A couple of weeks ago I spent a week hiking the Two Moors Way, a long distance hiking trail that links Lynmouth on the north Devon coast with Ivybridge in the south, via Exmoor, mid Devon, and Dartmoor. This was a well needed break from the DIY/ project management that has taken over my life since we bought our house. I had considered hiking this trail last autumn prior to visiting friends in Totnes, but the weather at the time put paid to that idea, so its been in the back of my mind ever since. When I found out via the Intrepid Magazine newsletter that Emily Woodhouse was organising a meet in Princetown for outdoorsy women I saw my opportunity to make a trip to the west country, walk the Two Moors Way with a variation on the final day to finish in Princetown instead of Ivybridge, and then join the meet.
The trail divides quite naturally into three sections, with two days hiking in each section. Leaving Lynmouth at 7am (it is always easy to get up early after the first night in a tent after a long stretch indoors) the first section was full of the promise of adventure, beautiful coastal views give way to the drama of steep sided valleys, followed by the softness of a wooded section, before climbing to the first encounter with the open moor.
I had anticipated resting at the high point of this first moorland section but the very curious bullocks on that piece of common definitely had other ideas, shadowing me for the entire 3 km section in a fairly unnerving manner. This was the first clue that this might have been a poor choice of solo walk for someone who doesn’t like cows all that much! In this field I met the first north bound hiker, having delivered the cows to the southern end just in time to follow her all the way back; but this lady had a cow scaring magic that I clearly lack, one ‘pshhht’ and a strategic flap of her guide book and they disappeared over the horizon…
I treated myself to an excellent Sunday lunch at the Exmoor Forest Inn in Simonsbath, during which it came on to pour with rain. The rain served to accent the wild beauty of the upper section of the Barle Valley, past Wheal Eliza and Cow Castle, stopping abruptly to give way to a gloriously warm evening. By contrast the landscape in next section along the Barle, from Withypool to Tarr Steps, is much less dramatic, alternating between late-spring woodland full of birdsong, andsun dappled meadows.
In a field beyond Hawkridge I stopped to chat with a group of three northbound hikers, enjoying that camaraderie of having a shared purpose, and commiserating with each other about the weather forecast for the next couple of days.
Crossing West Anstey Common I was plunged back into the wild wild moor, with Exmoor ponies cropping grass against a backdrop of endless sky. I was fortunate that visibility was good, treating me to a view of things to come, the farmland of mid Devon spread out below, and the first sight of the hills of Dartmoor in the distance.
A spectacular overnight storm welcomed me to the mid Devon section, testing the water proofing of my tent with torrential rain, while thunder rumbled, and the wind shook the trees. I lingered a little in the morning, choosing the moment the rain slackened to drizzle to take the tent down and pack it away.
Showers came and went as I enjoyed a couple of genuinely beautiful spots: the Wildlife Trust managed Knowstone Inner Moor, and a gorgeous beech tree lined avenue not far beyond. A long road pounding section left me eager to reach Witheridge, but first I had to contend with an extremely swampy gateway leading to a very slippery footpath, and finally a narrow passage way choked with soaking wet vegetation; I was extremely glad at this point that I was already wearing full waterproofs due to the weather! Just as I was clear of this I met a very large group of north bounders who informed me that if I was looking for refreshment Witheridge would be a disappointment as the pub was not (quite) serving lunch yet. In fact the only disappointment was that the village store was out of large pasties and I had to settle for a medium… and a huge slab of bread pudding.
Leaving Witheridge the weather set in to steady drizzle, and I was immediately confronted by another field of curious cows. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and prepared to try and mimic the approach of the lady with the cow whispering magic; ‘pshhhht’ and a determined flap of the map. ‘MOOOOOOOOOOO’ bellowed the cows as they closed the distance between us. I lost my nerve and bolted for the gate – at least this field was not 3km across!
Without really intending to I pace out the section between Witheridge and that evenings campsite just north of Morchard Bishop without a break, the weather was not inspiring and there is no obvious place to linger in the patchwork of fields and lanes. The eco-campsite at Beech Hill Community is a real gem that deserves to be much more widely known, it is right on the trail, with a lovely wooded setting, and a camp kitchen with a roof where I could spend the evening on the sofa with my knitting. I confess that on reading the notice ‘no sunshine, no hot water’ I didn’t attempt to try the eco-shower – beautifully constructed though it was. Maybe next visit!
For some reason I had in my head that day 4 was my longest planned day (it wasn’t!) and realising that it was going to be more fields and lanes with no obvious place to stop I just put myself on a schedule: having left before 8am I stopped wherever I happened to be at 10am, 12 o clock, and 2pm to eat something and drink from my flask of tea. Mid Devon has its moments: fascinating bright red soil, wooded lanes, quaint cottages with workmen busy re-thatching the roofs, but I have to admit, I don’t think I’ll walk this section a second time.
My boots had soaked through on the previous day and this section continued to present me with muddy sections and wet grass – nothing soaks through your boots quicker than wading through long wet grass. I aired my feet at the 12 o clock break and changed to dry socks at the 2pm break which helped somewhat to alleviate the itchiness caused by having wet feet, but I was glad to first reach a section of road walking (no more wet grass), and then to get into camp early.
All three pairs of socks now being wet, they all got a good wash and I spent a whole £4 on the drier restoring them to a gloriously dry and fluffy condition in preparation for the Dartmoor section. Best £4 I spent during the whole hike if you ask me! I mean, joking aside, if you don’t look after your feet, you aren’t going to get very far on any kind of distance hike.
The weather changed again for the Dartmoor section, heavy showers interspersed with sunny spells in the earlier part of both days giving way to mainly dry weather in the late afternoons and evenings. Leaving Drewsteignton the scenery is immediately packed with interest; Sharp Tor & Castle Drogo, the river Teign, the Mariners way, and finally reaching the open moor at Chagford Common.
It poured with rain (of course) as I ascended the Hurston Ridge, but when this blew over the most magical thing happened, as all the larks which had taken shelter from the rain leapt up and sang their hearts out and the empty landscape was suddenly alive with birdsong. Up on Hameldown at 5pm I enjoyed the classic Dartmoor views, with tors visible in all directions. A stiff breeze convinced me to forego a nights wildcamping in favour of using the campsite in the valley, as my summer sleeping bag was only just coping with the unseasonably cold nights.
I wished for better weather early the next morning, as I am sure the views down to the Dart from Dr Blackalls Drive are spectacular when not obscured by clouds, but you have to take the rough with the smooth on these things and keep moving, so keep moving I did, through Newbridge, Holn and Scorriton, and out at Chalk Ford onto the moor again.
This section of moor was crawling with people (well, in comparison to the mid Devon section!), I passed several D of E groups out doing their thing, and chatted to several other hikers. Turning onto the Abbot’s Way towards Princetown I had the moor to myself again, and the weather steadily improved, turning the Erme valley into a paradise of warm sunshine and blue skies. In the original plan I would have stopped in this valley and continued to Princetown in the morning, but it was only 4pm when I reached Erme Head and I heard loud and clear the siren song of getting a pub supper after 6 days of walking, and having a lie & a full english in the cafe the following morning.
So I kept walking, somehow being drawn off trail and contouring around below Broad Stone and into Plym Ford, reorienting myself, realising there is no trail on the ground where the line of the Abbot’s Way is drawn on the map, and instead making a beeline for Nuns Cross Farm where I picked up the well paved superhighway past South Hessary Tor into town.
We were a group of 8 at the meet, despite the poor forecast, an interesting cross section of the outdoor community from across the UK, all lovely people. I’m afraid I might’ve talked everyones ears off, revelling in the joy of having company after 6 days basically alone, sorry ladies!
The planned route and location for our wildcamp being a mystery tour to me, I was amused to find myself retracing my steps down the Abbot’s Way, Emily’s local knowledge revealing both that the way to link Nuns Cross Farm to Plym Ford was to go west instead of east of the crest of the hill, and the exact location of the track to Broad Stone. So it turned out that I got a night at Erme Head after all, as part of a scattered settlement of tents each perched on its own lump among the spoil heaps.
I stayed at “proper” campsites every night, which required a certain amount of extra walking and/or variation on the waymarked route, as accommodation directly on route is somewhat limited. I was in two minds about the merits of taking the bivvy bag and seeing what I found along the way vs taking a tent and planning everything out and in the end I was glad I went for the latter option for two reasons:
- the weather wasn’t great most of the week, but frequently was dry when I was arriving into camp between 4 and 5 pm, coming on to rain between 7 -9, which was neither here nor there when I was already settled, but would’ve made the going to bed process very wet had I been waiting until late evening to bivvy somewhere.
- having a set (and in most cases pre-paid) goal for each day did a lot to prevent one of the big traps its easy to fall into when distance walking alone, either stopping too early because you’re ‘a bit tired’ and apprehensive about finding a good place further on, or dragging a day on and on because nowhere is quite the right place to stop and before you know it you’ve walked yourself into a place of exhaustion where your decision making is not as it should be!
I started the walk carrying enough evening meals to see me through to the end, and with breakfast/lunch and snacks for 3 days, expecting that resupply wouldn’t be too difficult as the route passes through several villages large enough to have a shop.
My itinerary was as follows:
Distances are approximate to the nearest km.
Day 0: Travel via train and bus to Lynton, stayed at Sunny Lyn Holiday Park. Walked down into Lynmouth in the evening to locate the official start post on the sea front.
Day 1: Began on a path that leads directly from the campsite and contours around to join up with the waymarked trail, thus skipping the steepest part of the ascent from Lynmouth. Followed the waymarked route to Simonsbath, and then on past Wheal Eliza and Cow Castle. Approx 1km beyond Cow Castle I left the trail, taking the footpath that leads up to join the access road for Pickledstones Farm, and following that road and then the slightly busier than hoped B3358 to reach Westermill Farm Campsite. 26km (became 29km because I was so focused on not getting run over that I missed the top of the footpath that would’ve provided a shortcut & (ironically!) did more road walking than I intended).
Day 2: Followed country lanes up out of Westermill Farm and over into Withypool (I skipped maybe 3km of trail by not going back to where I left it the previous day). Rejoined the waymarked trail for the section along the River Barle to Tarr Steps and onwards across East Anstey Common to Yeo Mill. From Yeo Mill another detour and some more road walking to reach Zeacombe House Caravan Park, where they made up for being my most expensive night by greeting me with a nice cup of tea! 25km
Day 3: I, ummm, skipped Knowstone village entirely, figuring nothing would be open so early, and rejoined the waymarked trail at Knowstone Inner Moor. Resupplied lunches & snacks at the village store in Witheridge. My accommodation that night was actually right on the trail for a change, the rather delightful eco-campsite at Beech Hill community (just north of Morchard Bishop). 23km
Day 4: I followed the waymarked trail as far as the start of the road section towards Hittisleigh Barton, where I met a trio of northbound hikers who informed me that there were some frisky bullocks in one of the fields near West Ford. That cemented my feeling that it would still be in the spirit of the route if I took the lane through Binneford and along the east side of the Yeo Valley through Pitton and Thorne Cross, instead of the west side through Hittisleigh Barton; especially as this gave a slightly shorter distance to that nights campsite at Barley Meadow Touring Park. 23km
Day 5: I picked up the route in Drewsteignton and followed it to Hameldown, with a slight detour into Chagford for lunch. When I planned this excursion I hoped for a calm sunny evening and a night on the moor, but in fact there was a bitter wind blowing and some serious weather forecast, so I extended my day in favour of getting into shelter down at the campsite at Cockingford. 28km
Day 6: Again I skipped a short section first thing, rejoining the trail at Ponsworthy, and following it as far as ‘Crossways’ where the Abbot’s Way and the Two Moors Way come together for a short time before the Two Moors Way turns south to Ivybridge and the Abbot’s Way takes off north west through Erme Head and Plym Ford to Princetown. Here I followed the Abbot’s Way to my ‘alternate finish’, the campsite at the Plume of Feathers. 30km (NB: I have previously walked from Ivybridge to Princetown and back, so I have experienced the southern part of the route that I missed this time.)
In general I found the walking on the Two Moors Way to be quite easy going, none of the hill climbs are particularly steep or lengthy, and there was only one descent steep enough to test my thighs (and I’ve already forgotten precisely where that was!). This was a pleasant surprise, as I didn’t really think my fitness was up to much, but I think all those trips up the hill from B&Q with 10 litres of paint in a rucksack this spring must have been quite good training! I guess a purist would argue that I don’t get the ‘tick’ because I made several diversions and finished in Princetown rather than down at Ivybridge, but I feel like my walk was in the spirit of the route and I am content with that!