As a veil of indigo draws the night in, I watch the rain seep into the hilltops of Dartmoor. The sun is pulled down behind the brow of the hill like a sinking boat. Every day I walk north or east of my house, which is nestled in a small hamlet, and down the lanes to the peaty River Avon which rushes over boulders with a wild and unfettered voracity. I have just started reading The Flow by Amy Jane Beer and her words give me a new perspective on the rivers that run near my home, a contrast to the familiar pull to the coast which quenches my thirst for the sea.
On my daily loops around the lanes, I am only a matter of minutes from these handsome tributaries. Most days I stop at the brow of a neighbour’s field, and as I look out to the three Dartmoor beacons I feel a visceral pull of something I can’t quite explain. I think, one day, after a long life, I would like my ashes to be scattered here in this stopping place. The power of those peaks makes me feel as though my chest could snap like a wishbone, a long and invisible ley line connecting my solar plexus and the rocky tors.
Between work, renovating a house and caring for my disabled daughter, I have become used to driving from place to place, but my limbs now call for a more sustained connection with the earth. To ground and centre and process my thoughts. In the darkened days before the winter solstice, I yearn to feel it in all its rain-sodden, wind-torn glory. Since I moved here a year ago, the piles of books on wild walks, standing stones and folklore, mostly purchased from a volunteer-run bookshop at the foot of Totnes Castle, have grown like weeds around the house. I decide to venture on three bracing walks in the watery mists of Dartmoor and along the coastline, a celebration of the season when all goes to ground, there is a nip in the air and the leaves change into hues of gold, lichen and russet.
I choose a cosmic triangle, three places that speak to me and, having visited before, that I want to approach with fresh eyes. I choose to complete three tramps in variable weather, the first from Wonwell Beach to Mothecombe’s cliff edge, ending up in its Victorian stone beach house; the second from Gidleigh Church to the dramatic Scorhill stone circle, deep in Dartmoor’s moor; and finally, a trip to the impressive Burgh Island, then up and over the walnut whip of its peak to the ruin at which looks out over miles of endless blue.
Recent storms and floods mean that my first two attempts are thwarted. No such thing as wrong weather, just the wrong clothes - the old adage has banjaxed me. One on walk I cannot see through a rainstorm and on another I gasp as I walk backwards in cruel slanting rain. A day of thick fog feels too much for a walk from Ashburton between the drifting cattle and Dartmoor ponies up to the imposing Bowerman’s Nose, while an attempt at the River Avon means I slip knee-deep into a swelling stream. When you are lost in its creases and bewildered by its shapeshifting ways, it is easy to see why the stretches between Dartmoor and the coastline tell tales of mystery and magic.
One Sunday, I am met with leaden grey skies and heavy rain, so I pull my boots on and brace myself for the southeasterly winds. As I walk down the slipway at Wonwell Beach I can just about see the sea’s edge crashing white horses on the sand. Despite having been here countless times, the beach looks eerily different on each visit. Today, I find a huge rope-like churn of seaweed and hundreds of split branches that litter the shore. I see arctic terns overhead and gulls who bicker and flap in the silvers of the water while a few small boats rest quietly.
I read that once there was a Scots Pine forest across the beach that subsequently drowned, and the odd remains of trunks can sometimes be seen at low tide. There is a small window to make this crossing and one must be careful to time it right. I find the most shallow section to cross the River Erme. My knees sting with the shock of the cold water that splashes over the top of my wellington boots, the crunching of shell fragments and seaweed underfoot. I feel both exhilarated and winded by the encroaching rainstorm. The sky is grey and the clouds are yellow, as if sand has been scattered in an upturned snow globe. The bright green hills pixelate in the rain. The long fingers of the estuary spread out and point into the Atlantic Ocean as though reaching for its waves. A collection of white houses stand stoic, witnesses to my awkward leaping as my coat flaps around me like a damp flag. The rain is now abating and I glance back to see a smokehouse blink at me in the cliffside, the watery sun trying valiantly to force its way through the clouds.
I walk up the slope from Coastguards Beach and veer left at the top to take the winding and muddy hedged path towards its sister, Mothecombe Beach. On my right, terraced gardens tumble elegantly down towards the beach from Flete House. Once I reach the bottom of the path, I change into less cumbersome shoes and spy the Victorian beach house, tucked into the rocks of the cliffside like a handsome limpet. This building was a lime kiln before being converted into a teahouse and overlooks what was once a natural swimming pool. Due to damage from a Home Guard’s detonation, it now spews the seawater straight back out to its source. Taking the steep coastal path that curls up behind this building, the wind blows so hard I feel needled and can barely walk straight. I hold my phone up to take pictures, straining to capture the most prominent stac deep below in a rocky promontory and I have to support one wrist with my other hand to hold it steady.
This coastal strip is wild in winter. The vertiginous hill that slopes towards the cliff’s edge is topped with a sentry-like row of enormous pines, reminding me of one of the fields in a story from Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected. I can see mushrooms poking through the grass and red berries pepper the hedgerows which are filled with the chatter of elusive birds. I can just about make out a surfer cutting a dynamic figure in the distance. Once back down the snaking path, the familiar briny smell of seaweed grows stronger and my reward at the bottom is the shelter of the beach house.
The walls house old photographs of the Flete Estate’s Mildmay family, each member peering at me from the past. In one, a child sits on top of a small pony while another shows a charming family picnic. My favourite is of a lone man sitting by lobster pots. There is no electricity and the scene outside skews your perspective. Towering waves look like they might rise to the windows despite the house being cut high into the cliff via a dozen stone steps, more than a safe distance from the tumbling water.
I feel safe here, with plenty of logs and a tin kettle and my own company. I pull up the yellow director’s chair and the warmth comes slowly back to my hands. I light the fire and a plume of smoke curls up the chimney, slowly heating the kettle on its grill. Nursing a cup of hot chocolate, my gaze drifts out to the ocean. I see my first whimbrel pecking at the beach below while a woman in a swimming costume bravely takes a plunge. I think of the countless people who have visited this place over the years. I imagine them shaking the sand out of damp towels, sharing a simple lunch on a sunny day, or those, like me, coming to read in solitude and watch the sea while the fire dances in the grate.
Time passes quickly. I leave the beach house around 4 o’clock and tramp up the beach, though I am reluctant to make my way home. The low lights outside the Schoolhouse restaurant are inviting as I wait for my lift and breathe in the last of my time alone in this landscape.
Words by Kirsteen McNish.
Photography by Kate Mount.