The owners of flat hats and even flatter vowels tend to think there’s nowt much in the way of hills south of Manchester and when it comes to romantically desolate moors and swirling mists, the Bronte sisters, despite the best efforts of Conan Doyle, R D Blackmore and Daphne du Maurier, seem to have established a monopoly. What is often forgotten by the denizens of Mytholmroyd and Pudsey is that the magic figure of 2000ft above sea level, the figure that distinguishes a mountain from a mere bump, is also to be found some 300 odd miles south west.
As a recent visit confirmed, the moors surrounding the County Tops of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset can equal anything Ilkley can throw at you with or without the appropriate headgear and in High Willays (2038ft) have, depending where you stand both literally and figuratively on Black Mountain, the only hill with the requisite height south of the Peak District. As it is a long way from anywhere it is best to combine the three in a round trip and, while planning the detail, give yourself a bit of elbow room to take into account the vagaries of both the weather and Her Majesty’s armed forces. When it comes to High Willays, it is not only the legendary Dartmoor mists and bogs that can be off-putting. The summit slopes lie within the Okehampton Firing Range and if you don’t check your dates, you may find yourself escorted off the premises by a man on a horse. Mind you, he has to find you to catch you and if my experience is anything to go by, any law enforcer would have to be practically picking your pocket before he could issue whatever is the current version of “Who goes there?”
The day began easily enough with a little light rain playfully pattering on the anorak hood and the occasional pocket of mist producing a couple of false starts. But, eventually, we found both our bearings and shelter in the lee of Black Tor in what was little more than a gale. Any sign of a further path appeared to have either petered out or disappeared under the deluge. The compass pointed due south towards a sodden mixture of ever steepening heather and bog. The head pointed due north to the comforts of the nearest public house. The mist was growing steadily thicker, when in an act of perversity, it suddenly lifted to reveal not only the boundary posts that marked the edge of the range, but also a figure standing as motionless as any of those poles. A native, I thought, who perhaps knows some cunning way through the seeming morass. The mist closed once more and I made a beeline towards what might be a vital piece of local knowledge. A couple of hundred yards later I stumbled upon him. He appeared transfixed. Though not exactly grey beard and glistening eye, there was more than a touch of the Ancient Mariner about him, seemingly anxious to clutch the sleeve of any convenient passer-by. Closer examination showed that he was in fact clutching what appeared to be some sort of GPS device which he was waving around like a dowsing rod. The instrument might have known where it was, but it was clear he didn’t, seemingly awaiting further instructions of the take the third exit left at the next roundabout variety.
Feeling the kindest thing would be a discreet withdrawal, we continued on our way. It would be best drawing a veil over the next half hour or so. Half-hearted sheep tracks inevitably ending in a knee-deep bog, unstable rocks cunningly camouflaged by heather, not to mention particularly vicious tufts of grass did little to expedite progress. Such enthusiasm as I had left was fortified only by the hope there would be a good path connecting the popular traverse between Yes Tor and the County Top and, once reached, this purgatory would end. The watershed (and never was there a more apt term) duly arrived. The path as predicted was there, but such had been the passage of countless feet that it was now under a good foot of water. Onward, ever onward! County Tops must be ticked.
Brown Willy (Cornwall) and Dunkery Beacon (Somerset) proved altogether more amenable. The ascent of the former is little more than a Sunday afternoon stroll as witnessed by strewn crocodiles of patriarchs, children and wives clutching flat-faced dogs. We, as befits experienced mountaineers, eschewed the well-worn highways and took a short cut across a field of what is locally known as clitter. You will not be surprised to learn that by the time we breasted the ridge, father, child, wife and Peke were already halfway through their afternoon picnic.
The ascent of the latter is straightforward. You either park at the bottom of the road and climb 400ft directly to the summit drive a mile up to the top of the road and saunter along a virtually level path to the same place. Either way you reach a splendid summit cairn with equally splendid views. It might at this point be worth mentioning ponies. The Exmoor pony differs from the Bodmin and Dartmoor version. They are far better travelled – remnants being found in Alaska – and, at least on our trip, more intrusive. The Bodmin ponies kept their distance (no doubt put off by the plethora of bipeds) while the Dartmoor variety very sensibly sought shelter during our attempt at swimming through liquid heather. On Exmoor, however, they cantered around the parked cars in a manner reminiscent of the Cowboy and Indian films of my youth, every now and then stopping in a somewhat heroic pose, clearly hoping to be the centrepiece of a selfie.