History Group Talk October 2012


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                                                                       John Risdon’s
                                                illustrated talk on his walk from Bideford to Dartmouth.
                                               "My Walk Across Devon - On one of The Mariners Ways".

As a Devonshire man he has always been interested in the history of our county. He explained that in the days of Queen Elizabeth I the ports around Devon were very important to the security and trade of the country. In those days there were two main hazards that faced the fleet of ships trading with the new world in particular. One was the natural effects of the weather, storms, wind and the general problems facing seafarers. The other was the threat of the Barbary Pirates that sailed the seas in wait for ships to raid and capture. Any ship that entered the Bristol Channel and then needed to visit any of the ports on the south coast had to navigate around Lands End and the Scilly Isles with their treacherous rocks and coastal outcrops.   Many mariners would by choice walk from one coastal port to the other rather than face these hazards  In North Devon there was Bideford, Barnstaple, Ilfracombe etc. In South Devon, Plymouth, Dartmouth and the Exe estuary to name a few.  In John’s words, there were therefore, more than one ‘Mariner’s Way’. He would look at the most likely one from Bideford to Dartmouth, a virtual straight line.  In 2008 he and a friend decided that they would attempt this and their early survey showed that many of the old tracks remained but several had been built over by railway lines and what are now major roads. They completed this epic journey in five days. Day one leaving Bideford at 9.00 a.m. on 23rd June they intended to get to Hatherleigh by that evening. Their walk took them along the ‘Tarka trail’ for most of that journey. Not only was it a walk but they were determined to record all they saw and this made their walk so much more interesting, the lime kilns, Victorian iron bridges, tunnels and Williamson’s interpretation posts all added to their enjoyment. In fact they spent more time looking and absorbing what they saw rather than talking! Past Wearre Gifford, Torrington Station, and onwards and upwards for about three miles. It was the people that they met which added to their enjoyment, the views constantly changing, the wildlife and the vegetation, the Culm Grassland, a peculiarity to rural Devon. Then as they turned a corner there was industrial influences, Clay Moor in the Petrockstowe Basin, with its Ball Clay extraction. Then Ash Moor plantation, very quiet and peaceful. The last couple of miles however were on a busy main road, once a quiet country track, now a nightmare place to walk, something now to avoid and so to Hatherleigh for a good meal and a night’s rest.
Tuesday morning and they set off for Belstone. Leaving Hatherleigh an important market town with its innovative monument to agriculture, over Hatherleigh Moor, a wonderful experience. As they went they noticed old buildings that had been ‘saved’ or ‘improved’ as the estate agent would describe them. No longer the homes of the ‘peasant’ now the homes of the wealthy. The Okement River was followed for a time then a climb to the moors and the ‘nine maidens’ come into view, a prehistoric site of mystery, and so to Belstone for another nights rest.
Wednesday morning sees these  intrepid hikers off towards Dartmouth and we shall see how far they get. Belstone village with its church, village stocks, a reminder of times long gone and the post office/shop. Into the Taw valley, the woods and stream and through Sticklepath and South Zeal. There they met a local historian who showed them the first of many signs that said “Mariner’s Way”. Throwleigh and its church, then Gidleigh, the woods and the North Teign river. Chagford was bypassed over the bridge and on to Teigncombe. The M W posts were here to see, past Jurston Farm, across the Bovey river. A choice here - shall we cross it, through the ford, across the stepping stones, or use the clapper bridge. Past Lettaford and its well preserved Dartmoor Longhouse, through West Coombe and so to Lower Hookner for another night’s rest.
Thursday after a good meal off on another day’s trek. Hoping to get to the south of Dartmoor by nightfall. Easdon Tor, Heathercombe and up to the top of Hameldown. Here again the well defined M. Way was visible. Just a pause here to consider, whether the mariners of yesteryear would have walked down the bottom of the valley through Widecombe? Today’s pair decided to follow the now well defined track past the cairns on the ridge, through Dockwell, Jordan and Ponsworthy. Down under Spitchwick, New Bridge, an ice cream here, nice one John, and on to Holne, Buckfastleigh, and then to Upper Dean for hopefully the last night before reaching Dartmouth.
Friday morning, up and off again. Heading for Dartington along by the Dart river and into Totnes. What do we notice here?
A boat on the Dart. The tide was well up to the weir, fresh water above, sea water below. Would our ancient travellers taken a boat to Dartmouth? Sailing down river with the tide? Quite possibly, and that is what our pair did. So to Dartmouth, a port in the days of the Normans, they too perhaps came up stream to Totnes. The historic town of Dartmouth, with a great maritime history. Trading with the fisheries of Newfoundland in the days of the Cod Fisheries, bringing salt fish into port.
To summarise John stated that it was a journey of a lifetime. An extraordinary experience. During which he and his companion learnt a lot about Devon and a great deal about themselves.


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