How to (not) die on Dartmoor - Meet Kevin

Kevin holds the view that the best way to explore Dartmoor is to put away the GPS and follow sheep paths and instinct. He explains why, between peat bogs and feather beds, it’s a bad idea.

Kevin grew up on Dartmoor and walks without plan between drop offs and pick-ups at random spots on the  Moor.

He is, in his own words…

“Dartmoor Mountain Rescue’s worst nightmare”

He keeps a compass and map packed, with his phone, at the bottom of his rucksack. No one knows his planned route because there isn’t one. Kevin instead follows sheep paths from pasture to pasture, avoiding peat bogs by looking for tale tell signs of cracked dry “bulging” peaty surfaces and changes in vegetation.    

"You don’t necessarily need a map, or an "iPiece" electronic gizmo to tell you not to go there, right? I mean, I admit that you have got to have a bit of prior knowledge, you need to know what’s a bog and what isn’t a bog...

Kevin Hannaford Dartmoor Walker
"The best way to explore Dartmoor is to put away the GPS and follow sheep paths and instinct"​

We introduce Kevin at the start of what we hope will grow into something larger, with one condition:

Only walk Dartmoor when you have the skills and equipment you need.

Kevin (K) – The hitch hikers guide to the Galaxy say the most useful thing you can take is a towel, actually, I think it’s one of these things (cotton head scarf) slightly more practical than a towel. You can use it as a water filter; if you’ve got water that’s a bit dirty, you can run it through there before boiling it and drinking it, get out the chunky bits. It’s a sun hat, it’s a scarf, you can make a little sunshade out of it, and it’s a towel, it’s a dress if needs be.

Chris (C) – Was there anything on your rout that you were going to see? Or were you just walking from one place to another?

K – I just walk purely for the pleasure of it, I get dropped off at one point and I get picked up somewhere else and then I just let the moors lead me, and that’s the beautiful thing you see, if you set a rout, follow your map too hard it kind of constrains you, or dare I say it, follow a GPS, bloody horrible things. If I was to recommend anybody to do anything on the moors it’s like, put away your GPS. By all means have a compass in your rucksack, perhaps your phone in your rucksack, but burry it deep so you don’t have to, your not tempted to use it, and then just follow your intincts to some degree.

C – I think that sounds like really awful advice, we can’t say this podcasts says ‘you go by what you feel’ when navigating Dartmoor, that’s not gonna work, there will be dead people, Kev!

K – But only if, only if they don’t, instinct is there to keep you alive so if something doesn’t look right, if you listen to your instincts, it will tell you not to go there, and you don’t necessarily need a map, or an, ipeace, electronic gizmo, to tell you not to go there, right? I mean, I admit that you have got to have a bit of prior knowledge, you need to know what’s a bog and what isn’t a bog.

C – You know where all the paths are.

K – I know where all the main paths are, but not the sheep paths, and those are the ones that I’ll follow between setting off and today, it’s the sheep paths, because, whenever the sheep and the cattle graze, it tends to be quite short grass which makes good walking. But of course, they have to transit between grazing patches. So, it’s there paths that I follow and ultimately, they might be stupid as stupid can be when it comes to cars and stuff, but more often than not, and I say not all the times..yeah..80% of the time, they know where not to go and where to go, so if you follow their paths..

C – Follow the sheep?

K – Yeah, right up until you find their fetid and rotten carcass sticking out of a bog and then you stop.

C – Then you’ve followed them too far.

K – Yeah, don’t follow those ones. Then you see, the joy of that though is that you find places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find. And that’s the thing, not everything is marked on the map. I mean, maps are great, don’t get me wrong but there are things out there that haven’t been discovered or put on a map and just kind of walking instinctively and follow the sheep paths, quite often gets you to those places.

Follow your heart, or better still, a sheep.

Shannon(S) – We spoke to you earlier and said where are you headed, and you gave us a grid reference of where you were headed, so you knew you were going from one place to another place, but you didn’t know how you were going to get there

K – Yeah, I just, it’s the bit in between, and Dartmoor rescue would hate me for it they say “Leave a detailed route plan of where you’re going”

C – I’ll be honest, as I line, I didn’t think it was going to be ‘follow your heart, do what you feel’ Have you ever been, have you ever had the weather close in around you and thought ‘I’m a little bit out of my depth’ have you ever thought ‘this is trouble actually, this is a serious situation’ Like, if you fell down and broke your ankle and the weather moves in you might think ‘this has gone from being a walk in the park to being something really serious’?

K – Not, not myself, but I’ve had it happen to a friend, he’s a good, confident walker, he was out on North Dartmoor, which is bigger. South Dartmoor’s small and cuddly, it’s kind of… Kind of sweet, whereas, North Dartmoor’s a bit bigger, it’s a bit wilder, and there is more potential for things to go wrong.

C – We camped on Yes Tor, which was phenomenally… The weather was terrible. The next morning we got up and we went to the top of the tor and as we were getting down the weather closed in, it was, that was dangerous actually. But then we got out of it and there was this sign across saying, ‘live firing in progress’! I don’t have many stories from Dartmoor, that’s why you’re involved you see.

S – That was October 31st if you want to know when not to camp on Yes Tor.

K – Yeah, and that’s probably the firing range that they were live firing on.

S – No, it was! We drove through

C – We didn’t see any firing

S – There was a barrier that was open, I was told, ‘don’t worry about being up there, they shut the barrier. So we camped, we had a terrible night, we got up I think about three in the morning because the tent was six inches deep in water and flat, and we sat in the car

C – I woke up being slapped in the face by the tent, and genuinely slapped, Like ‘Oh no!’

S – We thought, we can’t stay in here, this is our Son’s first experience of camping, so that was great, and, we went up the Tor, came down, and the fog came in just as we reached the bottom. Had we been up there an extra four or five minutes, we wouldn’t have found the car. And as we drove off we realized the barrier was across the gate and I said ‘I’ll go and open the barrier’ and as I opened it I saw the sign that just said ‘live firing in progress’ It was like everything we could have done wrong, went wrong that trip.

K – Ah, but ya survived, and your wiser for it.

C and S – Yeah

C – Glad we did it actually, there was a moon rainbow…moon dog?

S – Moon bow

C – Moon bow, we saw a moon bow. Which is like a rainbow in black and white

K – And strangely enough, I think you get those when there is bad weather coming in

C – I wonder what causes that then

K – I was looking, I was reading a book somewhere, I am sure it said that, You get halos round the moon, if you got [bad weather coming in]

C – That would explain it

K – But, north Dartmoor you see, the two mires that, you know, bogs that they say you should always avoid Ray Barrow and that’s on North Dartmoor and Fox Tor mires on the South, and both of them are quite big and both of them are indeed, quite treacherous. But because they’re big, they’re kind of quite easy to avoid. Whereas in fact the actual really dangerous ones are the, kind of, really little, itty bitty ones which you don’t necessarily know are there.

The name's Peat, Peat Bog.

S – So what’s the danger? Your going to fall into a patch of deep water and drown?

K – Umm, there’s kind of different types; there’s the ones where you’ve got, a lot of water and you’ve got moss, a think layer of moss growing on top, and there the ones that are called ‘feather beds’ and, you know, they can be unpleasant and if you fall in, sometimes it can be quite hard to get out because of the suction. But the real bad ones are up on the [North] and I’ve only seen the bad ones up on North Dartmoor actually amongst the peat, and it’s where you get a spring coming up. They’re just made out of liquid peat.

C – Oh wow, you would just go straight in.

K – Yeah, and this particular one is near Great Neason and it’s about ten feet across, and the ground on all sides is solid, and then you’ve just got, literally it’s a dome of peat, and, it’s dry peat, cause on the surface it’s dry and it’s cracked. And the give away is the fact it’s slightly domed, it’s got some bright clumps of grass growing, which are called stables on Dartmoor, and, the real give away when I was there was the dead cow, spread eagled.

C – What, having sunk?

K – Having sunk into it and not been able to get out. Every time I have ever been back there is always something dead in it, and it’s because it’s on one of those… and this is why I was saying, when you follow the animal paths, and it’s between two patches of grazing, so there’s grazing near Fur Tor, where they take the animals to graze, and it’ good grazing and the animals, if they get taken there they tend to stay there, because they stay where the food supply is. But this one bog is on one of the routs out to the next grazing patch, and because you get what’s called the stables; these bright green clumps of grass, which, incidentally, are the result of the last victim. Because obviously the animal sinks, it dies, and you get this burst of nutrients and that’s where the grass grows. So [it’s called] the stables because they contain the bones of the last, last beast to wander in it. But yeah, it’s absolutely, and I’ve never been there, when there’s not something dead in it, it’s just strewn with bones. It looks like it’s right out of some of those Tarzan movies, one of those cheap 60s Tarzan movies, it’s just like that.

C – I wanna go and see it.

K – It is quite a walk, it is a walk to get to, it does take a while. I mean if you want to believe the old stories, because it’s about the size, of probably a large shell hole, not that it is a hole anymore. But there are stories that when they used to fire the bigger shells, up on the moors, there are places where the granite underneath was fractured by the size of the explosion, which then gave the source for the water to come up through the granite, but also made them, those particular sink holes, peat sink holes deeper.

C – But those are theories?

K – But that’s the theory and I have always meant to go out with several large bamboo canes and lash them together because I wanna see how deep it is. I Mean, if it goes down to the underlaying granite, it’s probably around about, because the peats quite deep there, it’s probably six or eight feet deep

C – That’s deep peat, isn’t it?

K – Oh yeah, and that’s the thing that makes North Dartmoor special, is that you’ve got these very, very thick peat beds, you do have it on South Dartmoor, but it’s not quite as extensive and not as deep.

C – I’ve always thought of Dartmoor as being very thin soil

K – It is unless you get onto [North Dartmoor] and it’s right up on the high bits where you get the wet weather mostly. But some of the countryside round North Dartmoor is very hard to walk, not because of it’s steepness but because of these fissures in the peat. Because the peat is six or eight feet deep an get these fissures washed out by the streams, and this is called the fen, you go the fen at your own risk basically. Because, literally, quite often, you’ll have these deep fissures in amongst the peat, which can be six foot deep which you have to climb down and up the other side

C – That’s exhausting walking

K – It’s quite hard work, yeah. And quite often at the bottom there’s this like, peaty goo, ready to suck your boot off or something.

C – Tiring, wet, awkward, difficult, dangerous…

K – Of course, in the summer Dartmoor, Dartmoor can be horrible in the winter because of the wet and the cold, but in the summer it can be just as lethal because of the hot and the complete lack of shelter.

C – We found on Yes Tor it didn’t look very far at all, we thought, we’ll nip up to the top of the tor just now in the morning when it got light and then, oh, probably larked about a bit and took a little bit longer, but by the time we got back down a significant amount of time had passed and it was a long way, and it was quite a long way down, we hadn’t really noticed on the way up with our excitement, you know.

S – That was very up and down, a lot of scrabbling boulders,

C – It looks fairly close

K – Yes Tor is huge there and it does, you look at it and think, oh it’s not that far away and then

C – Aha, it was

K – and a quarter of a mile later and it hasn’t moved

C – It was only when we got down and we thought, because, I remember seeing it when it was crystal clear and we were at the top and you think ‘oh the cars over there and this direction’ and we headed off down the hill and it’s only that we knew, that the car was that way, but if it had gotten cloudy when we were at the top there was no way we would have known particularly which way down to come and coming down the wrong way would have been quite a long search for the car.

K – If you lose the visibility it is very, very, very easy to get lost.