Since leaving the hospitality industry, I’ve found Bank Holidays to be a real luxury. They used to be a source of dread, stress and overwork, but now they are a fabulous opportunity to spread two days of busyness over three days. This weekend, we managed to allocate a day look at new cars, one to spend at home refitting the kitchen units and still have a day left over to get out on the moor. Felling energetic and adventurous, we headed over to the north-eastern side of the moor to tackle Sourton Tor. It is referred to on maps as ‘Sourton Tors’ because it has at least two distinct outcrops, though it always sounds odd to me to refer to it in the plural.
We parked by Sourton’s Church of Thomas a Beckett, which dates from at least the 14th century and is possibly earlier, and headed east onto the drift lane that leads out onto the open moor. The path crosses the Granite Way and climbs fairly sharply, taking in almost 100m of vertical ascent in just a few hundred metres before you can catch a little breather at the foot of the lower half of the tor. It is perhaps not the easiest of starts to a Dartmoor walk! There were already some complaints about sore legs and feet – and not just from the children – so we contoured around the path to the north-east to save any more excessive exertion.
Coming this way, or if you’re starting at the parking area near Prewley Farm, you pass a fairly impressive and substantial set of ridges and ditches (OS grid ref SX 546900). Clearly earthworks rather than a natural feature, they look very much like a set of Iron Age ramparts, though too shallow and numerous. They are actually the remains of Sourton Ice Farm, and are best appreciated from the air:
The farm was sited downstream from a spring, from which the water was diverted into a series of about 30 shallow pools. The water was apparently exceptionally cold – there is even a legend that the Devil froze to death nearby! – and as the hillside is north-facing it quickly froze in the winter. The ice was cut into chunks and stored under turf in the building to the north, ready to shipped to the fishmongers and grocers of Plymouth and beyond. The farm was only in operation for a decade from 1875; a combination of mild winters, fluctuating prices and the occasional pollution incident made the whole endeavour exasperating to the proprietors and the industry was abandoned.
While we explored, a paraglider was preparing to run off the top of Branscombe’s Loaf, and we stopped to watch as they ran into the wind to launch. They appeared to be unable to gain much height, probably due to the gentleness of the breeze, and gently drifted down to land a few hundred metres away from us. Three children had been watching from the top of Sourton Tor and ran excitedly past us on their way to greet their relative who had perhaps just made their first solo flight.
We turned and walked the way they had come to the top of Sourton Tors, one of my favourite vistas on the whole of the moor. It’s one of those amazing spots, much like at somewhere like Pen-Y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons, where the ground drops away to the low-lying farmland below and you can see many miles to the north. In fact, it was just about clear enough to be able to see the thin blue line of the Bristol Channel 30 or more miles away. We sat and enjoyed having lunch on top of a tor without huddling out of the wind for the first time in quite a while!
This high up though, the cold will get to you soon enough, and after 15 minutes of admiring the view it was time to move on. We had decided to challenge the boys a bit and had set our sights on Great Links Tor, only 4km to the south but another 150m higher than Sourton. It’s a fairly steady uphill walk all the way and was hard work for our six year old’s little legs. We followed the line of the old Rattlebrook Peat Mine railway and stopped where the fledgeling river Lyd crosses the track at Lydda Bridge. Here the remains of a medieval tinner’s house stand surrounded by their workings, with the Lyd Valley stretching out below framed by the hilltop of Great Nodden. It’s a fabulous little spot.
Fortified by the remains of Easter eggs, we continued our climb to Great Links Tor. We left the peat railway just before it starts to drop to the old peat mine and turned south for the tor. The final bit of the climb is steep and the tor itself consists of several massive outcrops of rock; the boys scrambled up excitedly. We tucked up into a little scoop and enjoyed the rest of our lunch and coffee.
I’ve heard it said that you can see both the Bristol and English Channels from here, but I’ve never had a clear enough day to manage it. Today we could see the coast around Plymouth but the Bristol Channel, speculatively visible from Sourton, was now beyond the horizon. None of this took away from the drama of the setting, with patches of sun and cloud illuminating and shadowing parts of the landscape below. Great Links Tor itself is substantial enough to have a few climbing routes listed on it, and even getting to the trig point requires a short scramble. It’s a fantastic place; wild, mountainous and remote, and has to be on anyone’s list of essential Dartmoor tors.
The boys are very used to circular walks now, and were mortified to be told that we had to go all the way back the way we came. We reassured them that down was much easier than up, and so it proved as we strode back along the peat railway and round the Sourtons to the car in record time. My only regret was that the eclectic Highwayman’s Inn appeared to still be closed, and hopefully next time we’ll have a more refreshing end to our walk.