The dreaded Dartmoor fog

Joseph Bulmer

Last week, I told you about some of the times I have rescued people from off the moor when they have gone astray while out walking.

This week is all about getting caught out by that dreaded Dartmoor fog that can creep up on you when you least expect it.

I was reminded about this during my recent expedition.

It started out as a perfect autumnal afternoon for walking, cloudy but warm, with nothing untoward in the forecast.

Parking up by the track to Yellowmead Farm, just outside of Princetown, I started walking up towards the TV mast at North Hessary Tor, picking up a couple of letterboxes as I went.

Suddenly I noticed fog gathering around the top of the mast and on the distant tors... it wasn't long before it enveloped me too, accompanied by a light drizzle.

I wasn't unduly worried for I knew that if I headed back down the hill away from the mast, I would find the main road out of Princetown on my right and the track to Yellowmead Farm in front of me.

Before turning back to the car, I picked up another two boxes, leaving others on my hit list for another day when conditions would be more suited to taking compass bearings off the landscape.

On another occasion, during a summer letterbox hunt in the middle of the south moor, I was caught out by an unseasonal blanket of fog as I retraced my steps trying to find a path by the River Yealm.

In the whiteout I missed it and ended up going way off my route back to the car, only finding my bearings again when I came across the Trowlesworthy Tors near the clay pits on Lee Moor.

Realising I was about to lose the light, I was faced with a hard choice... try and find my way across the moor in the dark or get to the safety of the main road now, knowing there was a long walk ahead of me!

Needless to say, I opted for the safest option and, although I knew the route well, having driven it many times over the years, I now know it even better having walked every inch of it in the dark!

I finally got home in the early hours of the morning after that little adventure and I'd like to take this opportunity to give a big thank you to the good people of Cornwood who, back in those days, kept their public toilets open after midnight!

Those are times I've only had myself to worry about, but once it happened when I had some friends with me.

It was during one of our Sunday walks, a few summers ago, I had just taken my group to Cranmere Pool, the Mecca for Dartmoor letterboxing in the north of the moor, and afterwards we had split into two parties.

One group had headed straight back to get to the pub, while three of us had kept on walking in order to put out some letterboxes for a friend who was unable to make trips to remote parts anymore.

Task completed, we too headed back to the pub, and that was when the mist appeared, rolling down the hills. It wasn’t long before we were overtaken by it!

Once again, I wasn’t unduly worried, for, being in the Okehampton army range, I knew all we had to do was keep heading north and it wouldn’t be long before we hit one of the many tracks that circle this part.

Much to my friend’s surprise I was proven correct!

As we stood on a mound trying to get a phone signal to contact our other friends, we uncovered a letterbox attached to an observation post, which I knew would be within yards of a track, and sure enough there it was.

My unerring sense of direction and knowledge of the terrain hadn’t let me down, so I count my friends amongs those I have rescued, just by being with them!

However, there is one occasion when I will admit to being concerned about a slight sense of disorientation in a fog, but even that led to a happy ending.

This particular event took place just before Christmas many years ago now, when my letterboxing buddy and I had gone in search of a stamp featuring the Star of David - as we were both called David it had to be done!

The weather on that particular day was not only foggy, but with a layer of snow underfoot too, not ideal walking conditions, but as we were in an area I knew well, I wasn’t too concerned.

It was quite an exhilarating feeling walking out into expanses of untouched whiteness, and it wasn’t long before we found our quarry among the rocks on King Tor, just up from the well-preserved remains of the hut circles of Grimspound.

Job done, we did an about turn and headed back to the car... or so I thought.

We hadn’t gone far, when tall pine trees started looming up in front of us. I knew our route back didn’t include trees, so we turned again and kept going, until more trees appeared.

This time I realised we had inadvertently gone too far down into the valley, so all we had to do was go back up the hill, where we would find the car waiting for us on the other side.

As we started heading upwards, I noticed some torchlights in front of us.

My first reaction was that my wife had got concerned and had called out the Dartmoor Rescue!

As we got closer, I could see they were consulting a map and it became obvious it was they who were lost.

Wanting to help them out, I introduced myself and offered my services. It transpired that they had parked up in Widecombe in the Moor and gone for an after-lunch walk, intending to get back in time for an evening meal.

By now it was dark and getting late and they were hungry.

So as not to create an incident where Dartmoor Rescue would really have to be called out, I suggested we joined forces and I would lead them back to their cars in return for a lift back to mine.

Heading back down the hill, we soon reached a hedgerow that separated us from the road, and in the dark the only obvious way to get to it was through it, into someone’s garden, through another hedge dropping down on to the lane beyond.

We did try to ask permission before doing this, but the owners of the property seemed oblivious to a group of strangers waving at them from their garden!

Once in the lane, it was just a few miles jaunt back to Widecombe.

As we walked, we got to know our new companions, and it turned out they all worked for the same company which had recently presented their staff with selection boxes at their Christmas do, and some of our new friends happened to be carrying theirs in their rucksacks, so we weren’t short of chocolate on our journey back!

I’ve always maintained that fate lent a hand that day, causing me to get disorientated in order to put me in the path of people who genuinely needed rescuing.

So, if you ever find yourselves lost up on the moors in a fog, hopefully you will have someone like me nearby to rescue you too!