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'Up The Bottom'

Roger Whale has lived and worked on Dartmoor for fifty years, both in agriculture and the holiday industry.  His self-published novels The Damson Tree and The Yellow Sapphire are filled with his knowledge of the moor, and sell in quantities that would make mainstream publishers envious.  Here he guides us on a short walk up the banks of the West Webburn.

I consider myself very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country, in the hamlet of Ponsworthy, a collection of twenty three dwellings in the valley of the West Webburn on Dartmoor. At one end is a T-junction and three much-photographed thatched cottages. A stream runs across the road, forming a water splash for cars to drive through, and there is a little clapper bridge with iron hand rails for those on foot. A hundred years ago the local blacksmith, Richard Nosworthy, lived in the third cottage up from the bridge, where he had his blacksmith’s shop. He it was who made the wrought iron hand rails, and although they have never been painted they are still as sound and rust free as they were on the day they were made.  

At the foot of the sign-post in the middle of the junction is a spring called 'The Golden Spout'.  This was the sole water supply for the nearby cottages until mains water was brought to the area in 1971.

Beside the first cottage is a gate across a lane, now a part of the Two Moors Way, that leads to the next hamlet a mile upstream called Jordon. Originally a footpath for locals, it ran for most of its length beside the stream and was also used by fishermen fly fishing for trout. It is probably only a mile long and can be walked in twenty minutes, but who wants to rush a pleasant experience? 

‘What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?’

 The other day, a warm sunny afternoon, we walked ‘up the bottom’ as we call it. Through the gate we went, with its weighted chain to pull it shut, and down the green tunnel of a lane, in places having to duck under the low, overhanging branches. Beside us the little stream was tinkling away, also in a green tunnel of ferns and nettles. Then out into a meadow with butterfly-covered knapweed, and grasshoppers filling the air with their song. Brambles in full flower gave promise of rich pickings in a month or two, as did the hazel bushes with their yet unripe nuts.We passed on into the next meadow, now almost entirely full of shoulder-high bracken. To think that seventy years ago these two meadows would have been cut for hay. A stand of toadflax in full flower shone like a light orange beacon against the backdrop of the dark green bracken.

The gate at the far end of the second meadow was formed of two horizontal bars that slid into slots on the side of the gate posts.  Through this and we were into the wooded area where the path now ran beside the river. There is something special about walking beside running water; the sound of the splashing and slopping; the constantly changing patterns on the moving surface and the wildlife in, on and all around. A shaft of sunlight shone down through the water, turning the pebbles on the river floor brass, copper, and bronze. Reflected sunlight off the water made dancing patterns on the underside of the sycamore leaves. A little further on a huge old oak tree had fallen across the river; its upturned base forming a cartwheel of earth, stones and broken roots; its ivy covered trunk and branches partially damming the flow. Winter rains can cause the river level to rise dramatically, washing the banks, eroding the soil from around the roots of the trees, weakening their hold. The tangle of exposed roots across the path make walking difficult and the weight of the snow on the trees these past two winters has brought down several trees.  

We came to a pool in a small clearing and stopped to watch the fish lazing in the We sunlight water. Small trout, half a dozen of them, were gently flicking their tails, keeping them facing upstream in the same place. Every now and then one would turn and drift a few inches downstream and then turn again, to be followed one by one by the others. In small curves in the bank sand has been washed and there are often the foot prints of small animals. Once I saw what I felt sure were the tracks of an otter; they have been seen in the river but unfortunately not by me. However I have seen foxes, badgers, rabbits and deer and countless birds. In the mornings the dawn chorus is truly wonderful, an orchestra of song.

A few yards further and we heard a whining from a small building on the opposite bank. This noise was coming from a hydro-electric generating plant that an enterprising farmer had built. By diverting part of the river water along a leat, he had gained enough height for the fall of water to be powerful enough to generate enough electricity for his needs and some to spare. Despite the constant noise, a dipper makes his nest in the generator house every year. The dipper is a fascinating bird a little bit bigger than a robin; dark brown, almost black, with a white breast, his colours perfectly matching the wet rocks and the white foam on the water. He flies straight and low along the river and then lands on a rock, bobbing and curtsying. Then he opens his wings slightly and walks upstream into the water and along the bottom picking up caddis fly larvae and all sorts of grubs for himself and his family. We always look out for him; for some reason we think it lucky to see him; but this day there was no sign.

Just above the generator are the remains of the weir that formed the head of the leat that fed the mill at |Ponsworthy, turning the water wheel that provided the power to grind the corn. In the pool above the river floor is made of long rocks, all lying in the same direction as the flow of the water, all a rust red colour. There were several more fallen trees across the river and I was reminded of a day two winters ago when we walked down from Jordon after a fall of heavy snow. Trees of all sizes were across the path and we had to alternately climb over and duck under them, for all the world like human shuttles in a loom of trees.

Then after a few yards of open ground the path turned away from the river into a young wood of trees planted some twenty-five years ago; oak, ash, Spanish chestnut, sycamore and silver birch. Here the woodland floor still had the pale green stems and seed pods of the bluebells that bloomed so brightly a couple of months before. In a large old oak at the edge of this woodland a pair of buzzards build their nest each year. On a bright day last winter we were delighted by a group of six long-tailed tits which gave us a display of acrobatics, like women gymnasts, in one of the silver birch trees.

Just before we reached Jordon there is an island, about thirty yards long, with a number of trees growing on it, and on each tree is a nest box for the birds. One of these boxes was inhabited a few years ago by a swarm of hornets. Then we were out into the open again, the path running  between tall bracken until we reached the river. We crossed it on the wooden foot bridge (or 'clam' as such a structure is called in these parts), entering the hamlet of Jordon with its old mill on our left and three cottages and the old manor house on our right. Jordon or Dewdon as it was once known is one of the six manors in Widecombe parish, a small hamlet with its own tale to tell... perhaps another day.

Roger Whale's books are available from his website,

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