We all love the idea of adventure. We grow up reading books about children who enter a secret world through a wardrobe. We have this desire to seek the secret places, desperate to take hold of something real. Those places that resist our road maps, our GPS and the BBC Weather app. A place where the wind whistles to the trees, your breathing slows, and wild thoughts are released.
Dartmoor National Park has been described as a wilderness; vast and untamed. The chance to go somewhere untouched and undiscovered excites us, yet the reality is that Dartmoor attracts thousands of people a year. The paths are well worn, beckoning the traveller to set foot on them. Most of us would choose to explore on a path over the wet bog, or an army of fern that tangles your trainers, but on my many trips to Dartmoor, I have realised that plenty of mystery lies in the history of all the feet that have walked the paths before me.
When I first moved to Devon in 2016, Dartmoor became my home long before the new house. The heavy snowfall, broken boulders, the unexpected rain. Even now, I take the car each Saturday morning to Princetown, where my favourite path begins. It travels past the fire station and across the moors, to Foggintor. With the first gate open and the town left behind, I am instantly surrounded by green. A cluster of pine trees whose roots tease the foundations of the semi-detached houses. A vast moorland coloured in shades of emerald, bronze and beige. Horses surround me, but only a few are free. To the right, they are groomed and clothed with jackets. To the left, they have grown their hair long and stand scattered across the moors. There is no end to their wanderings.
The path is flat and wide underfoot, painted with potholes and puddles. It climbs slow and steady, following the curves of each slope. My eyes surrender and stray to the side, wandering up hills topped with stone, accepting the risk of stumbling. Out here you feel exposed to the peaks, entirely vulnerable but not alone. The wind likes to catch my attention with its howls and groans. I can only just see the way forward through a veil of hair that whips my skin. At this point on the path I don’t just see one thing, I see everything. It is like someone has painted me into this landscape.
In the Autumn, the moors reveal a golden red colour that falls with the leaves. It lingers in the army of fern flecked with heather and tickles the base of each pine tree. With the early sun still stirring, the tors wear a crown of mist and the dim light of morning seems to whisper there is so much more to see.
On my first visit to Princetown, the path to Foggintor Quarry was barren. I came across a troop of feral horses grazing in a circle of stones that took my mind back to Wiltshire’s Stonehenge. Featured on every British map and advertised in the tourist centres, each stone stands tall and proud on the open plain. Yet here on the moors, broken boulders sleep half hidden by tree roots. Some say these stones mark an ancient graveyard, or the foundation of a church hall, but to many this is simply a good picnic spot. The granite slabs lack the warmth of my living-room settee, so I am thankful that I remembered to pack an extra layer today. No shelter here from the wild winds that sting my skin.
As I reach the same circle today, I notice that a foal has strayed from its band. The creature wears a ginger coat, spotted white, tempting to touch. As it walks closer, a voice from my childhood in the New Forest says, “Don’t pet the wild horses”. Retreating from the foal, taking care to avoid her back legs, I am surprised to see her turn and follow. A precious moment of intimacy occurs. The foal trots towards me, eye contact unwavering, and something holds me in that spot. My bare legs show goose bumps and the foal appears by my side. I run my fingers through the hair on her back, tracing the edge of a circle. A golden shade of red. She licks my leg and I scratch behind her ears, falling deeper in love by the second.
The moors have a way of making you feel comfortable as you walk into unknown territory. But whose territory is it? In his poem A Man in Assynt, Norman MacCaig shares my curiosity. He asks ‘Who owns this landscape? Has owning anything to do with love? For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human we even have quarrels’. If Dartmoor is a wilderness then it has no owner, it owns itself. Although Britain is abundant with National Parks and boundary lines, no amount of human power can tame the wind and the rain. Nature owns the moor and everything within its borders, including the people who walk and the animals that graze. These wild landscapes invite the imagination to guide each traveller who sets foot on its paths. It is not to be captured or contained, rather our hearts are the ones taken hostage.
Creeping nearer the quarry, the hills roll away and time slows to a stroll. Ahead stands a cluster of towering cliffs, fallen boulders piled at their feet. As I turn a corner, a clearing reveals itself and there is a new path. Narrow and uneven. It slaloms between mounds of rock speckled with sheep. The floor beneath me transforms from gravel to dust and I wonder How many feet have eroded this path to turn this rock to ash? This place, once named Royal Oak, is known as Foggintor Quarry: home to history, myths and a touch of wild swimming. A crater in shape and atmosphere, the track leads the traveller to an old extraction site, now filled with rainwater and fallen rocks. As I stand at the edge of the water, it feels like the towering walls are watching me. I have stumbled into unknown territory.
In the heart of the Quarry sleeps this pool of water – murky and green. When the sun shares a little light, it looks inviting. I wade into the unknown water, cautious not to make any sudden movements. The granite is unforgiving to a clumsy intruder and sharp pieces pave the floor of this pool. Then it turns to slime. A thick blanket, oozing inside the gaps between my toes. I imagine this is the freshwater equivalent to the seaweed in Plymouth Sound, but there is no way to see what lies below.
Back in the 1950s, a rumour began to spread through Princetown that Foggintor had become home to strange humanoid figures: The Shadow Men. Conan Doyle and the Brontës used the British moorlands to their advantage. The ever-changing weather and the isolation felt in this vast space makes it the perfect backdrop for a crime scene or ghost story. Yet, unlike the myths of supernatural occurrences in the mist, this rumour had substance. Back in April 2016, on my first visit to the Quarry, I spotted them. Four figures stood on the western edge of the crater. They were dressed in camouflage overalls and black boots. After a moment of silence, one of the figures began to abseil the sheer cliff face. ‘The Shadow Men’, first spotted by moonlight half a century ago, were the Marines, their camouflage making them ghosts.
The quarry first began its work around the year 1800, the granite having a precious strength which fuelled the Victorian building boom – from Nelson’s column to HMP Dartmoor. The ruins that surround the quarry are all that remains of the miners’ homes, their lives and what they worked for. To the left of the quarry entrance, there is a wall that used to hold the ceiling of the village hall. Perhaps music once filled the space inside this box of stone that lays before me. In 1883, a Wesleyan chapel was built, but now there is nothing that resembles an altar or church pews. Could anyone hear their prayers among the tides of wind that drown all sound? As 1861 rolled by, there were 183 people living beside Foggintor Quarry, but now I am sitting alone.
The wind continues to comb my hair and I spot an old wall with two window frames intact. The view through one frame is empty; a pale and cloudless blue. A crow passes and the sheep cross the green space before me, searching for something sweet. The vacant blue holds my attention again until a shawl of cloud covers it. Sitting here with the remains of the past, time slows to a halt. Sitting here with only animals for company, only wind for noise, I feel alive. Dartmoor always seems to have that effect on my mind. Following a path into the unknown, with the reassurance that there is always a way back home.
As the sheep graze on the rocks, now covered in dense grass, I can see how life has come full circle. The walls that once formed houses now show no trace of the people that lived here. Any resemblance to the world that the miners built was buried years ago. Beneath the wall with the empty windows, there is an arch stacked high with stone. An arch that was once an entrance to another place, now closed to my curious thoughts. The wall appears lifeless and uninviting but taking a closer look, I see something has laid new roots. In the shadows of the quarry, in a crevice to the right-hand side, there is something green. Leaves hang down from the roof of the arch, seeking sunlight. Wild and free, taking centre stage with a man-made backdrop.
Nature seems to be claiming back this space. Trees are rooted in stone, sheep trace the edges of the quarry, horses dance on the forgotten settlement grounds. Dartmoor has the strength to bury something as strong as granite, lowering it inside an underground grave. Something that men spent their lives digging up now only serves as a lump in the ground, causing a foot to stumble, a place to perch. When I tell people about the moors and my many walks, they ask about the unexpected weather and the way that everything looks the same. Moments when they found themselves lost. I find it funny. How can people be scared of these wild places and chance of losing your way for a while, because there is so much more to gain.
When the clouds come without warning and my boots sink deep in the bog, I marvel at the power of nature. Just as I feel invited to explore this landscape, I know that the moors can never be tamed. There will come a day when these fragments of history will disappear and what will be left? This restless wind and an empty sky, where the mist rises at dawn and falls again.
Beyond the quarry, there is a point where the path bends and the rest of the journey is hidden. The child inside me wants to run round the bend, into the unknown. The adventure never feels finished when your playground is vast and empty; where there are no borders or boundaries. I decide to leave my journey there, unfinished, so I have somewhere to explore next time. There is always something more to see when you are walking with the moors. Exploring the places where only the wind can be heard, as the clouds drift apart and the sky is painted every shade of blue.
Ella Taylor studied Creative Writing for four years and she now lives in Devon with her family. Her poetry and prose focus on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Read her poetry on instagram.
Photography by the author.