The Idea: Walk in a 5km x 5km perfectly accurate square, crossing anything in our path.
Distance: 20km plus 2km to the start line and back
Essential kit: Compass. Backpack. Raincoat. Tweezers. Gloves.
Less essential kit: Wetsuit booties. Lifestraw.
Kit we wished we’d had: Walking boots.
Cost per person: £20 (petrol) + £7 (breakfast)
Serve deep-fried grey sausages (with crusty ends), sliced white bread and bacon saltier than an ultra runner’s armpit, to a discerning hipster in Soho and you stand a good chance of getting beaten to death with their emergency avocado. Do the same to a bloke in Dartmoor, however, and you’ll be given an award. TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, in fact. The Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown, Dartmoor, was our meeting point for this month’s adventure and, despite serving what can only be described as the worst breakfast imaginable, it’s something of a local institution. The queue outside the door before 9am would make even The Breakfast Club jealous.
Dartmoor folk, however, know that the pig’s arseholes in their sausages will give them enough energy to keep going through whatever adventures their day holds
When taking my first mouthful of cold wet fat, I felt cheated by the reviews, and even considered complaining. As I looked around for a waitress, however, I noticed that every other person in the place, dressed head to toe in hiking gear, seemed to be having the time of their lives. People love The Fox Tor Cafe, not because it serves the best food in the area, not even because it’s the only cafe for a hundred miles around (almost), but because life is better on Dartmoor. Londoners plan an entire weekend around brunch, and think it’s acceptable to discuss the flatness of their white, or the sourness of their dough, with work colleagues on a Monday morning. Dartmoor folk, however, know that the pig’s arseholes in their sausages will give them enough energy to keep going through whatever adventures their day holds, and that’s all that really matters.
I’ve only lived in London for one year, so haven’t been consumed by the bullshit yet. While I may turn my nose up at poor food, I can still see the value in leaving the boundaries of Zones 1-3, and am able to sustain a conversation that isn’t limited to the size of my hangover or the crowding on the Northern Line. As Nick, Jake, Joe and I sat down over our (seriously awful) breakfast, we brushed up on our map reading skills and discussed our plan for the day. We were going to walk in a 5km x 5km square, following a compass and trying to stay within very precise lines that would be recorded by Jake and Nick’s GPS watches (though these were strictly forbidden from being used for navigational purposes). We were going to conga our way around the moors with a fervent disregard for anything that got in our way.
After making our way to the starting point (Hart tor), we set off on the first leg. It was my turn to lead, which meant keeping my eyes fixed firmly on the compass while the others toed the line. We jumped small streams, ducked under tree branches, clambered over boulders and leap-frogged fence posts. Opting to go over or through any obstacle rather than around it meant taking the most hazardous route up a 30ft rock wall and crawling into a prohibited area under the corner of a barbed-wire boundary fence, only to crawl back out of it immediately afterwards. Despite being laughed at by a group of DofE kids who told us, helpfully, that ‘it would be easier to go around’, we had turned the everyday into an adventure by taking the less obvious route and were loving it. This was what we signed up for.
What we hadn’t signed up for, however, were the thousands of thorn bushes that cover the moor. Miles of inch long thorns stood between us and the first checkpoint, and despite our best efforts to stick strictly to the line, the little pricks eventually broke us. My trainers and Joe’s wetsuit booties (don’t ask) weren’t up to the task, and when we eventually got to the boggy stretch that made up the last mile of this first section, we welcomed the freezing, stinking sludge. Joe’s footwear eventually came into its own, and despite the occasional fall into hip-deep water, it became easy enough to stick to the line again. The pace slowed though, and we didn’t reach the end of the first side until 1pm – three hours since setting off – which meant we’d travelled at an average of 1mph.
We had 15km to go. If the next three sides of the square were as slow as the first, we wouldn’t be off the moor until 10pm.
Thankfully, despite wishing for a brief moment that we’d chosen a triangle instead, we completed the second and third stages in hardly any time at all. The landscape was pretty barren and, like the rebels we are, we abandoned walking in single file. Nick rejoiced in his new found freedom by taking every opportunity to sample the water from streams that ran close to our path through his new Lifestraw (just one of the pointless but brilliant items that he likes to take with him wherever he goes) and, no longer forced to fall in line, Jake upped the pace in true Jake fashion.
While the terrain seemed barren from a distance, the miles of straw-like moor grass on the middle sections masked boggy, uneven ground that was tricky to navigate, especially when the hail and howling winds began. Much like we had done in Wales, we put our heads down and got on with the walk. There were a few moments in these sections that I wished my friends were the kind of guys who made plans to watch rugby and drink a few pints in the pub on a Saturday instead, but by the time the rain had cleared and we found ourselves sitting by a stream at the bottom of a stupidly picturesque valley eating lunch, I took it all back.
The fourth section was Nick’s to lead. As he planned the route, it was only to be expected that he’d take the section with the most water. Sure enough, when we reached the brow of the first hill, it looked as though our route would take us straight through the centre of a sizeable reservoir. After the monotony of the last 10km, the prospect of swimming through anything (whether legal or not) was exciting. Unfortunately, however, when we got to it, we realised our line actually took us over its narrowest point and we simply jumped it (much to Nick’s disappointment).
After crossing the river, the sun began to set and we continued to plod on through more bog. Six hours of yanking our feet free from the sludge had taken its toll, and each step became more and more uncomfortable. With our finish line in sight, we trudged through the last few metres and touched the Tor just as the light disappeared, to complete adventure number two. Tired, hungry and a little broken, we walked back to the cars. We had only been in Dartmoor for a day, but it felt like a lifetime, which probably explains why I was quite disappointed to see the The Fox Tor cafe had closed an hour before we got back to it.
In the car on the way down to Dartmoor from London, Nick and I spoke about the danger of racking up too many forgettable days due to work commitments or lack of expendable income. While walking in a square on Dartmoor may not have been the most exciting adventure we’ve ever been on, it was cheap, it gave us something to look forward to and most importantly, I think I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life. I’m writing this post a month after it happened and can still remember every detail like it was yesterday, but probably couldn’t tell you what I did the day before it or the day after, and whatever it was I did on the weekends either side of our trip to Dartmoor will forever remain a complete mystery. ▲