This year’s summer I pictured myself celebrating a family wedding in Portugal and exploring the turquoise waters and the vibrant yellows and oranges of the sea cliffs stretching across the southern shoreline of the Algarve. It all looked so promising earlier this year when Portugal was one of few countries given the green light to travel! But, our luck didn’t last and Portugal went into amber. Plans were changed and flights, accommodation and car hire were all cancelled. Instead of moping about a lost holiday I took the opportunity to make the most of my time away from work and turn it into an adventure! One evening I turned to my partner and said should we do the Two Moors Way this summer, he looked at me and shrugged in a manner to suggest "why not?"! Planned, prepped and apprehensive we hopped on a train to Plymouth to start our walk at Wembury Beach.

The walk’s two end points are Wembury Beach in south Devon and Lynmouth, on north Devon’s coast. The walk stretches across Dartmoor and Exmoor (hence the Two Moors Way) with mid Devon separating both moors. The total distance of the walk is 117 miles (or 188km if you, like me, prefer the metric system). We gave ourselves 8 and a half days to complete, so an average of 20km (13 miles) per day and with the added weight of carrying everything we need to survive, as we opted for the cheaper option to wild camp... you can see why we were apprehensive at the start.  

I learnt many things along the way, like blister prevention and treatment, cold soaked oats aren’t a great way to start the day, and that if I can overcome my mental negativities, I can achieve anything! However, for the interest of this audience I won’t go into my personal development and rather write about what I learnt and observed about the landscapes I walked through.

South Hams encompasses the section of walking from Wembury to Ivybridge, following the River Erme valley. The section takes you through wooded valley bottoms and open grazing floodplains, showcasing scenic river views. The river and streams we passed were narrow and shallow with rocky river beds, offering perfect places to dip tired feet and to refill with water (always using a water filter, no matter how beautiful the stream looks!). It was finally just passed Ivybridge that we stopped for the night to wild camp on Dartmoor.

Dartmoor to many offers an open and wild landscape, but it is anything but wild. Dartmoor has been exploited by humans since the early Bronze Age and the landscapes we see today were and are still shaped by human influences mainly through agriculture. Walking through the open moorlands passing through sections of grass moors, blanket bogs and some valley mires (why do I always find myself in a bog when on Dartmoor!), you wouldn’t go an hour without seeing sheep. Their grazing and presence were noticed everywhere making me think about the grazing levels across the moor. I know that the moors have been overgrazed in the past, and stocking numbers have reduced recently. But what state have we left or are leaving Dartmoor in and ultimately what is farming on Dartmoor for?

Walking into the farming belt of Mid Devon you can immediately see the intensification of farming. The gently rolling landscape and the fertile, ploughable and distinctively red soils produce great agricultural land with the area mostly classified as Grade 1 and 2. The fields are larger and boarded by those distinctive Devon hedges. The state of some of the hedges left a lot to be desired. Neatly cut hedges described most of the hedges we walked past, which isn’t a good thing! In summer you would expect to see hedges full and green with an abundance of blossoms for our pollinators, turning into berries later on in the season for birds to survive winter. However, what I saw were annually cut hedges and flailed to the same point year on year producing these gappy, gnarled knuckled and sickly looking hedges, offering little wildlife benefits. These natural stock fences offer so much to our landscapes; an historical map of our countryside, a unique cultural symbol, an important wildlife resource for both habitat, food supplies and travel corridors. Farmers and landowners should be proud of messy hedges and given the financial support to manage hedges for all of us to benefit from.

Unlatching field gates, hopping over stiles and squeezing past kissing gates one field into the next, day after day, I noticed overgrazed, overworked and overexploited land. Arable fields showed signs of compaction and poor soil structure with large erosion gullies heading downslope, with little to no grass margins. Every inch of these fields used for cultivation, leaving no room for wildlife and even little old me to walk easily through. The majority of the grasslands were improved and overgrazed. There were times I hoped to come across the respite of a shaded woodland or even a little wooded copse after hours of walking in direct sun. Looking at the map to see the route ahead for a rest stop you notice how little woodland there is in the farmed environment, little copses topping the crown of hills or slivers of woodlands clinging onto steep valley sides. It is a stark realisation how far we have pushed nature to the peripheries.

Rivers and streams played an important part throughout our walk, as they provided places to fill up with water and a perfect place to rest and wash-up. The ease of filling and making use of rivers and streams was a joy in Dartmoor and walking along the River Erme but was not the case through Mid Devon. In fact, there was not one place where we felt comfortable to filter water from or to take a dip. Streams and rivers were cloudy with pollutants and strewn with litter. It was very unnerving not being able to find a suitable source of water and also unnerving to physically see the degradation of our waterways in what should be idyllic surroundings. The one exception in Mid Devon was the oasis of Bradford Moor, a species rich floodplain meadow on the banks of the Little Dart River. Insects glistened in the afternoon sun, butterflies fluttered from one flower to the next and house martins swooped and darted for the abundance of insects.

Coming into Exmoor you are first greeted with West Anstey Common which is a scrubby upland heathland it takes you up to an elevation where you can see where you have come from and where we will be walking towards. Looking back, Mid Devon did look picture-perfect, the greens and browns of the field parcels, criss-crossed with the dark green hedges spread across the complete flatness of the topography. Then looking ahead, in the distance you can very faintly see the undulating upland moorlands of Exmoor. Exmoor is difficult to describe as it is so diverse and we pretty much experienced the lot! Traditional upland farms, steep wooded valleys, heather moors, and these distinctive Beech hedgebanks. My walking guidebook explained that these hedgebanks were planted with Beech in the 19th Century by the Ackland family that owned large swathes of Exmoor at the time. Beech in particular was used because they grew quickly and a poor source for fuel, so the locals left the trees alone. Even with this diversity of surroundings, again much like Dartmoor, the landscape is shaped by humans and wildlife is quiet.

Finishing the walk at Lynmouth was euphoric! The achievement of completing such a difficult journey from one end of Devon to the other will be a very special time for me and my partner and we created some amazing memories. But I am left underwhelmed. The state of our natural environment is saddening and maddening. Over hundreds of years we have pushed and pushed nature to a breaking point and what I observed on my travels through Devon is that it is absolutely essential that we pull nature back into our spaces. Be that in our own gardens, towns, cities and farms. Agriculture can be the biggest catalyst for ecosystem regeneration and there are huge gains to be had. It is going to be an enormous task, but I am enthusiastic to be a part of the regeneration revolution!