Day 1: Carswell Farm to Holne (41 km) West Country Tales of the Unexpected from the South Hams

I have wandered over Europe, have rambled to Iceland, climbed the Alps, been for some years lodged among the marshes of Essex – yet nothing that I have seen has quenched in me the longing after the fresh air, and love of the wild scenery, of Dartmoor.

The Rev Sabine Baring-Gould – A Book of Dartmoor

Geoff outside Carswell Farm

There can be few more idyllic spots to begin a 112 mile coast to coast walk than Carswell Farm in the South Hams. As luck would have it, Geoff Sayers, the owner of the Carswell Group, happens to be an old friend from my time working in South Korea for SG Warburg in the early 1990s. Back then he was feeding my Korean stock recommendations to hungry high powered fund managers based in Hong Kong like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Nowadays he is focussed on bringing up his young family on the family farm and managing his burgeoning business interests across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset which range from organic dairy farms, to luxury holiday cottages and also a stunning wedding venue! (www.carswellgroup.com)

As well as having the opportunity to catch up with Geoff and Zoe, starting my coast to coast walk from Carswell rather than Wembury, helped shave 14 km from my first day’s walk and reduce the distance to Holne from 55 km to a rather more manageable 41 km!

Setting off from Carswell Farm

Fortified with a piece of toast and marmalade and a cup of tea, at shortly past 6.30am we headed off towards Holbeton where I hoped to rejoin The Two Moors Way.

Carswell Farm

The walk along the coast from Carswell towards Mothercombe beach was spectacular. There can’t be many more beautiful places to farm in the UK I thought to myself.

En route to Mothercombe beach

Appearances can be deceptive. On the surface Holbeton seems like a another sleepy village in the South Hams. However, according to Geoff, film nights in the village hall regularly draw more than 100 which suggests an enviable level of community spirit.

Holbeton in the South Hams

Holbeton’s village pub, “The Mildmay Colours”, is named after Anthony Bingham Mildmay, the 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete, who twice came agonisingly close to winning the Aintree Grand National. In 1936 he was leading in the Grand National at the 2nd last fence on the 100/1 shot Davy Jones when the buckle of the reins broke and the horse ran out. 12 years later in 1948, when riding Cromwell in The Grand National, Lord Mildmay suffered from a severe attack of cramp from a persistent neck injury which prevented him from assisting Cromewell in the closing stages of the race. He consequently ended up finishing third. In 1950, Lord Mildmay suffered an attack of cramp while swimming off the south Devon coast and tragically drowned at the age of 41. He was unmarried and the Mildmay title became extinct.

The Hon Anthony Mildmay on ‘Davy Jones’ by Sir Alfred Munnings

Rejoining the Two Moors Way just east of Flete Wood, the path crossed the busy A379 at Hollowcombe Cross and then meandered along the banks of the Erme River to Ermington. The village which was founded sometime around the 8th century, appears in the Domesday Book and even has a town named after it in Australia after Major Edmund Lockyer, who emigrated from Devon in the early 19th century and on Christmas Day 1826 established the first British penal colony in Western Australia. The settlement party comprised of 23 convicts – mostly tradesman, 18 rank & file soldiers, a sergeant, a captain, a surgeon, a storekeeper and the commander Major Edmund Lockyer, with stores for six months (including sheep and pigs)!

Major Edmund Lockyer, who lived in Ermington, Devon.

However, undoubtedly the most famous feature of Ermington is its crooked spire which sits atop the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. Legend has it that the spire was once straight. However, one day, a beautiful bride arrived at the church and the church bent forward for her. It’s thought that the timbers were still slightly damp when the spire was constructed, meaning that once they settled and dried, they buckled and bent.

Crooked spire of St Pauls, Ermington

At Ivybridge I stopped for a quick sandwich before heading onto Dartmoor up Butterdon Hill in search of Hangershell Rock. Heading up out of Ivybridge I followed the track that used to be the Red Lake Tramway – a railway line that was opened in 1910 to exploit the deposits of china clay in the area.

Some of the world’s most significant deposits of china clay are located in Devon and Cornwall and they are known as primary deposits, because the clay is found at the site where it was formed.  

When china clay, or kaolin, was discovered in England, it was realised that it was of a much finer quality than found elsewhere in Europe. William Cookworthy from Kingsbridge in Devon made the discovery in Cornwall in 1746. He experimented with various samples and in 1768 he took out a patent to use the material, soon producing items at his Plymouth Porcelain Factory.

In the early 19th century it was discovered that china clay, which is a result of the alteration of the feldspar in granite in certain conditions, could be a useful additive in the manufacture of paper. It improved whiteness, increased the weight and gave a better printing surface. It was also much cheaper than cellulose. In addition, it could be used in textiles and added to cheap cotton goods. By 1900 the clay industry was a booming business.

The opening of the Redlake Tramway 11 September 1911.

The opening of the Redlake Tramway in 1911 was nothing if not controversial. In 1905, two Plymothians, R. H. Payne, an estate agent and surveyor from Devonport, and Charles Cottier, a solicitor and property developer, conducted a survey on the Southern moor (Dartmoor) to identify the location of any clay deposits which were sufficient to support a mining operation. They found large deposits around Redlake Brook which was thought capable of producing a total of 2,250,000 tons at an annual extraction rate of 45,000 tons. This would realise an estimated value of £3,150,000, an enormous sum at the time

However, the news of the planned new clay works caused uproar, with ‘every local interest joined itself to the opposition with Landowners, District Council and Mill owners united to protest’ (Western Daily Mercury 1906).

John Allen Jnr, owner of Stowford Paper Mill, was the driving force behind this, bombarding the local press with protest letters, written anonymously, apparently claiming to have the right of disposing of the whole of the water of the Erme whilst, at the same time, discharging ‘such polluted liquor from the works as to have practically destroyed the fishing in the lower reaches of the Erme’. He complained to the Duchy of Cornwall, owners of the mineral rights but a lease enabling further surveying was granted in 1909.

In 1910 the newly formed China Clay Corporation Ltd, with headquarters in Ivybridge, built a single track, three-foot gauge, railway running eight miles from the drying sheds at Cantrell to the pits at Redlake, with a rise of over a thousand feet. The railway opened on 11th September 1911 but it was not until the end of 1913 that the works were completed and ready to commence production. However, only twenty years after opening, the deposits were exhausted, the China Clay Corporation was liquidated and the railway tracks were removed.

Track heading towards Hangershell Rock

As I walked along the old Redlake Tramway, I couldn’t help remembering a comment that Geoff hade made to me some 15 years ago when he met up with me after I’d completed a series of long walks across Dartmoor. ” But, Joe, what do you think about when you are spending all those hours up on the moors?” he asked me. ” I think it would drive me nuts!”

I replied that it was impossible to get bored when out walking because the whole experience is one of sensory overload. There is simply so much to take in and enjoy out walking, be it the ever changing weather, the vast panoramic landscapes, the flora and fauna and the footprint of history embedded in every quadrant of the ordnance survey map you are following. But there is also something else – the silence and peace up on the moors enables one to transcend everyday worries and surrender one’s senses to the ‘here and now’. Walking meditation.

Thirsty cattle on the moor.

There is something reminiscent of a Henry Moore sculpture about Hangershell Rock (where I stopped for lunch) – massive slabs of granite thrown together by primaeval forces. The doyen of Dartmoor, the 19th century curate, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, remarked that “the granite of Dartmoor is far from homogenous, comprising many disparate materials : hornblende, feldspar, quartz, mica and schorl. Sometimes the mica is black, at other times it is white. Some granite on Dartmoor is red, pink, pure white and even greenish! He believed that at some period during the Glacial Age, there was a wash of water from the north-west over Devon, depositing clay and transporting granite.” Even by the standards of the time, the Rev Sabine-Gould was a remarkable individual. In between working as a country parson on the edge of Dartmoor for 40 odd years, he found the time to manage a 3,000 acre family estate, father 15 children and publish more than 1,400 works of literature, folk lore, archaeology and hagiography as well as being a prolific composer of folk songs and hymns, the most famous of which is “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

Hangershell Rock

The Rock overlooks one of the most archeologically fascinating areas on Dartmoor. Harford Moor has been used by prehistoric settlers to construct massive cairns, stone rows and cists, all of which lie a stone’s throw from here. The stone row between Butterdon Hill and Piles Hill, about 150 metres away to the east, is the second longest of its kind on Dartmoor.

Some way beyond Butterdon Hill I took a wrong turning. I retraced my steps, rejoined the Two Moors Way and headed towards a couple of walkers with large rucksacks on the horizon. I eventually caught up with them and got chatting. They were a German father and son on holiday from Cologne and they hadn’t got much of a clue about where they were! The strange thing was, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. ‘ Ve vill find somewhere to camp on the moor. Maybe tomorrow be vill find some shops to buy some food”. They thought they were on The Two Moors Way but I had my doubts. After a mile or so, I decided to do a U turn and head back where I’d come from. It was time to download the All Tails App and find out where I was on Dartmoor!

After I’d successfully refound the correct route, I passed Huntingdon Cross, on the edge of Huntingdon Warren, a giant rabbit farming enclosure which provided meat and fur from about 1800 to 1930. Rabbits don’t burrow into boggy ground so shallow trenches were cut and covered by stones with soil and turf on top, with drainage ditches built around the perimeter. During the early 19th century the warren was worked by a man called Thomas Michelmore, his son and a grandson. They lived in the Warren house on the edge of Huntingdon Warren – lovely in the height of summer but no fun in bleak midwinter. You would have to have been as hard as nails to have lived the life of a rabbit warrener up here!

Huntingdon Cross

I descended from the moor towards Scoriton and headed towards my destination for the evening, Higher Michelmore Farm near Holne. Ok I admit it wasn’t exactly ‘wild camping but it was close to a pub that was open in Scoriton where I could recharge my phone, post my blog and grab a couple of pints of diet coke!

Before heading off to the pub at Scoriton, ut time to try out my new piece of kit – my Jet Boil Flash stove. I’m glad to report that it more than lived up to its billing. Water was boiled in under 5 minutes and pasta carbonara contentedly consumed.

Evening meal

I probably ended up walking around 45 km – by the end of the day my muscles were telling me that I might have overdone it a bit! One thing is for sure – I’ll sleep well tonight!

And so to bed!

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