The Way of the Sheep

Dartmoor Sheep: A Close Encounter…

Dartmoor Sheep at Higher Willsworthy

Though time be fleet.  Sheep’s idyll through a gateway on the Lych Way – Dartmoor.

Just a short while ago – Tom and I, set off with the intention of spending an easy afternoon exploring the Autumnal delights of Coffin Wood.  A curious place that is strangely still, apart from the occasional ‘krar krar’ of a Jay – and where there is always a feeling that someone somewhere is watching your every step.

We parked at Lanehead car park and walked back along the narrow road to Higher Willsworthy where we picked up the ‘Lych Way’ – or ‘Way of the Dead’ as it is sometimes called.  A familiar area to us – as we have completed the whole route of the ‘Lych Way’ – from Bellever to Lydford – several times.  The Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team Plymouth – organise several walks throughout the year to raise funds – and we have been keen participators.  Their events are always a great day out on the moor.


Got the badge.

As we dropped towards the valley – down the stony lane that leads to the bridge that spans the Tavy – we became increasingly aware of an advancing hullaballoo!  Overhead, Rowan branches hung heavy with bunches of fat, ripe berries – and looking outward – we could see a ribbon of white, noisily snaking through the gorse and bright green scrub; a farmer was bringing his sheep in off the moor.


On the move. Sheep and cloud symmetry.


Ribbon of white.

At this point we weren’t sure of the direction the drift would take – but as we continued down towards the bridge – the noise increased tenfold and we were greeted by a seemingly endless column of very nervous black faced sheep!  Despite lots of encouragement from the farmer, who was hidden from our sight at the rear, the herd had reached a complete standstill – they had dug their cloven heels in and were not budging an inch.  They were frightened of us – and I have to admit, we were a bit nervous of them in such an enclosed space.  We were on the horns of a dilemma – what should we do?

One option was for us to go back from whence we came – but with the farmer in earshot, sounding increasingly frustrated – willing his sheep to move forward – we opted to swiftly get out of their way with a quick leg up onto the top of the dry stone wall.  Once up there – we found our emergency perch to be a little unsteady, while on the other side, there was an alarming drop to the Tavy!  The slightest shift in our position caused the top stones to wobble – hence it was imperative to sit completely still on all counts, and quietly watch as the sheep nervously began to inch forward until they were almost level with us. Suddenly, with a fit and a spurt, and a flurry of droppings – they took off!  The stony path reverberated with the muffled clatter of multiple hooves as they nimbly sped up the lane as fast as their sturdy legs could carry them.


Be perfectly still.


Clatter of hooves on stone.

Eventually they all disappeared from view as they rounded the bend half-way up the lane – apart that is from one straggler; a lonely lamb with a limp. It reminded me of the lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin who couldn’t keep up, it cut a sorry figure at the rear especially with its very long, fleecy tail dangling between its hind legs!

Not keeping up.

Not keeping up.

Not far behind, was a young girl astride a lively, pied pony; her mount was a bit skittish due to our presence in the narrow space – but the cool, young shepherdess kept control and eventually she persuaded her reluctant mount to walk on. Finally, there was one obstacle remaining; the farmer was blocking the bridge over the Tavy with his motorised mule!  We marvelled as he negotiated his ‘made to measure’ quad-bike across the angular wooden structure with barely a centimetre to spare on either side!

After all that ovine excitement – Coffin Wood seemed extraordinarily quiet.

Coffin Wood Dead Tree

Who’s there?

We spent a couple ‘lost’ hours there and about the area – before returning back up the lane to Higher Willsworthy.


Red Rowan amid the greenery.

On approaching the top gate – we found our way was blocked once more, only this time by a small number of sheep; the farmer was drenching them for parasites and checking them over.  As we waited, so as not to interrupt his work – or upset the visibly anxious sheep, he told us that the male lambs had been separated from the ewes that afternoon.

Soon – the farmer’s work was done, the sheep were released from the sheepfold – and we were free to go…

On the last leg back to Lanehead car park – I stopped again.  I wanted to capture the bejewelling effect of the dropping sun, as it highlighted the minutiae of a surprisingly verdant September hedge.  It was also an opportunity for quiet reflection.  Meanwhile, my headstrong, rapidly growing, and often impatient tup – hungry, and unimpressed by my introspective hedge gazing,  went on ahead to unlock the car – where there was the promise of a packet of crisps waiting!



As I half watched him stride away from me – I couldn’t help but think how lucky we humans are not to suffer the brevity of time that sheep do.  For us, the experience had been a memorable Dartmoor encounter – and because my man-sized son is still only thirteen years of age, there is the promise of many more shared adventures to look forward to.  Whilst for the ewes and their not so big lambs – the experience had been a rite of passage; their time running together was done.

Lydford grave

Tempus fugit.  The way it is for sheep.

Headstone in Lydford Churchyard – the final destination of the ‘Lych Way’ route – it reads ‘Cutt by Samuel Vosper in Tavystock’ – ‘My glass is run.’


Toughing-it-out in more ways than one.  Ewe on the Moor.

Setting the Scene.

Brentor and beyond.

Brentor and beyond.

When driving West towards Tavistock, along the A386 – on the open stretch above Mary Tavy, there is a portal to another world.  An expansive gateway to a place that is wild and unforgiving in nature, yet dreamy and otherworldly.  A wayfarer’s Eden called, DARTMOOR.

Gold in them hills.  Great Links and Great Nodden.

Gold in them hills.

From this vantage point – I can sometimes see all the way to Bodmin Moor – my birthplace coincidentally – and in the foreground, Brentor hill with the little church of Saint Michael de  Rupe atop.  Behind – and to my left, Dartmoor is laid out in all its greatness – my favourite tors stand like huge granite sentinels, silhouetted against an ever-shifting sky; Great Links, Great Staple and Fur –

Great Links Tor Dartmoor

Great Links Tor –

Great Staple Tor...

Great Staple Tor –

Gateway to the 'Far Tor' - Fur Tor on the horizon

A gateway to the ‘Far Tor’ (Fur Tor).

Sentinals - and shifting sky.

Sentinels – and shifting sky.

Although I don’t always know precisely where I’m going from here – I know I’ve crossed a line.  Most of my start points for walks are roughly an hour away by car from where I live – and the North Moor closer – so Dartmoor is naturally the place I head out to when I want a walk on the wild side.

Dartmoor from Cuppers Piece


On my day off, conveniently a Tuesday, I’ll most likely set a bearing directly to Tavistock – the magnetism of the market is too powerful to resist; Tuesday is antiques and collectables day!  After a couple fruitful hours spent in the town, I go up to the moor to eat a bought pasty – and then I set about walking it off!   If the weather is set fair to middling – I revisit familiar ground – perhaps the Staple Tors and across to Roos – or if time is short, a quick stroll along the burbling leat to Windy Post.

The Windy Post.

The Windy Post.

However, if it’s tipping it down – I’m happy to sit it out from the comfort of my car.  Simply drinking in the rain-sodden Dartmoor landscape, coupled with a pasty, can be very sustaining until my next visit – which might be heading out for a proper walk over open moorland.  On these more testing occasions, I wisely don’t go it alone.

I have ventured forth with – The Bean Walking Club, Dartmoor Search & Rescue Team Plymouth, Dartmoor Preservation Association – and neither last nor least, my son -Tom.

Fogbound Beanies.

Fogbound Beanies.

D.S.R.T - Plymouth

D.S.R.T – Plymouth.





An old friend.

An old friend.

Dartmoor automatically demands that my heart beats faster when faced with walking up one of its steep, clitter strewn slopes to the top of a chosen tor – but it is Dartmoor’s visual impact, its elemental beauty, that makes my soul soar effortlessly to boundless heights. It’s easy to lose oneself here – and find eternity in an hour; in real time probably six or seven or eight!

Great Mistor Dartmoor

Elemental. Great Mistor

However, Dartmoor is not just a portal for metaphysical escapism – there is the very real presence of its infamous bogs and mires to keep one earthed.  When crossing wet, spongy ground it is easy to give way to dark thoughts. I envisage glossy brown, sinewy bodies that sleep contortedly beneath my feet – lost souls from an ancient tribe – and the idea of joining them in an eternal sleepover is terrifying but life-affirming; onwards, upwards but not necessarily straight forwards!  Vigilance and a good dose of healthy respect, are prerequisites for a day out on Dartmoor’s open moorland – plus a good prodding stick!

Bog Dartmoor

Testing ground…

Dartmoor bog

Up to the hilt – rather than knees!

My other essential kit item is my Samsung L83T digital camera.  I concede that it is getting on a bit compared to more fancy, up-to-the-minute models – however over a period of years, it has proven robust enough to withstand the rigours of Dartmoor and its penetrative, damp  conditions – and simply it does the job. Consequently,  I have built up an archive of images; snapshots of Dartmoor caught in the click of a button.  No planning, no waiting and no enhancements – just the ephemerality of a thousand or more, magic moments – as they flashed upon my inward eye.

Every blade of grass has its own drop of dew

Finding beauty in a bog.

Whether you love to head out over the open moorland, like I sometimes do –

At Roos Tor - view to Fur Tor and Cut Hill

Heading out.

or you prefer to sit in the comfort of your warm car on the edge, like I sometimes do –

Vixen Tor Dartmoor

Vixon Tor from a lay-by on the B3357.

– I think you’ll agree; there’s definitely something about Dartmoor.

Sheeps Tor Dartmoor.

Sheeps Tor – you can’t miss it. (if you click on the image – you can see ships in Plymouth Bay.