The Wind in the Willhays (Dartmoor 3) (+ puzzle)

A deliberate mistake and an accidental one here.

The Dartmoor Muni Weekend is over, but I have stayed in Devon as my girlfriend lives nearby. Yesterday (Tuesday) I went for a ride on my own in the Okehampton Range.

The north west part of Dartmoor is wilder and more thinly-populated than the rest of the moor, and a large part of it is set aside for military training. At the back of the small town of Okehampton is the imaginatively-named Okehampton Camp, and behind this is Okehampton Range where, out of season, soldiers merrily fire chunks of our tax revenue at each other and generally nurture the moorland habitat with their tank tracks.

For much of the year, the public can go on certain areas of the range as long as the red flags aren’t flying, and they promise not to pick up any unexploded munitions.

Plan A was for me to go for a gentle ride, find some suitable rocks and practise some micro-muni skills like hopping and doing small drops. My demon normally makes me choose distance over technical difficulty, and some of the weaknesses in my riding were brought to my attention when I saw how some of the other riders negotiated difficult rocky areas.

However, it is not long (about 5 seconds) before Plan B kicks in. I have parked at the side of the road, and I can see three tors stretching away from me in almost a perfect line, and in increasing order of size. The furthest one is High Willhays (amusingly pronounced “High Willies”). High Willhays is the highest point on Dartmoor, and suddenly I know I have to try to ride to the top of it.

I start at about 390 metres above sea level, and set off down a rough and stony track. This drops me down to 370 metres (the lowest point of the ride - in terms of altitude, at least) and a small ford. Early in the ride, I have no wish to get wet feet, so I cross using the stepping stones, and remount.

Sharp turn left and up a tarmac road which climbs steeply. Riding alone, I have no pressure to maintain a high speed, and I revert to my normal plodding, grunting but determined style. There is a strong wind following me, and it seems to help. In the space of just under a kilometre, I have climbed to around 450 metres, and I reward myself with a stop and a drink…

… from my almost completely empty Camelbak. I should have checked - I even had a bottle of water in the car. I have set off to ride to Dartmoor’s highest point with (a) no water and (b) no food - not so much as a slice of Soreen, thickly spread with butter. I have visions of myself, pathetically coughing out my last on the upper slopes of High Willhays, as other climbers ignore my plight and press on for the summit, leaving me for dead. With luck, I may be able to crawl heroically down the hill, write a book, and retire on the proceeds.

Undeterred, I remount and press on. From where I rested, the tarmac road becomes broken stones and rock, and UPDs come every 50 metres or so. Pacing myself, I treat every fall as an opportunity to regain my breath before remounting. In sections varying from 10 metres to a couple of hundred metres, I gradually make my way to the next flat section at about 520 metres. The great bulk of West Mill Tor is to my right and slightly behind me. High Wiilhays towers above me.

To the left is rolling moorland, bleak, and mixing dead brown with lush green. Cattle and sheep wander freely. There is little sign of human life - just a parked car, it’s windscreen winking in the sun, a mile or more away. Occasionally, I see a buzzard, soaring high and easily on the wind. Magnificent!

Navigation on the moor can be difficult, and over the centuries, various way markers have been used. These often take the form of crosses, which combine several functions. They are landmarks for travellers, signs of Christian faith, and often they are parish boundary markers. Many have been vandalised, and the few remaining ones are being preserved by local groups.

Here, on one of the highest parts of the moor, is a small but impressive example, only a metre or so high, the cross carved roughly from granite. It has been partly preserved with an unsightly stabilizing base of pale modern concrete. Nearby a small plaque refers to St. Mary’s Cross, which, at over 2,030 years old, is one of the earliest surviving Christian symbols in the British isles.

On with the slog, up the rough and rocky hill, the wind pushing against my back. I reach a narrow shallow ford. I notice the bed is made of loose gravel, so I decide to hit it fast, rather than pick my way across. I am rewarded with a rooster-tail of water up my backside. Is the word “munema”?

A couple of hundred metres later, and the track turns to the right and becomes much steeper. Almost certainly, I will not be able to ride all the way up, but I have a go anyway. Grunting, sweating, panting, and (it must be said) swearing, I make it 50 metres or so up some of the toughest climb I have ever done before gratefully falling off. I walk 100 - 200 from here until I reach flatter ground then remount.

Soon the track turns to the right, meaning that I am now facing into the wind. High up on the moor, the temperatre is lower than in the valley, and the wind is faster. I grit my teeth and plug on until I make it to the end of the track. From here, it is grassy and uneven ground as far as the tor itself. I ride some, walk some, and climb the last bit, carrying the unicycle. It is so windy, I am worried about leaning the uni against the trig point at the top. I take great care, take a photo, then enjoy the view for a few seconds.

It is so windy that the end of my helmet strap is buzzing and stinging against my face, the loose ends of my Camelbak straps are whipping in the wind, and my body temperature is starting to fall. I have to lean into the wind just to stand still.
According to the map, which I checked later, I am at 619 metres. That’s a climb of about 250 metres from the lowest point of the ride - but 250 metres of very difficult ground.

Time to retreat, I ride fall and walk back down to the head of the track, then set off with a vague thought of doing the whole descent in one, without a UPD. So far so good, even on the steep bit that I had walked up, then I get cocky, ride over a big rock, do a little drop and land clumsily, bouncing from the seat, and having to run some 15 metres down the hill before I can regain my balance.

Back on the uni, I ride more steadily, and make it down to the next junction in the track, approximately where I had stopped and discovered that I had no water. I turn right and splash through a shallow ford, then climb up towards the military gun emplacements.

A small tor, Rowtor, rises to my right, and I decide to ride up to it. Just before I turn off the track, I see a kestrel hovering, much lower than usual. It swoops down, appears to change its mind, then flies off down the slope, giving me a rare chance to see it from above.

I ride most of the way up to Rowtor, walk the last bit, then climb to the top to survey my route. I can see my car, 90 metres below me, and a kilometre away. Between me and it lies a slope covered with boulders and sheep. On the other side of Rowtor is a track that is almost parallel to the tarmac road, and descends to the ford and stepping stones. I go for that.

A year or two back, I tried to ride this trac, and my memory was that it was like a riverbed. Today, it seems dry, but a couple of hundred metres on, my memories are confirmed as I find clear water flowing down the track under my wheel. My legs and backside get wet, but I am near to the end of the ride. Far below the summit, the air is warmer, and the wind is less aggressive. It is not long before I am at the ford, and from here it is a simple climb (simple but for the single inexplicable UPD) back up to the car.

Back at Ruth’s house, I check the map to work out how much climbing I have done. It is at this stage that I spot my accidental mistake: there is no trig point at the top of High Willhays. I have just ridden to and from the summit of Yes Tor (619 metres) rather than High Willhays, which is less spectacular, about 3/4 kilometre away, and maybe 5 metres higher.

It’s so nice to still have a challenge in life, don’t you think?

Ride details, on a 24 x 3 with 165s.
Distance: 6.06 miles (9.75 km)
Max speed: 11.8 mph (19 kmh)
Average speed: 4.6 mph (7.4 kmh)
Riding time, excluding stops: 1:19

There is one deliberate mistake in there. Usual rules.

The answer is in the next post, so don’t read it if you don’t yet want to know.


The offending passage:
<<Nearby a small plaque refers to St. Mary’s Cross, which, at over 2,030 years old, is one of the earliest surviving Christian symbols in the British isles.>>

It is true that Dartmoor has many rough stone crosses, fulfilling the functinons described.

A Christian cross dating back to about 25 years before Jesus was born (never mind crucified!) is pretty unlikely.

In fact, the cross wasn’t adopted as a Christian symbol for some time after Jesus’ death as it was considered bad taste. Early Christians used the sign of the fish (“I shall make you fishers of men”) and later Christians experimented with other symbols before adopting the cross.


I liked the extra detail in your explanation! I didn’t know there was that delay in adopting the cross as a symbol, and the origin of the fish as a Christian symbol is also very interesting.

Was the date of the cross fictional, or was it in fact a pre-Christian cross?


That is not as daft a question as it might appear at first. Other religions and societies have indeed used the cross symbol. However, as far as I know, all the crosses on Dartmoor are Christian, and mediaeval or later. The particular cross at this point on the ride was entirely fictitious.

Did anyone PM you with their guesses on this one? Next time, can you let a little more time go by, before posting the answer. Good story. How do you remember the details of your rides so well?

I agree, an extra couple of days would be useful, in order to be a little surer to see the post. Their unsolved presence was a little fleeting.