White Tor

Looking north towards Hare Tor from White Tor

The far west of the moor is an area I get to fairly infrequently. It’s the longest drive from Torbay and, as I’m always striving to find a balance between early starts for long days on the moor and a solid lie in and brunch, we usually end up in the south, west and central areas. Today though, we needed time out: my beloved Nana passed away a couple of weeks ago and we needed time and space together without too much exertion. The long drive over to Peter Tavy was just what we needed.

We parked up at Smeardon Down and took the bridleway east, up past Boulters Tor and out onto the wide spur that overlooks Peter and Mary Tavy. The weather was bright but fresh, and on the open moor the wind was cold and cutting. Lower down, spring was in full flow, but at times on top it felt like winter hadn’t quite finished with us yet.

The track we were on is used by the military and goes right across Peter Tavy Common as far as White Barrow, and the view to the south is one of A-list tors known well by any Dartmoor walker: Great and Little Mis, Roos, Staple and Cox Tors all lined up, with views of other, more distant outcrops peering through the coombes in between. Before long, we came to the lonely marker of Stephen’s Grave. John Stephens was a young man who took poison in 1762 after his lover’s parents refused to allow them to marry. Of course, suicides were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground and they were often buried at crossroads so their spirits could not find their way back to haunt the living. The story is very similar to that of the more famous Mary ‘Kitty’ Jay who died in similar circumstances 30 years later near Manaton.

Stephen’s Grave, with Brenttor in the background and Mary Tavy in the valley between

From Stephen’s Grave, it was a short walk uphill before a side track led us up White Tor itself. It’s a real Dartmoor classic: a sprawling mass of fragmented rock, much of it rearranged along with the earth to form structures. There is a real jumble of cairns and walls superimposed on one another, with ancient reaves radiating out and stone rows just to the east. It was clearly an important site from the Neolithic onwards, with the original tor enclosure being reworked and repurposed over the millennia. There have been interesting finds here that suggest the settlement at White Tor was an important trading post. It’s fascinating to explore, but today the winds were quite savage and we spent most our our summit time huddled behind a rock.

The early inhabitants may have taken advantage of the local geology to build their defences. You don’t have to be a geologist to notice that the rocks at the top of the hill are not your classic Dartmoor outcrop. For a few hundred meters around the hilltop these strange rocks dominate: they are darker, somewhat sharper, and fracture and erode in different ways. What appears to be a hill fort’s bank and ditch seems to coincide with a change in the geology, from slates lower down to harder metamorphosed microgabbros at the top of the hill. The higher rocks were probably part of a magma chamber with basaltic rocks being erupted above; the slow grain size suggests that the gabbros were cooled relatively quickly. All of the rocks have undergone ‘regional metamorphism’, where they have been cooked and altered by the appearance of the hot granite next door. Cox Tor is made of the same material. It’s quite a moment when you realise that the rock you assumed was granite definitely isn’t, like licking an ice cream and finding it’s actually made out of cream cheese. Well how did that get there?

With Maggie at the top

My family are very tolerant of my geological explorations, but the wind was cutting through and there was little appetite for Dad’s musings. We picked our way carefully down from the summit cairns and headed back for the lowlands.

On the way home we stopped off for a pint at the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale. I hadn’t been here for a long time; in fact, last time I remember I had a basket of sausage and chips and a badly-kept ale. It’s a different place now, smartened up inside with a couple of good ales right out of the cask and a choice of good organic food. We only stopped for a quick drink, but perhaps this one is ripe for a longer visit.

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