Trebarwith

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The year has nearly come to a close. The festive season has bought the traditional excesses. The need to sneak off for a quiet swim, run or bike ride, usually before the rest of the house is stirring sufficiently to stop me, has been strong. I have swum in Burrator in a gale, before dawn, and sheltered from the wind and giant winter swell behind the protective buttress of the cliffs at Porth Nadler. I have run on the moors through wind, gales, darkness and dramatic sailor-warning angry pink sunrise skies. On my bike I have been pushed to a halt on a 1 in 4 descent on Dartmoor by the force of the headwind, before being blown off the side of the road by the crosswind. As a family we have climbed the tors and huddled for shelter, holding the smallest one to stop her blowing away. The joys of the British winter are myriad.

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Today we head to Trebarwith, for the last swim of the year, a brief moment of respite between family events. The surf is big, fast and powerful. 8-10 feet says Magic Seaweed. I sneak out between sets at the smaller, southern end of the beach. The cross-offshore gale is holding up the waves, plumes of spray blown high from the peaks. The water is still warm and the cloud thins allowing the weak sun to light it, a cool soft wintery blue, murky from all the sediment in motion.

I head along the back, to the far end of the beach, looking up frequently to make sure I’m far out, behind the outermost breaking sets. The swell is big, wintery and powerful. Behind the largest ones all I can see is an uphill waterfall of rising spray, high in the air it arcs as the nearest and biggest of the waves peak and then explode onto themselves billowing clouds of spray, lit by the sun and producing momentary rainbows when the low winter sun catches. I really don’t want to get caught in that.

I get as close to the far northerly cliffs as I dare, but the swell is breaking far out and the surf is charging onto the rocks below the cliffs. This would be an unsatisfactory place to end my day. I turn and head back against the chop and as the safety of the beach draws closer allow some wallowy backstroke and cloud watching while monitoring the sets. When the time is right I put my head down and sprint for the shore, getting in before the swimmer-eating gnarly ones return, and allow myself some time in the washing machine of the shore break. A great chance to clear out both the sinuses and the winter cobwebs.

The children have been entertaining themselves with the waterslides and whirlpools the beach offers for those who enjoy such pleasures. There are few other children availing themselves of the facilities, unsurprisingly. All the photos are of these events as I suspect my wife has tired of bothering to try and spot her semi-aquatic husband, not without good reason.

I have spent the last year recording adventures here. I may take a break now and try a new project. I’ll resume when the time feels right.

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Lundy Hole

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We hide from the never-ending South Westerly gales in the sheltered pocket of Lundy Hole Beach, near Polzeath. We are hidden from the winter swell by the arched green back of Trevose head, whose end is marked by twin volcanic peaks, The Rumps. Whitewater outlines the base of their offshore island cousin, The Moules.

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Here we make camp under the benign protection of the cliffs, a private swimming pool for the children en-suite. Off the beach clean waves pop up for the few surfers who have ventured down the wooded valley and across the wet meadows. A single seal floats, out towards the empty western end of the bay.

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Martin and I swim out to Carnweather point, exploring the rocky shore exposed by low tide. The visibility is minimal, just the odd weed felt before seen as you find yourself swimming amongst it. The clouds whip over the top of our protective cliff, barrier to the gale. The russet and green of the bracken-clad summits give way to the black north-facing cliffs, glistening darkly in damp winter sunlessness. There is a bonfire, unseen over the brow, and the air clears once we’re upwind of it. The wind is strong enough to send showers of spray cascading over my body from each splash of my kick, as mini pulses of winter rain on my back. We are followed some of the way by the curious seal. He turns back at Great Lobb’s rock, which marks the end of the beach. We turn back later, when the wind confronts us, full and bodily as we round the point.

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Back to the beach, where we bodyboard and explore. Lundy hole is a fabulous rock arch exposing a wide chimney behind, open to the grey sky. Legend holds that it was dug by the Devil, frightened away by St Minver who threw her comb at him when he disturbed her brushing her hair. My son and I wade under the arch into the rocky, echoing sanctuary beyond. A side tunnel leads to the right and the light draws us to a secret gorge-like exit, back out to the shifting low-tide sandbanks. From within the tunnel we see the green winter waves backing up beyond, seemingly higher than us, waiting for the tide to flood and offer them their turn at the cave. At our departure up the cliff shortly afterwards, the hole has been reclaimed by surging swell, which continues it’s perpetual tunnelling into the softer rocks on which we stand briefly.

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Burrator

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Last weekend I swam at Lopwell, during a brief interlude in domestic duties. It was lovely to back in the smooth river after the angry winter seas of late. The trees have lost their leaves; more leaves are now floating past in the water than are left in the canopy and the slopes have been uncovered to reveal their contours and outcrops that have spent the summer obscured. I was reminded of delicate morning lake swims in Snowdonia and the Lake District. However it was absolutely, face-stingingly freezing. I have therefore invested in some thick winter gloves and swimming socks and was keen to test-swim them.

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And so it is that we find ourselves, before dawn, my long suffering family in tow, cajoled by promises of terrible weather for the rest of the weekend and American pancakes, maple syrup and bacon when we get home, on the shores of Burrator reservoir. I’ve long wanted to swim here but have always been spooked by no swimming signs, warden’s Landrovers, fishermen, ice cream vans and crowds. There are none of these things just after 7am, only a perfect still lake, lit by a near full moon and a vague promise of a sunrise sometime in the east.

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The lake is as silky, peaty and delicious as I had hoped, with the southern edge perfectly smooth. There is nothing moving save the occasional passing mallard and low flying cormorant. The skeletal outlines of tress are framed by the brightening sky to the south, while the moon continues to glow above the gradually lightening northern shore.

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I head to the top end of the lake, mangrovey in its flooded state, and work round to the opposite bank, opening views down the full length to the dam. There’s a bit more chop here but it provides a nice excuse for floating on my back and drinking the surroundings, Sheepstor, Leather Tor and Down Tor cradling my floating body.

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Back across the lake to my starting point, once more into the perfect flat shelter provided by the recently tree shorn central spit of land, where the old manor house ruin stands. I float gently back to my harbor, the silky water barely penetrating my new gear providing the unusual experience of a swim completed with peripheries toasty warm.

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Bossiney Haven

 

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Autumn rages. Severe Gale force 9 later, waves 8 to 12 feet are forecast. I must see the sea, it has been too long, so we head to the North facing shelter of Bossiney Haven and it’s cliff-protected low tide beaches.

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The approach down Rocky Valley is lovely. Sylvan woods, with ancient rock carvings, waterfalls lower down, gradually unveiling the craggy gorge with a roaring sea at its base. The slow unveiling and building roar of waves build excitement and a mortal degree of trepidation.

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The lee shore, dominated by the great stack at the eastern end is a foaming churning force. We watch from the cliff top, as groundswell funnels in to form peaks and hurl itself on the assorted outcrops.

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We descend to explore caves and run free on the deserted beach, surfers being the only others to head this way today. It is always a joy to have the beaches back at the end of the season.

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I head out through the sets, swimming under as the spinning, rolling surf collapses over me from tall, steep peaks. Out back the sea is confused by the reflections from the cliffs, peaks and troughs appearing with unbalancing randomness. I keep clear of the white water and head out past the high cliff face of Lye Rock, sheltered from the gale. I glance up as a great foam wall surges around the point, a spume tail blown across the mouth of the haven, towards me. The urge to swim away is primal and I head out to the open water, to be picked up by the high, rolling swell. Floating on my back I am lifted high, to a momentary viewpoint before being surrounded again, back in a trough with another bulging swell creeping up on my feet. It somehow seems more comfortable to swim on my back and watch it arrive.

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Then across behind the breaking waves, and past a few bemused surfers for another brief run out and a visitation from a lone seal. I head back for the more human world of the beach, where I swim in the waves, trying to bodysurf the critical section before ducking out and leaving just my heels behind to be munched by the collapsing lip.

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Afterwards lunch is served in a sheltered cave, with a performance of the sea and surfers to watch, framed by mussel and barnacle covered black rock walls. It is a very fine show.

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The Dart is high

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The Dart is high. Autumn gales and rain have filled it brimful, the gentle pools and slides of summer remembered as from a different river. It is now a snarling monster, crashing down the valley, consuming all that comes too close, to be watched from a safe distance in awe.

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Standing waves build and topple, their own rhythms beating as they surge across the buried rocks and canyons. Peaks clash sending up spray to be dispersed by the wind. The river widens, spreading it skirts across the grasses, secret holes lurking beneath the surface to catch the unwary, before it once more curls in on itself and builds a new head of pressure for the surge through the next set of narrows.

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The remaining leaves are being tugged from the trees by the southwesterly gale, the colours of autumn descending to earth to begin their slow return to the soil. The fungi appear as signal flags for the season of decay.

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A heron is buffeted on its progress up the river. There are no still pools for it here amongst the raging whitewater. Kayaks pass, perfect for the brave and skillful, other humans are few. The woods have their valley back for the dark months.

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The waterlogged ground gushes fountains in places, the pressure forcing a geyser from the blanket bog. Elsewhere a well-placed jump bursts a water-filled pustule, issuing a squirt of black bog water.

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We climb up through the temperate rainforest, lichen, moss, fern and fungi enveloping granite boulders and sessile oaks. The umber bracken now low and navigable. Out through the trees, views across to Combestone, to the secret pixie trees. Higher than the rest, in a small dip in the hillside they nestle, spreading over the green egg like boulders that sheltered their early years. Here hides a tiny dewpond. We find a complete adder skeleton, and shelter from the wind.

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The sun appears through a gap in the cloud, a sense of the passing of the storm. Already, on our return to the starting point, the river is lower, sensing the moment to draw breath, for more rain comes tonight.

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Tavy 7

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My family is away on holiday without me. I have to work. I have entered our local 7 mild road race for “entertainment” while they have gone. It seemed a good idea at the time, as ever.

The day is beautiful, as a blob of high pressure arrives between cyclonic systems for one perfect autumnal day only. The trees have turned and the first grass frost and dew lights up the morning earth, the sun rising to a cloudless sky. Later the arrival of some benign cumulus prepares the way for dramatic rays of warm autumn sun to light proceedings. It seem very strange amassing with many athletic looking types in lycra, on the edge of the moor, where the dog and I normally jog gently looking at the view, early in the morning when all is empty and quiet but for the animals and birds.

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Numbers are pinned, final non-existent but insistent pees are taken and all anxiously line up for the countdown, some jostling for the front, some, myself included actively avoiding it. We’re off, through long wet grass up a hill, what an unpleasant start. As usual I’m swept up by the pace, and a mile in I wonder if there’s any way I can keep it up. The pull of the person in front, not to let them escape, and the heavy breathing and pounding of the road close behind lend an urgency to proceedings. I’m not used to this in my normal distracted, floaty, empty-headed runs. The road climbs, my breathing quickens, I feel a bit nauseated and light headed, but am heartened that I don’t sound as bad as those around me. There is no noticing the surroundings today, this is pure effort, physiology and anatomy being tested fully, not a comfortable undertaking.

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On we go, thankfully making the hill past Pew Tor and undulating through the lanes of Sampford Spiney. Legs jolting on every downward step, where I am usually overtaken, before retaking positions on the uphills where my ageing joints are happier. We emerge out from the valleys and high hedges, back to open moorland at the base of Pew Tor once more, surprisingly soon, and it is a dig for the end. I am overtaken by a lady in extremely jazzy shorts, making a pleasant change from the sweaty men in vests I’ve been following for the last few miles. The group protects me from the wind through the last but one mile and gives me some strength to gather myself for the final hill and the end.

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Down the grassy hill again and relief to be across the finish line, the faint, nausea thing once more reminding me of the hill I’ve just been up, but the jazzy shorts thankfully behind me once more. I’m very happy to be 6th oldie, 22nd overall in 47+ mins, but the frenetic pace reminds me why a gentle pootle about on a bike is a much more appropriate activity for middle aged men with aching joints.

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Rame

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An arty boat trip happens for half the family, while the others explore the Rame Peninsula. The boat trip is to see a great concrete block that has been placed seaward on the breakwater, specially commissioned, decorated and containing sound recording equipment. Plymouth is now a little more in touch with its oceanic front; protector and divider from the Atlantic. The original placing ceremony, victim of the ocean and its weather, was recreated a few weeks ago in a gallery in Stonehouse. The odd experience of an unworldly symphony to the sea being played by the Royal Marines Marching Band, in full regalia, facing an eclectic mixture of arty types, is one that won’t be leaving me soon.

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The Rame party eats blackberries and cake while exploring the creeks and ruins of the secret side of the Peninsula. A rendezvous is made at Mount Edgcumbe and we make for Rame Head itself.

The day is grey, a stiff east wind is building, autumn ever more assertive but the western side of the headland is deliciously protected. We climb down to Queener point, inhabited today by a herd of Dartmoor ponies, doing excellent work at producing a close-clipped grassy picnic site at the waters edge.

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I climb in, with much less ceremony than the breakwater block made its entry, timing the moment between the surges over the barnacled rocks. The water is still warm, a late glow, storing the summer beneath the surface, while the east wind blows the new season in. The wind comes in great swirling, buffeting gusts that sneak over the protection of the headland. The visibility isn’t great but the rocks, weeds and wrasse appearing from the milky water below have an ethereal quality as I drift past. The swell is washing me around but I’m unaware of my motion until a see a rock passing surprisingly fast. Within the narrow inlets I am washed in and out of the rocky channels as by the breathing of the sea.

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I head out beyond the headland, the chapel marking the almost island at it’s tip, high above. Here there are caves, rocks supporting Shags, Cormorants and Gulls, and surging waves pouring and swirling over the broken and irregular tip of South East Cornwall. I swim a little offshore to avoid the white water and feel very small where the flooding tide is meeting the easterly swell. I feel a surge of adrenaline and head back to the shelter of the windward shore, soon back in safer waters to relax, stretch out and enjoy this dramatic and beautiful place.

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Food is taken, the children explore the rocks and pools, the horses munch and I watch the gulls circling. The dive boats are bouncing back through the swell from the Scylla, sunk in the bay across from us. The sea provides the perfect soundtrack, without the need for a marching band on this occasion.

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Equinox

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It is the autumnal equinox. Equal night. From here onwards the days will be shorter than the nights, until next spring. The weather is clear, however the day’s schedule is not. Thankfully I find space at the beginning and end of events to experience both the sun and the moonrises, from the high moors. Today is both the harvest full moon and the lunar eclipse. I feel that the planets are signaling some portentous event; perhaps we’re all still part druid.

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The morning cycle out across the moor is blissful as ever. All is still, the cool air of the valley replaced by a warming pulse of sun as each summit is broached. The mist rises from the streams. The wildlife is active, basking in the empty time before the humans encroach once more for their daytime shift. I am home before the world seems fully awake.

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Later, the day’s duties dispensed with and we are drawn back to the hills. Children, dog, warm clothes, cool beer accompany us, to camp out and await the supermoon. The sun sinks. The sky passes through its sunset spectrum: bright sunset orange, through pink and on to ever-deeper shades of red and purple, as the light fades. The rotation of the earth is palpable as, like a great space-age dome a bulging silver disc emerges from beneath the TV mast on North Hessary Tor. The moon in close proximity to the horizon appears even larger. As it rises we are bathed in silvery light, moon-shadows crisp. The valleys light up with their electric stars, the heavens with the real thing, but the eyes are drawn back perpetually to the great glowing moon, the detail clearly visible to the naked eye.

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I wake at 3am to witness it glow red as the final scene of the ballet is performed, the moon progressively obscured until it is completely within the shadow of the earth. The slow darkening of the moonlight and the eerie rusty orb left behind, sending messages that would doubtless have been terrifying for our forefathers. A blood moon hanging in the sky, once more signaling biblical apocalypse. We seem to have been OK after previous ones, so I just head back to bed.

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Autumn

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Autumn feels to have arrived, its melancholic softness settling across us over the past few weeks. There is the sense of sadness at the approaching death of another year, leaves turning, windfall apples rotting, summer flowers fading. Yet there is great beauty brought by the cool winds and shortening days. The mornings are particularly special.

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I rode my bike up from the Plym valley early on Sunday, coated in cool wet mist, like swimming through the softest of lakes. A herd of Roe Dear, adults and this year’s young, watched from the adjacent parkland, before running, parallel with me across the stream, and on, to make the safety of the trees. Soon after, without warning I emerged, as if climbing from the water, into the warm air and bright early morning sun streaming across the moor. Behind me the inversion of trapped cold air formed a great sea, heading off without end, shrouding Plymouth and the coast beyond. It was as though a great white tide had arrived in the night, leaving Dartmoor a floating island adrift.

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On Monday I ran with the dog, across the common land around Doublewaters, stopping only to feast on blackberries and hazelnuts, when I hadn’t been out competed by the young squirrels, backs arching, bounding across the open spaces, too young to know they should be more scared. Two green woodpeckers flew off ahead, their dipping, erratic flight and bright plumage unmistakable in the air, yet so hard to see on their chosen tree. A sparrowhawk shadowed us along the top hedge, alarm cries spreading ahead from its intended prey. Back home a young badger seems to have taken up residence in the garden. Further duties for the dog, to inform him of territorial boundaries.

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On Wednesday I run across the tops, Cox Tor and the Staple Tors. The sun is warm on my back. Not a soul to be seen away from the car parks. The buzzards are rising on the thermals above me, then spiraling down away from the crows that are eager to mob them. A hare runs across our path. Long ears and legs, off at astonishing speed. The dog doesn’t even try to give chase.

It is good to run. Despite my ageing legs, the niggles of middle age creeping in, the freedom of movement, away from roads or other constraints, is a tonic for the soul. I have felt somewhat bereaved after the end of my swimming season, the long swim of a few weeks ago making me want some time away from the water. Despite the season being one of decline, to get out on the hills, and enjoy this time and space is rejuvenating.

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Drizzlecombe

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Reading Philip Marsden’s book, “rising ground”, exploring in part the sacred landscapes of Cornwall, has inspired me to visit one of our Dartmoor equivalents. As well as being entertainingly named, the areas around Drizzlecombe, Evil Combe and Deadman’s Bottom, South of Burrator, contain perhaps the most densely packed and impressive Neolithic remains on the moor.

The children are less impressed and the prospect of ancient mounds and stones leaves them in open revolt. Thankfully we are rescued by Stephen Spielberg, whose use of Ditsworthy Warren for Warhorse seems to have had a more profound effect on them.

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From the Bronze Age village on the ridge above, we are aligned with the largest and best preserved of the double stone rows, blocked at either end by great menhirs, the tallest on the moor. From behind cauliflower cumulus is rolling up the western edge of the moor, over the patchwork of lowland green fields, with the sea glinting beyond. The autumn sun throws the landscape into light and shade patches, like a spotlight picking out stars on a stage. While children are distracted by their squabbles the dog and I are left to ponder why people so many thousands of years ago chose this shallow and remote valley as the centre for their rituals. There are numerous cairns, cists, standing stones centred on the stone rows here, with more remote cists and cairns off up the Plym and Langcombe valleys.

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We walk the remains, and bask in the sheltered patch of sun within the cup of the giant’s basin, a great burial cairn to the south of the largest of the stones. These largest menhirs were raised from their fallen positions in 1893 by, among others the Rev Sabine Baring Gould, as part of his work with the Dartmoor Exploration Committee, who restored many ancient Dartmoor sites; an interesting contrast with his work as an Anglican priest and writer of hymns. The graffiti Chinese characters on its higher edge have provided entertaining mystery. Obviously all old things that could not easily be explained were assigned to Druid worship in times past, although the internet tells me that they are more likely to be an address in Hong Kong.

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On up the Plym and then the Langombe valleys we go. I am heading for Grim’s Grave, a well-preserved kistvaen high in the lonely valley here. I am convinced it is haunted having once stopped here on a solo walk, sitting within it’s retaining stones, which our previous dog, with fear in his eyes refused to enter even when sandwiches were available. Indeed legend has it that the grave was used for witchcraft in times past, although the blustery wind today makes naked dancing to appease the devil, for whom Grim is an old name, seem less attractive. This dog seems less impressed with the supernatural. Perhaps his sandwich receptors are more potent than the last.

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We head over the tops, back to the tongue twisting Higher Hartor Tor, with expansive views off the Southwestern moor down onto the distant sea, rain showers streaking the western sky towards Bodmin. We flush a barn owl from a clump of deep grass, and it circles off, low over the hillside. I am astonished to see it, out in broad daylight and miles from even the nearest tree, let alone any buildings, yet some research tells me that this not unusual – although clearly it is for me.

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We pass the ruins of Eylesbarrow tin mine, before dropping down through Ditsworthy warren. The warren was made up of numerous “pillow mounds” into which the rabbits would burrow, bred for meat and fur. We see almost no-one and are left to ponder the thousands of years of historical activity that this now isolated and empty place has seen over the years. My children have a book “A Street Through Time” where one piece of land is shown through different eras of ancient through to modern history, with each age leaving it’s footprint for the next to overlay. This place, from the Neolithic, to the Bronze Age, to the relatively modern 18 and 19th century mining and farming, to today’s hill farms and tourism has the same feel for me. An ancient, sacred landscape, able to share its secrets through those marks that have been left behind.

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