There’s a vastness to Dartmoor that swallows up a human wanderer, a sense of timelessness sparked by scattered ancient sites and endless horizons, an aura of mystery that touches the soul.
These are the thoughts that flitter through my mind as I sit under a hawthorn tree, having some “solo time” in nature as part of a weekend of walking and wild camping in south Devon’s national park. My attempts to “feel into” my surroundings – as I’ve been encouraged to do – wax and wane, interrupted by idle musings on what’s for lunch and where I’ve left my phone charger.
The rest of my small group is nowhere to be seen, each secluded in their own spot. The sweeping view drops down to woodland and a reservoir – in the distance I can make out the stone circle we walked to last night. Behind me huge granite boulders, from where we’d watched a fiery sunset, dwarf my tiny tent.
The world is quiet and I focus again on simply being in the here and now. It really is magical in the morning light. I sense my body soften, my mind still. A sheep appears between two rocks and we stare at each other in amicable silence.
The untamed beauty of Dartmoor has inspired writers, artists and walkers for centuries, from JMW Turner and Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie and Ted Hughes. It has been a national park since 1951 (covering 365 square miles) and few other places in the UK feel as wild.
And that’s why I’m here – on a Wandering Wild weekend led by Henriette Lofstrom, a jewellery designer who quit London four years ago to live closer to nature. A trained hill and moorland guide, Henriette has also studied eco-psychology and nature guidance, and weaves elements of all of these into her weekends. For three days we walk, carrying everything we need on our backs and setting up discreet camps each evening, with plenty of time to let nature get under our skin.
Dartmoor is the only place in the UK outside Scotland where it’s legal to wild camp – that is pitch up outside the boundaries of a regular campsite (or your own land). The golden rule, which we strictly abide by, is to leave no trace. This summer has seen devastating scenes of rogue campers leaving their rubbish behind in the Lake District (where wild camping is forbidden), while littering and habitat damage caused by large groups in Bellever, further north on Dartmoor, has led to a temporary camping ban in the area. But, practised with respect, it’s one of the best ways to dive into the wild – a desire that resonates particularly strongly since lockdown.
“People talk about connecting to nature like there’s some big mystery, as if it’s something you have to do a course in,” says Henriette. “But you just have to spend time alone there, and allow it to happen. It’s that simple.”
Our trip focuses on southern Dartmoor, an area Henriette knows intimately having spent years walking here, discovering secret spots, solo camping and devising the perfect route to take in a mosaic of landscapes with regular pitstops.
One could, of course, grab a map and just head out, but joining this small group means there’s much less to worry about – even novice hikers and campers can sign up – and everything is provided, from tents to torches to journals and plentiful (surprisingly delicious) food. All I had to bring was a sleeping bag and a few clothes (the packing list suggests travelling very light). The walking isn’t too strenuous (about four hours a day with lots of breaks), but you do need to be able to carry a rucksack weighing around 12kg. That’s a first for me but, distracted by the ever-changing views, I quickly get used to the weight on my back.
We meet at Totnes station – myself and two couples from Sussex and Gloucestershire, professionals in their 40s in need of time out (the walks appeal to a wide age group, from 20s-50s, particularly women, says Henriette). Covid regulations mean there’s one fewer person in the group than usual, and travel to the start of the hike is in two taxis (all of us in masks) to ensure social distancing, but other than that little has changed.
We’ve not walked far when Henriette invites us to sit, to start the slowing down process, to feel the ground beneath us and simply notice where we are. Blonde, elfin and Danish, she isn’t a guide who dictates and bosses, and her calm demeanour instils confidence. Our walks will be in silence, she explains, to allow us mental space, and solo time is peppered throughout the three days. The route and sites we visit aren’t named and discussed – letting go of labels and the need for control is all part of the practice.
Soon our path takes us into an ancient oak forest, and we begin to follow a stream – the handful of people we pass near the car park are quickly left behind. We focus on different senses as we walk and I become aware of the sound of my footsteps, the swish of the grass, the tinkling water, the call of the skylarks, the bleating sheep. There’s an easy sense of camaraderie although we walk apart, each lost in private contemplation.
We hike fern-covered hillsides, emerging into a meadow full of foxgloves, and drink (filtered) water from the river. We cross streams, stepping carefully on rocks – the walking pole I’d initially resisted turns out to be essential for stability and testing boggy patches – and stopping to dip into our snack pack, full of dried fruit, energy bars and other healthy treats. It’s strangely moving when we reach our first stone circle and ponder on lives lived here thousands of years ago. We follow an endless row of sacred stones across the moor and, as the afternoon slides on, the rest of the world fades away, mind chatter recedes, and the peace of being in a wide open landscape takes hold.
Before dusk we reach our first camping spot, explore the remains of a nearby bronze age site, check for ticks (though chances of catching Lyme disease are slim, it’s not worth the risk) and dig a small latrine (which is filled in with earth when we leave). It’s liberating to pitch tents with none of the usual campsite check-ins and regulations – and with no one else around. We dine under the stars on posh dehydrated food, swap stories, and crawl into bed happily tired, lulled to sleep by the sound of the stream.
There’s a palpable thrill to being somewhere so wild at night – I wake in the early hours and peer out excitedly at a moonless, star-studded sky. At dawn I emerge from my tent blinking, drinking in the rawness of a new morning. The grass is alive with sparkling dew.
Days unfurl like the landscape before us – gentle yet not without challenges, full of beauty and moments of magic. We swim in the deep cold waters of a quarry, where the clouds are so perfectly reflected it feels like swimming in the sky. The peaty sides are like slabs of dark chocolate, the neon dragonflies cartoon-bright.
One lunchtime as we’re picnicking by the ruins of a tin mine and Henriette muses that it’s strange we’ve not seen any ponies yet, a wild herd appear on the hillside opposite and trot at speed straight towards us. They stop just metres away, foals eyeing us curiously.
Time seems to stretch in strange ways out here – moments appear to last forever as I become absorbed by the landscape, but dusk comes around all too soon. On the final day, we pass through some of the most beguiling scenery yet, a mossy fairytale woodland complete with waterfalls and twisted ancient trees, boulders as big as sheds camouflaged with lichen. I feel a sense of aliveness and peace and don’t want to leave.
“For me connecting with nature is a sense, a softening, an opening,” says Henriette. “It happens if you spend prolonged time in the wild, whether you realise it or not.”
As we wait for our taxis back to Totnes, the busy-ness of life beyond the moor seems completely alien. We’ve spoken little but I feel a strong bond with my fellow wanderers – and as we say goodbye we all agree that in these few short days we’ve shared something very special.
• The trip was provided by Wandering Wild UK , whose three-day weekends cost £280, including transport from Totnes station, equipment, guiding and food, and run regularly from April until early October. Wild camping is permitted in certain areas of Dartmoor for a maximum of two nights; you must carry all your own equipment and leave no trace. See dartmoor.gov.uk for details
Too far from Dartmoor? Here’s the next best thing to wild camping
With wild camping legal in only a few places in the UK, it’s not always easy to experience the thrill of a night in untamed nature. But one organisation – Nearly Wild Camping – aims to offer the next-best thing, linking landowners who offer secluded, back-to-basics camping with people who want a wilder experience than that provided by traditional campsites.
Members pay £20 to access a directory of places that largely don’t feature elsewhere. The experience is wilder at some sites than others (there’s a rating system: from 1, with showers and toilets, up to 5, the wildest, with no facilities or visible buildings). Favourites range from a woodland near Cardiff with a firepit in a clearing, where there’s rarely ever anyone else camping, to a family farm in the North York Moors national park with remote pitches by a river. Campfires are generally allowed on these sites, none of which has outdoor lighting, and hosts often lay on other nature-based activities, from guided walks to star-gazing
Membership has quadrupled this season, and more landowners across the UK are signing up, as well as some in Europe. Nearly Wild Camping is run as a cooperative: members are shareholders and fees go towards running and expanding the network.
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