What do you do when your friend messages you at 11 pm and asks if you want to go hiking on Dartmoor first thing next morning? You say yes, of course!
Actually, what I said was that I’d love to, but that I had a deadline at 11 am and the file hadn’t come in yet. Then I asked if I could get back to her in the morning.
Determined not to let work get in the way of hiking, I eventually decided to pack my laptop in my backpack and use my mobile phone as a hotspot. (You gotta love technology!) Fortunately, the fretsome file came in just before I had to leave and it only took me 10 minutes to deal with it. All’s well that ends well, especially when it ends with a light backpack!
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I don’t really know Dartmoor very well, although I have been to Brent Tor, of course. My lovely friend E and her dog Choppers (who is such a good boy!) are much more familiar with the area, so I caught a lift with them. We headed for the car park by Haytor Visitor Centre, which gave us a spectacular view of Haytor (also known as Hay Tor and Heytor). Our plan for the morning was to hike to both Haytor and Hound Tor.
There was literally not a cloud in the sky. Wild ponies were grazing near the iconic Haytor Rocks. It was picture postcard perfect and beyond idyllic. The only sounds we could hear were the occasional birds – and the beating of our own hearts after the initial climb!
Haytor Rocks kind of look like the toes of a giant, and they seem a lot closer than they are. Not until I spotted a man walking on top of the ‘big toe’ did I realise just how massive this rock formation is. It reaches a height of 457 metres (1499 ft), and you can see all the way to the sea from there.
Dr Croker and his vocabulary
According to the Wikipedia entry about Haytor, in the 19th century some steps were cut to help pedestrians get to the top of the tor. The steps and an iron handrail provided the tourists with easier access to the summit. This was not an entirely welcome measure. In 1851, a Dr Croker complained that this had been done “to enable the enervated and pinguedinous scions of humanity of this wonderful nineteenth century to gain the summit”.
Obviously, the main reason I include this little factoid is the wonderful word pinguedinous. I am guessing it is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me? I was picturing people waddling up the hill like penguins, but the real meaning is rather less exotic. It turns out that pinguedine means puppy fat. However, some quotes spell the word as pinguitudinous, which means obese or greasy.
Either way, Dr Croker clearly had strong opinions about the above-mentioned tourists. A little research revealed that his full name was John G Croker, and he was a fascinating man. He was a medical doctor who experimented with a smallpox vaccine (on his own children). He was also a geologist and historian with an interest in botany. You can learn more about him here and here. Anyway, in the 1960s, much too late for Dr Croker, the controversial handrail was removed. The stumps are still embedded in the rock.
Our plan was to hike to both Haytor and Hound Tor, and then back again to the car park. We had been told this would take approximately two hours, so we climbed down a sort of crevasse at the back of Haytor and followed the path across the moor towards Hound Tor.
The wild scenery of Dartmoor
“I have wandered over Europe, have rambled to Iceland, climbed the Alps, been for some years lodged among the marshes of Essex – yet nothing that I have seen has quenched in me the longing after the fresh air, and love of the wild scenery of Dartmoor. There is far finer mountain scenery elsewhere, but there can be no more bracing air, and the lone upland region possesses a something of its own – a charm hard to describe, but very real – which engages for once and for ever the affections of those who have made its acquaintance.”
– Sabine Baring-Gould
After a while, it became obvious that a hike from the car park to Haytor and Hound Tor and back would take a lot more than two hours. We decided to turn around, and followed the Haytor Granite Tramway back to Haytor and the car park. (I have since been told that the hike from the car park to Haytor and Hound Tor takes about two hours one way. If correct, that would have made the round trip we were hoping to do at least four hours long, not including breaks.)
While following the Haytor Granite Tramway, we came across these waymarkers for the Templer Way. Googling informed us that this is a 29 km long walking path that connects Haytor to Teignmouth and the coast. Definitely a hike to add to the bucket list!
We really wanted to explore both Haytor and Hound Tor (also known as Houndtor), so when we got back to the car, we decided to drive there instead. In A Book of Dartmoor, Sabine Baring-Gould (I wrote about him in my blog post about Brent Tor) explains how the tor got its name:
“Hound Tor is a noble mass of rocks. It derives its name from the shape assumed by the blocks on the summit, that have been weathered into forms resembling the heads of dogs peering over the natural battlements, and listening to hear the merry call of the horn.”
I knew that there was a deserted medieval village nearby, so we walked across the tor and down the other side. From there, the remaining foundations of Hundatora were easy to spot.
The land here has been farmed since the Bronze Age, which boggles the mind. An analysis of potsherds revealed that there were people still living here in the late 14th / early 15th century. Other finds include a coin from King Henry III’s time, and he shuffled off this mortal coil in 1272.
The deserted medieval village is remarkably well preserved. It consists of four longhouses, three barns with grain dryers and a few smaller buildings. According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 there were 6 households here. There were also 2 slaves, 7 cattle, 28 sheep and 18 goats. This added up to an annual value of one pound for the local lord, known only as Reginald.
What I didn’t know, is that there is a prehistoric farmstead about 400m northwest of Hound Tor. There are also some Bronze Age hut circles to the south, which must have been near the remains of Hundatora. A perfect excuse to come back some other time and explore the beautiful area around Haytor and Hound Tor!