Much-loved Dartmoor

'Through My Lens' - by Surendra Photography

Surendra shares his love affair with Dartmoor, an area of moorland covering almost 1,000 square kilometres, located in southern Devon, England.

What to say about Dartmoor? It is difficult for me to express the multitude of feelings I have for this unique landscape in Devon, south west England. It is a love affair. Almost one thousand square kilometres, its boundaries contain a variety of features. The fringes have many farms, quite a few small villages, even a couple of towns and the inevitable pubs – this is England, after all! Yet the high, open moorland dominates especially in the north, and this wilderness of grasses, bogs, heather, gorse and rocks is what I love most. In terms of scale, Dartmoor is not so dramatic. For a National Park, it does not cover a massive area and its highest rocky outcrop, or tor, is only 621 metres above sea level. Paradoxically, within a short walk from almost anywhere on the high ground, we can reach an expanse both open and uninhabited as far as the eye can see. From here it is easy to feel our absolute aloneness.

Black Down, Dartmoor, UK
East Okement River, Dartmoor, UK
Halstock Wood, Dartmoor, UK
Menhirs, Drizzelcombe, Dartmoor, UK
Rowtor, Detail 1, Dartmoor, UK
Rowtor, Detail 2, Dartmoor, UK
Yes Tor, Dartmoor, UK
Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor, UK
Steeperton Tor from East Mill Tor, Dartmoor, UK
Sunset near Fernworthy, Dartmoor, UK
Towards Belstone, Dartmoor, UK
Snow, Halstock Wood, Dartmoor, UK

 

There are traces of human activity everywhere – some dating from before 10,000 BCE when the climate was warmer. They include stone rows and circles, flints, burrows and burial mounds. More recent remnants of earning a living also abound; mining for tin, copper and arsenic flourished over several hundred years. As well as noticeable digging, the miners altered the water courses with an extensive system of tiny canals known as leats. Large swathes of peat, which covers the massive granite bed of the moor, were excavated for sale. There was even a scheme for creating shallow pools of ice to be sold off in chunks to the local fish markets. This latter enterprise, as you may imagine, was not very successful and even the more lucrative efforts have disappeared. So many human endeavours have come and gone – devoured by the wilderness, they are now mere traces that nature has claimed for its own. They include stone boundaries of what were once commercial rabbit warrens, extensive ghostly evidence of railway tracks, occasional crumbling cottages and sites of waterwheels that had personal names such as ‘Betsy’ and ‘Jewell’.

Farmers do still graze their cows and sheep in the summer, even on some of the remote parts of the moor, and the wild rabbits and ponies remain all year round. The army even continues to train regularly in the north. Yet there is a sense of transience in all these activities. Civilisation could never get a firm enough grip on the wildness that lies at the very heart of Dartmoor, which has an enduring silence. With this in mind, a walk on the moor can be a prayer, an act of surrender to nature. Balmy sunshine does come and go. Unpredictable weather, however, can bring sudden high wind, thickly shrouding mist or a deluge of rain that turns paths into streams. The rivers suddenly swell and can only be crossed on slippery, submerged boulders. How will we ever manage to trace our way back? The perennial threat of chaos helps to emphasise our vulnerability in the face of nature. As they say on the streets, “Respect, man!”

Over a lengthy period, I was very fortunate to be within reach of this remarkable National Park. Foremost, Osho Ko Hsuan School, where I lived and taught for about seven years, was forty minutes away by car. Many of those brave, adventurous kids were just as keen to visit as some of us adults. We would grab any opportunity to get ourselves onto the moor: shine, or rain. I suppose it was mostly rain… Getting lost in the strange mists that suddenly descended or nearly losing a boot or two in an unseen bog was all part of the scary fun. We were plunging into elemental nature in all its vivid and challenging glory.

Over the years, walks with other friends were equally enlivening. Unbounded energy and stamina emerged as hikes progressed in the fresh air, stretching the body and reserves beyond those used in normal daily routines. There were tors in the distance and bog cotton at our feet. We absorbed smells of wet bracken and an array of coloured lichen as the cold rain invigorated our cheeks and winds howled past our ears. After oozing through mires, our wet feet clambered over rocks, struggled through prickly, yellow gorse and then strolled nonchalantly along easy tracks. All of these intense sensations in this wonderland made me feel more and more alive and buzzing. Sometimes it was hard to bring the hike to an end. On the return home, mingling with the tiredness of the body, was a deep satisfaction, a peace that lasted for hours and hours.

After visiting the moor for the first time, Amrapali decided it was one great big, animal toilet. There certainly is a profusion of animal droppings. So that was it, I was on my own. A few years later, on a holiday in the Scottish Highlands we got seriously lost and unintentionally had to walk for nearly ten hours. Suddenly, in the midst of that missed trail, Amrapali’s inner sportsman became animated, ousting any demure, Japanese conditioning that may have been lingering. Pushing aside a few overhanging branches along with my wimpish hesitance, she took the lead and strode across a river on small, pointed stepping stones that wobbled at every tread.

After that, everything changed and we were off on walks together. From 2009 to 2013, Amrapali and I lived in Okehampton, on the northern edge of Dartmoor. Throughout those years, hardly a week went by without at least one hike. By then, Amrapali could be seen putting on rubber gloves to join me in collecting sacks of fresh animal droppings for our garden. Surprisingly, within a few weeks, this organic manure smelled as sweet as cut grass.

Although the high moorland is open and vast, there is incredible variety in the details of its landscape. On a relatively small scale, the terrain changes dramatically, from flat, to incline to near cliff and back again. The moor is crossed by rivers, streams and leats and spread with generous bogs. There are lone trees and a few small, woods here and there. The whole of Dartmoor is dotted with more than 160 tors, each with its own shape and display of naturally sculpted rocks. The undulating surrounding hills nearly always have their own special features often supported by the unique, half hidden remnants of human activity. The plethora of vegetation is a matter of scientific interest and adds specific colours and textures to each part of the terrain. When carefully observed, there are individual distinctions in each small area and separate hikes to various parts of the moor felt like completely different visits. Gradually, these unique segments of the northern moor all began to join up and from whatever direction we approached, we could venture from one to another without getting lost – well, perhaps just a bit, once in a while. We now had a true sense of the lie of the land in the northern moor and how it made up a splendid whole. Ironically, soon after that, we planned our move to Japan. Perhaps some hidden, inner purpose had been accomplished and it was time to move on.

Taking photographs of Dartmoor is very challenging. Winds make grasses fuzzy and rain can damage equipment. Some of the great spots require a long hike to reach them and carrying a tripod and other equipment can be a big hindrance. I found that going out to take pictures and going also to enjoy the landscape with a long hike were hard to combine. Composing with my favourite square format was difficult; much of Dartmoor is more suited to panoramic shots. In spite of numerous walks, my portfolio of the moor is small, yet may it convey a sense of the variety and magic of this wonderful place.

SurendraSurendra started to take photographs at Ko Hsuan in the UK in the early nineties, completed a City and Guilds Certificate in Photography at night school and, in 1994, became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society by submitting a portfolio. He has had exhibitions in various countries including Tokyo. He lives with his partner, Amrapali, in Japan. surendraphoto.com

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