Location: Knowle Down, Walkhampton
- Date: Thursday 30th March
- OSGrid: SX529698 (E252964, N069882)
- Travel: 40 minute drive, 0 minute hike
- Style: Hammock (& car!)
According to our interpretation of the Interactive Camping Map of Dartmoor, Knowle Down was a gently rolling grassy area, with light trees to the western and eastern edges and bordered by a road out of Walkhampton to the South and a few walled fields to the North. Google maps shows something similar. Neither of us having ever been to the site in person, we decided it looked like a nice spot, and crucially, is highlighted in purple as one of the no-permission for wild camping required areas of Dartmoor. We soon learnt however, that everything is not as it seems, and when it comes to OS Maps, the devil is in the detail so learn to read what’s there, not what you want to be there!
Joe is currently in Thailand and didn’t fancy the commute back to Plymouth to join in with this week’s Wild One Night. This is questionable commitment, but turned out to be a pretty smart choice. Regardless Stu and I left work on Thursday a little later than usual and were buoyed to find it was still light outside! We joyfully took photos of the time, and the weather, and the light. We cheerily declared that summer had arrived and this would be a great night excitedly discussing plans to set an open plan ‘outdoor lounge’ where we would cook, talk and celebrate the passing of winter before getting an early night.
The journey to site was carefree, stopping briefly at a Co-op for some tea on the way in, and making good time on traffic free roads. On arrival the view from the car park was very promising; a lush if slightly muddy looking valley stretched out below us as we changed out of our work stuff and into our boots. (This week had seen a lot of rain, but that wasn’t a problem for us in hammocks. Tonight was going to be dry and clean and glorious!)
Stu and I aren’t always the best at predicting things.
Now is when things started to take a little turn for the worst, and the true nature of this camp started to make itself apparent. After an hour of searching, the evening was still pleasantly light, but we hadn’t found any promising sites for hammocks, let alone the semi-permanent arboreal hamlet we had dreamed up. We decided to head back to the car park and use the copse of trees not 5m from the car. On our way up the hill, out of the valley, we came across an abandoned casualty doll, presumably originally laid out for use in some kind of first aid scenario once upon a time, but seemingly long since abandoned for some unknown reason, and left slowly decomposing, unloved and forgotten in this damp, boggy corner of the moor.
Back at camp I discovered I’d forgotten my tent pegs and Stu was busy trying to figure out why his decidedly small tarp was doing a worse job than normal at covering his hammock (it was on backwards) as darkness descended. Camp pitched, we reconvened in the kitchen, only to find the piezo ignition on my stove wouldn’t work, but fortunately it was only a short walk back to the car to find Stu’s lighter. Minor obstacles surmounted, we settled in to a pleasant evening of chatter, and general merriment. After a brief insect hunt we decided to call it a night and decided to turn in for a nice, restful, and restoring night’s sleep.
The winds began to pick up just before we bedded down, whipping my ultralight sleeping pad from my hammock and sending it cascading down the valley. Luckily, I managed to chase it down and restore the pad to my hammock before it disappeared into the gorse.
Around 11:30 the wind really started to pick up; my tarp was fighting a loud and relentless battle with the wind, and my hammock seemed determined to join in the fun, frantically whipping along my sides. We remembered earplugs this week, but this was a whole new level of noise.
Three hours (and around 15 minutes of sleep!) of this later, the wind reached new strengths and managed to snap one of my guylines. The tarp, now partially untethered, took over the job of slapping me in the face with a fury and vigour that made the hammocks earlier efforts feel like a gentle lullaby. I wasn’t sleeping anyway, but this would’ve woken me up if I was dead.
Leaping from the hammock and slipping on my very muddy boots I frantically tried to retie the line. I thought I was pretty good at knots. Four attempts at a bowline later made me realise otherwise! Remember you don’t really know something until you can do it at three in the morning in the middle of a storm! I gave up on the bowline and tied any kind of made up knot that I could, just in time for another line to snap. Now, only pegged down on two corners my tarp became less of a shelter and more of an expensive kite. Realising I was outmatched I called out to Stu, who was not-sleeping a few metres away.
Together we wrapped up the hammock and tarp into a loose roll, unpegged the remaining guys, untied the ridgeline and balled up the whole thing before throwing it into the boot of Stu’s car. At this point I was both very relieved that the car was so close, and very confused at how small the tarp/hammock ball was considering that it should contain my inflatable pad, a camping pillow, and my very expensive quilt.
Looking out to the valley, I spotted my pad making another bid for freedom with renewed gusto, joined by the rest of my sleep system! Again, I blindly frantically down the hill to retrieve my belongings. Stu suggested I borrow his tent or we head home. Both were too much effort for me at that point so I dumped the rest of my kit into Stu’s car and tried to sleep on the passenger seat.
From this point I actually slept pretty well, for about an hour. At ten to four I was joined by Stu in the car. In his haste to help me, he’d not noticed his hammock rigging slacken until climbing back into bed and finding himself brushing the muddy puddle below. The difference between a wise man and a fool is that a wise man knows when to give up.
And so morning came, and we’d survived the night, happy to have had the car so close by, but even happier to be heading home. In hindsight, there are other potential options in the area, which we opted against because we were trying to ensure our pitch was fully legal, if you’re less bothered about such things, try getting closer to the river. (the trees next to the car park are also not allowed, it turns out, because they are within 100m of a road!)
The benefit to all of this was that packing down in the morning was very fast. We simply un-reclined the seats and left in a subdued and sleepy mood. Halfway home and the car joined what was starting to feel like a conspiracy abruptly dropping from 60mph to 2mph as came into Plymouth on the A38. Mercifully the universally approved ‘turn-it-off-and-back-on-again’ trick actually worked and the car limped back into life. We made it to a garage not far from work, and began to unpack as best we could ready for the walk to work. In the cruel illumination of sunlight we saw the sorry state we were both in. Sometimes, it seems, nature wins.
Paul. I may be a little biased as this wasn’t the greatest night for the site. But even in our explorations it was clear that there are far nicer locations very close to the Knowle Down. This isn’t one I’d recommend. The lesson (apart from checking the weather) is that camping close to the car is totally ok, and sometimes very useful!
Stu. That you’re 100% ready to start your day as a science communicator is a hard sell when you turn up to work bleary eyed, wearing muddy pyjamas and rambling about the horrors of the wilderness… but we pulled it off, I think.
Top tips from the trip
Always take earplugs, but be aware they may not always be up to the job!
As much as possible, try to always camp with good friends who are resilient in the face of things going wrong!
Learn the important difference between Ultralight Gear and Stupid Light Gear.
Check the weather. It’s ok to postpone plans!
Pay attention to the map; make sure you’re seeing what it’s telling you, not what you want to see