Dartmoor National Park, a remote moorland wilderness littered with historic relics and ancient monuments. Every year thousands of tourists and ramblers take to the tors to explore this rugged landscape. However, the mystical mountain setting isn’t simply scenic, but also provides an ideal training ground for army cadets, or a group of adventurous youths looking to test their endurance. Last week, I learnt this first hand as I navigated the national park for my Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award.

Copyright: Scott Thomas

My journey began with a near eight hour drive in the back of a noisy mini-bus, powering  on through heavy downpours on virtually non-moving motorway between England and Wales. Eventually we arrived late into Dartmoor, where we pitched out tents for the night by the Fox & Hounds in Lydford. It was a cool night and my brain was slow to function the following morning. From here we would begin our first day’s trek from Kingsett Down towards Okehampton.

DAY 1

As the sun rose, so did our spirits and merrily we trotted along, backpacks in tow, until we came to a river crossing, which threw us swiftly off-course. Queue bog-trudging, river crossing, fence-jumping and a face-plant fall… But that only proved the start of our misadventures! Swiftly after our team-effort to escape the marshes, we found ourselves confronted by a casual standing policemen, guarding what appeared to be a crime scene. He warned us that we would have to take an alternative path beyond the bridge of a further river crossing.

Navigating our route past the re-direction, we clambered over a couple of tors and found ourselves slightly misguided in our course of direction. However, we did manage to salvage our the remainder of our initial route from here, travelling down dirt tracks and over grassy knolls until we came to Meldon Reservoir. We took brief respite and met our assessors, before wandering off into a small wooded glade, where we almost came unstuck at a flooded gateway, before crossing a bridge further downstream.

Sighs exhaled, when confronted by an almost vertical climb up a time-worn hillock. Here, I note, that I fell gracefully to my knees atop a scattering of animal poo decaying in the grass.(Served me right for taking yet another photo, I thought). This incident befell many of us however in some shape or other, seeming somewhat unavoidable when traipsing constantly up and down the moors.

To our saving grace, we had little graph left by the time we reached the top of hill. The end of the first day’s trek was in sight as we journeyed towards camp that night. Pointed in the direction of a near-by tor, we forced our legs the last stretch and pitched our tents fast before the waning sun went down.

DAY 2

Having overcome wild fears of the first night, I rose with the morning light and paid visit to the near-by stream. I cast one last gaze across the dawn scene, packed up and headed on once more. It was a consistent walk both up and down, constantly roaming over hill and moor, with only a small ford crossing to break the gruelling regime. We paused for a breath on top of Hanging Stone Hill, scavenging abandoned bullet shells from the Army Training Range. Yes, we were walking casually through a live firing range, but thankfully this proved a rare weekend off…

Traipsing across further verdant moorland, we passed through a stone boundary and descended toward Fernworthy Reservoir for a picnic lunch refuel by the riverside. Last to use the stove, I made my Mug Shot in a hurry, not wanting to hold the team back and trundled on uphill on a diminished appetite. (I later found that very al dente pasta, was a necessary induction to expedition life – I wasn’t suffering alone!) The views looking back were gorgeous and powered by the scenery alone pushed on through scrubland dirt tracks, over trip-hazard paths and further hills.

Struggling under the late afternoon heat, we gathered for an extended break and sprawled across a grassy mound, teasing ourselves with all the junk food imaginable if only we were anywhere but there. Time wained and begrudgingly we trekked on in silence, through the blissful shade of a pocketed woodland with absolutely zero signal (much to everyone’s dismay). Spirits were lifted slightly when we managed to land ourselves in Postbridge, which is essentially quintessential Dartmoor, picture-postcard scenes, yet still we sat heaped by the roadside, deflated. Here, we were joined once more by our assessors and had a chance to cross a traditional clapper bridge. (Pictured below, Group 1, my group and I, posing unannounced on the ‘clapper’.)

Copyright: Scott Thomas

Emotions were running high and the Day 2 blues had set-in. Despite standing in the most beautiful location, I couldn’t help but weep a few tears as we made towards camp that night. We’d been told that this was often the stage were people often wanted to abandon ship and looking back I can see why. The first day, you overcome hurdles, fuelled by the initial rush, but by the end of the second day the rather epic undertaking starts to hit home and you start to wonder why you’re standing there at all. Admittedly, having my partner as a leader made it all the harder, having to see each other fleetingly and separate again. Everyone has there reasons for the Day 2 blues, but honestly I reckon he was mine…

… Read on in Part 2 for more tor-top antics and sweeping vistas …