Following recent real progress on our local bridleways on and around Dartmoor, I thought it would be a good experience for our local Park Ranger, Ella Briens, to experience the results of her efforts. It would also allow her to examine some of our trickier bridleways by horse, rather than on foot, which brings a much clearer understanding of some of the problems encountered by riders. I arranged for her to ride a smashing local pony, Caspar, who was rescued from Bodmin Moor some years ago, and another local rider, Natalie Darling, to join me on my lovely dappled Grey Skies (aptly named) to venture out.
So, on a wild and wintery May day with a brisk northernly wind, we set out to first show her the fantastic work she has helped us complete on Diamond Lane, which had been out of use for some 20 years. Now, although still rocky and steep in places, you can ride quite safely and easily on a fit and sensible horse directly onto the moor from one of our most exciting Dartmoor vantage points at the southern end, near South Brent.
Our gateway to the moor is usually from Shipley Bridge, but there is difficulty in accessing the moor to the east of the Bala Brook, as the crossings here have become treacherous due to the torrential downpours of the winter. Diamond Lane now gives access to the area on the east side of the brook, just a quarter of a mile from Shipley Bridge.
Having climbed up to the moor gate, we then rode across the moor via a popular route for riders and walkers to the Ball Gate, a fascinating gateway that was recently repaired and now has the original Victorian style gate which would have been on this old carriageway originally.
Gates are an important element of a ride, and again we were able to demonstrate how much easier a gate could be opened if the gate hook was high enough to reach from the saddle. The crossing below the Ball Gate onto the next section has also enjoyed some improvement in conjunction with Ella and the local farmer, keeping access to the west side open, another lovely stretch of the moor for riders.
The track from the Ball Gate down to Aish Ridge has always been a little rough, but again, the difficult winter weather has loosened many rocks. With time it threatens to become another Diamond Lane,with potential gullies and overgrowth taking over, if nothing is done. Our good horses picked their way down whilst we dodged overhead branches - something that you cannot really appreciate as being difficult unless you're actually on a horse at the time you are descending. Ella now has a much clearer idea of how to facilitate the repairs required here, and we have agreed with the local farmer that a clearing party can work with him to help cut back overgrowth, low branches, and clear all the loose rocks away from this much used and valued track to make it a safe passage both up to and down from the moor.
We then rode down another track from Aish Ridge onto the lane, the ungritted tarmac surface of which we have recently had to make a considerable issue about with our local Council – the storm repair team (from another County) unwittingly surfaced the road without reference to the local road repair team, and did not apply the agreed gritting surface to the fresh tarmac. This lane links together three separate tracks and bridleways, forming a circular route to many of our local rides, and is now incredibly dangerous to horses on the steep sections. Although it is true that some horses can walk as if they have Velcro feet on this surface, for young horses in particular and just different types of horse it makes no matter whether road nails are fitted, as to them the surface is just like glass.
In this instance, Natalie had to dismount her youngster and lead her very slowly down the hill to avoid her slipping over – it is unnerving for the youngsters, as well as local riders. Many will not ride along this lane, and we are awaiting promised repairs from the Devon County Council, who have been very understanding about the issue. It is hoped that in future all our lanes will have chippings applied to the surface as a matter of standard policy, which is both more attractive and far safer in the long run. The Council have advised that they are investing in new gritting machinery for the purpose, which is great news for all – cyclists and walkers too have issues with this smooth tarmac finish.
Ella has been a real terrier on our behalf, sorting out tracks, problems with gates, issues with access, road finishing, and re-establishing lost crossings on rivers and streams on the moor in conjunction with the local landowners and farmers. All the work requested forms a useful contribution to those that have to work the land, as well as those that wish to enjoy it. Local group participation has really helped – she has established working parties with youth groups, ramblers, and volunteers who ride, cycle or walk. This shows just how much we can all get done even without a vast budget, if we really get our hands dirty and get stuck into the issues that we want resolved.
I am really grateful to Ella and the Access department at the Dartmoor National Park – the co-operation has been brilliant over the last five years, and we constantly see change for the better. The weather tries to undo much of what we endeavour to achieve, but we are making progress all the time.
It is a long term project but the ideas we start today will be the successes in later years, and we are now reaping the reward of the efforts made some time ago to get the current work undertaken. Patience and enthusiasm is required, as nothing happens overnight, but it does pay huge dividends.