Yesterday was a day to collect wood, and the forest was misty with a dusting of snow, but none on the paths. The Belvedere looked much bigger, magnified by the mist, and the woods below were just lacy smudges, lines against the sky and the hill. The Challenge trail was dark and dripping, and at the top the tors of Dartmoor were barely visible.
Today however, I was at those tors, and the walk to Haytor Rock parallel to the road (from the Widecombe to Bovey Tracey direction) was brooding with snow on one side, and thick mist shifting and changing the landscape extraordinarily from each level and bend in the road. The way up one tor had it all - ice, snow, mud, sleet and fog! Although not too much of any of them, but the fog turned me back as it seemed pointless to trudge through the sludge for no view. Turning instead toward Hay Tor, where the panoramas opened up and closed in with amazing frequency and sudden splendour or menace.
One vista was darkness and snowy slopes reaching up to where fog obscured the top (from where we'd just come). Below us the land fell away toward a sea of mist that gave way to farther views where the sunlight had been on the way to Widecombe, but was no longer. Then up ahead, dark greys alternating with luminous white or strange ragged lights at the base of the sky. The sleet turned to rain and then eased, the wind was at our backs and the mists were all the product of the swiftly melting snows and ice.
As we walked, the landscape dripping and running with thaw water, the afternoon darkened - was it getting late already, being January? No, it was the mist and the fog, black clouds above. Hound Tor was visible, sudden views of the vale, then closing in and covered soon after. When we got to the bottom of Hay Tor, the cloud base was like a great shadow which seemed to be eating up the world. Ahead, the rocks of the Tor itself loomed like intense black gates, forbidding and of incredible sharpness against all the greys and mists and gloom. Walking up the Tor, tiny pieces of ice were scattered about like confetti made of crystals, and at the top, the silhouette of my fellow walker was unreal in its dramatic effect standing black against the darkness with the black rocks to the right. As I gained the flat summit, to my amazement, everything changed, as the vale below on the other side, previously unseen, all came into view with spectacular transformation - the sun must have been shining far to the left on the snaking road which glittered like a silver thread, and ahead in the vale there was colour in the landscape, all greens and blues instead of the white and black through which we'd walked, and the sky above that particular vale was brightness and white, with hints of blue, it was like a vignette of Heaven, with just to the right, the darkness so intense and so set off by the rocks as a frame, that it undoubtedly looked like Hell. John Martin's paintings were the only metaphor I could use to describe the mind-blowing contrasts of the panorama all around - 'The Great Day of His Wrath' on one side or 'Judgement Day' on the other? It took one's breath away, and I was truly grateful to have caught such special effects of weather and Moor, on a day when one might have thought that with all the fog and mist, that one would hardly see much at all. As I turned back (having run out of time), the afternoon thinking of turning into evening, the way looking back toward Exeter and the Sea, was storm-black, punctuated by lights that only acted to accentuate the theatre of sheer menace that such a light and such a cloudscape spoke of. In a sinister failing light against that terrifying backdrop, I made my way back to the van lost in wonder. Every special effect we have is drawn from an idea first given in nature, and every horror film, every black and white photograph, every dried ice scene, every supernatural theatre production, perhaps Tolkien's Mordor all owed their origins ultimately to days such as this.
It was beyond description or compare, and I am well aware that to make the attempt is to fall short and indeed to run out of words to paint the picture. But in homage to it, I had to try. What a way to start the New Year, marvelling at the marvellous, half out of one's senses and lost in the theatre effects of the world-stage. All hail to Dartmoor.
Forgive the purple prose, I have just received a copy of Ann Radcliffe's 'Mysteries of Udolpho' for Christmas, and the novel is more poetry than prose. I had read it before, but she was a writer who helped to define the Romantic movement in terms of uniting and codifying the picturesque by writing novels as travel writing combined with classic paintings imagery in the very late 1700's. Suffice to say, it was then, a completely Radcliffian afternoon.
Exeter Respect Festival
4 years ago