High, bleak and moody, Dartmoor is a wonderful place. Any walk up there is special; a sense of wilderness only enhanced by the knowledge that this elevated granite dome sits surrounded by what is otherwise the busy end to a very busy country. And if the, windswept, bog-bespattered, pony speckled majesty of the place isn’t enough, Dartmoor looks to be bulging at the seams. At almost every peak, every hillock, even the most vague eminence, granite appears to have burst from the soggy ground, dark and convoluted.
In fact, despite geological appearances, the creation of Dartmoor’s tors wasn’t quite as exciting as that… or anything near in fact. I won’t bore you with the details, but about 280 million years ago molten granite seems more to have oozed about deeply than undertaken anything as exciting as bursting. There then followed a complex collection of odd underground geological events, culminating in eventual exposure and an awful lot of weathering.
And the result? Well, some sort of upland metamorphic wonderland, a natural stone sculpture park, surreal and sublime (and pretty much irresistible to anyone with a tendency to climb things).
Hundreds of tors are spread out across the moor, ranging in size from vast brooding mini mountains, to discreet piles of sometimes teetering slabs. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, as few of the tors are more than 4 or 5 yards (or metres) high. They just look a lot bigger than that as you approach them across the moor.
Some of these tors seem almost untouched, their hard folded sides standing high and proud, their defences unbreached by wind, frost or time. As the weather deteriorates (and it often does), ponies, sheep and belted Galloway cattle (and the odd hillwalker or two) cluster sheltered in their lee.
Other tors appear to be on almost their last legs, the remaining rickety stands of rock surrounded by a sea of shattered granite fragments. This disintegrated spread of a ex tor, or clitter as it’s known on the moor, can cover whole hillsides, a fact even more impressive when it’s realised just how much of this convenient stuff has been removed over the centuries, carted away to build, barns, bridges, houses, churches and roads.
Many of the tors have names that fit their lumpy magnificence – Great Mis Tor, Beardown, Steeperton, Great Staple. The names of others, such as Lints Tor, Kitty or Little Kneeset are rather less imposing, and a little baffling. Considering the appealing oddity of some names, and Dinger Tor also springs to mind, Higher or Eastern Tor seem a little dull, but if some of the names are a bit strange, then so are many of the tors themselves. Branscombe’s Loaf is one of my favourites, and not just because of the odd title. This really is a strange stone lump.
Then there’s the splendidly named Laughter Tor, the perhaps not unexpected Devil’s Tor (well this is Dartmoor), or the intriguing Honeybag. I could carry on like this for pages. Occasionally tors have the same name. I can think of at least three Black Tors on Dartmoor for example, then there are two Foxes, and, as a seeming balance, a couple of Hounds too. Ironically, some quite impressive tumbles of stone appear to have no apparent name at all, or at least none listed on any modern maps. One of my favourite tors seems, like the famous Lakeland tarn, to be innominate.
Even after over three decades spent working or wandering around on the moor, even living up there for a while, there are still many tors I’ve not visited. As there are said to be about 170 in total, I suppose this is not surprising. On the other hand, and often simply because they lie on a favourite route, or an obvious line across the hills, there are some I’ve encountered many times. I can only begin to guess how many times I’ve visited Belstone, Higher or Oke Tors for example. Even the famous Yes Tor, visible from where I’m typing now, and almost the highest point up there (it’s actually High Willhays, set just behind), has provided a very fine observation point on dozens of occasions. The views out across northern Devon are fairly spectacular. Turning to look into the heart of the moor, they’re pretty good in that direction too.
Trying to pick a favourite from these many and varied granite bumps would be very difficult, well beyond me anyway. It would probably have a lot to do with which tor I was standing upon at the time. But I could perhaps name a few contenders:
Besltone Tor – small, varied and easy to reach, and near the start of a great ridge walk.
Steeperton Tor – for the view over the northern moor and down the Taw Valley.
Wild Tor – lives up to its name, and is impressively architectural.
Lints Tor – a wonderful low-lying setting, like a castle on a small mound.
Fur Tor – remote and odd.
Great Staple Tor – just a beautiful, dramatic double Tor. I’ve seen it described as a ‘procession’ tor, because of the grass walkway between the two sections. To my mind, best approached from Roos Tor
Branscombe’s Loaf – a wonderfully weird little outcrop.
Great Mis Tor – it lives up to it’s prefix.
I recognise that this list is a little ‘north’ heavy, but considering my usual approach to the moor, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Set below a rough halfway line are also:
Sheeps Tor – dramatic, and as easy, or as difficult, to climb as anyone could wish.
Hen Tor – for the memory of trying to finish a survey, first in snow flurries, then an almost complete whiteout.
Higher Hartor Tor – just because my great aunt had a painting of this one, given by work colleagues who shared her love of walking here. It’s worth a visit.
Actually, come to think of it, I can’t think of many tors up there that aren’t.