A stormy dawn on Dartmoor and I was mightily glad of the huge granite boulder that protected me from the worst of the rain. The rocky heights of Laughter Tor loom out of the mist, causing me to crawl even deeper into my sleeping bag, reflecting on the momentary madness that inspired me to seek shelter on the exposed summit of Bellever.
I should have brought a tent, instead of this flimsy waterproof flapping in the wind. I don’t often use a tent. The true tramper sleeps out in fine weather and seeks cover in the wet. But no tramper in his right mind would ever seek shelter on top of a storm-blown tor. There have been some strange bedrooms on my tramps around Britain, but few as wet and cold as Bellever in April.
I’d tramped across northern Dartmoor the day before, rain-lashed most of the way, not seeing a soul. I’d watched the clouds break across the highest summits in southern England, and heard the curlew’s cry echo across the peat-bogs of Cranmere and Cut Hill.
On that solitary ramble I had the feeling, familiar to all who wander in wild places, that I was the only human left in the world.
The rain cleared as I strode the last few miles along the Dart river, its white water forcing through rocky channels and tearing at grass and moss on its banks. Then I saw the rocky crown of Bellever in the distance, the tor that stands high and proud at the very heart of the moor, visible for miles from all directions. Where better to sleep on a long Dartmoor tramp?
A clear sky gave me an hour or two to sit on the very top of the rocky hill, to reflect on my journey there, a long walk from one end of Dartmoor to another. I’d wandered the British countryside since childhood and had come to know Dartmoor well.
The route I took from Okehampton to Ivybridge would be thirty-one miles in all, across some of the loneliest country in the land. In years to come I would do the walk in a day, but then I broke my travels in half, Bellever being the midpoint of a glorious exploration.
I was sixteen, rootless, dreading endless years of wage slavery. That day I’d negotiated rock-clittered hillsides, lonely river valleys and acres of mire and bog. I’d not seen a soul all day, and I was content. I wanted more of this. More solitude, more freedom, more joy, a sense of relationship with the great walkers of the past, read about in the considerable literature of rambling, who walked, like ghosts, through my life.
I crawled into a niche between the rocks and settled down to sleep, thinking of those walkers who had come before, a great vision of vagrom men and women – the pilgrims, the literary tramps, the gentle ramblers, the brave souls who had fought for access to our countryside. As I looked up at the stars, I made a vow to devote my life to exploring my country on foot, writing my own account of my travels, trespassing across denied landscapes, skirmishing for the freedom to roam, fighting for my own liberty.
I would walk, mostly, alone, but would seek the company of rambling friends so that I might share their greater knowledge of people and places. I had been a wanderer since childhood and would make the wandering life my personal mission, walking the wild places of Britain until the last breath.
I descended from Bellever on that rainy dawn, with my whole life mapped out. I felt peace of mind, something only ever achieved during rambles in those youthful days. The descent from the heart of the moor was the beginning of my journey.
I’ve described some of my subsequent adventures in my book Wayfarer’s Dole, which is now out in paperback and as an e-book. Click below for more details.