Friday, June 20

Dartmoor Dawdle: Wednesday June 18th

OKEHAMPTON - Journey's End

I'm never that ecstatic when my first steps of the day are uphill, but there was a necessity to get to the top of MANGA HILL (GR 634 849) and escape from the valley. Some work with the binos the night before had picked out one or two likely tracks, but in the end I just went with what I'd learnt already and followed various sheep tracks ever upwards, using the remains of the field walls as my bearings.

The day had dawned gloomy and wet. For once I was glad to wear my waterproof jacket to keep the worst of the chilling wind out. It had been a constant companion since the start of the trip, but the company, like that of a unexpected guest overstaying their welcome, was starting to wear a little thin.

Heading towards HANGINGSTONE HILL (GR 618 862) I crossed a couple of decent good paths, obviously used as ridge walks between the major tors. But typically I was travelling between ridges so their benefit was limited.

The marker posts of the army ranges proved useful, especially as they appeared to be used by others as a waymark forming reasonable tracks amongst the tussocks. Along the way I came across the Peat Pass (GR 602 869) a clear sign of semi recent human intervention on the moorland, a peat 'cutting' to assist travellers through this particular area. Still in fine fettle despite being more than one hundred years old.

(Memorial to the Peat Pass Builder)

Within an hour I’d already reached my first waymark and was gratefully hunkered down behind the stone hut rising out of the summit. To gain some temporary relief from the heavily gusting wind.
(Hangingstone Hill Hut)
From here the going was easy. Military use of the area over many years has left a number of clear wide tracks, the sort of thing I’d associate more with the Lake District. Tracks were visible for miles in all directions, and for once the OS map agreed. True there were still a number of detours off to Tors along the way but it was clear that this area is very popular with walkers.

More so than the eastern edges I'd been crossing over during the previous day.

OKE TOR (GR 613 900) was a splendid and lengthy ridge of rock for my next shelter point. In the distance the flat farmlands of North Devon were starting to appear. On then to GULLIVER STEPS (GR 606 921) for the river crossing deep in the valley, and then a straight forward descent to the final valley floor.
(Gulliver Steps ford)
Yes Tor, site of a previous wildcamp stood out stark against the horizon. The distinctive shape of its Tor and military building recognisable for miles around for the eastern side of the moor. And another idea in the pipeline for a possible future trip.

Along the way I passed a couple of wild camper's tents just edging onto the 'proper' moorland. In the distance an army troop lined up to attention for something suitably military. A nice gesture - but a simple wave would have done. That's if you even spotted me far off on the distant skyline.

Finally stepping off the moor I passed through farmland. A a Shetland pony specialist. The fields of mares and their foals appearing slightly surreal. Too big for sheep. Too small for cattle. Perhaps not really horses at all, but large dogs? But there was something about the miniature foals that made the perspective a little strange.

On then to Okehampton YHA, along some laborious footpath and road work. My feet now starting to feeling footsore after the rocks of the military tracks and return to tarmac.

A shower. A chance to change into lighter footwear & clean clothes. A mooch around town. Some R&R to refresh myself and to plan my next move.

My main aim - to cross Dartmoor South to North had been achieved in remarkably quick time, and with slightly more vigour than I'd expected. My sense of the land and landscape over the past few days had been deepened considerably. Plus my regular use of map & compass had been without incident building my confidence for any future need in more inclement weather.

So the main trip had been completed, far quicker than I’d really expected. And to be honest I now had mixed feelings about what next.

"Bed for the night please" I asked at YHA Okehampton reception. "None available - we've the schools in" came the reply "You should have booked".

Bang. A difficult request to satisfy when I wasn't sure quite when I'd be arriving. Plus there was the general lack of phone signal for the last 24 hours! Although I suspect the hostel booking was a long term one, and even if I had planned ahead my request would have failed.

Next YHA? Exeter.

Fat lot of use that was going to be. I know the place but for someone who'd walked off the moor, wanted freshen up for the night, and then turn around and go back, being parked in a city was not a real option.

Now please bear in mind I’d seen absolutely no sign of another human being; No road; No vehicle; No dwelling; Totally alone and away from any human contact for the preceeding 24 hours. A rare circumstance to achieve. But then, that's the nature of Dartmoor.

At this point I couldn’t even face going into the YHA café to get a coffee. A room positively bursting, it seemed to me, with anarchic yelling schoolkids.

The receptionist tried to be helpful, but with very limited success. It seems my sort of business wasn't catered for by this particular hostel. Organised Activity Holiday yes. Self motivated, self catered, self propelled - No.

The point was brought home to me within a few minutes as I retired to the scrubland outside the YHA reception to brew up a coffee and report my arrival to home.

A member of staff approached me to 'check my credentials'. This I could understand with the number of teenage kids running around the place. But here I was sat in a quiet corner with a backpack's contents spread around me. Muddy and unwashed - brewing up. It was pretty evident that I was not your usual lurker (Or if I was I’d been sheltering high amongst the hills!)

And then, a similar challenge was repeated a little later, when nipping into the YHA toilets (oh the luxury of a seat to sit on for a dump!) I was met on my exit by yet another staff member.
(Bear in mind I'm wearing a full pack & soiled walking gear)

"Can I help you…. you shouldn't be here" Too bloody true matey - I’d definitely got the message that my presence was persona non gratis. I could see the way this day was starting to gently unravel.

It started to rain.

A short walk then into Okehampton to find the Tourist Information Centre. A little more helpful here but it would appear that the town, despite being the main access point to get onto north Dartmoor, doesn't really know what to do with backpackers. It's ok if they're following the official routes, using B&B accommodation, and spending freely. But wildcampers On A Dawdle have them a little stumped.

We discussed options. The roads for Dartmoor either cross E/W or go around it. there's no direct N/S route. Hence the other local YHA was not a real option. Any attempts this late in the afternoon to relocate to a better jumping off point were looking decidedly poor. Sure it was possible, but to be honest this was putting a damper on the feel-good factor I'd enjoyed over the last few days. I did consider B&B, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. I never feel really happy paying to stay in some one's home when all I really want to do is sort out my own catering and wander in and out as I feel. Especially if I want to make a pre brekkie start. I tried it once and was looked on very strangely for not caring to start the day with the landlady's celebrated Full English Breakfast.

The final nail hammered home when I checked for the most active/regular bus route. It was getting late in the day and some of the routes only run a service twice daily, if even that.

Exeter won. 35 minutes away (£3.55 single fare) and a bus due in 15 minutes.

It was time to return home and regroup. I’d had my real trip and could feel its true and full benefit. Past experience has taught me that settling for make-do, just to stretch out the days away, is a false and tainted pleasure. To muddle around here now would risk spoiling the true value I'd got from the journey.

I'd other plans forming for my days away from the workday grind. I’d achieved what I originally set out to do, and planned all those years ago. The weather was most definitely changing for the worse.

Sometimes its better to go with the flow. I flowed towards the train station and the return trip.

Later I picked up a copy of Trail Magazine at the railway station. Amongst the routes - one for Dartmoor. Exactly where I'd been half minded to walk after the YHA R&R.

Oh well - another day.

An untidy end to the trip, but despite the finale the walk has definitely increased my interest in the area, and opened up a number of potential possibilities for the future.

On the plus side, as a result of the Okehampton debacle I now know far more about the bus service patterns, and the issues with the local YHA (which frankly I won’t be bothering myself with in the future!)

And as a jumping off point for the Northern part of Dartmoor its ideal.

I'll leave this there for the present whilst I pull together my thoughts for my usual reflection on stats and lessons learnt.

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Good report John

I had exactly the same experiences with the incredibly unhelpful English and Welsh YHA in my travels through Britain last year. Usually they didn't even answer the phone. When they did, they 'were not open for individual walkers'.

They were desperately poor in their service to lone walkers - walkers were the main reason they were set up in the fist place! It used to be the case that you were turned away if you had not arrived under your own steam - now, exactly the oposite sems to be true.

For me, the English and Welsh YHA were a complete and utter disgrace. They deserve to go horribly bust so that independents can pick them up for a song so that walkers can once more be looked after properly.

The Scotish YHA are a completetly different matter, though they are suffering under immense economic pressures.
Disappinted to read about the end to the trip, John.

I've no experience with E&W YHA, and only one (very good) experience with SYHA.
Thanks, John. I love reading trip diaries. Sounds like a lovely walk, shame about the finale.
Good report John. It was exactly the self same attitude with the YHA that caused me to cease membership. Coming down off the hill, tired grubby, wanting a shower and a bed for the night, I was treated with disdain. What was galling where the number of fancy cars in the YHA car park. People doing the YHA because it was cheap. Dawn
I think you have experienced first hand the what the YHA has turned into.
It now caters mainly for the school trip (brings in much needed revenue during the off season), and the cheapish family holiday (which I have been guilty of in the past).
These days you get no chance of getting in (especially those in honey spots) unless you book up months in advance. Long gone are the days of a last minute arranged trip if the weather or opportunity come along. Let alone if you walk off the hill expecting to find a bed without booking!
sadly it is this side it is concentrating on, and it's the ones that are remote and used by walkers that they are closing (just not making a profit is the excuse).
Otherwise an excellent write up.
John, great trip report. I look forward to checking your route on tracklogs in the week - so many thanks for the grid references.

I have a great fondness for the core YHA, but sadly the accountants came in during the early '80s and now the organisation is a changed one.... although there are still pockets here and there.

What I would say is that current legistlation means that minors cannot share a dorm with adults from another group. Now I would previously have been of the opinion that this is at best over zealous, but unfortunately I have recently been made aware of a previous school teacher of mine (who was fondly regarded) and his actual crimes (to which he has admitted) against children. This has been a terrible shock and has made me realise that such crimes against children are not necessarily things we think of as happening only now, but have happened, well, forever. Unfortunately such legistlation, in the light of the fact that common sense didn't work, seems necessary. I would think, then that the YHA, being mindful of this, could ensure the design of such buildings suits, such that lone adult walkers can be catered for just as they were when the YHA was started.

The change in the YHA is at best odd, and often feels quite extreme. For example, Llwyn-y-Celyn in Brecon, used to be noted for its 'hidden parking spots' in the nearby forest, from which families had to walk to make sure the warden didn't think they'd driven there. Now the car park is full, and as you sign in there are notices about the local beers they're selling!

Having joined the YHA again a few years ago after a seventeen year lapse, I let my membership lapse again upon the closure of the lovely Capel Y Fin YHA (and threats to close other similarly simple YHAs). The alternative, for us protestors, is the SYHA, the membership of which is cheap (free if you are a student), and the ethos of which is very much more in line with those of the orginal YHA.

I strongly believe in the original YHA ideals, which is why I am still a member of the IYHA, only through life membership of the SYHA. It seemed a happy half way house.

For those who still want to taste 'old world YHA' try Tanners Hatch near Dorking. No car park. Showers are a short walk from the cottage, and fantastic big fire for which we were required to comb the forest!
Glad the trip write-ups has been helpful - I've added a little more on the YHA on Sunday's post
Good write-up, JH.

On the subject of Okehampton YHA, did they not offer you the option of camping in their grounds? Last time I was there, there were tents pitched on the large grassy area between the hostel and the archery range, the punters had full use of the hostel facilities.
That has been my experience of the YHA over the past few years as well. Years ago if they were full they would always offer me the grounds outside on which to camp, but now they are not interested in the walker/cyclist. Nowadays it is run on the basis of booking every bed months in advance so that the accountants are kept happy.The YHA was part responsible in helping my interest in the outdoors grow whilst I was a youngster. Make no mistake, the YHA of today is NOT the same organisation as it has changed so much-what a great pity!
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