Walking back to happiness – in south Devon’s hidden places


I am a cautious walker. Not on account of the terrain or incline but, since lockdown, because of those I might meet on the way, wondering if there will be room for us to pass safely.

Although lockdown restrictions have eased – and I am in the countryside, seemingly far from the crowds – I don’t yet feel like Julie Andrews waltzing through a mountain meadow in The Sound of Music. It has been edgier, nervier. I have taken note of small victories: first time outside the house, the path, first return to fields.

I have dreamed of Devon’s wide open spaces – the heather and gorse of the moors, the shining coastal waters – but have found once quiet footpaths much busier. Seeking the less travelled routes – those that have felt safer for people like me, who are learning to walk again – I have come to Devon’s hidden places. The hollow sites of caves near the Teign valley, abandoned railway lines beneath the Haldon Hills and glinting pools secreted by oak in the shielded parts of the Dart.

The village of Doddiscombsleigh, or Doddy as my father called it, lies five miles south-west of Exeter and a mile east of the River Teign. Just outside the village, the woodland area of Scanniclift Copse is a secluded spot with a profusion of softly springing mosses. Growing in cities, on asphalt and doorstep mats as well as woodlands, mosses can offer green company to those not living in the countryside and without access to gardens. Although not all welcome them, I find they have much to say about endurance, with their ingenious water system that allows them to survive for long periods without rain, despite not having roots – able to dry out completely and come back to life at the first touch of water, as though resurrected. Wistman’s Wood, 20 miles to the west in Dartmoor national park, hogs the local mossy fame, but at larger, lesser-known Scanniclift, lush clumps line boulders, the forest floor and the towering oak and ash trees.

Now managed by Devon Wildlife Trust, this copse used to be a working woodland, and quarry caves provide reminders of the area’s mining history. My ancestors once ran manganese workings in this area and, as I peer deep into the dark cave mouths, the Earth offers a moment of stillness that seems to dwarf the inactivity of the past months.

The Teign Valley, Devon.
The Teign Valley. Photograph: Andrew Payne/Alamy

Walking is so effective at bringing perspective – problems appear in their correct proportions once you’ve walked them out. Here, whole centuries of hollowness echo from the cave’s mouth. After taking a mossy amble around the 1km circular route of the copse, I’ll often follow the main road into the village and come to rest in the NoBody Inn (now open, Tue-Sun). It may not have been here as long as the mosses but its evocative building is traceable to the Domesday Book.

I walk a couple of miles north-east on a disused railway line near the village of Ide, less than a mile south-west of Exeter. Some of Ide’s fields offer panoramic views across the city, with the cathedral and River Exe, while others look high into the Haldon Hills. In coming here, I am once more following my ancestors, as my family have lived in Ide since the 19th century, with one relation in particular known for walking long distances over the fields.

My great-great-grandfather, Granfer Wills, a farm labourer, would travel on foot to work in the neighbouring farms. According to my father, a local historian, he “would take his hook with him and if he found it difficult to cross over a hedge, would use his hook to make a stile”. I do one of these walks now – cross-country from Haynes Farm to Halscombe Lane, across the Fordland brook, the railway line and close by the old quarry.

The latter part of this walk is known locally and forms part of a popular circular walk that begins at the community shop in Ide and heads along Fore Street and up the High Street, turning right at the roundabout into Station Road (which becomes Halscombe Lane) and right into Westown Road, approaching West Town Farm on the left.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett south Devon.
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett in south Devon. Photograph: Rebecca Thomas

The railway line can be accessed by footpaths through West Town Farm land, but I take Granfer Wills’s starting point, from Haynes Farm, a little further along towards Longdown. There are echoes of him as I reach the stile at the corner of the field opposite the farm, where I picture him wielding a hook, laying the ground open.

Just a few fields away, an exceptional blood-burst of soil awaits, where the earth was cut away to make way for the since-abandoned railway line. I am drawn to this red earth every bit as much as my relation, as I move over the stile and down the field along the footpath before crossing the brook. It is too small for swimming here but the brook will thicken out as it leaves the village on its way towards Exeter. I have entered it further along on its journey, felt the cold of its water on my body, so now just the twinkle of its skin leaves me brimming with the scent of swimming.

I scale the next field, eventually emerging close to the old railway line. It is here that time begins to slow, before being held, suspended, in the crevices of the Earth. In the jutting breccia stone (broken fragments of rock cemented together) lie clasts of purple-weathered vesicular basalt and lava – traces of the Earth’s crust stretching, millions of years before the railway, Granfer Wills, or any people were here. These moments at the Stanniclift cave mouths and the old railway cutting seem to hold time in the body and the body in time, both of us frozen in the fringes of the Earth’s deep history.

Not quite so ancient but still venerable are two pubs in Ide, The Huntsman and The Poachers Inn (both now open daily). If the fields are still calling, West Town Farm offers accommodation in a revamped shepherd’s hut.

The river Dart running through the town of Totnes.
The River Dart running through Totnes. Photograph: Kevin Britland/Alamy

Just as I have begun to move with more ease on land, I find I cannot resist the pull of the water. The Dart was the first river I swam in, in childhood. Parts of it, such as the estuary area at Dartmouth, are much frequented, but there are inland stretches with cold, clear pools, moss-lined rocks and overhanging oaks in the section between Totnes and the village of Staverton to the north.Along here, after following a footpath to the river from Dartington Hall, I feel the slip of eroded bark beneath the balls of my feet, the slick of dripping mosses, as I step, then slide into water.

As I pull under, time, once more, turns trickster. Here, instead of the suspended moments offered by caves and chasms, a sequence of memories emerges. Early swims in the Dart as a child – heat, laughter, noise and play. Later swims, alone – cooler, quieter and dappled with oak. All these times are present with the lift and fall of the head, layering over themselves in the water’s palimpsest. While my ancestors also settled in the nearby village of Berry Pomeroy, it is the more-than-human residents that I connect with most here – the cool mosses underwater and on cow-nudged banks, the insects flitting and quick birds that flank.

I wander the banks heading north, then curving westward, stopping to swim along the way. When I pull into the present, it is at Still Pool, near Staverton, viewing a haze of water through a dragonfly’s wing, the sudden blue of a kingfisher’s wing and a higher, chattering loop of swallows. The taste of peat falls from the lips as nostrils flood with rosehip. Like the mosses, I come to life with the water.

The old stone bridge over the River Dart at Staverton.
The old stone bridge over the Dart at Staverton. Photograph: Neil McAllister/Alamy

Still Pool is a perfect swimming spot for all abilities – deep water enables full immersion, while stepping-stones provide anchor for those in need of it and a swing rope beckons to the young or young-at-heart. To reach the pool from Staverton village, follow the path into the woods, cross via a sluice and keep to the rough woodland track before emerging at a sandy beach where there is easy access to the pool. Those preferring to stay ashore can take a number of woodland paths along the river through the Dartington Estate, with a choice of refreshment at one of its cafes (takeaway only) or the White Hart pub, or in Staverton’s 15th-century Sea Trout Inn.

I am still a cautious walker. Instead of hills alive with the sound of music, I seek quiet caves, shaded pools and rocky ruins. Not yet as fully resurrected as the mosses who are quick to resume life – to be themselves again at the first touch of rain – I, too, begin again. In the hollows of the landscape I grew up in, I find new ways to let the light in.