Sanctum: A Horse Ride on South Dartmoor

Trail to moor viewed over horse's headNegotiating the winding track to the moor is always the hardest part. The peaty water rushes off the beacon polishing the large slabs of granite as it gushes down towards the village. Here, it unknowingly meets the River Erme and begins its winding passage to Bigbury Bay where it disperses amid a restless and weary ocean. The deep grey, marbled effect of the rocks, dappled with the dancing shadows of sheltering trees, contrasts with the emerald green velvet cushions of moss that creep over and encapsulate everything. Early morning sun pierces through the branches and snowdrops peek out from the thicket as we clamber through an enchanted and magical landscape. The rhythmical clatter of hooves alongside the creaking of leather and the delicate choral hum of birds soon drown out the distant drone of the dreary main road. That familiar, faint smell of tack polish mixed with sweet haylage and the slight dampness of a fur coat remind me that I’m home.

As the track nears its end, the rich, honeyed scent of wild gorse and heather fills my nostrils. The track unfolds into a familiar opening. The last of the heavy morning haze lingers just beneath the summit, concealing the deep auburn coats of those few deer brave enough to venture onto the moorland after sunrise. There is a small area of open meadow, naturally enclosed by wild shrubbery, which is more often than not guarded by the fending shadow of the beacon. At the top end of the opening, there is a small verge, right on the foothill, and we turn around to look back down at what we’ve accomplished so far. I peer in between those pricked, silver dappled ears, fringed with a coarse blonde mane and look down on the South Hams countryside, quilted together by hedgerows and tiny tarmac veins connecting the sparse villages like a dot to dot all the way to the coast.

summer bluebells at holwell lawn on dartmoor national park in devon

I have always thought this is my own little secret place. I convince myself that surely no one besides us can know that this magical sanctum is even here. I remember the many summer evenings spent here as a child, racing around on muddy ponies with the idyllic backdrop of a lilac heather cloak and golden yellow gorse flowers, caramelised with the last of a burnt-orange sun as it dipped behind the beacon. We used to build little jumps by weaving together old branches, or we would play Cowboys and Indians and hurtle around bareback with feathers and flowers decorating the bridles and use mud to paint on our faces and around our ponies’ eyes.

Everything seemed possible on those hot, clear evenings, where the seamless sky was dyed with crimson purples and deep magentas which amassed in streaks and swirls like a living watercolour. We forgot the burden of school and exams, the pressure of teachers and parents and the fear of our future that had been instilled in so many of us from such a young age. Instead, we would stay out until the glittering stars littered the sky and our t-shirts clung to our backs desperate for warmth. I remember heaving the aged, solid oak front door and lifting the latch as slowly and delicately as I could as to avoid the clunk ringing through the entire house. I don’t think I ever succeeded. Far too heavy handed, I was always caught by Dad, gingerly confined to the doormat due to the sheer amount of Devon mud I had managed to cover myself in. But he never minded. Instead, he would chuckle, eager to hear of my latest adventure on the beacon.

This essay is written in memory of my pony, Dougal, who I sadly lost last year and who enjoyed walking on the beacon as much as I did.

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Top photo by the author.  Bottom photo by Helen Hotson.