The first time I came to England was in 1990. Before that I had always directed my student holidays to Greece, camping ‘lightly’ in a country where the warmth of the sun and the sea was guaranteed. Dutch people think to know that rain in the English summer is a given, or at least not uncommon. For the backpacker this means taking more and warmer clothes, and thus a heavier load to carry.
That year I couldn’t have been more wrong. The English summer of 1990 was nothing less than tropical. I had two and a half weeks in July to track around the South West. During those days temperatures were soring, not a drop of rain fell, and the warm embrace of the English sea water was not far off from what I was used to in southern Europe.
I spent 4 days of my English days tracking straight across Dartmoor, from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. As usual, I exhausted myself by walking for long hours, living on little food and sleeping in awkward places. Here is a fragment from my story ‘Map Reading’, that gives a flavour:
“After two solid days of walking I was keen not to be too hard on myself; set up camp early rather than late, so that I would still have evening warmth and light to read or even draw in my sketchbook. I had found an ideal map location, a clear field close to a church outside a small village, remote enough for me to be left in peace at the end of the day — or so I guessed.
My chosen field turned out to be the graveyard. I considered for a moment or two to stay, but thought better in the end, lifted my rucksack and walked on. Later, when I finally trod down a wooded valley, too tired to continue any longer, I put up my little tent near a stream – the direct opposite of what I had wished for. I felt exhausted and cold. It was soon too dark to make any progress on my Dostoyevsky and a light flickering between trees in the distance disconcerted me. I crept into my sleeping bag, zipped up the tent, and slept an uncomfortable night on the uneven surface of the forest floor.
Around five in the morning I woke up with a jolt. I instantly knew that I’d been found out. I could hear creatures rummaging around my tent, pulling on its lines to draw my attention. Were they ghosts, the bodiless creatures that glide on the wisps of clouds drifting between the trees? As a boy my strategy in such situations was always to lie still and pretend I wasn’t there, but I knew that wouldn’t work this time. After a few nervous minutes I braved opening the zip of my tent and found myself eye to eye with two sizeable badgers, sniffing out what goodies my humble camp might offer. To my enormous relief the pair were nothing unearthly, even more startled than I, and retreated swiftly.“
Of course, the rewards for challenging and exhausting oneself come in the form of ‘lasting impressions’ and/or deep experiences of a more or less spiritual nature. Or does Dartmoor do that to you anyway? In any case, ever since my first encounter with the rugged, bleak, forbidding but enticing, sculpted, romantic, dramatic landscape of Dartmoor, back in 1990, I have loved the place. So when I moved from Dorset to the Tamar Valley in 2011, not much more than a stone throw from the moor, I vowed to get to know Dartmoor like the back of my hand.
That resolution was rather ambitious… I think it would take much more than just one decade of explorations to achieve it. However, over the last ten years I have made a good many walks, some including good swims too (encouraged by the lovely book ‘Wild Swimming Walks, Dartmoor and South Devon’). Recently, the Dartmoor landscape became more prominent in my drawings and paintings, as illustrated above and below. I hope for many more Dartmoor adventures in the coming summer, on foot as well as in the studio.