top of page
  • Writer's pictureJodie Newton

Mum on Dartmoor's first Dartmoor wild camping experience

Upper Erme stone row

Firstly apologies for the delay in writing a new post, sadly on the 1st September our beautiful elderly Labrador lay down for her final sleep. This has thrown us all off kilter, as I’m sure many of you will understand. Rosie was a fantastic family dog. Gentle and mostly well behaved, I will miss her rounding up the children on our Dartmoor adventures. She loved nothing better than finding a large stinking muddy hole to roll in or some stagnant water in which to wallow. The car will never smell the same again. Rest in peace lovely Rosie.

Occasionally I like to sit surrounded by a plethora of Dartmoor related books, flicking through their pages or searching the internet for places and antiquities I’d like to hike out to.

Most of them are within walking distance for our family, but there are one or two places that are trickier to reach and get back from in one day. Not just for the children but also for me.

Red Lake Tip for example is roughly 7 miles from the nearest car park.

A 14 mile round trip on the easy flat tracks from Ivy Bridge is perfectly doable of course, it’s just that I want to spend time taking photos, swimming in what ever water I can find, pottering off track to see Dartmoor crosses and stone rows, cute fluffy eared calves and interesting rocks etc.

It’d be a bit of a slog and although our youngest has done a circular walk out to Red Lake and back I’m not sure he’d be keen again lol.

Anyway about two months ago I found a sketch in “Dartmoor 365” of the Upper Erme stone row and said to my ever patient husband, “wouldn’t it be lovely to get out to The Erme valley and see the longest stone row on Dartmoor?”

I diligently opened our OS map and followed the grid reference to see where it was exactly and bingo, right up by Red Lake Tip.

I made a strange frustrated noise a bit like a cat who’d really like to chase the mouse in the living room but just can’t quite be bothered to move off the sofa.

However the very lovely Mr. Mum On Dartmoor, had a brilliant idea. “Why don’t we go, just you and I, and stay out over night by Red Lake? You can see your Stone row and swim in the lake and we’ll both have a bit of time to ourselves”.

I could’ve have kissed him. After 160 billion days of no school due to that pesky virus it sounded like a luxury.

We started to plan, and pack and get slightly over excited.

We watched the weather forecast for just the right weekend and the children’s very kind Aunt was on standby for childcare duties. (The children were delighted as apparently she’s way more fun than us 😉)

It just so happened that the perfect (ish, it was a little cooler than perfect) day to go was Mr. N’s birthday.

We packed our bags with sleeping bags, roll mats and a little self inflatable mat each because we’re both over 40 now and our bodies don’t want to sleep on the ground any more.

We each took a little inflatable pillow, something I would have scoffed at years ago but they’re great actually and I was very glad to have one. Mine is an OEX Traverse pillow, it’s a Go Outdoors own brand and self inflating. It packs down really small and was perfectly adequate even when I’d rolled onto my side.

We took Extra layers, a small first aid kit, a light weight travel towel, spare socks, some food, a small stove and pot for boiling water, a mug and a spork each.

Obviously we also packed the obligatory waterproofs, map and Wine Gums and our tent.

We have a 3 man Vango Nova Geo 300, it’s very easy to put up, just three poles and has a porch for backpacks and boots and can be used as a shelter to cook under. The best feature, I feel is that either side of the porch can be opened for wind protection or it can be rolled up completely if it gets very warm.

It’s not to heavy to carry, I took the poles and Rich carried the canvas which all packs into a brilliant draw string bag that is so much easier for packing, because it opens quite wide and you don’t have to struggle to fit everything back in.

Our bags weighed quite a bit, we took gin and tonic in pre mixed cans as a little celebration and of course water isn’t light.

On that note water was our main concern and we knew we’d have to refill from a stream or river at some point so we also took purification tablets (no one wants water poisoning).

Our boots were prepped, our clothes deliberately assembled in layers, We were ready.

We parked at Harford Gate near Ivybridge in the village of Harford SX 644 595

And walked down the lane beside the church over Harford Bridge SX 635 596

Just over the bridge is a gate on the right hand side of the road that runs beside the Erme and there were some beautiful looking swim spots for those of you who like to wild swim. The water level was high, we’d had a lot of rain over the previous two days and the ground was saturated.

We were heading for Tristis Rocks and Burford Down stone row SX 636 605 but the path had become overgrown with Ferns, Brambles, Howthorne and Gorse. It was tough hiking, we stumbled and squelched and panted our way up the steep hill.

Mr N. Says;

“Stage one; up, brambles, wet, ouch, up, mud, wet, ouch, up, mud”

Which pretty much covers it. However once at the top the view was beautiful and the stone circle and row on the crest of the hill were impressive.

The missing path. Lots of brambles and Ferns

Tristis Rocks

From there we headed over the fields to the track at SX 632 617 and followed it back towards the Erme. On the side of the track was a small Bronze Age settlement with various round house remains and a lot of sheep, grazing quietly in the ancient surroundings. We had seen one other hiker at this point and they were a fair distance away. It was idyllic and we were enjoying each other’s company, chatting about all sorts of nonsense and basically relishing the peace and our freedom.

Bronze Age round house beside the track

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”

Dr Seuss.

Very wet paths

The path was wet, there were streams of water pouring from every hillside, some parts of the path were now fully submerged but it wasn’t unpleasant and we were able to find a way around the boggier patches.

We passed one or two other intrepid wild campers pitched on the banks of the river and I thought how lovely it may be for another time.

The track terminated at a weir, where we stopped for lunch. Again there wasn’t a soul to be seen and had the temperature been higher and the water level lower I’d have happily plunged into the weir pool for a dip. I’ve duly noted it’s location for a future family splosh.

Past the weir pool, the path was less pronounced but fairly easy to discern. We plodded onwards through a very attractive valley beside the river, dotted with Rowan trees which added an unusual splattering of red to the more contemporary moorland hues.

The Erme with Rowan trees

The ascent was gradual as we traveled upwards towards more settlements, away from the waters edge slightly though the ground beneath our feet was still soaking.

The ruins were just as impressive as those further back and the views the people who lived there must have enjoyed were very pretty.

The central South Moor is desolate but in a good way. There was nothing but sweeping grass plains and sheep for miles around us. There is a strange sort of beauty in its stark abandonment.

Bronze Age settlement over looking the Erme Valley

From the settlements we walked up to the stone circle and the Start of the Upper Erme Stone row.

The longest prehistoric stone row in the world, it measures 3,386m long, including around 922 mainly medium and small-sized stones along with some large orthostats situated in the Erme Valley. The row, which is sinuous in character, is orientated North to South and has a sea view in places. There are cairns at both ends, the one at the South end is surrounded in a stone circle and the one at the North end is surprisingly small and nondescript.

This was what I’d come to see and It was impressive. It must’ve taken years to finish hauling the stones to their locations and I wish I knew it’s exact purpose.

Upper Erme cairn circle and row terminal
Upper Erme stone row

Walking beside the row we traveled over the hills past old tin workings and gullies looking across the valley to the impressive prehistoric Erme pound.

5,000 years ago it was a heavily populated area with at least nine settlements of varying size within a one kilometre radius.

The remains of three of the larger settled areas are easily visible from miles around.

According to Legendary Dartmoor “There is even a tantalising hint that man frequented the area much, much earlier than the Bronze Age, this comes in the form of a Palaeolithic hand axe found about a mile from the pound.”

Erme Pound

Following the stones we crossed the river over to the Pound. The ford was impassable so the boots came off. We slung them around our necks, adding to the weight we were already hulking and waded across the chilly water. This caused much giggling but the cool water felt rather refreshing on my tired feet.

From the pound we headed to the Abbots Way at SX 635 665.

The Abbots Way is a track which crosses the Moor from Buckfast Abbey to Tavistock. There is a legend in regards to its construction but I will leave that for a future post.

The Abbots Way track lead us over towards our designated camping spot for the evening, beside Red Lake Tip.

Red Lake Tip

Red Lake lies in the heart of the Southern Moor. It’s a distinctive landmark - the overgrown spoil tip of the China Clay works that started working in 1910 but had failed by 1933. Clay was hosed out from a deep pit and the slurry was transported to settling beds at Greenhill, about a mile away. After a week of settling the sluices were opened and the clay was piped 7 miles to the processing works near Ivybridge. The remaining sand and gravel was loaded into trucks at Red Lake which were tipped onto the landmark we see today. There was a railway which ran alongside the clay pipes which led down to Ivybridge. This was used for moving people and basic materials and is locally known as the “Puffing Billy track”. The railway was of 3ft gauge and small steam engines pulled 3 passenger carriages. Only the trackway remains - the rails are long gone. Today, Red Lake is an isolated place. There are 3 deep pools, ruined buildings as well as the tip. It is surrounded by mires but is an interesting place to see. 

Now baring in mind how far into the Moors we were and that we’d not seen a soul for hours, I expected Red Lake to be quite quiet but as it turned out there were in fact 8 other sets of campers with the same idea. It was a bank holiday after all. There was plenty of space for us all and we pitched our tent in a small divot to one side of the spoil tip. It may not have seemed the most sensible place to a few very vocal fellow campers but the ground was surprisingly dry and we rationalised that if it hadn’t flooded during the two previous days down pourings then it was unlikely to do so over night with a good weather forecast. We were sheltered from the winds which whipped about us and it felt like a good little temporary home.

Removing our packs felt wonderful and I was beginning to feel extremely hungry.

We pitched our lovely little tent and suddenly the overwhelming desire to be in the water hit me.

I stripped off to my underwear closely followed by the birthday boy and we both went for an extremely cold swim.

It was gravely underfoot in the shallows and very quickly dropped away limitlessly beneath our feet. The deep water was dark and formidable and I felt a little uneasy. We didn’t stay in too long but I can now tick it off my Dartmoor swims list.

Getting out was freezing. The wind added the extra chill factor and we both got dressed very quickly and popped some water on for a coffee.

We take the instant three in one sachets with us camping and though not as good as a fresh cup it was incredibly welcome. While we warmed up we ate some snacks and made our dinner.

A couple of pot noodles isn’t cordon bleu but they tasted amazing to me after stomping all that way.

After dinner we walked to the top of the tip. It’s a great view from the summit and we sat there for a while in companionable silence feeling a little smug at how lucky we were.

We watched the sun set from the banks of the lake and drank our celebratory Gin and Tonics.

Sunset over Red Lake

The moon and stars were clear and bright, the plough directly above us. It was beautiful but had got quite cold so we headed into our tent to warm up.

Bed time was early, 9.30pm but both of us were extremely tired and welcomed the rest.

Now I’m not a great sleeper, I’m up at “sparrows fart” as my best friend coins it and camping I’m even worse. Apart from the odd wake up in the night, I slept reasonably well for a middle aged woman on a roll mat. My rest was made even better by the gallant Mr. N offering me his down sleeping bag because I feel the cold more than he does (thank you my lovely).

I’m not sure I could do it for very long but one night was ok.

I was up at 5.00am but it was worth it, the sunrise was spectacular and I was able to get some very pretty shots.

Since we were awake we made porridge (instant in pots for ease and weight) and decided to strike camp, making sure we left nothing but the imprint of our tiny tent.

We were up and heading back by 7.00am.

Sunrise over Red Lake

From Red Lake Tip SX 647 635 we took the railway track or “Puffing Billy” track back towards the “Two Moors Way” a track that crosses both Exmoor and Dartmoor. The track out of red lake is a deep channel cut through the peat down to the bedrock. It has steep sides but half way along our exit there was a v shaped dip in the bank and we stopped to admire the view and take a few photos. Just as I was thinking about continuing on, I noticed an odd brown diamond pattern in the grass and to our delight we realised we had a privileged rare glimpse of an Adder warming it’s self in the morning sunlight. I quickly took two or three photos just before it slithered away into the undergrowth.

It made our morning. I’ve never seen one before and I’m glad to have witnessed this rare event.

If you do come across an Adder on the Moor keep your distance they are poisonous.

If you should be unlucky enough to receive a bite from one seek immediate medical help.


Onward we toddled along the Red Lake tramway to Left lake SX 647 635. Another flooded China clay pit and another beautiful swim spot. It was about 8.30am and though sunny, the wind was too cold to consider the skinny dip I’d envisaged the night before. So we ate the last of our vitals and continued on towards the car.

Left Lake

Plymouth and the surrounding seaside towns were clearly visible from our high vantage as we followed the old boundary markers beside our path and stubborn cattle grazed haphazardly on our route. Just past Sharp Tor was an interesting standing stone and two Dartmoor crosses Hobajohn's Cross and Spurrell’s Cross.

Standing stone

Hobajohn's Cross

Hobajohn's Cross likely started out as a terminal stone of the Butterdon Bronze Age stone row and was then baptised with its engraving during a later period.

Spurrell’s cross would have at one time been the most ornate of all Dartmoor’s ancient crosses. Not only that, the cross design is so unique that it is the only example to be found throughout the Dartmoor National Park. It likely dates from the medieval period and was probably a marker for the various tracks that are intersected at its location.

Spurrell's Cross

From Spurrell’s cross we travelled off the Two Moors Way track and back across the Moor to the car park at Harford Gate.

We were shattered and very hungry, but we had the most amazing time. Even though my right knee may argue otherwise, I will be pestering Rich for another wild camping overnight adventure next year for sure.

761 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page