In January of this year I spent a few days staying with my friend Tim Halpin and his girlfriend in Devon and whilst I was there we made a trip to Dartmoor to visit Wistman’s Wood, an ancient woodland of stunted dwarf oaks. It was my first ever visit to Dartmoor and the weather was suitably cold and overcast. Wistman’s Wood is also suitably haunted by folklore and whisperings of evil hounds, druids and gruesome goings-on.
Spend a couple of seconds in the woods and its really not hard to see how it gained that reputation or indeed why druids would have thought of it as a sacred place. The trees are all stunted and are only about 12 ft high. They are also twisted and bent in strange contortions, as though tortured by the constantly howling wind that blows over the tors. The floor of the woods is covered with large boulders and the trees and boulders are all covered with moss and lichen.
We spent a good hour or so there off exploring alone. Despite the fact that it was daylight I still felt scared as I thought about all the creatures and ghosts of druid rituals that might haunt the woods, and I was comforted by the odd glimpse of Tim and his girlfriend. I walked down to the West Dart River, which passes through the bottom of the valley over which the woods look. Part of my fear was also that of getting lost, but I realised as I was walking along that I was navigating without really thinking about it. I left the woods and walked straight down the hill until I reached the broken fence post, then took a left and walked along the fence. The broken fence post was my point of navigation. I remember doing the same when I was on Arrain, finding my way back to my bike along the cliff tops by means of an abandoned black glove that was lying on a rock.
I spent a lot of time photographing the woods as well, trying to capture it. I could have spent a lot longer photographing it, there were just so many interesting details and all the trees were bent and twisted in there own unique way. Here are some of my attempts:
Tim mentioned letterboxing to me before we left the house. Basically, there are weatherproof boxes all over Dartmoor containing stamps, when you find a letterbox you mark the stamp in your own notebook and then stamp the logbook in the letterbox with your own stamp. The point I suppose is the challenge of trying to find the letterboxes and collect as many stamps as possible – Victorian geocaching is how Tim described it to me. I was intrigued by this and it just so happened that Tim found a letterbox in Wistman’s Wood whilst we were there. He didn’t have any ink or a stamp on him, but he drew the stamp from the letterbox, which was of a horse.
Eventually we all headed up to the top of Littaford Tor, which overlooks the woods. We spent a while climbing about on the rocks, exploring its hideaways and ledges, but we soon started to get very cold from the constant, biting wind and we noticed that there were rain clouds fast approaching.
We just managed to make it back to the hotel where we’d parked when the rain started pouring down. We decided to warm up with a cup of tea by the fire in the hotel. I like tea, but after the battering we received from the wind on the tor there are few cups of tea I can think of that I’ve enjoyed quite as much as that one.
Sufficiently warmed up we headed back to the car only to find ourselves under attack from a gaggle of geese. We had to run around the car several times as the geese chased us, until we eventually managed to dive in and Tim reversed out of the parking spot. But the geese were determined and they gathered round the front of the car, stopping us leaving. Thankfully a tree surgeon who was working on a tree nearby ran up to them and chased them off and we were able to make a swift escape.