Yesterday, I finally completed a walk that I’ve been meaning to do for several years, but just never got round to – Dartmoor’s very own ‘Way of the Dead’.
The Lych Way is an ancient corpse road which was used to bring the dead of Dartmoor’s central basin to Lydford church for burial. Lydford itself is a very old settlement which was once much more important than it is today, so much so that it had its own mint, and its early Saxon inhabitants were even raided by the Vikings a couple of times. There has been a church there probably since the 7th century, when St Petrock (a travelling Welsh monk) is reputed to have stayed on the spot during his regular visits to convert the local savages. People have been carried on their last journey along this route for hundreds of years. Widecombe’s church wasn’t built until the 14th century, and even then the clergy of Lydford were reluctant to give up the valuable tithes due from their parishioners and continued to insist that the tenants were part of their flock. Even when church traffic declined, Lydford remained the administrative centre for Dartmoor Forest, and the route continued to be heavily used until the advent of turnpike roads in the 18th century.
In short, a lot of people, living and dead, followed this ancient route for over 1000 years. The passage of so many souls over such a remote stretch of moorland is an irresistible draw for me and it’s been on my Dartmoor ‘to do’ list for as long as I can remember.
It being November, it was dark when we left home and by the time we got to Bellever at 8am it was light, if rather grey and gloomy. We stopped for a moment at the old clapper bridge, sited just a few metres upstream from the crossing place that gave Bellever its original name, Bellaford. Travellers from the settlements at Pizwell, Runnage and Cator would have crossed the Dart here and joined the track to Lydford, to carry their dead for burial.
Nowhere more than on Dartmoor was this onerous duty of a punishing nature, a circumstance created by its unique topographical shape. Whereas the deceased cottager in a Highland glen, a Cumbrian valley, a Yorkshire dale or a Welsh mountain pass could be carried without the undue exertion of his bearers down to the parish church, on Dartmoor the Lydford-bound cortège must needs climb out of the central basin in order to cross its rim and negotiate transverse river valleys separated by long, steep ridges between basin rim and outer escarpment of the Moor.Eric Hemery, ‘Walking Dartmoor’s Ancient Tracks: A Guide to 28 Routes’
The first of these ridges appears shortly after starting, though crossing Lakeland Hill west of Bellever was only made strenuous when it transpired that a section of the Lych Way was closed for forestry work and we had to divert. We soon rejoined the route where it crosses the B3212, the only road we would see for the first 17km. A new path was created here in 1999 to guide travellers over a particularly damp bog; once this was crossed we continued through the northern end of the Powder Mills site. This is a really interesting spot as from 1840 it was home to Dartmoor’s gunpowder factory, sited in this lonely place to minimise the impact of industrial accidents. It’s fun to explore the thick-walled buildings and imagine what each was used for.
From here, you’re on your own. There are no path markings across the open moor. You may occasionally see the sunken line of a path in the hillside or a dip in the skyline caused by the passage of many feet, but most of the paths are transitory and made by livestock. The reference points are hilltops and fords, and what you do in the space between is down to your own judgement.
The line to follow to Longaford Tor is at least clear, a green line on the hillside ascending from left to right. Halfway up the path suddenly steepens and it gets a bit harder to find route through the clitter. For the first time, we got an idea of how difficult this might be carrying the coffin of a burly Dartmoor farmer. We took a break at the top, enjoying a quick coffee while taking a last look at Bellever Tor and scouring the route ahead. Between us and flat-topped Lydford Tor is a ford named after nearby Wistmans Wood, and this would be our crossing-point on the West Dart. The giants of Beardown and Higher White Tors watched us pick our way down the valley. We didn’t find a ‘ford’ so much as a few stepping stones across the narrow brook, but we negotiated this and the boggy section beyond safely and once again started a steep climb up the gully on the other side.
Dartmoor does this to you. Away from the established routes, it never lets you settle. You start a steep climb and find your rhythm, get your breath comfortable, all the right muscles warm up, and then suddenly you’re into a patch of tussocky moor-grass that requires a totally different metabolism and set of muscles. Then before you know it you’re picking your way slowly across a mire, or pounding your knees down a rocky hillside. Every kilometre brings a new set of challenges. It makes for fantastic walking, but time has made me physically less resilient and these days I sometimes find it hard work.
Still. We passed Lydford Tor with barely a pause and weaved through tussocks down the other side, only to find our path blocked by a cow which was ‘looking at us a bit funny’. We briefly regaled each other with stories we’d heard about people being trampled by cows and decided to give it a wide berth. This decision sent us into a couple more small bogs and we were very happy to arrive at Broad Hole, the next ford on our route.
Char had made us lamb curry pasties and this seemed like an opportunity to devour them, almost whole. Broad Hole is also known as Travellers Ford and as the name suggests is a nice, wide and pretty crossing on the upper Cowsic river. Hemery recounts how he sat here with a German prince, new to Dartmoor and its stories, who told him that he could sense that ‘many, many people passed this place in former times, burdened by a great sorrow’. The ford certainly has that sense of ethereal remoteness about it.
We continued, up again, less deeply but more consistently damp. We passed a small stone row on Conies Down, the highest stone row on the moor, and came up towards a wide saddle between two hills. All of a sudden, the western tors began to come into view: Great Mis Tor, like a giant fortress overlooking the Walkham Valley, with Roos Tor and Cox Tor peeping out behind. Ahead we could see White Barrow, the last stop on the high moor, and in the greying distance behind the hills of Bodmin Moor. We were about as remote from anywhere as we could be on Dartmoor, but seeing White Barrow on the skyline gave us optimism that we were making really good progress.
There was one more ford to negotiate, the very literally-named Sandy Ford across the River Walkham, before starting the climb up Cocks Hill to White Barrow. This is the last significant hill, forming the ‘rim’ of the central basin of the moor, and mercifully is the least steep of them all. The barrow itself is an important landmark, an ancient burial mound that (like most on the moor) has had its burial chamber pillaged by treasure-hunters. We stopped for a brief coffee but didn’t linger. The mizzle was starting to come in and we were happy to start to descend before it overcame us. We forked north-west from the top and started to descend to Baggator, past the military infrastructure and the tor itself and down towards the Tavy Valley.
The path skirts the farmland and follows the Baggator Brook through a copse known as Coffin Wood. This was just wonderful and capturing the almost infinite range of autumnal colours was well beyond my photographic skills. Every shade of red and brown, cherry and chestnut, garnet and scarlet, crimson and ochre, was represented and the mosses were also luminous in their greenery. It was a magical hidden wood, tiny but perfect. The Baggator Brook emptied into the River Tavy and we crossed it over the Cataloo Steps (if you’re using this blog to research the route, note that these are impassable after rain). I felt a sense of sadness crossing the field on the other side. That kilometre or so of the route is one of the most life-affirming stretches I’ve walked, and to arrive there unexpectedly only added to the sense of emotion I felt just being there. But the golden hour was upon us and the sun was shooting beams under the low cloud, illuminating the landscape around us. We needed to keep moving, as it would soon be dark.
We walked up Corpse Lane to Higher Willsworthy and picked our way out onto the last stretch of open moor, passing the rifle ranges at Willsworthy and soon crossing the A386. It was nearly dark when we passed Lydford Viaduct, and properly dark by the time we got to Lydford Church. As moderately-fit modern humans, unencumbered by coffin or corpse, the journey had taken us nine hours. It was remarkable to think of men, women and children making the same journey to satisfy their spiritual needs or bury their dead. I found a renewed sense of respect for the tough generations of people who have not only called the moors their home but have also had to go to such lengths routinely to escape it. Even death would bring hardships that we can barely comprehend.
Whatever your motivation for the journey or the hardships endured, walking is thirsty work and like generations of travellers and pall-bearers before us we headed for the Castle Inn to confirm the end of our journey. This is a fine pub, dating from the 16th century and with great range of real ales, mostly from its St Austell landlords. There was just enough time for a quick round of drinks before our taxi had arrived to take us on the 40 minute journey back to Bellever by road. By now, the moon had risen bright and the sky was full of stars. A long day indeed, but I’m glad that at last I’ve walked this most ancient of Dartmoor routes.