‘We find our rhythm and the land works its magic’
heather; a weasel dashing up a bank; dippers bobbing beside a torrent.
Day one (Meg Day) led us along the Teign Gorge to Fingle Bridge, with its 17th-century arches, then over a steep shoulder of wood to the incongruous Twenties granite walls of Castle Drogo. By the time we checked into the Ring O’ Bells at Chagford, it took all our strength to hobble to our rooms.
Next morning, however, the teenagers showed powers of recovery greater than those of their creaking elders. They were getting into this. We hiked in sunshine on to the high moor, exploring the Bronze Age stone circle of Grimspound, before falling like wolves on our dinner at Widecombe’s snug Rugglestone Inn.
Today’s route takes us across Dartmoor to join the second river. In this mist, written directions prove crucial. “After 40m you will see an area of disturbed ground on the left-hand verge,” reads Flo, at one impasse. “Look out for a red-painted spot on a stone.” We are soon back on track and, fortified by chicken soup from an ice cream van in an otherwise deserted lay-by, make for the granite contours of Bel Tor. The mist lifts at the top, revealing a thrilling sweep of the Dart Valley far below. And even more thrilling for the girls: 4G! I interrupt their Instagram frenzy to point out a wheeling buzzard.
“So what’s the difference between a hawk and a buzzard?” asks a voice behind me with a distinct Aussie twang. We find ourselves chatting to an ex-pilot from Melbourne. He loves the drystone walls snaking across our view but explains, as would someone from a bigger country, that land produces more when fields are larger.
Such brief encounters pepper our journey, and the girls fill the miles by inventing stories about strangers we pass. A family also dining at the Rugglestone inspires a whole scenario involving a dumped boyfriend, warring sisters and a disapproving dad. Each day, the story is embellished.
For the adults, these unguarded tracts of teen conversation offer intriguing insights. “Everyone’s an Emo these days,” whispers Daisy, as two black-clad teens slope past on Fingle Bridge. “Yes,” agrees Flo, “but some are transitioning into Indie.”
We join the Dart at Newbridge, where a busy car park leaves us feeling smug about our hiking heroics. Then we cross the river and continue – via Holne Community Tea Room, home of Devon’s scone-making champion – to tiny Scorriton. It’s curry night at the Tradesmans Arms, so we sample a traditional Devon biryani while Kevin, the landlord, regales us with stories of helicopter rescues from Dartmoor.
By now, our aches have eased. That said, when day four offers a shortcut, we grab it. The day starts at Buckfast Abbey, home to an entrepreneurial
Perfect evening entertainment after a long day; let them teach you their games.
Go through the alphabet taking turns to name something from your day. Sounds worthy but can be a laugh, especially if irreverent enough.
Allow time in towns/villages/ attractions to buy tat; let them go it alone while you find a coffee. e.
The ultimate mate motivator for or a long, morning ing walk – and a great mood lifter in bad weather. her.
Put them m in charge. Let them walk in front. nt.
Allow low time to make use of it when en they find it.
They’re never too old. And nor r are you. community of Benedictine monks, where we wander manicured grounds and sniff a few of the 100 varieties of lavender. On a nearby crag, we explore the burnt-out 13th-century ruins of Holy Trinity Church and find the mausoleum of notorious local villain Squire Richard Cabell, inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Hugo Baskerville. Following our guidebook’s advice, we walk around it 13 times to summon the devil. Anti-clockwise, of course.
The shortcut comes at Buckfastleigh Station, where we board a gleaming Thirties steam train and, with shrieking whistles and clouds of steam, ride the South Devon Railway to Staverton. This is, we all agree, an obligatory heritage experience and nothing to do with shaving four miles (7km) off the day’s day s hike. From Staverton station (which promises 45 local brews at its forthcoming “Rail Ale” festival), we hike along the river to Dartington Hall. Musical types stride across the lawns to the afternoon’s rehearsal of Peter Grimes while we enjoy a cuppa in the sunshine.
Dartington introduces us to another, bohemian Devon of cultural festivals, sustainable living and alternative politics, and the next day takes us into Totnes, epicentre of all the above. We climb up to the castle then down to the Guildhall, admiring the council chamber in which Cromwell – who doubtless also saw himself as alternative – once reputedly took a seat. An exhibition tells how 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia from 1787 to 1868. In a life-size diorama, poor Liza – convicted of stealing a petticoat – peers miserably from her tiny cell.
Beyond Totnes, we continue alongside the Dart. On a high track, chained to a scenically sited bench, we find a tin box containing a notebook which invites passers-by to describe “feelings of landscape”. We all contemplate the view then contribute our scribbles. At nearby Sharpham Vineyard, pens now sharpened, we try a modest tasting and fill in the feedback form. “It has issues,” writes Daisy about her organic apple juice, perhaps inspired by our “complex” pinot noir.
The next morning we lace up our boots for the last time. The final leg takes us along the Harbourne river, where a kingfisher flashes upstream, to the narrow lanes of well-to-do Dittisham, where we ring a bell to summon a ferry across ac the Dart. On the other side we fi find the gorgeous grounds of Greenw Greenway, Agatha Christie’s former h home and now stuffed by the National Nati Trust with her memorabilia. We W wander down to the boathouse where, w in Dead Man’s Folly, a murder mur victim is found spraw sprawled across the decking. I hope he at least got ti time to enjoy the view.
A fiv five-mile (8km) final tramp takes us along alon the Dart to Kingswear, throug through steep woods, over the railway an and down to the harbour, where we gaze out on an armada of sailing b boats. This, it turns out, is Dartmouth’s annual regatta: I can only thin think it’s been arranged to c celebrate our arrival. Acros Across the water in Dartmouth the th quayside is thronged wit with jubilant crowds. There’s even a Red Arrows fly-past.
We grab d drinks from a waterfront pub p and sit on the quayside, weary we legs dangling over the wate water. Six days of hiking and w we’d all happily do six more. Tw Two swans coast over like galleons galleons, hoping for a feed. “Don’t get att attached,” warns Flo.
Buckfast Abbey is a great stop for connoisseurs of lavender; Mike Unwin’s co-hikers take the road, above right; while Dartmoor ponies take it easy, main