DofE Diamond Challenge – Expedition DONE! 4 days on hot Dartmoor – with COWS… 

My DofE Diamond Challenge has been a long slow burner…as HRH himself says, a DofE award is a ‘do-it-yourself tool kit for life’. And this year’s life has been different to any other in my adulthood, in large part due to deciding to do this year long replay of my own Gold Award, first completed 25 years ago. 

This week I’ll round up my year of Diamond Challenge with a blog post for each section of the award that I’ve re-completed. 


Expedition – practice and preparation
I nominally went through the expedition training framework three times between January and April, so completing my ‘training’! In addition, my DofE colleague at school signed off my practice as ‘complete’ after a total of 12 nights camping, with much walking and other skills shown over the course of our DofE expedition delivery in 2016.

So all I needed was a plan, some kit and a team.

The plan – after some dithering in the early summer, I picked a date, and sketched out a plan on the fab Viewranger app. Approximately 65km, to be covered on foot over 4 days and 3 nights. I booked my campsites, and published my route plan to friends – hoping for a rolling ‘team’ who might join me for a few hours, or overnight. The plan came together, and the forecast was GOOD! Kit was packed, food was scaled down to less than I remember eating 25 years ago, and I was ready for the off…

Day 1 – The team assembled at Dartmeet for an early breakfast start. I had applied for special measures variation to my 20 conditions, and so due to the impending terrain travelled with just swim stuff, food and emergency kit for the first 6km of the day. We had long planned this ‘swimble’ from Dartmeet to Newbridge, and the river was in good state – there was water, but not too much, and there was a path, but not too slidey.

After 6.7km of narrow, sometimes precipitous paths, 5 swims including an ‘extreme bidet’ and some waterfall action we emerged happy at Newbridge. You can see/read a bit more on the Ape blog here.

Here I shouldered my full pack and began the uphill trudge to camp 1. This was my first stretch alone, and after the buzz of the day with the Apes, Barney, Ron, Jackie, Mark and Allan it was odd to be chuffing up through the woods, hearing the slightest rustle (deer?) and every woohoo of an owl as the dusk approached. Camp was familiar, having used the small field many times with my own groups –  and I had a camp-mate as Mark had decided to stay out and sleep in his van.

 

Day 2 – The morning’s team was just me, as Mark had to get back to work for a bit. I left camp on time at 0730, and made my way towards Widecombe, where I had a loose arrangement to meet Ron (who I’d met the first time yesterday on the swimble). After a short rest under the large tree on the green he arrived and was ready to go. The top of Hameldown was shrouded in mist so we opted for a valley route towards Natsworthy. As we went up on to the ridge towards Grimspound the mist cleared, and Ron was rewarded with purple and yellow heather as far as the eye could see – and the air was thick with the smell of honey. Ron decided to head back over the top, and so I went on to the Two Moors Way towards the Warren House, with sunshine warming my head. I saw no-one and nothing, until the drop down towards the main road,at which point I realised that I was under surveillance from behind a thick ginger fringe. Walking purposefully but not in a panicky way (really!) the Warren house and then Runnage appeared over various horizons. This was a day of noticing the small things, and having photographed a micro-granite landscape, a fab lichen and a lovely beetle, I was very pleased to find myself a whole (dead) adder! Hastily texting a friend who I knew was collecting skins for a project, I got a sandwich bag (can never be short of one) out and then texted her again, as it was well beyond smelly…

Fun and games in a quiet Runnage camp – a beautiful warm evening, with beautifully low midge count. Jackie and Mark had come to camp on this evening, and as they ate their fresh and hearty food, and I tucked into Ainsley Harriot risotto, they suggested a post-prandial walk along the edge of the forest. We ended up popping in to the trees for an atmospheric wander as the sun went down, complete with close up buzzard encounter including a dive bomb moment!

 

Day 3 – a day that started with blue skies, and just got hotter, and hotter…I walked into Postbridge alone, well, until I got chatting to a mum with an off road buggy – we talked about running, the moor, farming, allsorts. After a welcome loo stop and a look for a tree that I planted as a Bronze back in 1988 (found it!), Mark and I strode out up the wide track through Bellever Forest. The dry dust gave a feeling of walking abroad, in Spain perhaps – not often a feeling had on Dartmoor. Bellever Tor rewarded us with 360 degree views, and a small breeze, on which a hundred black flies were playing around the well-kept trig point. Mark diverted back along the Dart and I was alone again, heading for Dunnabridge Pound.

At this point there may have been a small cow-related diversion, involving some scrambling through gorse, and swearing. But there are no pictures, so it probably didn’t happen.

HRH DofE Bear was stripped right off, and as we got to Huccaby Bridge we found a small pool away from the million grockles squeezed in at the bridge,  and wallowed for half an hour. What a relief! After lunch the next hill seemed almost do-able (by this time it was approaching 28c and there was little shade) but I still found myself stopping under every little tree for a few minutes, to cool down before the next leg. Holne Moor was looking absolutely perfect, and the view down into the Dart gorge showed the route from Day 1 amongst the trees. After another hour of hot hot trekking I dropped down into Michelcombe, to camp in the shade off the edge of the moor. The campsite was haphazard but friendly, and shortly after I’d pitched my friend Leon arrived, to stay the night and walk the last day across the south moor with me. Leon has just completed his own Diamond Challenge, running 1000 miles this year – epic! 

Day 4 – we made an early start, leaving camp at 7am to get ahead of the heat – and a longish day planned, over the south moor to the finish. We saw no-one and I mean no-one, for the first 5 hours. After a long pull up from Scorriton, the open moor looked stunning, and some ponies posed for Instagram before we descended into the deeper south moor. A large caterpillar blocked our way, mumbling something about ‘none shall pass’, but we laughed in the face of danger and stepped over it. The clapper bridge stood firm over the upper reaches of the Avon, and we stopped for snacks and contemplation – how long the bridge had been there before our time, and how long it would be there after we had departed this earth. 

Up onto the plain of the south moor, just south of Redlake, a mountain biker broke the unpeopled peace, but soon disappeared. The horizon stretched into Cornwall, and as we moved south on the Puffing Billy track Plymouth Sound and the South Hams came into view. 

It was around here that my feet really started to complain. The heat of the past three days combined with the hard track meant that the pads on my soles were compacted and sore. A brief paddle at Left Lake relieved it temporarily, and then onwards. The end was in sight, and only cows could spoil it – and they did. A great big herd of polo cows (Banded Galloways) right across the track pushed my bovine tolerance over the edge, and we dropped down to Harford Gate to the Lane into Ivybridge. My route finished in Leon’s back garden, with a bucket of cold water for the feet, and some fizzy wine for the head! 

My Gold Expedition in 1991 was in the French Pyrenees. These four days on Dartmoor were as hot (in places), and as tiring as I remember, but every bit as satisfying for the achievement of the journey. My aim was to photograph the little things, which I did, as you can see in amongst the bigger scenes in the photo blocks. 

Huge Thankyou to all involved – Carl, Kate, Jackie, Barney, Mark, Allan and Ron on Day 1. Jackie and Mark on Day 2/3. And Leon on Day 3/4, without whom I would probably still be wibbling about cows and stuck out on the moor. 

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