It’s hard to believe it’s been over three months since our last family walk on Dartmoor. We’ve found the last lockdown to be tough. Days out on the moor have been at least a fortnightly event for the last year or so, but the January closure put an end to that as we live just too far away for Dartmoor exercise to be allowed. Sure, we’ve done some walking on the coast path and around near home, but you get a sense of freedom and wellbeing on the moors that is difficult to find elsewhere. That’s why we love it, right?
So there was huge excitement when we packed our bags, snacks and boots ready for today’s adventure. We’d decided on a fairly gentle stroll to get everyone’s legs up to speed again. Rather than tackle a tor or two, we were taking a good picnic up the Swincombe valley. It was a glorious spring day, with blue skies and cool, crisp air, but the roads seemed surprisingly quiet and there was only one car at Hexworthy bridge. We picked our way along a path that led through the fields to the hamlet of Hexworthy itself, then climbed out of the valley and headed down the lane towards Sherberton.
We passed the disused Gobbett tin mine and carried on down into the valley. Stacks of felled trees lined either side of the road, some a couple of metres in diameter. Sherberton Farm is run by Anton Coaker, a well-known local farmer who runs a sawmill operation and reclaims granite from civil engineering projects and the like as well as farming beef herds. The Coakers have been farming in this area for generations. We were noisily welcomed to the farm by a collie and another smaller dog, passed through the yard and over the top of the hill beyond.
From here a track continues to Little Sherberton, but the right of way arcs off to the left and swings slightly south. As is often the case on Dartmoor, there is a right of way here but no actual path, but we headed for a stone circle and crossed through a gate into the open moor beyond. The path down to Swincombe could now be clearly seen cutting across the hillside ahead, and our tummies were rumbling as we turned left along it for the river.
Swincombe is a fun little place to explore. The western part consists of the remains of Swincombe Farm, built as a fishing lodge for the Tor Royal estate and only abandoned in 1955. The ruins include two buildings and the remains of stables and animal pens. Further down the hill are the more impressive remains of John Bishop’s House. This was built as a tin miners house in the 1820s but was occupied by stonemason John Bishop for over 30 years and still carries his name. After he died in 1892, the lease and then ownership passed to the Coaker family who as we saw are still actively farming nearby today. The building has been vacant for over 100 years now and has been subject to some restoration work, with the impressive door lintels having been re-erected by the National Park in the 1980s. The Dartmoor Trust have a great photo of it as it was in 1940. Today it is in quite a sad condition and it is probably worsened by the herds of cattle that roam the area, but it is still a fascinating ruin.
The air around here is super-clean and this is evidenced by the sheer number of ‘old mans beard’ lichens that cover all the trees in the area. Lichens of the Usnea genus only thrive in pollution-free air such as you get when the prevailing wind comes from the Atlantic, and some parts of Dartmoor (eg Wistmans Wood) are famous for them. They seem to be particularly large here and I like to tell the boys that the local wizards have washed their beards in the river and hung them up in the trees to dry.
We had a really good rummage round and explore before our tummies once again reminded us about the picnic. We crossed the ‘fairy bridge’ and sat in the shelter of a gorse bush right next to the river. The sun was glorious and the kids were starving. They munched through their lunch and started on ours before eldest attempted the stepping stones crossing and fell in up to his knees. We wrung him out and after collecting a stamp from the fairy bridge letterbox we headed for home.