Ceri Rees takes us across Devon in record time
It’s eight weeks to go until D Day and I’m hobbling around the house, barely able to get down the stairs. A slip on some granite steps on the South West Coast path near home, has resulted in a slither of muscle being stripped away on my thigh. Sporting a 10 inch graze, it looks like I’ve been raked over by a lock forward’s studs.
“It looks like I’ll have to postpone. Unless things change for the better soon,” I tell Patrick. As I haven’t managed so much as a plod to the post box.
A large fist like bump has emerged on the outer edge of my thigh, which the physio says is the result of a sheath of muscle rolling up like a venetian blind. The slight adjustments to proprioception from secondary muscles stepping in to compensate, has led to lower back pain on my first few runs, three weeks after the accident. Of course an alternative diagnosis could read, ‘you’re getting older’. But I decide to file that one away marked denial for a few more years.
It is three months since I first discussed the challenge with Patrick Devine Wright, who once ran the South west coast path in 14 days. I was keen to pick his brains about being in the pain zone and liked his beneath-the-radar approach. Although it did mean that it would probably be me who’d be doing most of the Facebook posts to garner support for our chosen charities! CALM and Farms for City Children!
His suggestion had also coincided with an idea for a Two Moors ultra race I’d been organising, mainly in my head, for the last 18 months.
The route follows part of the old coach road from Lynmouth to Ivybridge (which actually started in Barnstable and went to Princetown via Morchard Bishop) and links Britain’s two largest southern National Parks, Exmoor and Dartmoor, as well as a series of footpaths, including the Mariner’s Way and the Tarka Trail.
The 40-year-old version was trail blazed by a Devon man, the late Joe Turner and his wife Pat in 1976. The Turner’s efforts went unpaid and they must have walked it dozens of times in order to find the most logical route and to keep it maintained.
In 2005, it was extended to include Wembury, which added 15 miles to the journey via the Erme-Plym trail and it continues for approximately another 102 miles to Lynmouth across England’s third biggest county.
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My alarm wakes me at 4.30am, just enough time for porridge and toast before collecting our drop bags with maps, spare shoes, water and food. On the drive to the start, we enter the fringes of Exmoor and see our first sign of ice. We wonder if it will be hard under foot. No such luck!
We ditch Pat’s car in Lynmouth and head to the esplanade to start our watches. We realise with sheepish grins that we haven’t yet worked out how to switch our trackers on! Within 400 metres Patrick has run in to a set of railings, having turned to survey our first footpath sign, taking us up above the Myrtle Valley. He complains for the one and only time on this run.
The first few miles feel surreal, as we pick our way over boggy upland terrain on what my Suunto Ambit and Patrick’s map, tells us is the Two Moors Way. Patrick points to the mid horizon. A line of antlers silhouetted against the sky, reveals we have spectators, seemingly dispassionate at our advance.
The first 8 miles are largely run in silence, as we both look inwards. Me examining the occasional back spasm and Pat, I imagine, wondering about his luckless collision. I ask Pat if he has seen the artist Richard Long’s straight line walk, where he endeavours to walk a straight 10 mile line through whatever terrain he comes across. With all the gates and fields and combes we have to negotiate, we consider where this direct approach would leave us in terms of bruises and farmer’s fists. We decide not to try it.
As we reach the edge of Exmoor, we are back on familiar turf, having previously recced the section all the way to Knowstone. We reach a plane, where we survey Exmoor and the 15 miles or so we have just run and then the far horizon, where we can see a pale wall rise like a distant wave. ‘Dartmoor’ we both agree. “Only 85 odd miles to go.”
Passing through Withypool, I smell coffee and Pat senses water taps. We fill up respectively, he with water, me with caffeine (a single expresso). I feel almost ecstatic to get my first shot of coffee for the day. Is this a bad sign? This charges us all the way along the banks of the Bale and across the Tarr Steps. Sue Viccars, chairman of the TMWA and Editor of Dartmoor Magazine, had told me that this section of the route is under consideration of a re route, because the TMWA is keen to alleviate the granite stones from being corroded further by constant footfall. This serves as a reminder: Even granite has its limits.
We approach Knowstone, our first bag drop, about 30 miles in. In Mid Devon there are few places to get food, unless you have the time and money to stop at Knowstone Manor, a Michelin star gastro pub, where you can get a nice plate of fillet of halibut with saffron ragout for the price of a good Silva compass.
We are both happy about how fresh we feel. It has taken us 5 hours 45 to get here, which averages a bit under 5 miles an hour. This we calculate, would get us to Ivybridge in 20 hours, well inside our back-of-the-envelope target of 24 hours to 27 hours.
We are both feeling pretty relaxed about whether we make this schedule or not however, as we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves. The northerly wind, which would have made life difficult in a south to north crossing, has been behind us and the rain so far, has stayed away. We pass close to Knowstone Manor, where a bungalow now stands on the site, which was once intended as Hitler’s residence, should the planned invasion have been successful.
We remember where we left the cooler box and stop for five minutes to munch on a pork pie and sweet potato. Pat seems to eat like a bird and I question my decision to pack enough for two!
The landscape has become a patchwork blanket of farmer’s fields, with cloggy mud which clings to your shoes. The watch which, although Patrick may not admit it, has served us well, lets us down a bit, as my crudely hand drawn lines sometimes take us on the wrong side of field boundaries. The contrast in profile brings us joy rather than hindrance. We pass a tree, which three weeks earlier, I’d way marked as a lucky charm. “If the leaves are still intact when we pass, our luck will be in and vis versa,” I’d told Pat. It turns out, we are lucky. We run past dead ravens and pigeons, which Pat thinks have been savaged by a large bird of prey.
It starts to turn cold in the gathering gloom after crossing the A361, one of two tarmac arteries on route. We chat about our families, the commercialisation of running and adventures we have planned. Patrick, I feel is a kindred spirit. He acknowledges that you can prepare all you like but not control the outcome and his preparations seem to take this in to account.
We run through pretty villages with thatched roofs, like Wetheridge and Morchard Bishop, where Ernest Bevan was brought up and where one of the four commemorative stones were laid to mark the route. The other three are in Ivybridge, Drewsteignton and Lynmouth.
Our thoughts start to turn to whether Gavin will still be waiting at the Drewe Arms in Drewsteinton, when we arrive and what he will have with him. Luckily his was able to track us on the open tracking website and so has predicted our time of arrival. It turns out he is a guardian angel with vast supplies. We knock back two or three coffees, some warm soup and malt loaf, before heading in doors to change our socks. It summons all our powers of resolve not to order a pint of Guinness. A folksinger strums his guitar and two punters show their incredulity that we have just run from Lynmouth and are still going. The bar girl can hardly speak, which makes us both grin from ear to ear.
Such genuine astonishment seems a million miles from the Facebook world of ultra running, where centurions are common place. Our response has already begun to ring true and we have formed an idea of why we are doing this!
“This is Devon’s Bob Graham.”
Any long distance runner who lives within striking distance of the Lake District has considered the holy grail of challenges that is a Bob Graham Round. In Devon we have at either end, two large breathing masses of moorland, which beg to be linked up: Exmoor and Dartmoor. One hundred odd miles from end to end, passing through wild expanses, a patchwork of farmer’s fields with shooting parties and river banks and small villages with thatched roofs on route. ‘You don’t see this on a bob Graham,’ I think.
It is hard to get going again and our 30 minute stop has left us feeling stiff, as we begin to run flat footed. It takes us at least a mile to start running again, as we head down towards then Teign Valley Dogmarsh bridge, on our way to Chagford. I still feel incredibly grateful to Gavin, who drove from near Taunton to offer his support. I knew him when I was a reporter in Bournemouth as we both belonged to Poole Runners. Gavin is also a master navigator and one of the best in the country for his age. It is Gavin’s generosity that keeps me going at this stage, just as we reach our first real navigational challenge.
We run on in the darkness, relying less and less now on Patrick’s map, which is too small to help us in the dark without stopping constantly. This is the section that neither of us has recced but I feel confident about my navigation, once we reach Fernworthy Reservoir. I do not yet realise it but I have handicapped myself by following a simple line on my watch for the previous 70 odd miles. Putting my faith in technology. But 17 hours in to the run, my watch fails (I have left my charger in my bag back at Pat’s). No problem. We still have a map and my knowledge of Dartmoor to fall back on. While I am a competent navigator with a good knowledge of Dartmoor, I still feel disorientated in the dark as the cold grips me for the first time.
As anyone who has navigated at night will know, it is a whole different ball game to navigating in daylight. You cannot rely on visual clues to confirm your location, so you have to rely on micro navigation skills to get you through, something that I teach in my navigation classes. Pat’s navigation should not be bad, I surmise, as he often runs orienteering routes and with Dartmoor Runners who practice runs with an element of navigation. Still we do not put too much faith in each other’s abilities, probably for the best.
I regret my casual decision to not bring a compass, as we select a bearing based on Pat’s map and follow it for what seems like an eternity. We manage to carve an almost perfect S shape, after deciding to relocate. We have dropped down too early towards the road and must bear back. This takes us on to the road A3212 which leads us almost to the Warren House Inn. The Inn, which is one of my favourites, is supposedly the third highest in England. The peat fire which burns within, has allegedly been going since 1845. But this won’t help us now. No sign of life from where we have to turn off the road.
From here it’s a simple bearing (less simple without a compass) to get us to Grimpspound and the Hameldown Ridge. Hameldown Beacon stands at 360m and marks the rise up from the Bronze Age settlement that is Grimpspound, once the site of 24 stone huts and a sheepfold, the ruins of which Arthur Conan Doyle once slept in with a mate, before he got his inspiration for Hound of the Baskervilles. On nights like tonight, it is easy to see where Dartmoor gets its Gothic characterisation. The hound that is chasing us now though, is hunger and cold. Add to this list the beginnings of an injury.
Although Pat still seems to be skipping along, he is showing signs of shivering, so I’m pleased to get down to Jordan and out of the wind and ice beneath our feet. It is here I experience my first real low, as I realise I have done something to my ankle. The ligaments feel strained and I am forced to walk for more than a mile for the first time. So my limitations on this run will be physical more than mental.
Somewhere close to midnight, I ring my dad who was supposed to drop some provisions at New Bridge and return home. I am embarrassed to discover he has decided to stay out and sleep in his car because he wants to be sure that we get the soup. For the second time in 24 hours, I am overcome with gratitude, although this feeling grapples with guilt that my 76 year old man has put himself out so much out for us. He also tells us he has seen another runner who is heading out to meet us. “Bring a spare torch” I say, as both my and Pat’s torches seem to be on the blink and my spare is still ahead of us at New bridge.
It’s nearly 3am as a spectral vision comes out of the dark towards us. The first thing I notice, apart from the spare head torch in his outstretched hand, is he is wearing shorts! He must be mad, I think. He is lean and wearing a beanie and skips ahead with some words of encouragement. Pat, who knows him but is as surprised as me to see him, tells me his name is Skippy!
After crossing the clapper bridge over the Avon, we reach the last eight miles or so of the Two Moors Way which follows the old red lake railway, known locally as the ‘puffer billy trail.’ I can confirm that these last few miles of granite girders and gnarly stone, continue for at least 500 miles!
I am walking with a limp now and can see Pat disappearing over the horizon, about half a mile away. He has gone ahead with Skippy, presumably because he is cold or just keen to reach the finish. It’s the first time I feel alone. Compounded by my left hip flexor, which has given up the ghost. But I am in no doubt now that we will finish. I have been wondering for the past three hours why the Nurofen I took at New Bridge hasn’t kicked and can still feel my injured ankle, when suddenly it does and I am running again.
I catch up with Pat at the southernmost tip of Dartmoor, on the edge of Ivybridge. There also to meet us are Thorsten and Anna, who have been tracking our progress online, and have come to meet us with coffee and home baked cinnamon biscuits. I could kiss both of them but don’t. Pat, myself and Skippy head to our designated finish line at Ivybridge train station, close to where my car awaits. I don’t feel so much elated as relieved. Our finishing time of 26 hours 35 minutes is just inside our fall back time, although we haven’t quite got within the magical 24 hours, we have the satisfaction of knowing we can do this and as far as we know it is a BKT for the route.
* * * *
It’s three weeks on from the effort and I am writing this with a crystal clear memory of our run.
One of the things that’s clear about ultra running, is the impression the landscape makes upon you. The images stay with you but the pain does not.
Another question I almost never get asked (and there are many)…
What do you think about when you’re running for that long? As a teenager I had a natural disposition towards day dreaming, while I was at school. Something which is viewed as an anathema to successful living in western culture. In fact it often inspires derision. I now think that such journeys, especially when moving at speed, which requires a certain amount of concentration at the same time, are an antidote to such distracting habits. Certainly there is nowhere else to be in your mind or imagination. It is right here on the Two Moors Way!
Who were we?
We were sailors reliving the much more painful journeys of our ancestors on the Mariners Way, we were monks on the Abbots Way and probably a couple of seagulls whose wayward compasses have taken them too far inland. We were not elite athletes, since elite athletes probably would have had all their gear subsidised and may not have had quite as many Melton Mowbray’s as I had.
And why else did we do it?
At the other end of the country, in allegedly, the warmest part of England, there was no glacial retreat to carve big chasms and arêtes in the landscapes.
Once upon a time, instead of mountains, we had forests which decayed and were turned to bog and granite tors which breached the surface like miniature volcanoes. And more recently the plethora of trails which waymarked our ancestor’s attempts to find work, or god or to get to sea.
We had the luxury of doing it as a leisure pursuit. But in what direction? Over subsequent weeks, we veered from south to north (less climb we thought and with the prevailing south westerly winds Pat thought). We left it to the very end, which was the right decision, with the wonderful power of hindsight.
If you feel moved to sponsor our effort, even though it’s finished, you can do it at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ceri-pat where we are 68 per cent towards achieving our target or https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/cerimadocrees
If you feel inspired, you can enter the Two Moors Ultra, Castle to Coast 50 or Lynmouth Marathon on September 29 and 30th here.