North Dartmoor Walk from Belstone – Tripping the Light Fantastic

It was the UK’s 2020 Christmas in Covid-19 lockdown, with a tiny 24 hour window granted to the population to visit relatives or just to get away from it all. I knew what I had to do – I jumped in the campervan and headed to Dartmoor, that bleak moorland place from my childhood down in the County of Devon. I needed some solitude and some soul-cleansing miles across open countryside.

I have never before ventured up on to the rugged North Moors and so after a quick glance at the Ordnance Survey map, I set the Google Maps destination to Belstone which looked like it might be an excellent start point for an afternoon’s walking. Belstone is a tiny hamlet to the east of bustling market town Okehampton with easy access up on to the higher ground.

Planned Belstone route on Dartmoor

I didn’t really have a route planned, but had aspirations of heading along the Tarka Trail towards Yes Tor and High Willhays which is reputed to be the highest altitude spot on Dartmoor at 2039 feet above sea level.

Pulling off the fairly deserted A30 dual carriageway between Exeter and Okehampton, I was surprised how quickly I arrived in Belstone. I was even more surprised at how full the car park was. It was completely rammed, and I had to park the Marco Polo in a less than ideal position. It seemed like everyone had cottoned on to this free time as an excuse to ‘get away from it all’. Unfortunately, it was looking like hoping for some quiet time might be asking too much.

Before locking the camper, I double-checked my Lightwave Fastpack 30 Rucksack for all the essentials in case of inclement weather. I had my torch and my emergency bivvy bag as well as an ample chunk of cheese. What more could I possibly require?

As I trudged up the main lane of Belstone, I had that familiar feeling of adventure bubbling through my veins. It’s that sense of the unknown coupled with a modicum of confidence that you’re well equipped for anything the uncaring moorland can throw at you.

I passed an old red phone box with a defibrillator inside and started musing on how much the world has changed in the past 30 years. I must admit that I’m often prone to nostalgia, and I got another attack of it right then. Probably enhanced by being back in Devon.

A gate marked the transition between small village and the Great moor itself. I swung it open and took my first step onto spongy turf. The path pointed upwards as all great wilderness treks do. I was already puffing from the village climb and was out of shape after a few months of lockdown indulgence, but I was on my own and had time to kill and survey the scenery. There was certainly plenty of it, with constant 360° panoramas blessing my eyes.

Gear List for Dartmoor Walk

Black clouds loomed overhead and there was a cool winter nip in the air. I didn’t want to be shivering on the moor and so I made sure to put several layers on.

Top Half Clothing (layering outwards)

  • Helly Hansen baselayerHelly Hansen baselayer – I have a drawer full of these baselayers at home and literally pull one out blindly if going on a wilderness walk. They are superb for the cash, keep you dry and warm and are highly recommended.
  • Rab Nexus fleece – this insulating mid-layer fleece is great for trapping bodily heat.
  • In the rucksack – Rab Prosar Down Jacket – I keep this wrapped up tight in a stuff sack to put on in case it gets too cold. The Rab Prosar is an incredibly lightweight yet exceedingly warm down jacket. I just cannot wear it continually on a normal day as I get too hot!
  • In the rucksack – Mammut Convey Tour waterproof shell – Gore-Tex breathable, windproof and waterproof outer shell. Superb waterproof outer later. Checkout our article on the best waterproof jackets.

Bottom Half Clothing

  • Marmot Men’s Highland Trekking Pants – comfortable walking pants with reinforced knees and made out of stretchy soft-shell material. I always wear these breeches.
  • North Face Hedgehog walking shoes – excellent lightweight (770g) shoes for day walks and hikes. Not great if it’s boggy ground…..
  • In the rucksack – Berghaus waterproof overtrousers – Gore-Tex overtrouser for protection from the rain. Check out our roundup article reviewing the best choice of overtrousers on the market.

Sun-dappled Dartmoor heathland

Approaching the Cullever steps (stepping stones in the East Okemont river) I could see a big humpback of Tors to the left (East) of me. These were Belstone Tor, the Irishman’s Wall and Higher Tor. They were calling me to climb upwards, but my heart was set on Yes Tor and a westerly direction. I knew I could climb the trio on the return leg of the journey.

Pushing on strongly now, I was on the moor proper. A couple of motorhomes were parked up at Rowtor car park and I must say it felt like a lovely spot to stay for the night – one to remember! Instead I made an attempt to cross a boggy bit of land in my pursuit of Yes Tor. However I failed miserably – water was cascading over my low profile boots and I hadn’t worn gaitors – pathetic! I abandoned the off-piste adventure, and headed due south instead on a track to New Bridge.

Be sure to check out our in-depth roundup article on the best women’s walking boots for hiking and walking in the wild

The colours on display were subdued and yet awe-inspiring. Piercing sunlight was darting from behind black clouds, combatting the menace of rain with heavenly shafts of brightness. I estimated I could see at least a ‘sky mile’ into the distance in all directions – I felt truly alive for the first time in many months, the walking becoming a rhythm of life. Footstep after footstep emulating heartbeat after heartbeat.

I stopped to fill my face with some cheese, some pickled onions and a swig of water. The threat of rain felt closer and so I started to think about heading back via that trio of Tors in reverse starting with Higher Tor. I set a course due East, hoping to cross the brook at East Okement Farm. Unfortunately the brook had become a raging torrent and I simply could not cross over to my planned destination, even with the help of a young couple who were also trying to jump across. In the end I turned back, but they waded into the water and made it across, albeit with soaking feet and socks – not for me thanks!

I’m never a fan of retracing my steps, but on this occasion there was no alternative. I made a push west uphill, avoiding the gaze of a few bedraggled sheep before skirting around East Okement farm again, but this time northward bound towards Cullever Steps and the camper van.

 

The homeward miles were notable for the setting sun casting long shadows on the ground whilst sleet and angled slabs of rain began to arrow down. It felt like prime rainbow conditions, but nothing materialised. There were several other gangs of walkers with dogs making the same journey, and I tried to avoid them as much as possible. Somehow it brought the memories of Covid-19 back to the forefront, and I thought of my wife and daughter back at home. How much longer will we be living under these conditions? Viva la Vaccine!

The Marco Polo was a welcoming site back in Belstone. I loaded up the camping kettle with water and made a brew whilst marvelling at a cascade of about seven wild Dartmoor ponies who had gathered across the road. What a fantastic sight of headstrong independence – they were just going exactly where they pleased, in a similar way to me. 

After some thought I decided against wild camping, and headed back home for the night. There’s times to be with your loved ones, and this certainly felt like one of those as we headed towards the 2021 New Year.

My Actual North Dartmoor route

Belstone is located close to Okehampton, about 0.5 miles south of the A30 between Exeter and Okehampton. The post code of the car park I used is EX20 1RB. For directions, use this link.

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