No wonder the Army do navigation training on Dartmoor. Its featureless, wind-scoured undulations can present a real challenge – especially in poor weather. Tales of lost people in the mires of the moor abound. Even sober souls speak of the more sinister edge of whimsy where travellers, being ‘piskie-led’, have had to turn their clothes inside out in order to break the hex and find their way off the moor.
Whilst Dartmoor presents drama in its landscape, it is of different kind than the obvious peaks and valleys of more vertiginous national parks: spinning around can reveal an identical landscape in all directions. However if you look carefully there are numerous clues, even on this windswept plateau, to help point your way.
To successfully navigate using natural signposts it is important to understand Dartmoor from a wider perspective. It is a high fist of granite surrounded by lower ground. Water flows off it, from its centre to its edge. Ultimately, if you follow these, then you will find your way off the moor. It might take a while though! But nearly all water flows towards the sea. It is also useful to note that there are only five ‘big’ bodies of water on the moor – each of them a reservoir – Venford (s/e), Fernworthy (e), Burrator (s/w), Meldon (n), and Avon Dam (s). Following the outflow from these will ultimately lead you off the edge of the moor and to civilization.
There are only three very large blocks of woodland actually on the moor: Fernworthy, Bellever and Soussen’s Down. All three are mainly conifer plantation and planted in organised ranks. Fernworthy, with its high ridge facing out into the Moor, can be seen from many places as its dark, brooding mass sits heavily on the landscape. Happen across extensive woodland in a valley tells you that you are on the edge of the moor – as it is in the valleys that ring the moor that the old vestiges of ancient oak woodland still exist, they are also home to Dartmoor’s major rivers (Dart, Teign, Erme, Okement, Taw and Tavy). Follow them down-stream and there is a good chance you will find habitation. Follow them the other way will lead you further into the wilderness. If you come across a small woodland of very stunted, dwarf-like oak then there are only three on the moor: Black-a-Tor Copse (north), Wistman’s Wood (middle) and Pile Copse (south). Just through a basic understanding of the bigger features of the moor you can get an idea where you are at most times. It does not have to be just the radio-mast at Princetown that is your beacon of last resort.
However, it is not just the big landmarks and clues that can give you pointers to your position. Direction can be understood in the smaller details. Windswept trees are shaped by the south-westerly force of the prevailing wind over many years. Visible volumes of loose moorgrass blades snag on the windward side of gorse, also hint at the prevailing direction. Ponies and sheep scrape shallow shelters in the peaty soil, often away from this wind. Collections of droppings build up on the leeward side of tors over time. Look up into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and you might detect the more consistent high winds of the jetstream giving you a useful steer. And when you get to know the moor more intimately you will understand that parts of the moor have high concentration of grass, some heather, some bracken and only parts have of swathes of bilberry. Even the way trees grow can help: their southerly facing branches reaching out more horizontally towards the track of the sun whilst their northern side, improverished, can be less ‘full’ and the branches more vertical as they grow upwards in search of light. All are subtle clues but can be added into the mental map to be interpreted as you go.
Because the sun marches across the sky at 15 degrees per hour it means that if you know the time then you can figure out your direction and if you can figure out the direction then you can tell the time (also useful for when you need to anticipate sun-down). There are even ways of telling where the sun is through cloud.
Sun and wind can combine to influence the alignment of houses built on the moor: where windows and doors are faced at an angle away from the south west (wind/weather) and in a way that the windows get maximum benefit from the warmth of the sun into the room as it tracks a southerly course from east to west. Even the condition of old thatch on one side of the roof to another may, or may not, give a hint if they it were laid at the same time.
Cloudless skies at night and Dartmoor’s low light pollution can leave the starry heavens as your guide: Orion, the Plough or even Cassiopeia pointing the way to Polaris, the North Star. The pointed crescents of the moon, if you join them up can point to a southerly spot down on the horizon and at certain times of year the brightness of Venus or Jupiter can guide you safely on a consistent course. What light pollution there is marks out Plymouth to the south-west and Exeter to the east.
The moor is not a place just for map and compass, although you would be unwise to venture out without them. But taking a little time to observe the obvious and more subtle clues around you can enrich your experience of the moor, your navigation and your safety.*
*I have a personal tip which I call the ‘rule of threes’ – I tend to use this in many aspects of my wilderness guide work – plant ID, tracking, navigation, routes of rescue etc. Don’t just rely on one clue for direction, it might mislead. Try and find at least three indicators that corroborate each other. This will ensure that you reduce (but not remove) the risk of error from relying on just one sign.