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Walking Across Dartmoor - the Packhorse Way
Tavistock to Ashburton. October 6 & 7, 2015
Even today, there are people who are reluctant to drive over Dartmoor, preferring the dual carriageways and main roads around the edges to the wide open spaces, possible mist and unexpected livestock appearances on the high moor. Imagine what such a journey would have been like in the 15th century: muddy winding tracks which frequently either petered out or divided, no signposts, few habitations, no shelter for miles and the risk of encountering others who might take advantage of an unseasoned traveller…
It’s not surprising that only those who really had to travelled through the centre of Dartmoor in those days. Medieval tracks linked important sites such as towns, castles or abbeys and were used by those who had business to conduct. Other routes were used by farmers taking livestock up onto the moor, tinners prospecting up river valleys and delivering their ingots to the nearest stannary town, peatcutters heading out to the high moors, or jobbers collecting wool from moorland farms and bringing it down for spinning and weaving in the lowlands. These routes form the basis of today’s network of lanes and footpaths. On many of them you can sense how old they are, sunken deep into the land with gnarled hedgerows or perhaps a moss-covered wayside cross alongside.
Having experienced how much it brings a Dartmoor walk alive to understand the origins of the path one is following, I decided to organise a trans-Dartmoor walk following an old packhorse track that leads from Tavistock to Ashburton. Up until the end of the 18th century, trains of packhorses were the main users of roads and lanes, and all goods were transported this way: Dartmoor ponies were much valued for their sure-footed stamina, carrying up to 400 pounds weight in panniers and crooks. I chose the T-A track because of the variety of scenery it passes through, the number of crosses and stones that still mark its route, the fact that there’s a convenient stopping place in the middle (Princetown) and that we end up in Ashburton where I live.
On day one, we climb out of Tavistock, pass several wayside crosses on Whitchurch Common, reach an ancient lane leading to the open moor, visit wonderful Windypost Cross and then follow the series of T-A stones that lead through the Merrivale antiquities and over North Hessary Tor to Princetown. After a night at the bunkhouse of the lovely Foxtor Café and their fabulous breakfast, day two takes us out past Tor Royal and the Crock of Gold on the high moorland route that leads down into the Swincombe valley with its atmospheric crumbling ruins. Then over the Fairy Bridge, past Hexworthy and follow some more crosses over Holne Moor with views of the Dart Valley below. Beyond the village of Holne (a good spot for refreshments at the Community Tea Room) we descend via Gallant LeBower and across the Dart into Ashburton. The total distance is just over 21 miles – 8 miles on the first day, 13 miles on the second.
The cost of this walk is £50 which includes transportation from Ashburton to Tavistock and an overnight stay in the Fox Tor Bunkhouse but not food. There are places to leave a car overnight in Ashburton. Email [email protected] to book a place or to find out more. It’s possible to join for just one day, but that will require some transport planning!