The Views of Saddletor

As featured in the online INK Journal- Plymouth University 2016. 

Silently, I sit in the warmth of the car. Protected from the weather, I gaze across the vast moorland. Cars float by in a steady stream, winding along the road back towards their busy lives. But I sit. I enjoy the peace. Wind and rain batters away the pale evening light that was offering a rare, warm embrace to the ancient, tired land. Cows and Dartmoor ponies, introduced thousands of years ago in the Iron Age, graze contently on the grassy hills despite the wild and unruly weather. Their heads are bowed in quiet submission to the elements. Hills of murky green grass and gorse roll off into the foggy distance. The sky is heavy with rain clouds. There is something homely and nurturing in the emptiness of it all. The fields have become a rough patchwork quilt of deep browns, golden yellows and sporadic greens, reminiscent of centuries of hard farming. Ahead of me, they stretch into massive pine forests; they are working barricades against the lively towns below. Protected in my secluded vantage point everything is still and peaceful, only the occasional hum of an engine or bleat of a sheep interrupts the quiet.

Haytor juts from the hill to left. Well-trodden paths of vivid fresh grass cut through the hillside, opening up the dense gorse. I watch as climbers are lured to its overshadowing base. Grey and looming, the tor becomes a place of play and wonder for so many. Locals and tourists from far and wide come to scramble up its daunting rock face, as they have done for centuries before us. A scattering of fallen boulders, bell heather and bracken furnish the walk up to the foot of the towering giant as well as delicate autumn ferns that crumble as you brush pass them in an attempt to dodge the cow-pat stepping stones. Up close, the old rock looks like tough elephant skin, iron-grey and wrinkled.

Amid the ever-growing lichen, deep grooves across the rock face reveal thousands of years of endurance; incessant weather has led to mass erosion scoring the surface, scaring the coarse granite. Still, amongst the scars, the shine of Megacrysts illuminates Haytors beauty when the occasional soft ray of sunshine hits it. At its summit, the gusts almost knock climbers down, adrenaline pumping through their bodies. From every angle the view is captivating and I cannot help but pause for a while and soak it all in.

But if you want to see it differently, change perspective. Looking at it from side on the rock face transforms to human form; protruding edges create a giant yet gentle and familiar face. Almost Native American in appearance, the larger rock creates a headdress on which slim defined features lie. A pointy nose thrusts from the middle of the tor and large hooded inquisitive eyes sit above it. At the bottom lies the straight mouth. The figure is almost pensive. The rock softens.

Houndtor lies to my right. A lesser-known tor but loved all the same. I recently took a friend here for a walk – she is not the outdoorsiest of people – I will always laugh when I picture her slipping slowly down the bank, her face, full of distress and embarrassment. She cried for at least ten minutes because she got ever so slightly muddy. Despite my comical memories, it is easy to see where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles. On a moody wintery day, the moorland becomes eerily creepy with low hanging fog, dark skies and circling ravens above creating the perfect setting for a murder.

Yet the hound was there long before Sherlock Holmes. Centuries of haunting black dog reports have led to a well-engrained myth in local minds. Houndtor’s magical legend rings in the ears of local children. They chase the legendary hound over the low rocks and clamber after it to the tops of the highest peaks. Behind the tor, ruins of a long forgotten nucleated Saxon village waits patiently for new explorers. Another rocky playground is created in their slowly decaying walls as adults and children alike reimagine the history of this wonderful, yet vast and daunting landscape. Worn into the hillside, the footpaths carved over the millenniums lead down the steep heathland allowing an insight into the past.

People have lived on the moor as early as 5,000 BC and remains of their lives are fascinating and crucial to understanding our past. Defined by large huddles of connected houses the nucleated village is not hard to distinguish from the scattered rocks surrounding it. Walking around the mossy remains of the Saxon longhouse, I imagine the chaos within, the mother toiling over the large cauldron at the end – where the hearthstone still remains – while her husband tends to the noisy, pungent animals at the other. A number of smaller rooms gather around the outside. The mixture of Dartmoor’s ongoing emptiness and its rich history is what creates its perfection. I can feel so alone but always I will feel the companionship of its lingering souls.

Time flies by as I scour every inch of the moorland with my eyes, the once-pale light now replaced by a shroud of darkness. This is when the magic of the moors is fully revealed. Wind rattles across the barren hills, whispering the secrets of their past. Haunting shrieks come from animals protecting their young, sending chills down your spine. As the beauty of this broad landscape washes over me in absolute darkness, my hairs are on end. My attention returns to the view from the windscreen and across the dark fields that slope gently down to the twinkling towns. Home lies directly ahead. The largest orange glow is the heart of Teignbridge. Instinctively I am drawn to it; my eyes narrow in on the rough area of my house. Subconscious feelings of warmth, love and familiarity flow up. My chest tightens. I miss home; my new bustling city is not the same. Dartmoor has that effect. Everything is put back into perspective hundreds of metres above sea level. Past home is the river, glowing under the moonlight, a ribbon of silver that divides the landscape ahead. Towns become villages and villages become sparse, dark spaces with the occasional orange glow. Finally, the river flows into the complete blackness of the sea. A veil of stars hangs above the never-ending shadowy void. Spectacular light shows are created by the tiny gems of light, bouncing off the waves.

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