters on. The boys thought all of this was hilarious until they realised that we were serious and yes we were still going for a walk. Waterproofs, wellies and walking boots time.
The gloom, wind and rain were a shock to the system but it soon passed, and hand-in-hand we made our way up the hill. It doesn’t take long to reach the rocks you can see from the car park, although it’s fairly steep and the actual summit is a few hundred metres further on. On the way you pass a line of earthworks marked on the map as ‘Boundary Work’ in that endearing font used to mark antiquity sites. If you like rocks, there’s plenty of interesting stuff here.
First, the rocks themselves. The higher you go, the terrain becomes less and less like Dartmoor. The rocks are fractured like they are on most tors, but here they are somehow more angular and less rounded, darker and covered with large patches of white-red lichen. There’s a good reason for this – the rocks aren’t granite like the rest of the moor! Cox Tor is right on the western edge of Dartmoor and is actually composed of slates and microgabbros that were heated and pressurised when the Dartmoor granite moved in next door. They were ‘metamorphosed’ into hornfelised rocks that are hard and crystalline but definitely not granite.
There are also lots of bumps in the ground that look at first sight like big molehills, or perhaps mounds that have grown around shattered rock. These are thufurs, and they are fairly uncommon. They are a relatively recent geological feature formed by the action of ‘frost heave’. When damp soil freezes, the ice expands and pushes the soil and rock upwards where it eventually forms these mounds. They are important enough to have been the focus of scientific work; if you’re interested, there is a paper about them available on Researchgate.
This part of Dartmoor is littered with the remains of hut circles, homesteads, enclosure and other remains of our long-forgotten ancestors. a couple of kilometres down the road are the stone rows, standing stones and ancient settlements at Merrivale, and not much further to the north is the hillfort of White Tor. Cox Tor has its own megalith, though the OS map doesn’t mention it. The pile of rocks beneath the trig point is a tor cairn, a ceremonial (probably funerary) feature big enough to bury the outcrop of the tor beneath it. At 32m diameter, it is one of the largest tor cairns on Dartmoor. Historic England have a really good description of the cairn and the reason for its designation on their website; Wikipedia on the other hand have a picture of a shelter structure that has been built in the cairn using rocks from the cairn and thus are effectively celebrating archaeological vandalism. Be careful of your sources.
Of course very little of this was of immediate interest to us as we wobbled over the loose rocks of the cairn to the trig point for summit photos (although we did shelter in the ‘cairn’ photographed on Wikipedia). The weather was exhilaratingly wild and we all enjoyed the rush of being at the top in spite of the weather. Cox Tor is one of those places where you can look at civilisation in one direction, and the open trackless moors in the other. It was stark and wild and utterly breathtaking. We took it in for a few short minutes, then the rain came back hinting at sleet and we decided to et down from the top. Soon we were descending through a cloud, running gleefully down the hill back towards the car. Freezing cold, we bundled back into the car, started the engine and put the heaters on. Coffee was distributed to adults, chocolate to children. The chap in the car next to us glanced over and smiled. He’d finished his newspaper and moved on to a good book. It looked like he’d had a perfect afternoon.
Already the landscape was changing. The western sky was clearing and there was sun on Bodmin Moor. Slowly the sunbeams made their way towards us, crossing the Tamar and then illuminating Tavistock below us. As we headed home, rainbows came and went over the hills to the east. It had been quite a special day.