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24 September 2014

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You are in: Devon > Places > Walks > Mist and mystery on the moor

John Howell at the end of Okehampton walk

John Howell says it's a surprising walk

Mist and mystery on the moor

As part of BBC Radio Devon's 25th anniversary celebrations listener John Howell recommends this moorland walk from Okehampton.

As Devon area chairman of the Ramblers’ Association John Howell knows dozens of fine walks around the county, but his particular favourites are on Dartmoor.

He's been walking the moor all his life – a passion started as a babe in arms when his parents would carry him in his pram out to Cranmere Pool, having caught the train from Exeter to Okehampton Station.

Indeed it's at the station that John's favourite walk starts. It follows the East Okement valley, takes in an ancient stone circle and cross – both with legends surrounding them – touches the open moor and offers fine views.

Fine views on a clear day, that is! We set off in sunshine, but gathering clouds spoke of change brewing in the weather.

James Howell under the River Okement viaduct

Fatherford Railway Viaduct dates from the 1870s

John explained why the walk is his favourite: "It's a walk that is a bit surprising. Most people are used to tough moorland walks but this has a great variety on it."

From the moor walkers' car park turn right and then right again into the railway station car park itself. Opposite the station entrance there is a footpath sign, where you descend down steps to a track.

Turn right and shortly go through a gate, keeping on this easy to follow wide track. After a short distance you go through another gate which leads to the banks of the East Okement river, dominated at this point by the Fatherford Railway Viaduct – an impressive stone structure built in the 1870s and towering some 70 feet above.

A more modern feat of engineering is the A30 dual-carriageway bridge, while the ford, stepping stones and a wooden footbridge complete the five crossings of the river at this point.

John’s favourite stretch of the walk is this next part alongside the river itself. As you walk ahead under the road bridge the traffic noise dies away and you are immersed in the surrounding woods and the sound of the river.

John recounts a quote from Eric Hemery's book High Dartmoor where he describes the valley as "a stretch of cleave river as beautiful as any on Dartmoor".

Keep left, via a footbridge, over a small tributary stream and follow the path to a gap in the moss-covered stone wall. Take care on the sometimes slippery stones alongside the river – John lost his footing at one point and slid right in to the chilly water, which shows even experienced walkers can come a cropper.

The path begins to climb as the river tumbles over rocks but you're rewarded with a fine view of the waterfall and the sight of the clear water cascading into a deep pool.
Shortly after the waterfall the route goes through a gate leading on to a bridge which crosses the river on to the open moor.

If you do not have a map or compass, it would be advisable to simply retrace your steps at this point. Route finding across open moorland is not straightforward and is made more difficult in poor visibility as we soon found out.

The route from here climbs diagonally to the left uphill, towards a stone wall and stone surfaced track. Walk a short distance along this track, then as you leave the wall, bear more directly left uphill, crossing another track from where you should see the Nine Maidens stone circle (Grid Ref: SX 612 928) come into view ahead.

John recounted the legend which says the stones, which in fact number more than nine, were people who danced on the Sabbath and were turned to stone. It is said that in the right atmospheric conditions the stones still dance.

It was certainly atmospheric on the day we were there, the Dartmoor mist coming down with a vengeance, blocking out what John explained would have been fine views of Dartmoor’s highest spots High Willhays and Yes Tor.

From the stone circle drop back down hill slightly, to the lower of two tracks, heading up the side of the valley. You follow this wide clearly defined stony track to the valley head.

You pass an MOD sign shortly before the track turns right and crosses both the East Okement and Black-a-ven Brook. Ahead there is a boundary stone, marking the Okehampton-Belstone parish boundary at Cullever Steps (Grid Ref: SX 606 920).

From here you follow the track right and then around to the left uphill, until it meets the tarmac military road.

John's original plan was to make for Rowtor (Grid Ref: SX 593 916), which offers fine views across to Exmoor and Bodmin Moor. With visibility down to a few yards, we decided to alter our plans and follow the military road right, back to the Okehampton training camp.

River Okement waterfall

The waterfall cascades into a deep pool

Should you press on to Rowtor, descend on the west side and join a track running north towards Anthony Stile, which will bring you to the edge of the camp. Turn right to follow Moor Brook to the cattle grid at Moor Gate.

Our route direct along the military road also took us to the cattle grid. Go through the gate alongside the grid and pass the camp entrance, bearing round to the right on the tarmac lane. As you begin to descend a cross can be seen on the left – this is Fitz Well, about which John had another legend.

"It's said that a couple confused by pixies came across the well, drank the water, which then broke the spell and they had the cross erected to express their thanks. It is also said that on Easter Sunday if you drink the water you will meet the love of your life."

Today's young lovers will have to try more conventional means as the well is covered over for health and safety reasons.

Continue downhill along the road and where it turns ninety degrees left, at what is known as Klondyke Corner, you leave the tarmac to your right for a footpath. There are two field gates on this corner, each with footpaths, you want the left one which descends steeply downhill across a field with views towards Okehampton below.

The path turns right at the field edge and then shortly left to cross the A30 over a large downward sloping footbridge. Turn left and then descend right down a lane, which brings you back to the car park.

This is the very route John’s parents would have used to carry him up on to moor all those years ago.

"I have really been walking on the moors all my life and I think that's why it has always been a passion and interest," he said.

As someone for whom Dartmoor walking was also a part of my early childhood, I know just what he means.

last updated: 29/07/2008 at 10:35
created: 18/07/2008

You are in: Devon > Places > Walks > Mist and mystery on the moor

John's Okehampton Walk

Start/finish grid reference: SX 591 944   

Map: Dartmoor OS Explorer Map sheet OL28

How to get to the start: Okehampton is located off the A30 west of Exeter.

The moor walkers' car park is just beyond the railway station. Follow signs from the town centre.

Distance: 6 to 7 miles circular route.

Duration: Allow 3 hours.

Terrain: Footpaths, open moor, tracks and tarmac lane.

Additional information: If you complete this walk in full you will cross open moorland terrain.

You will need proper clothing and equipment, including map and compass, which you should be competent to use. You should also carry food and drink.

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