Those who venture on foot onto Dartmoor fall into one of two categories; walkers – and ramblers. I am unashamedly in the latter category. My rucksack rarely holds more than my lunch, a map and some waterproofs, and I set out only when the weather forecast is favourable. I do not yomp.
Today is September 9th. The sky is that very clear mid-blue of early autumn and there is just a hint of coolness in the breeze. I feel invigorated. The weather refreshes my spirit as a sorbet cleanses the palate. As I descend from the bus I experience a glow of anticipation for the solitude and purity of the open space.
I haven’t reached it yet, though. The first mile is along a lane between two high Devon hedges; pleasant enough walking, but asphalt underfoot and only the occasional glimpse of the moor proper. Mixed with my enjoyment is a little tension. This is the big one, the walk I’ve been building up to over the summer, seventeen miles during which time I shall be as isolated as it’s readily possible to be in England. I’ve left details of my route at the shop by the bus stop, and with friends at home. I have my mobile phone with me. There’s no real danger.
Gradually the stone walls peter out. The road is flanked by grass, and water hurries in the leat on my left. The scenery is beautiful but very familiar to me, and my daily concerns, unprompted and unwelcome, insinuate their way back into my consciousness.
What am I going to do about my mother? I must face facts; she’s definitely gaga. I could see it start during those horrible last days of my dad’s cancer. We were all distraught, but she – well, she seemed to retreat from reality. One evening she spoke about going on holiday. Dad was next door, choking on his own flesh as the tumour in his throat swelled, and she was inviting me to join them in Como in a few months time. I’m afraid I yelled at her. I feel so bad about it now, but I was half mad with the strain of the death-watch. She looked at me, and then began sobbing softly. I think that was last time that she really understood what was going on around her.
I can safely leave her at home during the day while I go to work, but for how much longer? I try to avoid overnight business trips as much as possible because she worries so much. When I can’t avoid going away, I ring her early in the evening and talk for at least half an hour, but even then I feel guilty. Last time, every five minutes she was saying, “I don’t like it when you’re not here, Patricia. I get all in a tizz.”
This is not what I came out here for. I look around, to appreciate consciously where I am and what I am doing. The road bends in a slow curve around the tor. Skylarks pipe their magical songs at the limit of human hearing. It is easy to imagine that they are merely the mortal manifestation of an unheard symphony of surpassing loveliness. And there ahead of me is a patch of moorland that is sometimes a passport to the immortal; the mires. How deceptive that verdant green! What a trap for the unwary that level land! An incautious step and you can be caught and held, sucked down, your struggles only causing you to sink more quickly.
Still, it’s safe enough as long as you stay on the track, which picks its way through the treacherous ground. Never, never try a shortcut here! At least I’m now off the tarmac and onto the moorland proper.
Past the mires the path climbs steeply, and at ten o’clock in the morning it’s in the shadow of the tor. Out of the sunshine the breeze feels noticeably cold, but my exertions are keeping me warm enough. I don’t need to put on a jacket; I’d only have to take it off at the top.
And what am I going to do about that job offer? My employer wants me to do a two year secondment in London. It’s a very generous package. In fact I could hardly believe the proposal. As well as a substantial salary increase, they’re prepared to pay the rent on a flat there for the whole period. My boss explained, “We need your lobbying skills there, Trish, but you’ve got to be on the spot; you can’t do this one at a distance.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. You have to be there to take advantage of every opportunity to make your case to the people who matter. And that’s usually in the evening over dinner and a drink; or in the early morning at a ‘power breakfast’; or even at lunchtime in the gym. No question about it, working from Devon I couldn’t accomplish even a tenth of what’s needed. If I’d imagined that sort of lifestyle when I was a student, I’d have gawped and said “No way, José.” Now, I’d love the assignment. What could be more intoxicating than to influence policy at the highest level? But what am I going to do about Mum?
My brother Tom says that she should go into a home. “She’s got pots of money since she sold her house and moved in with you,” he says. “That’ll be more than enough to cover the costs. She could afford excellent residential care from the proceeds.” Residential care; a nice euphemism.
It’s not that Tom is heartless. He’s an excellent dad, and he and his wife Mary have been happily married for two decades. He just lacks imagination. Of course, he hasn’t been close to Mum over the last two years, as I have.
“Promise me you’ll never put me into a home, dear.” It’s been a constant refrain. I never promise, naturally, but the weasel words to avoid the commitment sometimes stick in my throat. She plays on my feelings of guilt, but like a child would. It’s deliberate, but almost as though it’s no longer under her control. I can’t imagine the strong woman who brought me up being anything other than scrupulous in leaving others to make their own decisions. Perhaps this should tell me how terrifying she finds the idea of dependency?
The path has passed its apex and swung around to run almost directly due south while I have been musing. South, into the sun. The golden bracken flames in the noonday brightness. A buzzard hovers, and then stoops. It’s too distant for me to see whether it catches its prey. The walking is easy, and I swing along. I remember a performance of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ that I heard a year ago in St Martin in the Fields church. Walking through this landscape feels like that music, exuberant, embellished, affirmed. Life snatches me up, lifting me high, soaring joyfully. The path runs down, down to a stream, and when I reach it I leave the track to splash the chill water on my head, as much for exhilaration as the need to cool myself.
About halfway there. The way climbs again, but gently and I’m heading eastward. I cross the brook on the stone clam bridge, marvelling that this primitive human structure should have stood since before history. Up the hill I go, to join the old trackway along which the miners’ railway once ran. Gravel crunches under foot, until I decide that it’s pleasanter to walk on the grass beside the way.
It’s lunchtime, and I’m feeling strong. I leave the track and climb steeply until I’m standing at the very top of the tor. Looking to the south-east I can see right down the valley, clear to the edge of the moor and beyond, to the rich, rolling South Hams. I open my pack and pull out the food. Sandwiches. A round of prawn with mayonnaise in granary bread. Half a round of rough paté and lettuce. Is there any pleasure more visceral and intense than the pleasure of food?
Over my head there is a deafening buzzing of insects. It’s as though I’ve sat myself under their equivalent of Spaghetti Junction. Where are they all going, so busy, expending such energy in getting there? The horizon looks a bit misty. Nothing to worry about, though. The weather forecast was unambiguous. “A glorious day over the whole of Devon and Cornwall” was what the man said. No problem. I set the alarm on my phone and doze for twenty minutes.
It’s such a pleasant dream that I don’t really want to wake up, but I suppose that I must. There’s still eight miles before I reach the end of the route. Yawning, I sit up, take out the vacuum flask, pour myself a coffee and look down from my perch on the tor. It’s much mistier below, and I can’t see more than a hundred metres or so; I’d better get moving.
I pack my bits and pieces into the rucksack, pull on my jacket and trudge down the slope. Sleep has enervated me and my limbs lack strength. Never mind. The coffee and the movement will soon revive me.
Walking into the mist is sinister, stepping into a shadow world. My senses feel more acute but perceive less. At first I can make out the sun as a bright patch against the grey, but as I descend it disappears and colour drains from the landscape. The grass is dull, the bracken mud-brown and dripping damp. It’s cold, colder than I’d expected. Lucky I have my waterproof over-trousers in the rucksack; I may need them.
All I need to do now is climb over this mound and descend the far side and I’ll rejoin the track. Then it’s just follow the path all the way to journey’s end.
My feet skid on the grass and I slip onto my bum. There’s no harm done apart from a damp patch on my trousers but I need to be careful. It wouldn’t be funny if I were to turn an ankle. It’s quite eerie in the fog.
I keep descending. The downward slope is gentler than I remember, and I haven’t struck the track yet. I’m walking fast, getting hot. Is that sweat on my face or moisture from the fog? Slow down, girl! Panicking will not get you anywhere.
“I’m not panicking.” I say the words out loud, annoyed with myself, and moderate my pace. All I have to do is go downhill until I reach the path, turn left, and keep walking. The miners’ track will see me home.
But where is the track? Surely I set out in the right direction? And I’ve kept pretty straight, haven’t I?
I steer well clear of a pond on my left; the ground around it looks wet and treacherous. As I turn away from it, a gentle breeze rolls thick fog up the valley, engulfing me. It’s cold. I pull on my waterproof trousers.
The pause gives me a chance to pull myself together. When I left the top of the tor I could still just see the sun through the mist, and I walked slightly to the left of it. The time is 14:45, so the sun would have been almost south-west, and I would have been moving more or less south. I look at the map and see the pond I’ve just avoided. There should be a path to the west of me. I need to cross that and keep walking downhill. Where’s my compass?
Once more, I delve into my backpack, feeling for the familiar plastic rectangle that houses the compass. I can’t feel it. I unpack everything from the bag. It’s not there.
“Come on, Trish! What kind of halfwit walks on Dartmoor without a compass?”
I check my pockets. Not there. I’ll just have to wing it. If I walk away from the pond, I’ll cross the path and strike the miners’ track. Where’s the pond? I can’t see it; it’s hidden in the fog. I think it’s over there.
I’m filled with doubt about my exact orientation. It takes an effort of will to turn ninety degrees to my right and walk forward. I move carefully, because I can’t see more than about five metres. “So much for the weather forecast,” I think. I try to relax, because I can feel tension in my legs and that will tire me quickly.
The ground is rough, tussocky. I must have walked several hundred metres and I still haven’t crossed the path shown on the map. Is it approaching the time to phone for help? I check my mobile. No signal. “You’re on your own, girl,” I tell myself, firmly.
Aha! What’s this? A path, as I live and breathe. Unless it’s a sheep track… I shall define it as the path I’ve been looking for. I don’t want to follow it, because it bends around to take me in the wrong direction. I must cross it.
It feels wrong to leave the relative security of the little track, and plough my way across lumps of grass and reeds, but that’s what I must do. I acknowledge to myself that I’m frightened. It helps to admit the feeling.
It’s soggy under foot. Every step squeezes water out of the ground. I must be careful not to step into a bog. According to the map there shouldn’t be one, but am I where I think I am? I squelch onwards. Thank goodness for proper equipment; at least I’m dry, and not cold. I wish I’d remembered to check I had the compass, though. What a stupid thing to forget!
I think of my mother, and hope that Tom is coping alright with her. I said I’d be back by six o’clock at the latest. It’s now half past three.
At last! A grassy ditch full of water, and beyond it a stony track. This is the miners’ track! I’m safe!
I hitch my backpack into a more comfortable position, relax my muscles and stride out.
Now that I’m confident of where I am, it seems lighter. In fact, it actually is lighter; there is a patch of brightness in the sky. I walk about eight hundred metres and the sun is warm on my right cheek. The moor is familiar; I’ve walked this stretch several times. I’m tired, more tired than I should be after the distance, but I suppose that’s down to the tension when I thought I was lost.
The walk is no longer the intense pleasure that it was when I set out, but I feel satisfaction at being within sight of completing it. I follow the track, putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the fatigue.
So, what am I to do about Mum?
She’s lost in a worse fog than I was, and she doesn’t have any way of helping herself. I would have been mightily relieved to have had someone alongside me when I was lost, even if they were only saying “Yes, you’re heading in the right direction, you don’t need to worry.”
I’m going to have to turn down that job offer.
It’s after five. I can see the gate at the edge of the moor. Is there a signal yet for my mobile phone?
I call Tom. Back in thirty minutes, I tell him. Put the kettle on – I need coffee!