Through the early-morning deserted streets of Wells I
move, stopping at each red light in turn to let the ghosts of
cars move on their way. Having found my lift I become a
passenger, and as the miles pass by the sun breaks through the
clouds bathing the Devon countryside in a glorious orange glow. A
feeling of expectation fills me, the dark clouds over the moors
concern me but a desire to walk overwhelms me.
Breakfast over we start the walk - a mixed group of young and old, some used to walking and some unsure, all with different expectations and hopes. Before long we're in Belstone and the novices have been "blooded". Past the point of no return the bleak dark hills of the moor beckon us in. A quick snack and some water for most, a beer for a few and we're going again, up into the hills and the unknown.
By lunchtime we are far from civilisation, and the rains arrive on cue. A few short showers welcome us to this alien landscape as we slowly move on our way. Lunch is postponed due to "precipitation" and when eventually we stop we're on top of the world, the moorland stretching to the horizon in all directions.
With food out of the way we start the inbound journey but first there's a bog to get across. The rains of the preceding few days have turned what was a reasonably "tame" area of marshland into something rather more ominous. An exercise in coordination later everyone has safely reached "dry land" and we're going again, but the rain's back and the cool winds make it feel colder than it really is. We've been over 10 miles already and it starts to show on some, a few curses are thrown to the wind and the distance between those at the front and the back of the group starts to increase.
By mid-afternoon we have become strung out and a decision is made to split into two groups. As the first group head down off the hills I make the decision to stay with the back-markers. It's a long afternoon, progress is slow but a sense of camaraderie prevails. About half-an-hour out, the heaviest rain of the day hits and a few groans are heard but we're almost there and before long the bridge at Postbridge is in sight and for many the end of their day.
After a few minutes rest a few of us start the final stage of the day, the 5 miles on to Hexworthy. The first couple of miles pass without a hitch, the weather stays dry and we start to feel warm again. A quiet riverside walk, however, soon takes us into a mire and we are forced to find our way to higher ground - a journey through brambles and bogs which costs us a good half hour. Gentle rambling soon turns into a determined rush for home and we finally arrive at Hexworthy at 7:45pm battered and bruised but still smiling!
Morning comes early in the camping barn. As the sunlight breaks
through the clouds the first few people start waking. By 6am many
are up and about, making toast and coffee and struggling to get
their seized joints moving. Somehow amongst all this activity
Father Jim manages to stay asleep, his bed an area of calm amidst
a sea of movement. He will eventually wake, rather eerily on the
stroke of 8am, breakfast time!
The rain starts early on Saturday. A flash of lightning early in the morning sends out a warning "Stay away!" but we can't! We've a job to do! Breakfast over and we head out into the driving rain. A night of drying of clothes and boots wiped out in the space of five minutes. Half an hour later we're soaked right through and the condition of clothes seems irrelevant! After all, we've another eight hours ahead - we'll dry out!
The first part of the journey to Whiteworks is the worst. A couple of weeks ago I've been here on a practice walk but it seemed rather different then! That pleasant wide path that we'd planned to take is now a flowing river, that solid ground is now a marsh and that marsh... don't ask!
A few tweaks are needed to the "official route" and we make them. Much to the surprise of our "support crew" we navigate the final marshy ground and arrive at Whiteworks only half an hour behind schedule. A few of the younger children are congratulated on their endurance, bundled into cars and swiftly dried out - for the rest of us the drying will be gradual and we move onwards, next stop Burrator Reservoir.
Climbing out of Whiteworks we notice the low cloud over the hills, the mists in the distance. Mist is always a worry on Dartmoor - it is easy for walkers to lose all sense of direction when a moorland fog descends with no warning and this is not something we need at this stage. We're lucky this time - the clouds and mist stay on the hills and we are able to advance slowly but surely on our way.
When we finally get to the reservoir we're an hour behind schedule. The planned location for lunch is still twenty minutes down the road and some are hungry. A suggestion is made to eat straight away, but there's a pub at Meavy - some are thinking of a hot soup to warm them after the morning's soaking, others fancy a pint and others want to change into dry clothes. The consensus is to continue, and the remaining mile is hardly noticed as the promise of comfort overwhelms weary legs.
Meavy is pleasant, a village green for the children and a friendly landlord for the "grown-ups" (!). Once refreshed the afternoon is a pleasant one - the sun comes out, the terrain is either flat or downhill and people start to see the end in sight. Unlike yesterday there's roads close at hand and a few people drop out along the way. At six-thirty we finally make it to the edge of Plymouth and the welcome sight of John Parkes in the minibus. Most stop here, the objective achieved, but a few of us continue, negotiating the man-made obstacles (what do you do when a busy road has no pavement??) until we arrive on the Hoe on what has become a beautiful summer's evening, the blue sea welcoming us and the sound of children playing in our ears.
Joints ache, blisters complicate every step, water still moves within my boots - but it doesn't really matter. We've done it and we'll do it again. There's talk of a walking club, friendships have been made, conversations have been had that will never be forgotten. It was two days but it seemed longer. Let's raise a glass to next time!