Dartmoor Recce #1: Cold Walk & The Quarry/ Distance & Height

Wednesday 3rd February, 2016

My early recce’s on Dartmoor have been focussed on one basic objective- try to get as lost as possible. This began by starting up in the centre of the moor, and working outwards, looking for spots on my OS map where it looked like one could walk in a specific direction for a mile or so and in all eventuality feel pretty isolated.

It’s early on a cold and wet winter morning, with promise of nothing but colder and wetter weather to come. I parked up by the Dartmoor Visitor Centre in Postbridge, as close to the heart of the moor as you can get. I had been hoping to get an up-to-date weather forecast from the very nice people at the centre, but it was closed when I arrived.

Sheltering from the cold rain under my boot door, I spread the map out on the parcel shelf as I sipped fortifying hot coffee- I looked from the map up to the hills just behind the visitor centre, and tried to gauge the distance to the summit of those hills by eye, and then match it to the distance suggested by the map. Forty-five minutes, tops- no problem.

I bag up my gear: when I go out location hunting I usually just concentrate on taking still photographs, that I can then grade to build in to a mood board of the colour palette and tone that I’m thinking of for a shoot. Today I have DSLR- the GH4 which can also shoot 4k footage if needed- but my main weapon is something of a new experience for me. As part of my effort to understand the mediums of my landscape fore-bearers (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Edward Burtynsky) I had been developing a hobbyist interest in medium format photography, with a mind to progressing on to large format at some point over the course of my PhD. And so on this overcast morning I stuff my bag to bursting with a boxy Mamiya Rz67, plastic but large with its weight doubled by a hefty lens, plus an extra, longer lens of equal weight.

Four rolls of film: check. New walking boots: check. Wet weather gear: check. Tripod: … hmmm, bags pretty heavy- I think I’ll leave the tripod on this occasion. I lock up the car- in truth the boot lock is broken, and so with such a valuable collection of kit in the boot I park the car so its bumper to brick against the wall of the visitor centre.

I set off towards the wooded hills in the middle distance, away from the village. Forty-five minutes, tops.

The mud track that leads to the foot of the hill is a complete quagmire- it takes me thirty minutes to get to the end of the track, and I’m still a short hike away from the hills. Thirty minutes later and I’m at the top of the hill, looking West over hilly fields and the moor beyond. I’m already cold and wet, but well up for the challenge of a good walk. Glad I didn’t bring the tripod. I set off down the other side of the hill, aiming to cross the stream at the bottom and make my way up the steep bank opposite which leads to smaller stone-walled fields at the summit.

I skid my way down to the stream, now swollen enough to question its designation as a stream- surely a river? Or, even… what qualifies as a torrent? I manage to find a way across, my left leg taking a brief bath to above the knee. My only available pathway up through large rocks is a thin path worn away by the feet of moor cattle and hikers. It’s currently a mass of hoof-marks pressed into mud at least six inches deep. Beyond this I start to climb through the fields. I pause here and there to frame up a shot on my GH4, but it’s too wet to get the Mamiya out.

Plate No. 1

At the top of the hill, I stand atop the small wooden platform that bridges a tall stonewall- down this hill and up again and it looks like open moor. I think about getting out the map, but it’s so wet that it hardly seems worth it. I look to my left, roughly South by South West- I estimate that the neighbouring hill, a good few hundred feet taller than the one I’m on, is about a mile away, from peak to peak. Looking ahead due West, out to the ‘moor proper’- I pick a point in the distance that I can aim towards, what looks like a crack in the landscape, what I take to be a small ravine approximately a mile away. I check my watch- probably take me about an hour to get to the ravine. As long as I keep the larger hill to the South West over my left shoulder, I will be able to find my way back. Piece. Of. Piss.

I set off, into the driving sleet, but there are several factors that I have failed to take into account, and which start to dawn on me in succession:

    • When it is cold and wet and windy, you tend not to move as fast as you might under fairer weather. Your energy drops off quickly, so your pace decreases the further on you go.

     • Sleet and wet weather mean that the moor becomes saturated. Moorland is essentially peat bog on top of granite- that’s like a sponge sat on bath being pounded by a shower-head. This means that thin tracks become rivers and possible pathways become impassable; you can look from one point to another and visualise a potential route between the two, but when you get nearer you find yourself walking on a foot high crash mats in high heels. Everything takes so much longer.

    • My suspicion/ hunch is that certain types of weather effect ones vision to the extent that measuring large distances becomes much more difficult, and therefore more inaccurate. Either that or I’m instinctually a terrible orienteer- but I don’t think so. I’ve always had a decent inner compass and I’m usually pretty good at guessing distance and pace. But I am reminded of a trip walking the Cornish coast when I kept on getting it all wrong- between looking at the map and observing neighbouring headlands further down the coast, I consistently failed to gauge distance and time correctly. The weather was fine, but I couldn’t get to grips with how the undulating terrain and the jagged nature of the coastal path- the ins and outs of peninsulas and coves- would effect my walking pace. So perhaps I can read distance but not terrain?

As I slog away into the freezing weather, hands tucked deep into pockets, something else comes to my mind, a practical tip swimming up to the surface of my consciousness, that would have been helpful a few hours ago, and which might as well serve as a fourth dawning, negative realisation:

     • Without the tripod for stability, in this wind, the Mamiya is next to useless- it’s very susceptible to any movement, so operating it hand held is a futile practice.


My face stings so much that I pull my hood way down over my face- my field of vision is now limited to a crooked oval about six inches in diameter: all I can see is two muddy feet making slow process through thick grass and puddles of surprisingly clear water, filtered I presume through the peat. I look over my left shoulder- through the mizzled haze I can see no hills behind me.

Walking as straight as I can manage, it takes me ninety minutes to reach the ravine- as I start to climb down the rocks towards a series of gushing, white water pools, the weather starts to relent a little. Light drizzle enables me to remove my hood, and I start to enjoy the noises of the water and the shelter the ravine provides from the wind.

I clamber up the river system for thirty minutes- I take a few snaps with my GH4, but my fingers aren’t working properly, still too cold in spite of thick, now wet, ski gloves. I resolve to just enjoy the experience of being in such a wild space- as a photography opportunity this is pretty much a wash out, but as an experience of being within the landscape I feel very connected to the environment around me. I sit on a rock, eating a chocolate bar- tired eyes get lost in the swirling vectors of clear, dark and reflective pools; ears relax in the white noise of the rushing water; my feet sigh, dangling over the edge of the rock; my shoulders sing at the absences of the heavy back-pack. It stops raining.

Breath caught, body somewhat rested, enthusiasm partially reset- after ten minutes I get to my feet and head up the bank of the ravine. By the top of the twenty foot gradual climb I’m exhausted again, but I’m pleased to see that the weather has cleared and the row of hills that indicate my return direction of travel back to the car are clearly visible. They are, however, much further away than I expected them to be.

I set off for the tallest one. It’s a slog- the ground is still an unfriendly as before, and the wind remains fierce, but at least the rain has stopped. It takes me an hour to get to the foot of the large hill. Another twenty-five minutes to climb it. I was hoping for some sense of achievement by the time I reach the granite piles at the summit, but I’m too hungry to take appreciate it. I’d be such a crap explorer, I tell myself- and then immediately berate myself for beating myself up. I’m so tired that I start to berate myself for berating myself, but manage to snap myself out of it. Handful of nuts.

Looking left and to the North I’m interested to note that the hill that I’d climbed up on my outward journey seems much closer than I thought- this somewhat fits with my theory that bad weather makes it harder to read distance. It feels so close that a part of me thinks it would be smart to walk across to it and head back down the way I came. But I am tempted by the slow, sloping decent to what looks like a relatively flat plain leading across to the road in the middle distance. The car is then just a little way down the road, tucked behind the wooded hillock. I look left and then ahead; to the left and ahead again; left; ahead.

In the spirit of adventure I head East, forwards and down the slope of the hill I’m on and towards the road. It becomes quickly apparent that this is a mistake: the instant the ground starts to level out my feet begin to sink a good eight to ten inches into the soil with each step. I try to re-route myself, playing a dangerous game that can only be called Clump Jump- leaping unsteadily from one large clump of tall grass to another in an effort to stop sinking. The aim of the game is clearly to break one or both of your ankles, an objective I come close to achieving on several occasions.

I look up, balancing on a particularly unstable clump- the rain has settled again, and the road seems somehow, impossibly, further away than it did at the top of the hill. It’s getting dark, and yet it’s early afternoon. I scout around at the ground ahead- to the left, to the right. The only clear path appears to lead away behind me and back up the hill. Fuck it.

Thirty minutes later I’ve back-tracked and I’m in the valley between the larger hill and the original hill with the high walled fields. I stumble up the latter- it seems as though someone has built another series of high walls in the short period of time since I was here last- I have to walk around the far side of the hill until I get to a wooden platform bridging the high wall, which is handily a mere thirty yards away from the one that I crossed over on my outward journey.

I skid and slide my way down through the fields; across the stream, which at least washes my boots clean; up the last/first hill, through the trees; down again just in time to get my boots and legs slathered in mud again by traversing through the quagmire track that is now in an appalling condition. Even the sheep are avoiding it.

I get back to the visitor’s centre and my car. The centre is still closed- I fumble and drop my keys twice trying get the key in the car door. Muddy gear off and boots swapped for shoes- all made slightly more complicated by the fact that I have to get into the car and drive forward five feet to get access to the car boot.

But I’m back- I’m dryish, and I’m starting to warm up in that painful way one does when ones extremities have gotten proper cold. Scotland cold. I drive the few miles to Two Bridges- I park outside the hotel and head into the cosy lounge. I get a sofa seat by one of the large fires. I order a pint of local ale and some food. Sat by the beautiful fire I can safely say that the beer was the nicest I’ve tasted in some time. I was steadily dozing by the time the food arrived.

Rested, I decided to explore the far South West of the moor in the late afternoon, all from the comfort of my car. I drive down past my favourite part of the moor- the place I know I will use as a location for some of my later cinematography experiments- and start to push out from here, down nameless, signless roads and tracks.

The weather is much improved- the sun threatens to put in an appearance, and while it’s still cold the wind has dropped considerably. The first place I visit is a series of old and abandoned mine buildings and fenced off shafts. The Mamiya gets its first outing and, with it suitably stabilised on the tripod, I relish playing with my new light meter and snapping of a roll of monochrome film.

Plate No. 2

Back in the car I examine the OS map. I look for a small road nearby that connects to an area of open ground- there’s a place just off the main road, about five miles South as the crow flies. Hopefully will be a patch of open moorland relatively untouched by habitation and telephone cables etc.

Back in the car and I enjoy twenty minutes of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s stunning score to The Revenant (2015). I have been so affected by this film, for obvious reasons. I saw the first trailer for it when I was preparing for my PhD review at the end of my first year, and included clips from the trailer in my video presentation. I’ve since watched it three times on the biggest screens I can find- on my own and in groups. In terms of landscape cinematography and moving image representations of the sublime landscape- that is the human against and lost within the landscape- it is an incredible example of expertly crafted story-telling.

NOTE: The Revenant would go on to form the backbone of three video papers that I would write and deliver at conferences later in 2016, particularly the work of DP Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezski who’s work with directors Malick, Inarritu and Cuaron is one of two key case studies for my PhD, alongside Werner Herzog.

I come to a junction where the track on the map appears to end- to the left is a grey, stony road- quite wide- that has been cut away into the moor. I head down this for about a mile, until the road comes up against a large bank of earth, six metres in height. The road bends left and continues along parallel to and in the shadow of the large embankment, into the distance across the moor.

I park up, hang my camera about my neck, pull up my hood and walk out into the dimming air. There is a path that has been worn into the bank- not steps, but clear footholds. At the top of this is a footpath leading away to the left and right along the long embankment. In front of me is a chain link fence weaved with barbed wire, and topped intermittently with razor wire. Through this a wide, rough roadway of dirty-white clay and fist-sized rocks is criss-crossed with the wide tyre marks of a heavy, industrial vehicles.

I walk along a little way and find a spot where the fence is scaleable. Once over I cross the clay road, about fifteen meters in length, until I come to another embankment, around a metre high. Peering over this I look down and out over a lunar surface.

Plate No. 3

What 20 yards behind me was rising moorland of muted browns and oranges and greens and purples, in front of me is a pit about 5 miles across, dug down to maybe 150 metres in places, and de-coloured various but consistent shades of grey.

The change of colour to monochrome is shocking- like the very life has been sucked out of the landscape.

The change in terrain too is unsettling- from geology that is rolling and undulating, rising above the horizon line and punctuated with large granite rocks; to a subterranean, brutally carved building site, bleached  and complete with toy diggers smoking away in the distance (far right in Plate No. 2). In the distance (top left of Plate No. 2) there are hints of the yellow-green moor beyond. In the middle of the pit there is a large lake of milky water.

The overwhelming feelings I have are loss and a sense of hopelessness- I am surprised at the weight of feeling that I have about this landscape before me. I take a moment to just stand and look. I’m cold and my muscles ache from my mornings hike.

I squeeze off a series of shots- NOTE: for reference of scale Plate No. 2 represents a 180° panoramic view and is stitched together from four 4608 × 2592 stills.

I am struck by how expressive an aerial shot would be in depicting this sudden change of environment- a topographical shot looking directly down from a great height, moving over the landscape as it changes from the muted yet striking colours of the moor to the greys and whites and milkiness of the quarry.

I take a GPS reading on an app that I use when location scouting, The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE)- this marks a spot on a map that subsequently enables you to gauge the direction and elevation of the sun at any given time on any given day of the year, future or past. I will come back here, with technology that gives me a much greater range of height.

Back at the car, I also mark the road and the quarry in pen on my OS map. I take a moment to try to imagine what this space might have looked when this map was published, which was only two years ago. My mind turns to the china clay pits of my Cornwall- to the industry that still functions there today, although in a much lesser capacity. I think briefly of the reclamation of one of these quarries that is the Eden Project. I realise that I have no idea what china clay is, or exactly what gets made out of it. I don’t even know that this is what is being quarried here- they could be digging for any mineral or element, as far as I know. I wonder how many other quarries there are in the district? How many working mines?

Rain falls fast on the windshield. I sit in the drivers seat, flicking through music on my i-phone. My tired mind drifts: How many countless minerals and materials go into the construction of my phone? How many people are exploited in it’s construction? And how many landscapes altered beyond recognition, forever changed, in countries I’ll never visit, in order that I can have the latest technology in my pocket?

My arms feel heavy. I select In the White Silence by John Luther Adams, toss my phone onto the passenger seat and drive away.

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