Dart­moor’s cham­pion re­mem­bered

A mag­i­cal moor­land walk full of mist and mem­o­ries

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Fiona Reynolds Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @fionacreynolds

Fiona Reynolds gets away from exam fever in Cam­bridge and fol­lows in the moor­land foot­steps of Ian Mercer

SOME­TIMES, the spirit of a place and a per­son who loves it are so wrapped to­gether they be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble. That was the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Dart­moor and Ian Mercer. He was the first Na­tional Park Of­fi­cer for Dart­moor from 1973 and led the new author­ity in its pi­o­neer­ing work.

Although a pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tion­ist, Ian was no or­di­nary one, seek­ing, above all, to rec­on­cile cen­turies-old farm­ing tech­niques with as­pi­ra­tions for beauty and ac­cess; this was achieved as he un­cov­ered new depths of un­der­stand­ing about the moor—an ex­posed, tor-strewn, gran­ite upland in the South-west, oc­cu­pied for thou­sands of years by farm­ers and woods­men, shrouded in mist and mys­tery —while de­fend­ing it from threats such as new roads, reser­voirs and creep­ing sub­ur­ban­i­sa­tion.

When Ian died last year, the moor not only lost a cham­pion, but its great­est liv­ing in­ter­preter. His fam­ily and friends de­cided to gather and walk on the moor in his mem­ory, vis­it­ing the places he loved best and re­mem­ber­ing his won­der­ful knowl­edge and pas­sion.

For me, es­cap­ing to Dart­moor from mid-term, exam-cri­sis Cam­bridge felt like a mi­nor mir­a­cle, so I wasn’t sur­prised when my luck ran out as I ap­proached our ren­dezvous at Ven­ford Reser­voir—the bright sun­shine and scud­ding clouds that had ac­com­pa­nied me down the M5 were re­placed by mist and gen­tle, but wet, rain.

Don­ning wa­ter­proofs, we set off across Holne Moor to Bench Tor, walk­ing through an an­cient land­scape set­tled by hu­mans since the Bronze Age, their ter­ri­to­ries marked by reaves whose long, par­al­lel lines are still vis­i­ble along­side the bro­ken re­mains of an­cient home­steads. Glim­mers of sun­shine pierced the rain, ex­pos­ing the splen­did view from Bench Tor into the Dart Val­ley and across to­wards Prince­town, which, on a beau­ti­ful day, can take your breath away with its ethe­real, mag­i­cal feel.

Nev­er­the­less, we could al­most hear Ian chuck­ling about our clev­er­ness in pick­ing the wettest day in June to pay homage to him and Dart­moor, the mag­nif­i­cent tan-caramel South Devon cat­tle that graze the com­mons bet­ter equipped for it than we were.

De­scend­ing from Bench Tor, we dropped into White Wood, Ian’s favourite bird-watch­ing haunt. The weather was perfect for the wood, its an­cient oaks cov­ered in dense, spongy mosses bear­ing tes­ti­mony to cen­turies of damp­ness. A hush de­scended as we walked, drink­ing in its his­tory: the wood is one of the most an­cient on Dart­moor, cop­piced for per­haps 1,000 years and the cen­tre of a lively char­coal-burn­ing econ­omy un­til the 20th cen­tury.

It’s an essen­tial part of the Holne Com­mons for which Ian did so much, ac­quir­ing it for the Park Author­ity in 1975, and val­ued for its pop­u­la­tions of pied fly­catcher, rare mosses and lichens. We were as­ton­ished to see the trees al­most leaf­less in June, but this wasn’t be­cause leaves hadn’t opened, but be­cause the vo­ra­cious oak-leaf-roller moth cater­pil­lar had stripped the branches bare. Our leader as­sured us the trees would re­cover, but it was a spooky sight.

We walked fur­ther up by the bub­bling, gur­gling Dart be­fore turn­ing back to­wards Ven­ford Reser­voir to con­clude our walk and make our damp way to Prince­town. Over lunch, we rem­i­nisced about Ian, shar­ing sto­ries, laugh­ter and a few tears. We had all worked with him and shared his pas­sion for ge­og­ra­phy, land­scapes and peo­ple, but what we re­called were his ex­tra­or­di­nary pow­ers of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ca­pa­ble of turn­ing the most scep­ti­cal Dart­moor Com­moner into a friend and the most bu­reau­cratic lo­cal process into one that could do good for the moor.

His words say it best, as he pleads, at the end of his book about the moor, that we recog­nise the Dart­moor Com­moner as a rare species along­side other de­clin­ing species. ‘Their spar­sity’, he wrote, ‘af­fects that of all the other moor­land species, and their de­par­ture will herald the dis­ap­pear­ance of most of those that make Dart­moor the place it still, just, is.’ Fiona Reynolds is Mas­ter of Em­manuel Col­lege, Cam­bridge and her book, ‘The Fight for Beauty’, is avail­able from Oneworld

‘When Ian died last year, the moor not only lost a cham­pion, but its great­est liv­ing in­ter­preter’

An an­cient land­scape: King’s Tor, Dart­moor (2014) by West Coun­try artist Peter Dol­bear

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