My Uncle Tim and Auntie Jan were house sitting on the edge of the Dartmoor national park for the winter months. They are known throughout my family as being big fans of the #coddiwomple. This is supposedly the act of travelling in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination. Something of this nature on this ancient landscape drenched in legend appealed, so I made an excuse to visit.
We walked the length of the Lydford Gorge before it opened and had it to ourselves. Famed for being the home to one of England’s tallest waterfalls, the quality of the White Lady surprised us. Being out of season, some areas were closed which meant for a short walk by all standards. Who knew it was possible to close the outside? Back at the car we contemplated what next. There are forests, high granite tors, deceptive bog covered flats, and rolling hills between. On finding the local forest closed (it turns out the outside is closed a lot), we settled on going up. The deep, tree lined gorge had offered boundless protection from the frozen winds and perpetual rain at the surface. At the first step I found the waterlogged ground gave little resistance as my foot pushed down. Rather than me sinking in, water spilled over every side. Finding that my boots were dry, the water rushed in until a puddle formed under the arch of each foot.
As we walked it seemed as though that the paths were streams, the streams were also streams. Seeing as how my feet were now like sailors trapped on sinking ships, getting wetter didn’t matter. The yellow-brown moss covered ground sloped away, disappearing into the grey horizon. The black wings of crows the only definition against the thick blanket of rain. Aside from the steady incline and the thin layer of water racing down hill, there was little to consider beyond how ruined my boots were. It hadn’t taken long for the difference in liquid outside and in to equalise. Is this how you get trench foot?
New boots were on the way, no doubt arriving at home the day after I did. I’d even got as far as thinking about buying some walking trousers, I definitely did not want to be outside in the wet in jeans. Instead I’d worn shorts. In February. I have become my father. I had none of the gear and was also lacking in good ideas, I might as well blame Dad for this as well. I could have said “no, let’s just go home” to the offer of walking further. I could have said “hang on a minute guys, these boots are no longer suitable for walking” when the water rushed in. Instead I laughed at how ridiculous the situation was and carried on walking.
On the way up, it’s easy to believe that everything is going to be ok. When you have no idea where the summit is it’s easy to believe you’re nearly there. Just as easy to forget is the top of the hill is in fact only ever half way. What goes up must surely come back down again, my good self included. The squelch that accompanied every step had lost it’s humour. I was no longer able to pretend the wet sponge underfoot was comfortable. A solid ridge line appeared in the horizon, rocky unstable ground but at least it was dry. The ground began to flatten out, finally offering the promise of a summit. First there was one tor, then another, before finally up on top of another stack of pancaked rocks the trig point marked the true peak.
Exposed to the same winds responsible for excavating the bones of the Earth, being wet was no longer tolerable. My feet felt like they’d spent too long in an ice bath. The wet had become cold and it was sinking deep beneath my skin. The wind that had given me a push up the hill was now fighting to keep me there. My positive mental attitude had all but blown away. I had to rely on gritted teeth and determination to get back down again. Visibility was beyond poor. I started to think about how easy it would be to get lost out here. Beyond the Hound of the Baskervilles, I’m not well-read on the horror stories of Dartmoor, which was probably fortunate as my mental state hurtled towards despair. I was feeling like a wet paper bag that someone had thrown in the freezer to prevent it from disintegrating. How cold do you have to be before hypothermia sets in? Was I still having fun? No, no I was not having fun. I wanted nothing more than to be warm and dry at home. I’d even settle for dry.
This simple fantasy was a short drive from reality once we arrived back at the bottom of the hill. As soon as I got in the car my boots and socks were off and my wrinkled feet were breathing air at last. I was immediately under the hot shower, safe to think more on how spectacular the tors had appeared when they emerged from the rain. The trig point had to be one of the most unusual I’d encountered. Even though I hadn’t enjoyed myself the whole time, I was already looking back on it as a good time. I wasn’t in any serious danger (maybe trench foot), but it wouldn’t be difficult to find yourself in a tricky situation out on the moor. On the coast you always know where the sea is, all you have to do is not fall in. Moving inland brought new challenges to overcome; the high, featureless terrain and it’s personal weather system. I’m not much good at saying “no, thank you”. “More, please” seems to be my current mantra. Which if nothing else tells me that I’m happy with these decisions. These new summits, every old mile, this life on the move is what I want so it was probably a good idea to invest in some new boots.