That is a quote from one of my favourite poems, Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice. I expect we can all look back on days which we subsequently realise set us on a particular course. So it was for me 50 years ago, the day of the ‘long ride’, 26 August 1971.
I had been visiting Hillbridge Farm near Peter Tavy on western Dartmoor since 1965 for riding holidays. I loved the opportunity to spend whole days with ponies and to ride in very different country. We were carefree, able to roam the farm or swim in the river, far from the parental eye. It was a childhood experience which was possible in those days.
I returned for a week every spring, and soon was adding a fortnight in summer; gradually my joy extended beyond the ponies and the farm to Dartmoor itself. As a young teenager I would climb out of the valley onto White Tor in the evening and absorb the view, and the immense wilderness.
Dee Ivey, who owned the farm, worked immensely hard to give us a good holiday, doing much of the work herself, including the cooking. The rides were not long because we spent much time getting the ponies in, fed, and groomed. The terrain was rough and most of the ponies were fairly elderly. So our rides set off at about noon and often returned by four. But we were happy.
However, there was talk of doing a long ride, right across the moor, leaving the ponies somewhere and then returning the next day. It needed the right combination of fit ponies and riders and some planning. I am sure I badgered Dee about this over a number of holidays because the prospect was so exciting.
At last, on my visit in the summer of 1971, it came about. By now Marion Saunders was living and working at Hillbridge and that week there were three guests (all old-timers), and a foursome, Ian, Paddy, Howard and Julian Berry (also old-timers), in a caravan on the farm. We checked out part of the route on foot a couple of days before the ride itself, to decide where we could cross the West Dart River, but otherwise relied on Dee’s knowledge and the map.
Five of us set off from Hillbridge at about 9.30 on 26 August, and rode up through Wapsworthy and across the side of White Tor to join the Lich Way (the old coffin route across the northern moor to Lydford). I remember drinking in the views and feeling the pull of the moor; we rarely rode this way because it was a steep route up White Tor but it was also more direct.
The Lichway took us across the grain of the moor, over the Cowsic and West Dart and down to the Cherrybrook near Powdermills where we stopped for lunch. Here we were met by the others from the farm, and there was some swapping of ponies (but I rode the whole way on Midnight).
With Marion leading us now, we rode through Bellever Forest, in sharp contrast to the open moor, and came down past Bellever youth hostel, round by Drury and Pizwell farms and through Soussons Forest.
We emerged onto Challacombe Down and passed Headland Warren and then went up over Hameldown, past Grimspound prehistoric settlement. This is the bit I particularly remember, the expanse of heather and the wide views, the misty ridges of Dartmoor stretching away. I think this was the moment when I vowed to fight for it, knowing that it was threatened in many ways.
We arrived at Heathercombe near Manaton, where Dee’s friends, the Chapmans, had agreed to accommodate the ponies overnight. After a wonderful tea, four of us (Dee, Marion, Jean Bruton, and me) took the van to Princetown while the others went home (we must have organised vehicles in some way as we were 20 miles from Hillbridge).
At Princetown there was a public meeting in the Duchy of Cornwall Hall called (I believe) by Devon River Authority to discuss possible reservoir sites on Dartmoor. The Swincombe reservoir in central Dartmoor had been rejected by parliament the previous December (see here), but the National Farmers’ Union and Country Landowners’ Association in particular were hounding the river authority and ministers to put it back on the table.
We sat at the back of the hall on a high bench with a good view. The meeting was acrimonious, with rowdy calls for a reservoir at Swincombe, and other sites on the moor. After a while the chairman invited Sylvia Sayer to speak, and she stood calmly among the heckling farmers. I was hugely impressed by her authority and deep feeling for the moor. She spoke of the immense value of wild country, and affirmed that she and the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA), of which she was chairman, would oppose all reservoirs on Dartmoor.
This was the first time I had seen her so, although I didn’t realise it then, it was a big moment for me. I was to meet her in person the following April when I visited her home, Cator. She inspired and encouraged me to be a fearless campaigner; she generously gave me opportunities to be involved, and I copied her ways and learnt so much from her. She was a close friend for the next 30 years until she died in 2000.
Others also spoke against the Dartmoor reservoir proposals but none so eloquently as Sylvia. I later read in the DPA newsletter of the three-line whip for members to attend. But the meeting ended with no positive result. It was to be another four years before the Devon River Authority (by then South West Water Authority) had finally rejected Swincombe (see here).
So that was my special day, I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that Dartmoor spoke to me strongly on that long ride. The coincidence of the glorious ride, the meeting, Sylvia in action, and my first experience of the cut and thrust of campaigning, set me up for my future career.