WON03 -Star Walks: A little Constellation goes a long way

Location: Butterbrook Resevoir

  • Date: Thursday 19th January
  • OSGrid: SX 647593 (E264727, N 059376)
  • Travel: 40 minute drive + 10 minute hike
  • Style: Tent

 

Introduction

Ivybridge, often promoted as the “Gateway to The Moors”, is a small town and civil parish of around 12,00 people which lies just off the A38, on the southern edge of Dartmoor National Park. Easy access by train makes it an ideal area for campers without transport, but we’d decided to take advantage of the car and continue a short while north towards Harford, where we planned to leave the car at Harford Moor Gate Car Park for the night. On arrival we were quite surprised to find we weren’t alone – we pulled up alongside a car with a couple of equally surprised youngsters peering through the partially obscured windows of their car. Smoke or maybe condensation, it wasn’t easy to tell but whatever the cause, it was clear they were having fun! …There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to enjoy a night on the moor so we packed our snacks, added a few extra layers, and headed of into the night, leaving our carpark companions to their evenings’ entertainment (and hoping there’d still be a car to come back to in the morning….).

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Our sheltered little spot on the Eastern edge of Butterbrook Resevoir

 

The Diary

This wasn’t my first visit to Harford Moor; I’d previously visited the site with my friend Phil as one of our potential site reckies for WON, and an excuse to get a Sunday roast in Ivybridge later that afternoon, so I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted the night on project to unfold.

First stop would be Butterbrook Resevoir, a private site owned by South West Water just a short walk from the carpark. Surrounded by trees, the reservoir would make an ideal hammock camp but as we’d not spoken to anyone about it beforehand we opted to take tents instead and camp just outside the eastern edge, where the Butterbrook itself enters the reservoir. This side of the fence is part of the National Park and no permission is required to camp there, thanks to the Dartmoor Commons Act. Fortunately, it’s also pretty flat and nicely sheltered from the wind higher up on the hills.

Once we’d set up camp, we got the pots out (back on stuffed pasta this week), hung a torch from the tree branches above us, and sitting on our backpacks began to study the OS map and the star charts we’d brought along for the night’s entertainment. (No Joe this week, so we knew it wouldn’t take long to set up the tents and needed something to fill the time!).

When visiting previously Phil and I had set out from Harford Moor Gate carpark, headed east up the slopes and joined up with the Two Moors Way; a distinctive gravel path running North to South and ultimately connecting the North and South coasts of Devon via Dartmoor and Exmoor. In terms of footpaths on the moor, this is something of an expressway, and would surely be easy to find, even by night I announced. Alas, no. Not at all! Brimming with confidence, I led the charge into the darkness – straight into the boggy lowland just beyond our camp. Paul, true to form, was wearing his work shoes so we slowed our pace, and carefully picked our way from tussock to tussock across the mire.

If there’s one thing I learned with Dartmoor Rescue, it’s the importance of navigation. After 45 minutes it became apparent that I’d completely disregarded this important lesson since leaving their training programme some 6 months earlier. We were definitely lost! The ‘expressway’ I’d assured Paul was just ahead, was in fact, nowhere to be seen… but the stars were out, and conditions were beautiful, so we stopped, got the maps out and rechecked our location. Was that Ivybridge in the distance? Or Harford? …Plymouth Maybe?!

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Stu tries to remember how to use a compass!

Slightly more confident than before, we set off with renewed vigour and were rewarded with what might be the highlight of my year so far – A BADGER SIGHTING! It’s eyes glowing in the reflection of our headtorches a short distance ahead of us on the path as it rummaged around in the grass, I nearly burst with excitement! (Some of you may know that seeing a live badger in the wild has been one of my life goals for the last 10 years or so– so this was huge news!). Eventually the little chap shuffled off into the night, presumably to find his family, or find a bit of privacy. Love!!

More wandering around in the dark, and eventually we found ourselves on an obvious man made wall looking down a steep hillside at what we first thought was the gravel path we’d spent the night searching for… but it turned out to be another wall. Still, this parallel wall feature and stacked contours were enough to find ourselves on the OS map we’d brought along, and within a few minutes we’d gone from looking down on Piles Copse, to heading south on the road I’d been assuring Paul we were close to for about an hour and a half!

The main reason I’d been so keen to get on to this path, is that just off to the East, roughly parallel to our camp, was Hangershell Rock. A large granite outcrop on the hillside which I’d earmarked as the perfect spot to do a little stargazing. Over the next 20 minutes or so we set about orientating ourselves by the light of the universe – starting with the Big Dipper (or the Plough, or the Great Bear, depending what you know it as), we drew a line through the far end of the pan up to Polaris, the North Star. From here, there are no end of constellations to be found. The winter sky in the Northern Hemisphere is brimming with familiar constellations, some obvious, like Orion, others more obscure or harder to find.

By the end of the night, Paul and I had managed to find: Orion, The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, Leo, Aquarius, Cancer, The Hydra ,Canis Major, Canis Minor, The Pleides and Cassiopeia.

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Cancer. Paul’s zodiac sign, is hard to find but luckily lies between Leo and Gemini who are both really easy to spot. (artistic impression until such time as I learn night sky photography)

By that time, we were getting chilly so took a bearing from the map down to the campsite, and picking our way through the remains of ancient hut circles, burial mounds and the occasional boggy patch, returned to our tents and set alarms for 6:45 the next morning.

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It was really, really dark!

As we packed our bags the next morning, glancing up the hill, Hangershell Rock was easy to see, just cresting the horizon as it did in the first light of the morning sun. “It’s easy to see in the daytime, eh?” I said, to which Paul replied “Yeah, but it’s EXCITING to find it at night”. I couldn’t agree more.

 

The Verdict

Stu. We saw a real life badger just wandering about doing it’s thing! That alone is enough to make the camp worth it, but factoring in that the crystal clear sky and low light levels allowed me to see Cancer in the night sky for the first time earns this week’s camp a massive thumbs up from me – How long can these camps keep topping the last?!

 

Top tips from the trip:

Always take a map and compass when walking on the moor.

Know how to use it.

Actually use it.

 

Further Information

The Two Moors Way is a 90 mile long distance path connecting the North and South coasts of Devon via Exmoor and Dartmoor National Park. Find out more about it:

  1. Download Devon County Council’s Two Moors Way Leaflet
  2. Check out the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) page on the wall

 

Dartmoor is a fantastic place to observe the night sky.Constellations. There are countless books, apps, websites and references to help you get to grips with them. My favourites include:

  1. The Google Sky Map App – great for verifying that what you think you’re looking at, really is what you’re looking at!
  2. I never go out without my copy of The Practical Skywatcher’s Handbook, which also has a lot of info on how to take decent night sky photos which I promise I’ll get to grips with before this project ends!

 

As always – More images on the Wild One Nighters Project Facebook pagego check it out and don’t forget to like for updates and news as it happens!


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