A defining day – Trustee Kate Ashbrook on her love of Dartmoor National Park

  • Contributor information: CNP

Our Trustee and long-time supporter of National Parks, Kate Ashbrook, shares the story of when she first fell for Dartmoor National Park as part of our Save our National Parks: Share your story campaign

I can remember the moment when Dartmoor spoke to me. It was 26 August 1971; I was 16. I had visited Hillbridge Farm near Peter Tavy on western Dartmoor since 1965 for riding holidays. It was pure bliss for a pony-mad ten-year-old. I returned every year. Gradually my joy extended beyond the ponies and the farm to Dartmoor itself. 

The rides were never long, the terrain was rough, and many of the ponies were elderly. But we were happy. However, when a long ride across the moor was mentioned I was tremendously excited and was among those who badgered for it to happen. And at last it did.

On that special day five of us set off from Hillbridge, riding out of the valley to join the ancient Lich Way (the old coffin route leading to Lydford).

The Lichway took us across the grain of the moor, over the Cowsic and West Dart rivers, through Bellever Forest, and past the ancient tenements of Drury and Pizwell. We rode over Challacombe Down, alongside Headland Warren and then up onto Hameldown, the broad whaleback of a hill. I remember that expanse of heather, the wide view, the misty ridges of Dartmoor stretching into fading sunlight. This was the moment when I vowed to fight for the threatened moor—for I knew, hazily, that it faced many threats.

And one of those was a reservoir. After tea at Heathercombe where we left the ponies, we piled into the van for Princetown where there was a public meeting. The Swincombe reservoir in central Dartmoor had been rejected by a Parliamentary Committee the previous year (in those days, such developments required parliamentary bills). However, the National Farmers’ Union and Country Landowners’ Association were hounding the Devon River Authority and ministers to put Swincombe back in the frame.

I sat at the back of the smoke-filled hall, on a high bench with a good view. The meeting was acrimonious, with rowdy calls for a Swincombe reservoir. After much unpleasantness, the chairman invited Sylvia (Lady) Sayer to speak. She stood calmly among the heckling farmers, and spoke of the immense value of wild country. She confirmed that she, and the Dartmoor Preservation Association (of which she was chairman) would oppose all reservoirs on Dartmoor. 

With my head still full of the moor’s splendour that day I pledged to myself that I must emulate Sylvia and her campaigning spirit. And this I did. Eight months later I met her for the first time at her cottage near Widecombe-in-the-Moor—but that’s another story.

Great Mis Tor from White Tor, Dartmoor National Park, by Kate Ashbrook