I overheard the following inter-cubicle exchange in a mixed changing room recently. ‘So where do you live?’ ‘We live on Dartmoor.’ ‘Dartmoor! How lovely!’ ‘Well, yes, it is amazing. But we’ve had quite enough of it now and we’re moving back down to the coast. In the two years we’ve lived up there, we’ve had enough rain and fog to last us a lifetime.’
I smiled as I stuck my right leg through the wrong hole of my swimming shorts. Very wet, Dartmoor is. In fact sodden might be a better word. It rains for days on end. The 365sq mile plateau is the first port of call for rain blowing in off the Atlantic. Seventy inches of rainfall spread over 200 days of the year is not unusual.
And she’s right about the fog, too. It gets on your tripe. The day can start clear and dry and by lunchtime all is obscured by a cold, damp whiteness. Here’s William Crossing (1847–1928) whose encyclopaedic Guide to Dartmoor (1909) is the Dartmoor monomaniac’s Bible: ‘I have known my surroundings to be entirely obscured, and objects 20 or 30 yards distant rendered invisible, where ten minutes before there was not a sign of what was coming, and the mist has continued for several days.’ His tip for drying out wet boots overnight is to pack them with oats, which as well as soaking up the moisture, swell, preserving the shape of the boot. It says it all about the Dartmoor climate that towards the end of his life, Crossing, a loveable man and a virtuoso on the tin whistle, was so stricken by rheumatism that he couldn’t put pen to paper.
Fog and torrential rain often come together. Even the hardy Dartmoor ponies — descended, it is thought, from domesticated animals turned loose during the dark ages — even these shaggy creatures stand there in the rain looking shocked, as if they can’t quite believe the miserable existence which has been allotted them.
As well as being wet, it can get cold up on Dartmoor, too. Twelve hundred to 2,000 feet above sea level might not sound much, but it is noticeably less warm than sea level. When I was staying up there in a tin-miner’s cottage last winter, the pipes were frozen in the ground for a month and I collected my water from a peaty stream, first in a plastic feed-bucket and then, when that split with the cold, in a large saucepan. And to cap it all, in case we hadn’t quite got the message about its inhospitability, Dartmoor’s granite plateau is still slightly radioactive.
But having said all of that, let me tell you a secret. Half an hour by car from the A38, then half an hour on foot, and you are in this incredible pre-Christian landscape. According to Oliver Rackham, as recently as 1950 Sir Thomas More could have stood on almost any hilltop in England and seen a landscape that was fundamentally unchanged since he was alive. There are parts of Dartmoor where the same might be said of an ermine-clad bronze-age chieftain.
There are bronze-age hut foundations that are so intact you can stand on the doorstep and identify the cooking stone. At Grimspound and elsewhere are entire walled villages of these. Dartmoor has 60 stone rows — singles, doubles, trebles — of unknown origin and purpose. There are stone circles and impressive solitary menhirs and so many granite burial chambers you only look out for them in order not to trip over them. Last winter I could look out of the bathroom window and see shoulder-high granite walls enclosing a system of narrow bronze-age fields on the side of the hill.
Even more impressive than these ancient remains is the windy silence and sense of solitude. You can retune, regain a little perspective, before rejoining the overcrowded madness below. The woman in the cubicle was right. Dartmoor is amazing. However, the weather can be a little inclement, shall we say. Take good boots. And if you took Crossing’s guide in one pocket of your waterproofs, and a packet of oats in the other, you could do a lot worse.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 28, 2012