10 December 2021 by Sally Prosser
This December, as my boots crunch through piles of shrivelled leaves and the temperature drops, I’m struck again how special it is to walk in winter. It’s easy to dread the onslaught of cold and inclement weather, but it’s the diversity of climatic changes that make this season so unique.
One particular walk with my local Ramblers group, over a part of Dartmoor last December, is a great example of this and winter weather makes the memory of it so vivid.
Driving up to an inconspicuous lane that I’ve been past for 25 years on my way onto the A30, I turn right for the first time and go over a cattle grid onto Prewley Moor. It’s a crisp day for this walk with Tavistock Ramblers and, as always, there are friendly greetings and a bit of chat, zipping of gaiters and limbering up. The mounds of tors - granite hills topped with sculptural rock formations - are a far off misty presence, looming above. Again, I’ve glimpsed this particular row countless times in the car, but have only explored some further down towards Tavistock which don’t look quite so daunting.
We set off, backpacks bulging. Walking in winter means taking something for every weather condition; hats, gloves, rain gear and fleeces. Leaving something behind guarantees that you’ll need it. A hearty packed lunch is in there too. Turneresque clouds muffle the light and make the turf and stones underfoot look uniform and bleak. There is, however, enough blue sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers, which is encouraging.
We start to climb straight away and some of the puddles have the thinnest pane of ice floating on them. The ground is corrugated in long curved banks. These channels are manmade and, appropriately, were used to store ice; it’s all that remains of the Sourton Ice Works, an unsuccessful venture in the late 1800s.
When we get to the top of Shelstone, we stop for a break. The granite boulders scattered in clumps and circles, and the dramatic rock piles, one hanging like a giant shelf (probably the origin of the tor’s name) look gloomy.
My woolly hat is pulled down over my ears as I shelter behind one and pour warming tea from my flask into my enamel mug. Just as we pack up, the clouds part, revealing a deep blue sky. The sun turns the turf vivid green and deep shadows are cast by the huge stones showing them in dramatic splendour. The warmth is welcome, it’s chilly up here. There’s a spectacular view of the valley below into which we are about to descend, coloured in shades of oat grass and rusty bracken.
The brief illumination fades and the clouds close as we follow steep paths down and down to Vellake Corner. We tread carefully along the narrow, concrete bridge to cross the West Okement river. In summer, this is a calm sheet of water pouring through the weir into a gentle tumble. In winter it’s far livelier due to the amount of rain, a rushing cascade of white foam. Our path skirts Black-a-tor woods where the trees emerge from boulders swathed in dense moss which creeps up to hug the dark, twisted branches.
Climbing up again steeply, mist descends around us. Everything is muffled. A bedraggled Dartmoor pony watches us, its scruffy coat damp with mizzle (a local term for mist and drizzle).
Shapes loom out of the grey blanket as we approach Fordsland Ledge. A ruined cairn, concrete military huts and a metal flagpole appear – it’s a bit depressing. And then some watery sunlight struggles through the veil, like a naked bulb through a net curtain. The West Okement river appears way below, glinting like a silvery eel. It’s not the clear view you’d have in summer, but it’s rather magical.
The winter weather gods have blessed us too as the sun is starts to come out and a swift breeze is hurrying away the thick billows that partly obscure the view. I’m breathless because of the wind, the chill in the air and because I can’t stop spinning round to take in the panorama.
It’s not a long descent from the top to rejoin the path because it links to the second highest point on Dartmoor, just a stone’s throw away. Yes Tor measures just 2 metres lower but when I’m standing on the top by its trig point is feels even higher, probably because the side plunges away more steeply. The sun blazes and everything looks golden and crystal clear. The clouds are like an oil painting in a blue sky that’s pure cerulean. It’s beautiful and exhilarating especially as the wind is battering my rosy red cheeks flat and making my hair stand out like I’ve had an electric shock.
Finally, we tear ourselves away and tramp over lumpy tufts of ground taking us down to a rushing torrent of a stream, zig-zagging down the hill. Perching on boulders, we settle down for lunch – mine’s a large slice of homemade quiche. But this is Dartmoor and we’re only just packing up when the wind blows chilly rain in our faces, so we get a move on.
It’s a long way down but the winter weather lottery comes up trumps again, clearing the view to overlapping hills in vivid colours, with a rainbow emerging from candyfloss clouds. The weather that has punctuated this walk and continues during winter (from sun, to driving rain, to snow) shapes the landscape and has done so for millions of years.
By the time the Meldon reservoir comes into view, it shines like metal under a limpid sky in late afternoon. A row of trees ahead is a spidery silhouette in the lowering sun; on the other side of the gate that same sun makes their mossy trunks shockingly green and lights each blade of grass. Stocky, black calves, with fluffy ears and shiny noses, study our progress through sticky mud and puddles. Finally, back at the car park, we thank Paul who has led us on this spectacular hike.
This is a walk I’d love to do again. but as it takes in so much open moorland I would not do it on my own so am grateful for having an experienced guide. Otherwise the unpredictability of the weather on Dartmoor, especially in winter can make it dangerous. But it’s also enchanting as with this memorable hike with Tavistock Ramblers.
My enthusiasm for exploring the landscape, especially at this time of year means I’m delighted to be a #walkyourway ambassador for winter. So even if you feel like staying under a blanket I urge you to lace up your boots and put a toe out of the door. There’s the old saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather just the wrong clothing’.
I'd love to hear your winter walking experiences – from being drenched in a storm, to breath-taking views, or tiny observations in nature. Tag @ramblersgb in your #walkinwinter photos, and me @mycustardpie if you’d like to connect.