Butterdon Hill and Western Beacon


The southern side of Dartmoor can be a forbidding and lonely place. Largely bereft of the spectacular tors found in the central and northern areas, and with no roads crossing it, this is very much the preserve of the long-distance walker. Hikers taking on the Two Moors Way often start at Ivybridge and follow an old trackway north across Harford and Ugborough Moors, and after a dozen or so kilometres arrive at the old Red Clay China Works and its mini-mountain of spoil. It’s worth a climb to look at the landscape around. From there you can look to the north where little but a confusion of mires separates you from the comfort of the Forest Inn at Hexworthy; to the north-west, ancient tracks pick their way through the bogs to Nuns Cross Farm, and to the east Huntingdon Warren gently rises with the village of Holne some distance behind it. There are some wonderfully-named places on the south Moor. There’s an Evil Coombe at the back of Hartor, a Heap of Sinners on top of Huntingdon Beacon, a Deadmans Bottom and a Grim’s Grave (Grim being an old word for the Devil). When the fog is down, one hill looks much like another, and if you’re off the main path it can be an intimidating place to be.

The trig point on Butterdon Hill, with the coast at Wembury beyond

Of course, if you’re on the TMW heading south, then the hills above Ivybridge will be the end of your Dartmoor leg, and what better place to finish? Here, the hard granite ends and to the south softer, more easily eroded rocks dominate, so there are spectacular views over the South Hams, Plymouth, and if you know which direction to look you’ll see the coast off Start Bay and Teignmouth on a clear day. The good news is you don’t have to have yomped from Holne or Princetown to see all this.

We drove up the valley a bit further to Harford and parked at Harford Moor Gate. I have great memories of this little car park from about 15 years ago, when my wife-to-be dropped me off for a lone excursion on the Two Moors Way. Back then I wild camped at the back of Sheepstor some 20km+ distant, but today with the family our goals were more modest. We tracked across to the little reservoir to the south-east, then followed a small brook until we found somewhere dry enough to cross, then climbed to Hangershell Rock. This was a little over a kilometre, but took a surprising effort on the damp and squidgy ground. Hangershell Rock couldn’t be more sheltered, so we stopped for a Scotch Egg – officially a substantial meal these days – and a drop of coffee. Our look-out to the west was bright, with a few heavy showers headed our way. We decided to press on.

The summit of Butterdon Hill

In fact, this was the hardest part of the walk done. The wind grew stronger and colder as we got to the summit ridge but it was never unbearable, and even the shelter of the low cairn on Butterdon Hill was enough to keep us warm in the low sunshine. We sat and drank it in with some coffee. Where the sun burst through, it illuminated the landscape with great beams of warmth and occasional vivid rainbows. It was wonderful. We carried on past Black Pool (sans tower) to Western Beacon, the southernmost tor/beacon on Dartmoor, and the one that you see on the right as you approach Ivybridge on the A38 towards Plymouth. The old tramway from Red Lake ends here, with the processing buildings for the china clay just below, so we were able to pick up the track heading north and used this as a faster way back.

This time we crossed Butter Brook just downstream of the reservoir, the boys shrieking with laughter as we soaked our feet crossing the stepping stones, and had a look at the hut circles in the coombe there. There are nine hut circles here in all, overlooking the little brook below. It must have been an idyllic spot to live. This area has an astonishing number of ancient settlements, farmsteads, standing stones and rows, and it’s a fascinating place to explore. I had brought along a bottle of my Bronze Age beer, and it tasted fantastic in the setting of an ancient ruined settlement. I wondered if its inhabitants had drunk something similar.

Another bit of the moor to explore in more detail, then. We’re building quite a list of places to come back to.

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