Ask anybody to name an ancient track on Dartmoor and the chances are that the answer will be “the Abbots’ Way”. Most authorities will tell you that the Abbots’ Way was the path formed as a means of communication between Buckfast Abbey on the south-eastern side of the moor and Buckland and Tavistock Abbeys on the west.
No doubt this is due to William Crossing supporting the argument and there are few who doubt the authority of the redoubtable William Crossing.
In his Guide to Dartmoor, first published in 1909, with facsimiles still in print, William Crossing describes 80 or so ancient paths and tracks traversing the moor or connecting different parts of it. Sometimes he was the first writer to refer to them, let alone describe them in detail. Such was, and still is, perhaps, his reputation that for over 100 years anything that Crossing wrote must be fact.
Eric Hemery, however, challenges this perceived wisdom, calling it “spurious” and suggesting that the first mention of a route called the Abbots’ Way was in 1794 by a traveller named John Andrews, 250 years after the dissolution of the monasteries. Hemery makes the argument that intelligent, educated men who were unlikely to be Dartmoor born and bred would choose such a difficult route with few landmarks and no guideposts. A more likely route, according to both Crossing and Hemery, was probably by way of Holne.
R H Worth also supports this view and asks why the “traditional” Abbots’ Way is so called and why the route from Buckfast to Nun’s Cross is largely unmarked by any crosses (Huntingdon cross is the only exception) and involving several river crossings, likely to be impassable in winter.
The likelihood is that any track, if ever there was one following this route, was much more likely to have been purely secular and used by those involved in tinning and the woollen industry. Tavistock and Ashburton were both Stannary towns. Tavistock, Buckfast and Ashburton were centres of the woollen trade in medieval times right up until recent years.
To contradict that, there are places along the route with monastic sounding names such as Buckland Ford and Bishops Meads.
Whatever the historical truth, a modern route was started in 1962 by Bill Ames. Envisaged as a way of engaging young people it has continued every year on the first Sunday of October. But, you don’t have to be young!
Just to prove this, 15 U3A members set off on a sunny May morning from Buckfast Abbey to complete the Abbot’s Way, a distance of over 23 miles. We were not going to do this all at once, you understand, but nevertheless it is still a challenge.
The first day was 14½ miles and at times it seemed as if it was all uphill. The route is along quiet lanes for about 2½ miles to Cross Furzes. Here the track descends into the valley of the Dean Burn, where we stopped for a breather by an old clapper bridge before climbing up to the open moor. From there the going becomes rougher passing high above the Avon reservoir to reach Huntingdon Cross. Another clapper bridge took us over the River Avon. A steep ascent up onto the wild open moor within sight of the old Red Lake clay works before descending to the massive tin streaming works at Erme Pits. It is thought-provoking to think that hundreds of men, and they were mostly men, had to work in this inhospitable landscape to earn a crust.
The track took us away from the wet and boggy ground in the valley of the Erme to wet and boggy ground on the higher moor by Broad Rock before descending to Plym Steps. (Why is it often boggy on the tops of hills? What happened to gravity?). Once over the River Plym a clearer track brought us to Nuns Cross and eventually to Princetown just in time to get to the café before it closed.
The second day was less arduous and “only” 9 miles with more downhill than uphill! Leaving Princetown the route passes North Hessary Tor with its communications mast before dropping down to the stone rows at Merrivale. From there we passed Vixen Tor and Windy Post before descending gently towards Whitchurch Down and Tavistock.
It was almost an anticlimax to reach Court Gate, one of the few remaining parts of Tavistock Abbey.
What next? The question that everybody was asking. The walkers have already done the Ten Tors. Well, perhaps not covering the same distances as the youngsters had done earlier in May but nevertheless there WERE ten tors! There must be more challenges out there ……………
Answers on a postcard
John Noblet