The Webburn is surely Dartmoor’s most secret river, even if one of its branches does flow through Widecombe-in- the-Moor – arguably the Moor’s most popular tourist village. It is an elusive flow, occasionally encountered but rarely followed from its twin sources to its end in the swirling waters of the River Dart, below New Bridge.
To seek out its hidden places involves much trespass or the omission of great stretches of its waters. So come trespassing with me.
Rather like those pioneers of British exploration it makes some sense to follow the Webburn upstream, not least because the end of the river – at Buckland Bridge – is easily accessible and following the first section of the river presents no problems. The bridge spans the Webburn immediately above its confluence with the Dart and was rightly described by William Crossing as a charming scene.
It was here that the Widecombe authoress Beatrice Chase liked to linger and about which she wrote on a number of occasions. The lovely wooded valley upstream is a nature reserve, a haunt of otters and water birds. A path takes the wanderer upstream to the joining of the East and West Webburns at Lizwell Meet. All of this is land declared open to roam under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. On the hillside above is the fine viewpoint of Blackadon Down, with the stony piles of Blackadon Tor and Logwell Rock. It is a seldom visited area in comparison with other parts of Dartmoor.
The wooded valley splits here, one branch following the West Webburn upstream to Ponsworthy Bridge; the East Webburn to Cockingford Bridge. There are good paths by the banks of both of these rivers, but though well used they are not rights of way and you will be trespassing. I have walked them often over the years and all the tracks pass through delightful scenery, particularly during this autumn season. A good excuse to exercise your freedom to roam.
Let us follow the western river first. At Ponsworthy, the Webburn is easily walked using a public footpath which is now part of the Two Moors Way. It is a rough and stony track, often very near the edge of the water, a very good place for a lunch break. The river bends to the north west at the hamlet of Jordan.
Once near here I met the actor and fisherman the late Sir Michael Hordern, a great champion of freedom to roam, who spent his boyhood nearby and often returned. Sir Michael walked and fished the Webburn and neighbouring rivers at all hours of the day and night and few people had a greater knowledge of the local waters.
A bridleway takes the tramper above a further stretch of the Webburn, below the hill known as Jordan Ball to the appropriately named Shallowford. From above here the West Webburn drains a broad and marshy valley. Those Dartmoor walkers who have explored the old mineral workings around Vitifer and Birch Tor will have already seen the headwaters of the West Webburn, but before we proceed thither, let us look at where some of the tiny streams around Broadaford actually pass.
One tiny stream heads up towards Blackaton Manor and Gamble Cottage. Older ramblers on Dartmoor will remember when the latter was the home of Dr Alan and Mrs Gwenna Barwell, wonderful leaders of moorland walks. I walked with both of them on many occasions; expeditions which often concluded with sumptuous feasts at Gamble Cottage, which went on long into the night. Alan and Gwenna have passed on now, but I have fond memories of them both and enjoy looking at the painting of Bowerman’s Nose that Gwenna painted for me as a calendar one Christmas many years ago.
A westwards stream goes near to Cator, once the home of Dartmoor’s greatest preservationist (Lady) Sylvia Sayer. How she is missed!
The principal waters of the Webburn flow on under Challacombe to the mineral workings at Vitifer. A good bridleway and open moorland gives good access to the river from this point and there is a great deal of fascinating industrial archaeology in the vicinity.
Back then to Lizwell Meet, where a woodland path (private) leads to Cockingford Bridge.
If you are averse to trespassing, a footpath cuts the corner from Cockingford to the lane into Widecombe, offering limited views of the next stretch of the East Webburn as it heads towards the village.
It passes below Venton Farm, once the home of Olive Katherine Parr, or Beatrice Chase as she was better known. This once-famous authoress is buried in Widecombe churchyard, where her gravestone bears both names. She crossed swords with many people, not least the archaeologist and DPA secretary Richard Hansford Worth. In the days I worked for the Dartmoor Preservation Association I used to delight in reading their often vitriolic correspondence, which is housed in the DPA archive. It should be made available to a wider readership.
What can one say about Widecombe-in-the-Moor? Despite the crowds, the hype, and the occasional tackiness, I still think it a delightful place in one of the most beautiful of settings.
The Webburn slips by all this hustle and bustle and is scarcely noticed. But the valley beyond is truly dramatic, mountainous in aspect, and perhaps deserving of a mightier river. Access to the Webburn is again limited until open moorland is reached at Natsworthy Gate. Here the main branch of the Webburn makes a sharp turn to the west, climbing the steep slopes of Hameldon to a source near to the Blue Jug boundary stone, scarce a mile from the headwaters of its sister river the East Webburn.
If you like your river sources to be in stark and beautiful places, then this will do for you as the head of the Webburn. But a case can be made for the tiny brook that proceeds up the valley past Heathercombe, below Barramoor and up to near Lettaford Cross as being the final flow of the Webburn. This may be followed, with a subsidiary watercourse up on to Shapley Common.
The first part of this may be seen from the footpath through the woodlands of Heathercombe Brake and the Shapley tributary from the Mariners Way. In dry weather some of the highest parts dry out, but it is surely the highest flow of this elusive river.
If you have been a bold trespasser and followed much of the two courses of the Webburn you will have passed through a quiet and secret landscape. The Webburn deserves to be better known and perhaps in future years increased access legislation or new rights of way will make this lovely river far more accessible.