Walking with Hugh Nankivell

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A walk with Hugh, carrying between us two melodicas, a tripod (with the wrong head as it turned out, so just extra weight training) a video camera, radio mics, a mini-disc recorder, microphones, two cameras, cake made by my daughter, a stove, sleeping bags, notebooks, a tent, water, water purifying tablets, Japanese Umeboshi, German paprika sausages that impressed Nancy earlier, hats, walking boots and more.

The route over two and a half days:

Meldon Reservoir – West Okement River – Stunted oaks at Black-a-Tor Copse – Lints Tor – Great Kneeset – Head of West Okement – Head of East Dart – Kit’s Rocks (camping) – Broad Marsh – Sandy Hole Pass – Waterfall – Grey Wethers Stone Circles – Teignhead Farm (camping) – Teignhead – Whitehorse Hill – Hangingstone Hill – Okement Hill – Fordsland Ledge – High Willhays – Yes Tor – Longstone Hill – Meldon Reservoir

We stop and balance stones, play tunes, talk, bath in the streams, camp as near as we can to the source of all the water, hear constant skylarks and stonechats (our companions all the way, Hugh never complains about me constantly talking), make a film and a couple of drawings, find an adder  and a very deep bog from which we retreat our steps very carefully (Broad Marsh).

We decide on a vague route, a sequence of spots as recommended for good reasons by Ian the ranger, starting at Meldon Reservoir. It is crucial to be back on Wednesday for the Semifinals. We agree to stay away from people. A decent stretch of time on the moor, just Hugh and I and plenty of kit on my back – what is going to happen?

Hugh dares me 20 mins into the walk at Meldon reservoir: “Let’s drop our clothes and swim to the island!” After that he continues with foresight: “And then what? We explore the island completely frozen in wet pants, through the brambles and swim back in a haste.” No.

There’s a mute agreement that we cover some distance. It seems right to perspire a bit. Will we work? When will be the right time to stop? What time is it? Does it matter?

At the entrance of the East Okement River valley meat eating plants in the first bog, shining tentacles plastered with flies. They are everywhere. The wool grass all around shines most beautifully in the sun.

Less than a mile further up, ahead of the stunted oak forest there’s a smallish enclosure with seemingly nothing but trees and a little weir in it. The stream runs right trough it. No dry stone walling but properly rendered stone like you might find it around some real estate: A bizarre territorial claim with no apparent purpose, but also an oasis of live with trees and shrubs.

At the other end of the woods through a clearing, we can see the red and white posts of Okehampton military range crossing the valley. The branches of the trees frame the valley like a perfect romantic painting. I contemplate the view and after a while I can shrink it and expand it at the switch of a inner button.

Click – Small, Clack – Wide. Click clack Near – Distant. Hugh has disappeared  to record the stream. I am digesting raw onions whilst playing with creation. How big are the posts of the military range? How big is this landscape?

Lints Tor lends itself to balancing some stone. I am grounding myself whilst Hugh floats the Harmonica. For a while nothing else matters. Then I think of boundaries, fields of contained energy-potential-danger and the rhythms of the landscape revealed in lines. Multiple stones make you sense movement where there is a quiet and dangerous equilibrium. More of this needs to be done. We talk about intervention in the landscape and transcribing it into a white cube situation.

Sometimes we find each other well. Is there a performance in it?

Shell holes and bogs, difficult walking up to Kneeset. Past former peet exploitation on top- like a scrapyard without scrap. Down the other side to West Okement bog, one massive sponge plain where all the rivers originate. Compass helps on two occasions, sun slowly goes down, too boggy to pitch, very slow progress.

Kits rock camp, bleedin feet, incredible Japanese plums and real beer from Hugh. I like his harmonica.

24.06

Now much easier walking along East Dart. We take the Great Marsh head-on until Hugh thinks we might be in the process of doing something foolish:

The moss around us wobbles like a trampoline in a two metre radius with every step we take. I push my walking stick through the blanket. There is slight resistance and then nothing as deep as I can go. Very slowly we trace our way back, our insanely heavy rucksacks pounding down.

We decide to make a film at Sandy Hole Pass, a steep and narrow cut with the Dart flowing through what looks like a man-made canal. More stone balancing along a diagonal line crossing the river. Hugh plays the Harmonica and I balance for an hour.

A big army helicopter chops incredibly low along the pass. The rotor-blades beat with such force that a whole row of delicately balanced stones fall.

I spot an adder sunbathing and I am all hunting instinct like my twelve year old self, catching lizzards. It snaps at me hissing angrily. I have no choice but to catch it. When I finally hold it behind the neck my heart beats up to the throat. I feel refreshed like after a cold shower. We admire its beauty before I let it slip away.

Teignhead Farm – an abandoned farmhouse ruin (walls only) with the feel of a medieval hamlet and an impressive clapper bridge crossing the Teign. An eerily beautiful place on the back of a windswept plain that stands out for its little tree plantation. The trees were planted on a rectangular patch bordering the farmhouse buildings. The conifers haven’t done well over time but the beech trees stand in lush lines along the boundaries. I find it hard to estimate their age. Paradoxically it seems to be their vitality that keeps the goulish spirit of the place alive. Hugh is not very well, sleeping in the tent with a head and backache. I nurse him with hot soup.

The stone work around the farm is cyclopean. Like so often I do not get the pace they must have worked at, the means and I do not get the economics behind it either. It upsets me I a very strange way. I think of the vineyards where I come from and the fact that these landscapes are generation projects. What about this farm? How many men, how long, what season, why?

I go up into the bog above the farm and wonder how they managed to build a dry stone wall into a bog that takes me knee deep on two occasions. Higher up I have a look around. It’s 8.20pm, the light is magic and a 360 degree turn gives me goose pimples. I have found the place for an experiment that involves a video camera on tripod, a digital zoom along a number of straight trajectories and just this very section of  Dartmoor. I will have to come back later. Exciting!

I go back and draw one of  the beeches until I run out of daylight at 10.30pm. The wind is now blowing fiercely and the trees make lots of noises. It’s the kind of shallow sleep that allows you to answer any question asked at any point of the night straight away. Hugh seems at peace.

25.06

We get up and embark on a stiff walk that takes us to Yes Tor  in about three and a half hours. There’s quite a bit of sweat involved and a bit of ambition. Essentially we are going home now.

As we roam back around that section of Dartmoor we gain a sense of orientation. This puts the size of the landscape into perspective, and it feels more fragile to me. I can imagine how one could think of it as a garden.