Dartmoor’s champion remembered
A magical moorland walk full of mist and memories
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