Ten years ago today, 26 September 2008, was my last full day’s walk on Dartmoor with my friend Rozel Lawlor. Neither of us had any idea that it was to be our last walk, but the following April she was diagnosed with liver cancer and she died in April 2010, aged only 74.
We first met properly in January 2000, at the funeral of my great friend Sylvia (Lady) Sayer, the Dartmoor champion. Rozel was a much-loved cousin of Sylvia’s whose grandfather, Robert Burnard (founder of the Dartmoor Preservation Association in 1883), was Rozel’s great-grandfather. I had heard much about Rozel from Sylvia but rarely had the chance to meet her.
Our friendship blossomed quickly and soon I was a regular visitor to Rozel’s house at Coarsewell, near Ugborough, in south Devon. We loved to go out all day on Dartmoor with the dogs; Rozel adored Dartmoor but had not had much opportunity for long walks in recent years because her husband, Patrick, no longer wanted to walk far, and was anyway reluctant to explore anywhere new.
And so, on that glorious September day, with dachshunds Diva and Hattie, we parked at Venford Reservoir near Holne and made our way up past tin workings to Ryders Hill, the highest point on the southern moor.
From there we headed to Ter Hill with a wide view of the Swincombe valley, such a significant place to me given the reservoir battle which was raging just as I became interested in conserving Dartmoor.
We went down to Deep Swincombe and followed the bridleway to Hexworthy, with views over the Dart to Corndon and Yar Tors in autumn colours.
We took the track over Huccaby newtake, the scene of a long battle. Ron Bagshaw of Devon Ramblers had applied for the path to be added to the definitive map; it was the subject of two court cases and a public inquiry. We lost because the land belongs to the Crown, the Duchy of Cornwall, and so the normal tests for path claims do not apply. The tenant had locked the gate and put up private notices but, on 26 August 2005, we won access here, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and could enjoy it once more.
We followed this track, legally at last, onto the common and then crossed the O Brook and went on to Combestone Tor. The final leg was above the Dart valley, with a view down to the Double Dart and Eagle Rock (also known as Luckey Tor) where I had enjoyed my first picnic with the Sayer family in 1974. No doubt I told Rozel all about it (and probably not for the first time, for that was a special day).
As we returned over the common by Venford Reservoir I was so impressed by the hawthorn berries that I photographed them.
It had been a perfect Dartmoor day. For our last proper walk it was a memorable one. I look back on it as a happy day and the calm before the storm of poor Rozel’s fatal illness.