When it rains, it pours, and this short stage from Bridestowe to South Zeal might turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Until today things have been going well, even though the blisters have been agony; generally I've been enjoying myself, even in the rain, and I've felt myself getting fitter and fitter, ready for the challenges that I know are ahead. But today everything that could go wrong went wrong, and making me feel even more helpless is the fact that I don't think I could have done anything to prevent it.
I'd assumed this would be an easy day. This assumption was partly down to the short distance involved – 12 miles is not a long way when you're used to days of 17 miles – but also to the irritatingly upbeat attitude of Andrew McCloy, author of the blue and red End-to-End guidebook that I've been following. 'If you arrive early,' he writes about today's stage, 'why not drop your pack at the campsite and stretch your legs – Cosdon Hill is only the small matter of 1800ft/550m above, and enjoys fine views over northern Dartmoor.'
I'll tell you why not, Andrew. When I arrived, I could hardly bloody walk. And then things got even worse...
The Granite Way
I had been going to follow Mr McCloy's suggested route for the entire day, but when I checked in at the wonderfully friendly Glebe Caravan and Camping Park in Bridestowe, the proprietor handed me a leaflet, saying, 'If you're heading to Okehampton you'll be doing the Granite Way; here are the details.' I accepted the leaflet out of politeness, but on closer inspection I realised he was talking sense.
McCloy's route continues along the Two Castles Way to Okehampton, and it weaves up and down the northern slopes of Dartmoor in a way that would be great in the summer, but not in the rain. The Granite Way, however, is another of these dismantled railway tracks that's been turned into a cycle path, and it goes all the way from Bridestowe to Okehampton. 'Hmm, let me see,' I thought. 'Do I want to walk up and down the slopes of a desolately muddy moor in the pouring rain, or do I want to wander along a flat, gravel path that takes me in a straight line to Okehampton, from where it's an easy hop to the campsite at South Zeal?' It wasn't exactly a difficult decision; the Granite Way won hands down.
Of course, it pissed down overnight, so once again I awoke to a soaking tent that over the course of the day dripped rainwater into the bottom of my backpack, soaking my only smart pair of trousers in a highly embarrassing way. It was still raining when I set out for the Granite Way, and it would continue to bluster and blow until the sun managed to poke its head through the clouds at about 3.30pm. But I had a long, long way to go before then, even though I didn't know it at the time.
On a beautiful day the Granite Way must be stunning. Some sections are fairly boring – the parts that go through cuttings don't have any views, and they are quite a long way by foot – but overall it's a great track, and I knew I'd made the right decision compared to the higher path on Dartmoor; I could see where the other path went, but only some of the time, as it was mostly shrouded in the sort of close cloud that makes the warm hearth of the local pub seem like a distant haven. Luckily the lower altitudes of the Granite Way managed to stay free of mist, though the regular showers were starting to get on my nerves as they wormed their way through my Gore-Tex. Still, I enjoyed great weather in west Cornwall, so I couldn't really complain... yet.
Besides, some sections of the Way don't need good weather to be impressive, particularly the huge viaducts that span some of the valleys coming off Dartmoor. Dartmoor is essentially an area of raised ground that's covered in rough grass, bog and gorse, and the Way skirts the northern border of the moor. It's amazing; you can actually see the boundary of the national park, not because of any man-made feature, but because Dartmoor consists of high ground, and the edges of the moor are steep slopes that go from luscious farmland at the bottom to desolate moor at the top. Dartmoor is farmed, so it's not as if the distinction is down to a lack of agriculture within the national park, but I'd never appreciated that moors are moors because they're at a higher altitude, and that encourages wet weather and high wind, which gives them different vegetation and a totally different colour. You can tell which bits are Dartmoor because they're brown and bleak; if anything, Dartmoor in the rain looks like a monumental cow-pat in the middle of the rolling green field that is Devon.
Obviously any high, wet moor like Dartmoor is going to have a lot of rivers pouring off the sides, and the flanks of the moor are scarred with deep river valleys that the railway had no choice but to span. The viaducts that carry the now rail-free railway are huge; Lake Viaduct arches into the sky with perfect curves made from local stone, and Meldon Viaduct's steel girders span a huge 165m-wide valley, with a view that would be quite something in the sun, but which is just as impressive in the howling wind. The cycle way is enclosed on either side by formidable steel barriers, and beyond the barriers on each side there's another couple of metres of pathway followed by more barriers; I couldn't understand why the architects of the cycle path had decided to use only the centre of the bridge, but when I ventured out into the open, the wind slammed into me and I had to claw my way east, hand on hat. Suddenly I understood their caution; on a bicycle you wouldn't stand a chance against the whistling winds of Dartmoor.
From Meldon Viaduct the Granite Way follows the Dartmoor Railways line to Okehampton, the line that carries aggregate out of nearby Meldon Quarry and passengers to and from the viaduct. As a walk it's not exactly thrilling, but Okehampton proved a destination well worth reaching, mainly due to the great little café I discovered in the middle of town.
With the rain pounding down outside, the warm and friendly interior of the Coffee Pot was exactly what I needed, and the food was excellent. I wolfed down a big plate of lasagne and chips as if there was a famine in town, and obviously impressed by my eating ability, the other customers assured me that this was indeed the best place in town. I had to agree; with my feet aching and the steam rising from my T-shirt, I fantasised about jacking in this stupid walk and running a nice little café like this. How hard could it be? And how relaxing? As if I'd have any idea... but imperceptibly the strain of the walk was starting to affect my thinking, to the point where I was beginning to fancy running a café in deepest Devon. And yet I still didn't spot the signs...
From Okehampton I struck south along the Tarka Trail, a track that celebrates the travels of Tarka the Otter, the character from Henry Williamson's book of the same name. Otters like water, and so does the Tarka Trail, and because of that it's beautiful. Or, more accurately, it's no doubt beautiful in the sun, but in the rain, moss and slate become a lethal combination, especially with a heavy pack; I've never been so glad to have trekking sticks, and even though they make me look like a lost Austrian skier, I wouldn't trek watery Devon without them.
I must read the book, because then I'll know whether to blame Tarka or the local council for the section of the trail that strikes out into Dartmoor, but whoever thought up such a miserable stretch of moorland walking deserves a medal, because from the moment the trail shot upwards from the East Okemont River, my spirits sank. The wind howled, the rain stung, and I started wondering why the bloody hell I was doing this, because it quite obviously wasn't for pleasure. To add insult to what would soon become injury, I got hopelessly lost on the moor after the little village of Belston, and after sinking up to my knees in bog and sliding my way down to Sticklepath, I was yet again thankful for my Gore-Tex gear; my feet were miraculously dry, but something hurt, and it wasn't a blister. It was internal.
I didn't do anything specific to screw my right foot up – I didn't slip over, twist my ankle or anything obvious – but as I wandered through Sticklepath and turned the corner for South Zeal, I felt a sharp pain hit the outside of my right ankle. I couldn't believe it; this was the exact same spot where my foot gave way when I attempted the Pennine Way a few years ago, and back then I had to go home early. With a sinking feeling, I realised that this was serious.
I eventually managed to hobble into the campsite at South Zeal, and immediately started setting up my tent in the unusual lull in the rain that heralded my arrival. I could hardly walk with the pain, but my first priority was to get my tent up before the rain came back and soaked all my possessions, and it was in this state of mind that I slid my carbon-fibre tent pole into its slot and watched amazed as it cleanly snapped in two. I couldn't believe it; I paid just under £300 for this tent, and on the third time I tried to put it up, it broke.
I sat there in the grass, my foot throbbing and my soaking tent lying useless around me, but luckily I'd read the instructions that came with my tent, and I knew there were two metal sheaths included that were designed to fix just such a break. No problem; all I had to do was pull out this end bit, undo this knot in the elastic... with my teeth, evidently... slide on the sheath, tie up the end again, slot the end back on, and it should fit just about... Shit. It didn't fit at all. The break was exactly where the carbon pole fitted into a metal corner bit, and the sheath didn't bloody fit.
Luckily the instructions had another solution: use a tent peg as a splint. However, after 15 minutes of tying pegs to broken poles, I can safely say that the person who wrote the 'fix it' instructions for my tent has clearly never tried to do it themselves. However hard I tied the tent peg to the pole, it still bent like a broken coat-hanger; whether I liked it or not, my tent was dead.
I couldn't help it, but I just sat there and cried, the combination of tiredness, weather, frustration and panic all taking over. For once I found myself wishing for rain, because at least the other campers wouldn't have known that I'd gone from on top of the world to the bottom of the barrel in the space of just one day.
Thankfully Peta was at the other end of the phone, and she found me a bed and breakfast back in Okehampton (there being none in South Zeal). Now, after ordering a taxi and hopping up the stairs to my room for the night, I'm thanking my lucky stars that at least I've managed to escape the weather that's pounding down outside. Just down the hill from the B&B is the Plymouth, a CAMRA-recommended real ale pub with excellent food, and despite the fact that my foot might mean end of my walk for a while, those pints of ale are helping.
Right now, though, I don't know if I'm going to be able to go on, because I can hardly walk without shooting pains in my foot, and I no longer have a tent. Both these problems are surmountable, but unfortunately they're rather important setbacks.
We'll see. After all, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't like a challenge...