High Willhays: closest place to heaven in Devon

Devon is a place I could wander forever.  The vast extent of the high moorland of Dartmoor is both beautiful and fearsome, inviting and forbidding:  when the sun is out, there is little better than the freedom to wander at will on what looks like an unbounded landscape; but when the icy wind cuts to the bone or the cloud descends on the hill, there is no shelter.

It was a few years ago that I climbed the highest hills on the moor, Yes Tor and High Willhays, two neighbouring peaks, the latter being also Devon’s county top.

It is a modest walk – just 7 miles – mainly involving climbing (even the precipitous descent seemed to be climbing) but well worth it for the views, the location, and for bagging another county top.  It did not finish where I started, and would not change the distance much to do so.

The walk is within the army’s Dartmoor live firing ranges, so you will need to check the range timetable before setting out:  there is a link below.

The Meldon Reservoir

The walk

I started at the Meldon Reservoir – a beautifully calming stretch of water, and while as a reservoir it may be manmade, it lies in a natural valley, and the water falls from the heavens as to any normal lake, so it can count as one, apart from the dam, which is the first and almost last artificial thing to cross.

A path leads up from the dam, winding up the slope of Yes Tor.  The hill rising above looks forbidding, but on a sunny day (I was blessed with a sunny day) it is an invitation.

An inhabitant of Dartmoor

In the days before exact, scientific surveys, Yes Tor was believed to be the highest point on the moor, and in the county.  It is certainly the more prominent one to the eye from the nearest villages.  (There has been this confusion on Dartmoor, perhaps understandably for want of anywhere to stand to measure the hills other than by the impression of the eyes:  until the early nineteenth century Cosdon Hill (1,804 feet) was thought to be the highest on Dartmoor, because it looks prominent from a reachable village; then the crown moved to Yes Tor, until someone thought to count the hill hidden behind it; High Willhays.)

It is a straight haul up Yes Tor to its rocky outcrop.  The views from here are broad in all directions.  It looks to the north beyond the bounds of Dartmoor to the rolling hills in the middle of Devon, and westwards to Cornwall across the Tamar Valley.  Closer to, to the north-west, is the reservoir and to the north of it a peculiar viaduct apparently to nowhere.  The map shows it to carry the old line of the Dartmoor Railway over the West Okement River but no further.  (It now serves a quarry, but apparently the line does not cross the viaduct these days.)

The top of Yes Tor is at 2,029 feet above sea level. From here I turned south, down the little saddle separating Yes Tor from its neighbour, High Willhays, which is just ten feet higher.  On the saddle my sense of remoteness was knocked a bit by seeing a track running up to the saddle from the east, and a Land Rover parked a little way down it:  this place though is within the army’s firing range and access has been driven to it.

The summit of High Willhays stands at 2,039 feet above sea level.  It is marked with several rocky outcrops, and it is hard to see by eye which is the highest, so I clambered up each of the tallest. I was not alone; one chap had hauled not only himself but also a ham radio set and a small dog up to the summit (to make a broadcast, he explained, from the top of each ‘Marilyn’ hill).

From here, the views to the south and east broaden across the sweep of Dartmoor, to Great Kneeset prominent at the centre of the moor, and many more around.  Below the hill westwards is the deep valley of the West Okement, into which I had to descend later, with stands of woodland amid the bare moorland. To the south is top after top of the peculiar hills of the moor.

The descent from High Willhays looks simple on an Ordnance Survey map (as below).  In practice, the valley of the Brim Brook does its best to imitate the West Okement, and the West Okement itself extends with few distinguishing points and is misleading.  It takes careful compass work not to end up walking miles in the wrong direction (which did happen to a friend of mine who did the same walk a few months after me but without the aid of a compass).

It is steep and trackless off the tor, plunging down over broken ground into the valley.  Sturdy boots are needed or a twisted ankle is promised.  Eventually in the bottom of the valley I could track northwards to a little below the head of the reservoir, where there is a ford and a track to the west up and over the shoulder of the Sourton Tors (though I took a lower path, a little less direct).

The Two Castles Trail and the West Devon Way share a route along the lower hills here, though I went to the track of the old Dartmoor railway, which has been converted into a footpath and a trail known as the Granite Way.  A little way down here, and I came to my finishing point at Sourton (home to Devon’s weirdest pub, incidentally).

One more county top done, and it was all good warming up for the next challenge….

Outside link

Maps

  • Ordnance Survey Explorer Series,

 

The route: map

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