Some of my most memorable Dartmoor walks have been in the mist.
There is something quite magical and other-worldly about tramping through wild country when the horizon has closed down to a few yards. For all you can tell, nobody is within miles of you. Standing stones, tors, rocky river beds and round houses emerge with a suddenness that verges on the miraculous.
Many walkers fear mist and will not venture out on to the Moor in all but the clearest weather. It is true that you lose the view on misty days but, supposing you can use a map and compass with confidence, you make up for that by experiencing Dartmoor at its most elemental.
In the consciousness of many who have never visited the place Dartmoor is a land of mists and mires – literature and popular perception have told them so.
Most guide books have at least a few paragraphs expounding the “dangers” of Dartmoor mists, how you might get lost, how you might stumble into a bog or be benighted in the wilderness. This is all true. The Dartmoor walker who claims never to have been mislaid in a mist has never walked very far.
If adventure is controlled risk then we should all experience walks on Dartmoor in all conditions.
This does depend on the ability to navigate. I am horrified at the number of walkers I encounter who regard the compass around their neck as some kind of talisman, worn for luck and with little idea of how it actually works. Learning to use a map and compass is really easy and opens up the possibility of exploring Dartmoor in all weathers. The weather on Dartmoor can change suddenly plunging the brightest day into gloom, so it is as well to be prepared.
Experience doesn’t protect you from the onset of mist. Even the great William Crossing got lost upon the Moor. In his book Amid Devonia’s Alps he recounts a walk in atrocious weather, not just mist but driving rain, to Hexworthy, when he got badly lost and only discovered his position by falling into the old mine working at Ringleshutts Girt. In the same chapter he tells how Mrs Hooper, then resident of Nuns Cross Farm, was lost upon the Moor for many hours, going round in circles within a mile of her home.
I have my own experience of being badly lost. As a teenager, walking with a former school friend, we got caught by a mist just west of Redlake. We had been properly prepared, but found that our compass had somehow fallen out of our knapsack. We wandered around, and no doubt in circles, for many hours. It was a very thick mist, visibility of no more than a few yards.
Obstacles really do become magnified in size when seen in low visibility. Every heather bush on our limited horizon took on the dimensions of a tor until it was actually reached. We found two or three times a huge mine gully of a depth that I knew simply didn’t exist on southern Dartmoor. I think on reflection it was the one above Hensroost, though the mist gave it massively exaggerated proportions.
We were just considering the possibility of bivvying for the night when my friend (who was training to be a vicar) raised his eyes to heaven and cried out “oh for a sign, a sign”. Almost immediately one of the Ter Hill stone crosses loomed out of the mist and the situation was resolved. Even I was a trifle spooked at the coincidence .
Benighted travellers of old supposedly blamed their misfortune on the Dartmoor pixies. To be “pixy-led” means to be led astray. The traditional cure for breaking the spell is to take off your coat and put it on inside out. In his very readable “Hints to the Dartmoor Rambler” at the beginning of his Guide to Dartmoor, William Crossing suggest following a river downstream if you are badly lost, which I suppose might be better than dying of exposure. The disadvantages are that you could end up miles from where you want to be and, while you might get away with such a policy on Dartmoor, the same tactic in a mountain district could easily take you over a cliff.
Where Dartmoor is at its most ferocious is when the cloud cover of driving rain – or even snow – brings both mist and wind. This is probably the worst that nature can throw at you, though nightfall compounds the horror. Unless you are an experienced hillwalker it is better not to set out in such conditions and if you get caught up in such conditions to seek shelter as soon as possible.
But what I call the gentle mists of Dartmoor can be a treat, those still days when the mist lingers over valley and hill top. I recall a quiet morning making my way up the Wo Brook is such a mist, the earth still and with no sound of voices to break the peace of the day. It was like being alone in the world, refreshing to the spirit. At the old bridge on the mine track I looked upstream, the few yards I could see, and caught a glimpse of an otter playing, diving in to a pool and them repeatedly climbing up on to the bank to do it again and again. After quite a while he headed upstream and vanished into the mist.
It is by such experiences that we discover ourselves, lost or not. The human spirit needs adventure and an element of risk. It is sad that our over-protective society fails to recognise such needs. Dartmoor is just the place for such adventures. Those who know it best know it in all conditions, from bright sunlit summer days and through the rain and the mist.