Jeremy Clarke

Low life: Unfit to walk Dartmoor

Low life: Unfit to walk Dartmoor
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On bank holiday Monday my brother and I, and my brother’s three Border terriers, went for a day-long walk on Dartmoor. We weren’t the only ones up there. And I often wonder whether the hardy, reclusive souls who live up there, having endured another long winter, aren’t a little peeved to find their peace shattered by the walkers, cyclists and day trippers who swarm all over the place at the first sign of spring.

But to our credit, we at least looked the part. Clown that I am, I was head to foot in lightweight, quick-drying walking clobber, my suede walking shoes made in Germany, and on my back a snug-fitting, 15-litre daysack. The day before I’d sat in a busy barber’s chair and told him to give me whatever it was that the kids who wear their hair short are asking for these days. They are asking for a ‘Hitler Youth’ apparently, and five minutes later I emerged from his shop with closely shorn back and sides and a ruler-straight parting. So I was every inch the pre-war Wandervogel.

My brother wore walking boots, but otherwise doesn’t need specialist gear to look the part. He is a strapping, rugby-playing policeman and judo black belt with biceps bigger and rounder than my calves. Next month he’s off to Northern Ireland to earn some of the £50 million that the security operation for the rash G8 summit is going to cost us. One day last week police instructors threw petrol bombs at him all afternoon.

I must mention the dogs, too. My brother had stripped out their winter coats and they looked as lithe and lean as racing snakes, and a credit to the breed, though if there was any well-rotted cow manure lying about, Ruby in particular wolfed down as much as she could before my brother noticed and started yelling.

As I say, man and dog we looked the part: fit to tackle the steepest gradient or the most difficult, rock-strewn country. The focus of our walk was Lustleigh Cleave, which is basically a gash in the landscape with a rushing river at the bottom and splendid views to be had from the high plateau on the eastern side. At the northern end of this plateau are the remains of an Iron Age fort, one of a chain from which local tribes are said to have stood and faced the Romans. Coins found in the vicinity showing a gormless, laurel-wreathed profile of the emperor Hadrian suggest that here as elsewhere the challenge was vigorously met and the defenders annihilated.

We ascended to the ridge by the northern slope. The path was long, tortuous, stony and steep. We passed close by a group of Belted Galloway cattle lying in the shade of a massive granite boulder. Their great black eyes swivelled in their heads as they tracked the terriers’ activity. The going was tough. Even my brother was panting. Droplets of sweat stood out on his brow. I tripped, stumbled, regained my balance, tripped, stumbled again.

Finally, we passed through a gate on to the bright and airy spaciousness of the plateau. Conveniently close by was the heap of granite boulders known as Hunters Tor. We sat on this and sipped coffee and looked down at the panorama of magnificent countryside laid out before us. A peculiarly rich and enchanting silence reigned, interrupted occasionally by the articulate bleating of a distant sheep, now distinct, now muffled by a passing breeze, now distinct again. Up there on the plateau were the usual strangenesses one encounters on Dartmoor: the boneyard litter; the sparkle of rock crystals; the wind-warped, lichen-bearded trees; the house-sized boulders; the strange ants, parti-coloured, radiating intelligence. All this was our reward for our effort.

Then we saw, coming steadily towards us across the uneven ramparts of the Iron Age fort, this nerdy-looking young bloke, designer glasses, trendy short-leg chinos, Birkenstock sandals, pushing a baby-buggy with a slumbering child in it. ‘Hi!’ he said gaily, as he drew near. Following behind was a heavily pregnant, palpably serene woman, pretty dress, also in sandals, with a flower in her hair, holding a cheerful little girl by the hand. ‘Hi!’ she said, languidly. ‘Doggies!’ said the little girl, excitedly pointing.

They didn’t seem remotely out of breath or animated by their arduous ascent. I studied the map to find the nearby car park I must have missed. There wasn’t a road anywhere near us. The path by which they had ascended, and by which we now began our descent, was, we found, if anything steeper and trickier than the one we had laboured up. There was no other route. As we staggered and stumbled down the rocky path, my brother and I laughed and laughed in awe and wonder at that laid-back couple; also with relief, perhaps, at the quality of the rising class and generation they represented.