The Whitehorse Hill Challenge – Sunday 18th July

The Torbay Rambling Club have always supported Dartmoor National Park and in previous years contributed walks to the summer Walking Festival. Sunday walks were frequently set on Dartmoor and the Club benefitted from a number of experienced and capable leaders, prepared to attempt those remote areas where few have trodden the tussocks and barely discernible paths.

Sadly our A-team of leaders have moved on or are now longer able to lead such walks so the Club asked Geri Skeens, an experienced and qualified Hill and Moorland Walk Leader, to schedule this 11 mile walk again. The first attempt was the wettest day imaginable (in May!) but today, the weather was glorious, the hottest of 2021 so far.

Geri led 10 capable walkers from Batsworthy Farm to make their way, initially to Shovel Down and a concentric stone circle and 5 double stone rows, nestled on the hillside below Kestor Rock.

A breather at the edge of Fernworthy Forest as the gradient rose with the temperature. From here, the path below Manga Hill and Teign Head Farm, then up towards Sittaford Tor where a tea-break took place, the views of rolling open moorland, below blue skies, were stunning.

Geri led capably across and up the open moor to Quintin’s Man.  The word Man, Maen, meaning ‘stone’, like Beardown Man, an ancient memorial for someone of great importance. The cairn here provided a good place for another breather and interesting talk.

Now south west of Cut Hill, which it is said you either love or hate. A vast open expanse, lacking rocky features and peppered with tussocks and purple grass, emerging yellow gorse and heather. On a wet or misty day any walk in this area would be a challenge beyond most, but today clear skies, wonderful visibility and a confident leader, taking the  group to find the focus of the walk, the incredible White Horse Hill Cist.

Back in the 1990’s two walkers stopped on a peat hag, high on the moor at 600m, for a tea break – as you do! They noticed some stone slabs had been exposed by the shrinking peat and seemed to vaguely form a ‘box’. It was reported to the National Park who, on investigation, decided it was indeed a cist, or burial tomb, but unlike Victorian times when it would have been opened immediately, they left it untouched, but monitored carefully.

Over time the peat shrank further and in 2011 it became clear erosion had made it vulnerable to ruinous exposure so a carefully planned excavation began – the outcome was beyond their highest hopes. It has been called the most important archaeological find on Dartmoor in modern times, arousing interest worldwide.

They discovered an animal skin, thinking at first it was a dead fox but it turned out to be a brown bearskin pelt, fixed with a copper alloy pin and inside that the cremated remains of a female, in her early 20’s, buried with amber beads, a bracelet of woven cow hair, a flint tool , fragments of textile, a basketry container and wooden ornamental studs which told them much about the creative skills of the ancient peoples. woodturning was not thought to have been undertaken until very much later, but it was dated to around 1800bc, therefore, Bronze Age, or late Neolithic.

The amber beads were not obtained locally, probably from The Baltic, which meant people were travelling and trading. It is known that the climate on Dartmoor was Mediterranean then and communities spent the summer on high ground but retreated to lower pastures during the winter.

The group took a quiet moment to ponder on the status of this young woman, surely a Princess of those times explaining why this high point was chosen, what were the circumstances of her untimely death? We will never know.

From here the bridges’ led through the peat pass, being managed by the NP to ensure drainage to reservoirs,  to the clearer track, west to Hangingstone Hill, another cist long since cleared of remains or artefacts. The view across to Okement Ridge, the Taw Valley and distantly, Belstone, was panoramic – in the distance a carved memorial stone slab is located where it was ‘air-lifted’ in for Ted Hughes, in 2001.

A pause near Wild Tor to see  a cairn, then the tor with it’s strata of granite, ‘decompression layering‘, a release of pressure as the plutons of magma rock on hilltops are exposed, particularly evident here and at Watern Tor.  A welcome break and paddle beside the stream at Gartaven Ford was enjoyed before taking the rough path to the impressive Scorhill Stone Circle, and over two clapper bridges to end the meander through Neolithic and Bronze Age Dartmoor.

The terrain was dry but testing at times and the walk quite long at 11 miles but the rewards outweighed the efforts and a wonderful day was enjoyed by all, in glorious weather.

An exhibition of the White Horse Hill excavation and it’s treasures, has now opened in the newly extended Postbridge Visitor Centre. Some of the artefacts are on display at The Box Museum in Plymouth.

A cold drink on the way home was never more welcome on this scorcher.

Final thanks to Geri for her knowledge and leadership and we look forward to another excursion into deepest Dartmoor in 2022 perhaps.

Geri S/Karen H