Sometimes it is hard to articulate just what it is about Dartmoor that draws one in so tightly, leaving both a physical and spiritual residue which is undeniably unique.
The Moor is not an unrivalled wilderness in terms of scale for there exist lands even in the United Kingdom which are larger and more inhospitable, possessing higher peaks and lower average temperatures.
Although the claim may be disputed, there is no Tor on Dartmoor which is more than five hours solid walk from a pub and human impact, be it the farmlands acting as shoreline or pinnacles such as Princetown mast act as reminder that the modern world is never far away. Buses cross the high routes and even away from the tarmac, bronze age circles and 18th Century granite crosses bare testimony that even in older times, this habitat of unpredictable mists and deadly quagmire, was regarded as much a home as brooding menace.
And yet, any amount of time spent up there, in the company of granite and bog leaves an indelible mark. More so, the longer I walk along ancient trails of England or mountains abroad, I am convinced that Dartmoor possesses a personality utterly unique.
I have spent much time on the Moor, training for the Ten Tors as a child, and later training as an adult but carrying a heavier load and wearing attire designed to blend myself into the landscape; even making my way up onto the higher passages for recreation I feel that one way or another Dartmoor will camouflage the walker to the point that willing or no, they become part it.
On brighter days when the clouds run fast across those deep, wide skies it is possible to enjoy the sheer submersion within the bowl like valleys from which the River Taw or Oke emerge, and where from a distance the human form appears as if a shrub or bent tree. The silence, if one ventures up during a mid-summer heatwave into the middle tracts around desolate Fur Tor, seems to beat down like a hammer, reminder that there is something vast going on here. The idle walker is only a tiny part of it with their dull, insignificant heartbeat and tiny rattle of water bottle lanyard, just something else overwhelmed by the empty yet thriving vastness, something less significant than the sound of the warblers or listless murmuring of gorse in the breeze.
Likewise, when the mists descend and rational navigational decisions diminish, the Moor quickly becomes part of the walker’s boots and the air develops a sea like quality, drenching the skin and hair. As uncomfortable as things sometimes become and as much as I have wished to get off the Moor from time to time, it has its own way of saying ‘I won’t let you.’
It is possible to skirt the edges with casual company and appreciate in no great depth or meaningful way the experience. After short visits it is reasonable to make comparison in terms of beauty with the Lakes or acknowledge the presence of faded industry in a way the Peaks are both wild and home to a crucial industrial history; the eye takes in enough and rewards the viewer.
The photographs of Dartmoor which appear from time to time in walking magazine are pleasingly identifiable and slightly like those of other highlands around the British Isles. The Moor is acknowledged but not really recognised as something else.
To understand Dartmoor, or to fall into it, requires for me personally, crossing a psychological fissure of sorts. Part of the appeal is the fact that the signage of Sourton Services is close enough to be visible from its namesake Tor or that one can stumble literally from treacherous bog to the rather grand and austere main street running through Princetown in a matter of minutes. Plymouth Sound with its tiny, glistening boats is easily visible from various points as are the GCHQ Satellites at Morwenstow.
One can glance casually across to Cornwall or upwards towards Dorset. Civilisation is very close yet, and here lies part of the fear and mystery especially during mists, turn your back and very quickly a wilderness emerges that is not just a physical presence but psychologically incessant. The sense of loneliness, bitter cold and blindness in these conditions can feel claustrophobic. Yet to stand on the same spot on a warm, cloudless September afternoon and everything in the world seems far below and irrelevant.
Friends who have visited and walked in varying conditions on the same Tor or valley marvel at this Chamaeleon like nature and, uniquely, how these changes induce such contrasting emotions. It is an odd place; frightening, different, strange, hateful and adorable, I am told.
People who endure the worst conditions over extended periods of time either through work or youthful recreation find themselves coming back, confused, trying to understand something unidentifiable. The more one walks it, more one realises how compact it is, how swift the crossing if reliable routes are held. And so, in response the mind is compelled to embrace the wilderness much more forcefully, listen harder to the hot summer silences, think of age and time when wandering amongst the copses and wait, when shielded from the wind behind a Tor, contemplate how far and distant everything else is and how easy it would be to turn back and find the carpark.
Speaking to people who are not familiar with Dartmoor and taken aback by its nature, admit either consciously or no that the Moor asks questions of them.
No doubt when facing the steppes of Mongolia or desolate openness of Afghanistan, the soul might break in response to the scale and the body cannot endure the extremities of the Alpes or Rockies in a way it can survive the Moor. But that there is something so wild and confusing, so different and unpredictable so close to civilisation, is the reason which I think Dartmoor develops a hold on people. The haunting nature of its ruins under a dim light, or inspiring blue of that summer sky are beguiling.
These sketches are attempts to evoke a sense of this, using an iPad enables me to access difficult Tors without carrying much baggage and the item lends itself to swift unpacking and use. It’s hard to tell what the painter is looking at or attempting to evoke; often it is only after the finish that they explain how the finished product was exactly as intended. I’m not so sure with these sketches.
Often the hand doesn’t follow the eye and it is the subconscious responding to other factors; time, the wind, sense of passing or how one perceives the space around them. Hopefully they remind people of walks they have taken or intend to. Ultimately Dartmoor above all else is a special place to be celebrated.
The images are available as prints via my Instagram page, feel free to get in touch. www.timothyartist.co.uk