Ask any rambler who was walking Dartmoor over thirty years ago and they will tell you that there were fewer people about out in the wilds. You could walk Dartmoor all day away from the roads and never see anyone else – and if you did bump into some other solitary hiker you probably knew them, so small was the Dartmoor walking fraternity.
I began walking on Dartmoor when I was a child and was always quite determined that I would never walk with a group. I lapsed in 1973 with the intention that it would be a one-off. I had long been a member of the Ramblers Association, supporting their policies on access, but not really interested in their Devon area walks programme.
Then I noticed that a walk was being led from Cross Furzes by the late Joe Turner. Someone told me that Joe had a great knowledge of Dartmoor and its archaeology, so I went on his walk, even though I knew that part of the Moor very well.
I found myself among a small crowd of walkers, all of whom seem to be very experienced in all things Dartmoor. That was I think the difference between that group and some I have ventured out with since. Modern groups seem to consist of knowledgeable leaders and a troop who know very little. Among those veterans everyone seemed to have such a great knowledge and experience of Dartmoor.
It was a terrific walk, Joe pointing out numerous antiquities that I had missed on my own expeditions. I was welcomed by this hardy group of veterans and enthused by the comradeship of the rambling movement. Before the day was done I had been persuaded to lead two walks on their next programme and stand for the area committee.
Many older Dartmoor ramblers will have known Joe Turner, if only by reputation. His research as an archaeologist was second to none. As the walks organiser for the Devon Ramblers he must have introduced a great many people to the joys of walking Dartmoor.
And if that was not enough, his hard work led to the creation of the Two Moors Way, a long distance path enjoyed by thousands of people from all around the world. He was a friend to all, one of the nicest and most generous human beings it has been my privilege to know. Joe served for three periods on the Dartmoor National Park Authority, where his knowledge of the area and common sense paid dividends, and was a very welcome member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association committee for many years.
It was Joe and his wife Pat who surveyed all of the antiquities in the Dartmoor forestry plantations, persuading the Forestry Commission to cut away the trees around them, preserving them for future generations. We miss Joe’s company still.
In 1974, Joe’s walks programme consisted of a Perambulation of the Forest of Dartmoor, in a series of twelve walks. I did them all and seem to recall it was a very wet year – at least eleven of the rambles took place in driving rain. I have an abiding memory of the entire party being roped together to facilitate a crossing of a very flooded River Tavy.
But it was a terrific Dartmoor experience, and set the scene for a whole series of themed walks programmes, such as walking Dartmoor’s leats, or exploring the scenes described in Eden Phillpotts’ novels. All through the coming years I walked with the Devon Ramblers each Sunday and by myself elsewhere in the week.
The Devon Ramblers Association really came about thanks to the hard work and dedication of Miss Hilda Biscoe of Throwleigh, who brought the Devon area into being and served as its secretary for quite a while. She was already quite elderly when I knew her, but was a steadfast Dartmoor walker, leading rambles almost to the end of her life, despite near blindness.
The Devon Ramblers Association fought in many of the great campaigns to save Dartmoor around that time, such as the battle against a reservoir at Swincombe, and the construction of the Okehampton bypass. Countless rights of way were saved from closure and cleared of obstructions, and many walks arranged for members and the general public.
Walks were quite long by comparison to many group rambles these days. And the day didn’t end when you took your boots off. Several members lived on Dartmoor, and we would go back to their homes for sumptuous feasts which went on late into the evening. I have particular memories of a post walk dinner at Gamble Cottage, west of Hameldon, and then the home of Dr Alan Barwell and his wife, which ended some time after midnight.
Alan had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the War, but bore no grudges. I remember his accompanying two elderly Japanese tourists on one walk, all three laughing and joking all the way. Alan would occasionally alarm me by scooping up water in a plastic cup to drink from the muddiest of Dartmoor puddles. I recall one funny occasion when we went to examine a dead pony on the top of Sheepstor, to see why it might have died. The attempted post-mortem came to a speedy end when the apparently dead animal experienced an amazing resurrection almost throwing Alan and myself down the rocky tor.
The chairman of the Devon Ramblers Association at this time was Ron Vinnicombe, headmaster of the school in Bovey Tracey and a local councillor.
Ron very much led the campaigning side of the RA in Devon and was a doughty fighter for the rights of walkers. He led the RA in the battle against the military on Dartmoor, and spoke with some experience having been an army major in the War. He wrote a very good little pamphlet of walks from Bovey Tracey, which deserves to be back in print.
A near neighbour of his, Pam Lind, took the group on nature rambles, often leading the walkers into the very heart of a Dartmoor bog, so that we might examine its flora and fauna.
In 1976, Dartmoor experienced its worst drought in living memory, the water in the reservoirs disappeared and rivers became puddles. An overbearing heat pressed down on the walkers, making long journeys near impossible. It was almost the only weather that interfered with an increasingly ambitious walks programme. I recall that some paths across the worst of Dartmoor’s mires changed position after the drought.
Towards the end of the decade the RA walkers group changed for ever. The Ramblers Association decreed that there should be many more groups in Devon, and the dedicated area walkers faced being placed in groups scattered around and away from their many friends. They countered this by forming the Moorland Group of the Ramblers so that they might stay together. The Moorland Group was a great success and flourishes to this day.