Walking the West Okement River

Many years ago, before there was a Meldon Reservoir or Okehampton bypass, I used to catch a bus to somewhere on the old A30 and then walk right up past Bluebell Wood, then down to the River Okement (Ockment) and up the banks of that river to Cranmere Pool.

I thought at the time that it was one of the most spectacular walks in England, up through that deep valley. It is still a good route to Cranmere, though spoiled by the presence of the dam and the road.

The Okement offer a variety of opportunities to the Dartmoor explorer.  Its banks present a number of delights, but you miss a lot if you don’t also walk along the ridges above its great valley. In an article in the magazine of the Devon Ramblers Association, their access officer, John Skinner, said that the valley of the West Okement is his favourite Dartmoor spot. I can see why. When I am there, especially on the high ridges around Forsland Ledge, or above the Slipper Stones, I usually come to the conclusion that this is the finest of all Dartmoor valleys.

The Okement doesn’t quite flow from Cranmere Pool, though in wet weather the overflow from that boggy hollow certainly dribbles down towards the beginning of the river.

I suspect, rather like the true source of the Nile, this is all very debateable. In a number of his writings, the novelist Henry Williamson makes out a case for the notion that we should rename the West Okement the River Torridge, on the grounds that this tributary of that river travels further than the flow that currently names that river of north Devon. Incidentally, Williamson does the finest written description of a walk in the Cranmere area in his novel The Power of the Dead, as he describes a visit there by his hero Phillip Maddison.

Even as the Okement winds down under Great Kneeset, you get the feeling that its course is to be wonderful, the lower valley being often in sight. To the north is the great massif of High Willhays and to the west Amicombe Hill, almost seeming to force the river into the depths of its huge valley.

Lints Tor, a weird looking block of stone, stands a lonely sentinel at the valley’s broadest point, before the valley narrows, the tor more dramatic in a way because it is so much lower than its neighbours.

From that tor’s northern slopes is an excellent panorama of what is to come. I like the view of Stinka (Stenga) Tor, which from this point looks exactly like Brian the Snail from The Magic Roundabout. Not far north, the river leaves the Forest of Dartmoor at Sandy Ford.

If you have all the time in the world, you should skip uphill to Forsland Ledge, one of the grandest viewpoints for the valley, though horribly disfigured by the army’s tin shack and stable, or up to Stenga Tor. It is no exaggeration to say that the views from these heights are mountainous in aspect, comparable to any hill district in England.

Just as the river meets the little wood of Black-a-Tor-Beare (and please always use this ancient name, even if the philistines at the Ordnance Survey have abandoned it), look up and there are the Slipper Stones. I looked at them again a while ago, from the hillside opposite, and they seemed to stand out from the surrounding vegetation much more clearly than I had seen them for years. The Beare itself is a remnant of a larger oakwood that probably stretched through much of the valley in times past – all the way from the Valley of Rocks upstream to the Forest boundary, William Crossing suggests, in his Guide to Dartmoor.

The Valley of Rocks itself, not far downstream, is a beautiful spot to this day, wooded and rocky, with delightful waterfalls, a perfect place for a tramper’s lunch break or just a picnic. Above is Shelstone Tor, another high point with excellent view of the Okement valley. The river swings to almost due north at Vellake Corner and is now lost in the waters of the Meldon Reservoir.

Now, I know this artificial lake has its fans, but they tend to be people who don’t remember the magnificent valley that was lost when the dam was built. As a result of a short-term solution to Devon’s water-shortage, and promoted by local jobsworths who seemed to have a real hatred of the National Park, Dartmoor’s most beautiful valley was lost for ever.

The whole scandalous story is related by Sylvia Sayer, who led the opposition, in a sad but very readable little book called The Meldon Story (and please will somebody bring it back into print?)

Those of us who were around at the time still feel the anger.

Soon after that  Dartmoor tragedy came another, with the construction of the Okehampton bypass through the National Park. The noise of its traffic blights this part of our exploration of the West Okement, even overshadowing the work noise of the Meldon Quarry to the east.

Nonetheless, this part of the river should be explored particularly by those who have an interest in industrial archaeology.  Investigating the woodland copses and abandoned quarries is a fascinating way of spending an afternoon. This area is dominated by the old railway viaduct, now a walk and cycleway, and which – one day – may carry trains once again, if plans to restore the old railway line from Okehampton to Plymouth come to fruition.

On the right bank, between the line of the railway line and the new dual carriageway are the remnants of Bluebell Wood, from where my earliest tramps over this part of Dartmoor began.

Despite the disfigurements of these lower stretches, the West Okement is a river well worth walking beside. Following its course is still a good approach to Cranmere Pool, or even as a circular walk incorporating an ascent of High Willhays and Yes Tor.

The West Okement might not be the first river that comes to mind when you think of Dartmoor rivers, but I think of it as one of the best.

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