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Running wild on Dartmoor

Posted: Monday 12th June 2017 by HarryBarton

Dartmoor landscape by Mike SymesDartmoor landscape by Mike Symes

At the end of the first week of 30 Days Wild, DWT Chief Executive Harry Barton escapes from screens and election news with a wild run on Dartmoor

I’m sick of the election gossip and the computer, so I’m slamming the laptop shut, ignoring the rain and the ache in my right ankle, and putting on my running shoes.

Straining up one of Dartmoor’s seemingly endless hills, I am dogged by a need to escape from a foggy, irritable state of mind that comes of too much screen time. This mood sapping cloud is chasing me up the hill and wills me onwards.

I leave the lane, rock hop along an overgrown track, duck under a leaning, moss coated oak and enter a sea of wild flowers. This meadow is unremarkable for much of the year but suddenly comes alive in June. It is thick with the smells of spring: a million buttercups, yellow rattle, pignut and red clover stretch in all directions, with their almost intoxicating scent.

This is when a sudden thrill starts to take hold of me. I’m crossing through the half-way house that separates the tarmac from the wild, open moor.

One more field to go, and this one is full of cows and young calves. With lethal looking horns curving majestically towards the sky, they all stop grazing and turn to face me. They stand rigid, no sound. One or two take a few sudden, rapid steps towards me as I run up the hill and then freeze just feet away. I slow to a walk, hoping to appear less threatening.

I was recently confronted by cows in the next valley, and have learned to treat these animals with respect. I can smell the heavy bovine wafts as I claw my way through the stare of 50 pairs of eyes that see me as the predator. I am surrounded, there is nowhere to hide, and they can charge me at any time.

But they don’t, and now I’m on the open moor. It looks bleak compared to the meadow. But as I look down I see a million tiny flowers peppering the ground – yellow tormentil, purple lousewort. It’s strangely silent apart from the roaring wind, but the sky clears and little clouds hurtle over the hulking hills.

The greens and golds are almost overpowering in the setting sun. And just for a moment, these lonely heights feel friendly and welcoming. There is nothing up here that will harm me – only my own stupidity if I’m tempted to run too far or forget to watch my footing.

I feel an irresistible sense of joy and security. I’m on my own on top of a Tor with no food, no money and no shelter. But nothing can go wrong, nothing can make this moment more perfect.

But I’m racing the light and I can’t stay. I run down into the valley that one of Dartmoor’s many rivers has ground out of the granite. It’s been raining heavily for hours, and the channel is a boiling mass, sheets of water invading the path.

Trees that were once overlooking the river desperately cling on asRiver Dart by David Chamberlain the water rages around their half-submerged trunks. Standing waves lurch in the middle of the river. The water a honey brown mixture of dark peat and foam: if I fall in there, I won’t get out. One mad kayaker careers past so quickly I barely register the mixture of terror and elation on his drenched face.

I’m running back through the flooded woods and onto the nearby lane. I reach the brow of a hill and I can suddenly see over the huge folding landscape, all the way to the sea.

Lines of hedges shine violet with foxgloves in the setting sun. The flower-crammed verges are invading the road from both sides, campion doing its best to overpower concrete.

The sweet, sour smell of hawthorn is everywhere, but what I remember most is the birds. It’s alive with their shrieks, calls, chatter and song. And then quite suddenly it all stops, and there is nothing but the sound of my feet thudding down the grey lane in the half light.

This is the world out there waiting for me, free of charge, without any rules or restrictions, just there to embrace me on its own terms whenever I decide to turn off my computer.

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