Writer Nick Pannell has just published Devon’s Spiritual Places. The book explains his search for God in an ancient landscape, and took six years to research and write. The result describes his emotive journey through the wild and beautiful places in our county. The Mid-Devon Advertiser has been lucky to obtain six signed copies of Nick’s book, and readers can enter a competition in this week’s paper.
Below is an extract from one of the chapters. Another chapter will be available tomorrow.
MONK’S PATH LINKS MEDIEVAL ABBEYS
I’ve returned again to the high moors, drawn to its wild space and raucous skies.
The claustrophobic, tomb-like days of winter have passed and a bright February morning offers hope of a long walk into the last great wilderness of southern England. I’m alone but not unguided, following a route laid down 800 years before by travelling monks.
The Monks’ Path is 24 miles long and links two of Devon’s medieval abbeys – Tavistock and Buckfast. Following the Dissolution in 1541, both were abandoned (the current Buckfast Abbey was rebuilt in the 20th century), but we can follow in their footsteps today because across the landscape they raised a procession of rough-hewn stone crosses to mark the way. Centuries of robbing, vandalism and wild weather have taken their toll, but enough survive for an inspiring guided walk.
In a hollow just west of Coombeshead Tor, I pull on my walking boots and set out to complete the middle, and remotest stretch, of this ancient way.
Within minutes I’m on to the wide expanse of Holne Moor, enjoying the freedom to roam in almost any direction with no barriers of human invention to restrain me. How used we are to the walls and channels of urban life, the gates and fences of lowland farming – how rare the open land.
And yet it also challenges us. Within minutes I’ve had to stop and pull out a map. And I’m not alone.
A few hundred yards away a group of youngsters, practising for the annual Ten Tors walk, are fumbling with compasses. The high moors are disorientating, with few features to distinguish one hill from another, and when the mist comes down all sense of direction can be lost.
I pick up a path leading west, crossing a plain imprinted with 5,000 years of human history: a stone row older than the Pyramids; a reave built before the time of Christ; the remains of a cist belonging to a Neolithic hunter. Bronze Age circles interlock with the beehive huts of tinners and medieval field systems, and through them weaves the Monks’ Path, a relative late-comer to the pattern of paths.
My attempt to follow it without modern navigational aids begins at Horn’s Cross. Like so many Dartmoor crosses its irregular lines and crude repair match the character of the setting – weather-worn and twisted like the hawthorns anchored on the hill.
I’d hoped to see the next waymark clearly ahead but Down Ridge is bare of features and I set off uncertainly, descending at first to the O’ Brook before climbing steeply again up a vast, anonymous hillside where the dead, colourless grass of winter stretches in all directions. Here the moor is like a desert: monotonous heath beneath a monotone sky, just the crunch of brittle grass breaking the silence.
There is no clear path, just dozens of minor ones worn by itinerant grazers that lead nowhere and my anxiety increases when the weather worsens. Charging at me from the west is a storm cloud armed with hail, menacing the high moors like a predator. I’m caught in the open and can only turn my back to the assault and hope it passes.
For five minutes the air fizzes with stinging ice – filling the creases of my clothes with tiny drifts until a burst of rain turns it to slush. By the time the storm has passed I’m cold, wet and more disorientated than ever.
I chance upon the Down Ridge cross by accident in a shallow featureless valley. It was in the wilderness, where there are few natural landmarks, that they planted the crosses and its presence re-assures like a sign post on a lonely road.
The Abbot’s Way would once have been busy with wool jobbers, tin merchants and pack-horse drivers going about their business, but their journeys have long since ended.
I scan the horizon of low-slung hills. In the linear landscape the vertical line (however small) catches the eye and on the summit of one I glimpse a tiny fixture, a mile distant, beckoning me on.
The sight of the distant cross, ancient and immovable, lifts my spirit and soon I’m springing up the hillside knowing each step is worthwhile and not misled like my dawdling on Down Ridge. I’m not the only one with wind in my sails. High above a pair of buzzards soar on the warming air.
Not that the going is easy. At one point I am forced to descend again, crossing marshland where a languid stream eases through rafts of sphagnum moss.
There’s a romantic notion that the monks followed the Monks’ Path engrossed in prayer and contemplation. More likely they were occupied with life’s practicalities. Thoughts follow their own trails, the well-worn grooves of anxiety and reflection, and so we go on tramping down the years often oblivious to the paths we travel.
I’m walking strongly now to the summit of Ter Hill and the distant cross is growing in stature, taller than me, slightly crooked, a brush of yellow algae across its shoulders. It’s held my gaze for the last hour over peat hags, mire and rocky ground, and I’m here at last. All around are expansive views of the southern moor, including the notorious Fox Tor Mire, and a bonus – a second cross, a hundred yards on, which would have guided travellers from the west.
Among blocks of black basalt I unpack my rucksack and am about to settle down to lunch when a stranger appears. ‘You’re sitting on my geocache’, he says. ‘Can I join you?’ I welcome the company and over sandwiches and flasks of tea he explains how his GPS navigation aid has brought him to these anonymous boulders to record his name in a moorland ‘letterbox’ hidden beneath. The moor, he says, is covered with them. And he’d never be lost because an electronic screen displays his location.
We part with kind words, he clutching his bleeping compass, me looking for the waymark in the valley ahead – two men in a hostile land going our separate ways.
I envied him his new technology, his certainty of step, but reflected that one day the satellites might fall from the sky and maps and guide books perish in the libraries. But the granite sentinels would still stand tall.