Dartmoor Round

By Simon Barnett

24 July 2020

2020 has been a year of unexpectedness.  With a longstanding Ramsay date scuppered by COVID-19 in May, something else with less logistical challenge that could be slotted in at relatively short-notice was required.  Inspired by a write up in the Fell Runner (Spring 2018) the Dartmoor Round was added to my bucket list 3 years ago.  It fitted the bill perfectly: challenging enough (roughly 75 miles with 4000m of ascent) without being too daunting, and sufficiently close to some childcare in the form of Granny and Grandad.

Although 20 years old, the Dartmoor Round is still embryonic.  Until 19th June 2020 there had only been 4 completions.  Then, like many other long-distance challenges, there was a flurry of post-lockdown activity, including three rounds by one person.

It takes in 27 different tors, with the quirk that Sheeps Tor is visited twice, as the first and last tor.  The tors form a loop that very roughly runs around the edge of the high moor, cutting the odd corner and flirting occasionally with enclosed fields and valleys on the margins and touching the edges of a few of the reservoirs.

The route, as inaugurated by Nigel Jenkins (with once in a thousand-year celebrations on 31 Dec 1999), starts and finishes at the Royal Oak in Meavy, a few kms downhill from Sheeps Tor. 

Following the 2020 outbreak of attempts, the round now looks set to become established as a challenge that omits the out and back to the Royal Oak, enabling challengers to start at any of the 27 tors on the route. This probably lends itself to starting at one of the 4 tors that are very close to a road.

Of the 27 tors, I can recall visiting 7 of them as a youngster, but my knowledge of the route was otherwise limited to frequent lockdown fly-throughs, courtesy of Google Earth.  My original plan of an evening start and running through the darkness of the northern moor, which I know best, was altered as I developed an armchair schedule which indicated that 20 hrs was a realistic target, navigating on sight with map/compass and altimeter.  I reverted to my tried and tested logistics for this type of run and planned a 3.30am start with two brief periods of darkness at the beginning and the end.  I designed a schedule to have 8 legs – in other words, seven points where I could receive food and drink, so that I could run as unladen as possible. 

In the preceding weeks, Martyn, my lone hill supporter, was dispatched to recce bits of the route, especially the crossing of the Dart. At best, it looked complicated and at worst, life threatening, not due to the river, but thanks to the seemingly impenetrable bracken and trees cloaking the steep-sided valley. 

Nine hours before my start time, Martyn informed me that he had been throwing up all day and not been further than his bed or settee.  He did, however, let me know that there had been a lot of ‘happy’ people at the Dart crossing on his recce the day before, and that I should probably avoid stumbling across Rainbow camp.

As Kirsty and I drove on to the moor, the evening mist enveloped us and a short walk up Sharpitor (tor 2) was useful from the perspective that it was going to be dark when I was there a few hours later.  More advantageous, if not somewhat disconcerting, was a recce in the trees either side of Burrator Reservoir looking at an intricate end to the descent from Sheeps Tor and identifying my chosen entry point of the climb to Sharpitor. 

A few minutes before the off.

It was 9.30pm by the time I’d finally determined a route and put my head down for a few hours in the back of the car – which was somewhat interrupted when I attempted to go to the toilet, only to discover that the rear doors were child-locked and both front seats were piled high to the roof with various paraphernalia.  It was a normal pre-challenge restless sleep, waking feeling tired and lethargic and forcing some porridge down, eventually starting at the pub some 10 minutes later than planned.

My chosen route started sub-optimally by sticking to roads, rather than risking what would have been a shorter on-sight traverse across some fields and through some woods.  I played it safe rather than risk getting lost and frustrated from the outset.  Steady road running soon saw me on the climb to Sheeps Tor, a bit concerned by how warm it was. 

I was completely startled by a dog barking from the inside of a tent I hadn’t spotted that was pitched in some bracken on a flat bit of the climb. I think the dog’s owner was more startled, mind you.

The descent off Sheeps Tor went smoothly via a dog-leg to the east, before picking up the narrow forest footpaths that were still familiar from the evening before, not needing the stick and stone arrows I had laid. Through the car park and a long run around the head of the reservoir to a big dog-leg west, and Sharpitor eventually came out of the mist and gloom at me. 

A short descent to a car park where Kirsty served me a drink, before I played it safe keeping to the main road and another car park in order to find a track, rather than cutting the corner.  Whilst consulting the map a friendly man jumped out of a steamed-up car – this was 04.40 – and pointed me in the right direction. I have neither no idea who he was nor what he looked like as I decided not to blind him with my headtorch, but thank you, nonetheless.

Along the old railway line before taking in Ingra Tor, with some more faff managing to neither efficiently re-trace my steps nor find a quick alternative to get off the moor to a lane, and a steep down and up across the River Walkham in a deep valley.   The first glimpses of daylight made the torch redundant and Pew Tor was visited before meeting Kirsty at 05.31 below Cox Tor for some porridge and to swap my bum bag for a vest packed with greater quantities of food and drink. 

Off up to Cox Tor, now heading north along the western flank of the moor, followed by the first section of tussocky moor with less obvious paths to follow.

Dartmoor’s mist made this section tricky and a lot of map and compass work was needed, aided by a handy relocation using a stone-circle that became briefly visible.  There must be a more efficient way than my route, but most importantly I did not get lost or misplaced.

Standon Hill’s army huts were eventually stumbled upon, before a leg-sapping descent down and up steeply, roughly and very slowly to Ger Tor.  Again, there must be a better route.

Confident in my ability to find my way to Brat Tor without needing a bearing and at the excitement of being able to run again, I trotted for 3 or 4 minutes downhill in the mist before eventually realising I should in fact have been contouring!  After that frustration I made hard work of getting to Brat Tor, accidentally taking in a small additional ascent to Doe Tor.  Kirsty made a better job walking up to Brat Tor in the mist and was waiting with warm porridge and a resupply of food and drink.

Up and over Great Links Tor and some fast running on the old railway track before taking in Branscombe’s Loaf. By now the day was clear and bright and I was able to try and pick out the best line – if there is one – down and up to Dartmoor’s highest point, High Willhays. 

The descent and start of the climb were easy except for the fact, without going into details, that I was experiencing gastric difficulties requiring an enforced stop every 30 minutes or so, that lasted about 5 hours.  The long climb got increasingly tussocky and I was glad to finally stand atop Devon.

I was making up time now against my armchair schedule, which continued over Oke Tor and down to the Horseshoe Bend, where my efforts were rewarded with a cold sausage casserole, as I had arrived earlier than planned.  I was still able to eat and keep food down, which was a blessing. 

Fortunately, the cows let me safely pass between them and cross the river – which proved considerably harder a week later during a wild camping trip – and I felt strong climbing Cosdon Beacon.  What should have been an enjoyable run on a path on a comfortable angle off Cosdon quickly became distressing as my stomach demanded I stop, but there were too many other people around.

I was on new lines for the next 15 miles or so until Martyn was, in theory, due to get me across the River Dart.   The ground was more runnable than I imagined all the way to Fernworthy Reservoir, via Rippator and Thornworthy Tor.   There was a curious new trod emerging through some reeds on the route up to Thornworthy Tor.  It was a route you would not choose to take unless you had a reason and I briefly wondered if other people had been out.

After passing beneath the dam I plodded up a steady climb towards the road at Bennett’s Cross, which fresh legs would have made runnable, to meet an enlarged support crew of children, parents and Kirsty – armed with my new food of choice for these long runs. Cold pizza. Mmmmm.

Arriving at Bennett’s Cross

Now heading south through the historic settlement of Grimspound, with lots of people out enjoying themselves, the ground was very runnable and I forced myself to take advantage of it albeit with more of a jog than a run.  Over the negligible climbs of Wind Tor and Rowden Ball followed by some road running to meet Kirsty with more pizza, Martyn, and my injured sister.

Sitting at a five-way junction, feeling a bit disorientated, and needing to catch up with Martyn who had opted for a head start, I promptly ran up the wrong road but corrected myself by diving onto the common towards Sharp Tor, where my guide was waiting, looking reassuringly well.  He led me, very swiftly, on an exquisite line down and up through a maze of trees, fields, bracken and split-river channels to run past some friends who had come out to surprise me.  At this point I thought a new fastest known time for the round was a possibility, so I pushed on offering nothing more than a somewhat weary socially distanced hello.

Martyn nailed the route up to Pupers Hill – albeit with an annoying section of road on which I couldn’t really get going on.  Thanks to Google Earth, the route choice to Shipley Bridge was perfect, picking up fast trods that weren’t on the map, including a long tarmac run past hordes of people who were all eyeing the increasingly grey sky.

A quick sit down at Shipley Bridge and a change of shoes into an odd but more comfortable ‘pair’. With a 1h20m buffer against my schedule, I was keen to crack on, but was thwarted by a tractor and trailer that entirely filled the lane from hedge to hedge, only to be followed a minute later by another one. 

Martyn sat out this section, which included some fast running out and back to the southernmost tor – somewhat ironically named Western Beacon.  My schedule had allowed for the wheels falling off from now on, so I had the option of slowing down or pushing on and picking up more time.  Finishing in daylight now seemed a real and enticing possibility.

The southernmost point of Western Beacon.

My mind played tricks on me as Martyn joined again before Hillson’s House.  Had I been alone it’s likely I would have got myself in a bit of a pickle and dropped height too soon, so I decided to relax and follow Martyn for the next few miles, taking advantage of his recent recce on this section. 

Hillson’s House was steep but gained without trouble as the skies continued to darken.  The rain had not been forecast until the small hours but looked set on making an early appearance, which it did as Martyn expertly navigated us over to Penn Beacon.  There was nothing for it but full waterproofs as my body temperature plummeted in the wind and rain of the late afternoon.

What I had imagined being a pleasurable run down to Great Trowlesworthy Tor with the final tors stretching out alluringly, turned out to be quite the opposite as thick mist rolled in. A herd of cows became alarmed as we cantered down towards Trowlesworthy, having first climbed up to Shell Top so that we could stay on runnable paths.  The cows, about 40 of them, ran and wheeled around either side of us for about ¼ mile before the increasingly boggy ground finally put them off. 

We followed a line, carefully memorised from Google Earth, to safely and smoothly reach the ford at Warren House before somehow idiotically crossing the track that we should have turned left on that would enabled an easy ascent of Gutter Tor.  A lot of faffing resulted, including an annoying and unnecessary marsh crossing, and a harder climb up the tor with a very confused Kirsty and Jenny on top of the tor as we approached from 90 degrees in the wrong direction. 

It was pretty wet and miserable by this point, but not dark enough for torches. It was just a case of trusting Martyn to get us back up and over Sheeps Tor, where a good number of people were enjoying their post-lockdown freedom by camping in the wind and rain, some providing great entertainment by pitching in the most ridiculous wind tunnels between the rocks.

With the end in metaphorical sight, my legs felt a little bit lighter and I was determined not to look at my watch as I flirted with the possibility of completing a sub 17 hour round.   Back over the dam and down the road to the pub in Meavy, with the watch stopped at 16h56m.  Cue a warm sense of satisfaction as I sat on a bench on the village green and celebrated with a bag of crisps.  

Job done! Still smiling. (Notice the odd shoes!)

Despite the lure of the pub, albeit with the newly introduced track and trace, we opted to get changed and head off for a shower and a comfy bed.  I was pleased with my time and for half an hour believed it was a fastest known time until discovering that the trod up Thornworthy Tor had in part been established 6 days earlier when two others had gone round, one 6 minutes faster and the other 55 mins faster. 

In the three months it has taken to get around to writing this, the record has been broken two further times, excluding the out and back to Meavy.  Firstly, by the first female, in 13h57m.  And then in September, on his third successful round of the summer, by Patrick Devine-Wright in 12h40m.  

It had been a good day out rediscovering Dartmoor, uncovering new views of Devon and beyond, claiming some new tors and, for a few weeks at least, controlling the insatiable urge to simply run over some hills and wild places. 

Thanks to a small band of family and friends – you know who you are – for making this unexpected adventure possible.

ActualSchedule
LEG 1Grid RefHt(m)TimeSplitTimeSplit
Royal Oak – Meavy541 67314203:40 03:30 
1Sheeps Tor565 68136904:0700:2704:0000:30
2Sharpitor559 70441504:4200:3504:3500:35
Car park 1 (arr)562 70904:4600:0404:3900:04
Car park 1 (dep)04:4700:0104:3900:00
LEG 2    
3Ingra Tor555 72133804:5700:1004:5100:12
4Pew Tor532 73533005:2700:3005:1700:26
Large car park 2 (arr)531  75105:3800:1105:2600:09
Large car park 2 (dep)05:4100:0305:2800:02
LEG 3    
5Cox Tor531 76244105:5200:1105:3900:11
6Standon Hill556 81648406:5100:5906:4301:04
7Ger Tor547 83144607:2000:2907:1000:27
8Brat Tor (arr)540 85646207:5100:3107:3500:25
Brat Tor (dep)07:5400:0307:3800:03
LEG 4    
9Branscombe’s Loaf553 89153208:3100:3708:2800:50
10High Willhays580 89262109:0600:3509:0800:40
11Oke Tor612 90046809:4100:3509:5300:45
Horseshoe bend (arr)619 91509:5200:1110:0800:15
Horseshoe bend (dep)09:5500:0310:1100:03
LEG 5    
12Cosdon Beacon636 91455010:1600:2110:3700:26
13Rippator643 88042110:3900:2311:1700:40
14Thornworthy Tor664 85142911:1800:3912:0200:45
Bennett’s Cross car park (arr)680 81611:5700:3912:4200:40
Bennett’s Cross car park (dep)12:0100:0412:4500:03
LEG 6    
15Hameldown Tor703 80653012:2600:2513:2100:36
16Hameldown Beacon707 78951712:4100:1513:3700:16
17Wind Tor708 75837513:0100:2014:0000:23
18Rowden Ball699 75935613:1000:0914:0800:08
Car park 3 [Lock’s Gate Cross] (arr)696 73913:3000:2014:2700:19
Car park 3 (dep)13:3400:0414:3200:05
LEG 7    
19Sharp Tor687 73038213:5500:2114:4800:16
20Pupers Hill672 67446715:1001:1516:2001:32
Shipley Bridge car park (arr)681 58915:5100:4117:1000:50
Shipley Bridge car park (dep)15:5500:0417:1500:05
LEG 8    
21Corringdon Ball671 60933416:1800:2317:3800:23
22Butterdon Hill655 58636416:4700:2918:1400:36
23Western Beacon654 57633116:5700:1018:3000:16
24Hillson’s House647 62341518:0101:0419:4501:15
25Penn Beacon599 62943018:4400:4320:5401:09
26Great Trowlesworthy580 64335619:1500:3121:3000:36
27Gutter Tor578 66934019:4500:3022:1600:46
LEG 9    
28Sheepstor565 68136920:1000:2522:5700:41
Royal Oak – Meavy20:3600:2623:3200:35
16:5620:02