The storm had blown itself out during the night and it was a fine morning. High white clouds drifted in the blue heavens. From Chagford I walked between damp walls of moss-green stone down to the river, then followed the stream up towards Dartmoor. Soon the lane became a rough track flanked by dry stone walls, running through beech woods, climbing ever upwards. Pools of sunlight lay on the woodland floor, warming the rich brown mast. High in the treetops the soft breeze scarcely stirred. It was very quiet out there alone in the countryside. The sound of my footsteps throbbed like a pulse; my breath rasped in that deep silence.
It was somewhere near Teigncombe that I came to the Field of the Blasphemous Shepherd. A man in overalls was trying to teach a border collie to herd sheep. The dog, though enthusiastic, clearly had no idea what it was supposed to do. It would single out one of the flock, harrying it across the turf while the others scattered in all directions. After each failure the shepherd became more annoyed. "You stupid ****...no not that way ...go left...oh for ****sake...NOOOO!!!". Finally he threw his stick to the ground and danced in frustration, screaming abuse at the bewildered animal.
At Teigncombe I parted company with the Two Moors Way. The official route keeps to the farmland on the east side of Dartmoor, only occasionally venturing onto the moor. With miles of open country rising up ahead I couldn't see the point of floundering about in the fields, so I followed a green lane up through the trees and came out onto the moor near Kestor Rocks. The view was dramatic. To the north I gazed upon the wide expanse of central Devon, mile after mile of field and farmland merging into the blue haze where Exmoor clings to the edge of the world. Far below me Chagford lay hidden in the trees, and away beyond it the wooded cleft of the Teign valley. South and westward, long smooth slopes of wind-parched grass flowed in waves of beige and brown to break on the hard grey tors. Deep in the hollows the grasses were mottled with lighter hues where sedges marked out the mires. I watched the cloud-race sliding over the dun-coloured hills, and heard the skylark's song. Blisters forgotten I strode out across the moor as the sun shone high in the heavens and the unfettered breeze tumbled the hooded crows.
I crossed Shovel Down, aiming for the northern edge of the plantation above Fernworthy reservoir. From there a track runs down to Postbridge. This moorland walking can be strenuous stuff, though in dry weather the going is straightforward enough. The countryside rolls gently, ridges of higher ground merging into one another. It can be hard to distinguish sheep tracks from footpaths, and one slope or outcrop of stone looks much like another, so a compass is useful. On a saddle of land near Sittaford Tor I came upon two reconstructed stone circles. Dartmoor was settled in the Bronze Age, when higher average temperatures made cultivation possible on the hilltops. Eventually, over-farming and a deteriorating climate turned much of the soil to peat and drove the inhabitants down into the valleys. The archaeologist Francis Pryor suggests that Bronze Age monuments often occur on boundaries, territorial or spiritual. But why two of them, side by side? Did each belong to a separate clan, placed on the saddle that separated them? Or was this was the limit of colonization, where the quiet order of fields and hamlets encountered the wild, untamed otherworld?
I was a couple of miles outside Postbridge when the wind rose and the sky began to darken. A sudden squall swept over the moor and it began to hail, violently. There was no shelter for miles, so I dug out the waterproofs and plodded on. In a couple of minutes the spring sunshine was wiped out by that wintry blast. My face and hands were frozen, and I wished that I had brought gloves. The downpour lasted for half an hour, then ended as abruptly as it had begun. The wind dropped and the wet peat steamed gently in the watery sun. All that day black rain shadows chased each other over the hills, but no more came near.
From Postbridge I followed the East Dart River south. I kept to the right bank, in the mistaken belief that the dotted line shown on the map would prove to be a walkable track. For three quarters of a mile I picked a tortuous path along the water's edge, clambering over roots, ducking under branches; and all the time I could see people on the other bank walking serenely on the smooth turf. I tried to cross the stream on some wet rocks, but there was a gap half way across. I might have jumped it, but I didn't fancy my chances of keeping my footing with a heavy pack on my back. Finally, hot and annoyed, I forced my way up through the tangled trees to Laughter Hole Farm. From there a clear track led out onto the open moor, away south over Huccaby Tor. Up ahead I could see the valley of the West Dart, and beyond it the great bulk of Ryder's Hill, the last hurdle.
The breeze died away as I dropped down to the river. The afternoon sun was warm, and the soothing nonsense of flowing water an invitation to idleness. I rested there for a while; then dragging myself away I started up the steep hill. After a short climb I came to the Forest Inn, nestling in an angle of the road. It looked a pleasant house, and I was encouraged by a sign in the window, "We welcome muddy boots" - a happy sight for a walker. It was half past four and the place did not open until six, so I spread out my groundsheet on the grass and slept in the sunshine.
As I try to recall the inn at Hexworthy I am struck once more by how quiet and peaceful it was. I could hear the slow tick of a clock as I entered the bar. A dog sprawled comfortably at the foot of the stairs, dozing. It yawned heavily when it saw me, and thumped its tail. I found my room and had a shower, then came downstairs and sat for a while chatting to the barman, waiting for dinner. Later I settled into an armchair, writing up a few notes and trying desperately to keep awake. At last, bowing to the inevitable, I said goodnight and took myself off to bed. Outside, all was still. The cool night air flowed in through the open window. As I fell asleep I could hear the call of an owl, and the river down in the valley chattering over the stones.