As my car crested the hill, taking a sweeping right turn into the valley fog I could just make out the first rolling indicators of Dartmoor. Through the windscreen wipers and spitting rain the unmistakable dark brown silhouettes of ponies and their foals stand, heads proud, grazing on the beautiful fertile hillsides. Sheep sit on grassy verges away from the road. Cattle stand motionless as if undeterred by the localised weather. I can feel the excitement in my veins as I try to recognise features and contours. I notice Rudie, my trusty Cockapoo, equally excited as turns and jumps in the seat beside me. Time spent in these landscapes somehow sooth the soul. Their rolling openness and effortless tranquillity always seem to draw you in for a closer look. When feet touch soil there is a quietness to be found here on the snaking footpaths and in the river strewn valleys. To me, these are components for exploration and mindful journeys.
It’d been 16 years since I last frequented Dartmoor. On these hills I cut my teeth as a young Marine. In some ways I grew up here, transforming from boy to man. This landscape taught me everything I needed to know about the power of nature, my limits and ultimately life. Now I was back, experiencing it in a different way with Rudie, to explore landscape, mindfulness and how the two perfectly intertwine.
As the boot of my car clicked into place, I tilted my head sideways shielding myself against the drizzle. Rudie sat patiently at my feet as I re-packed my kit for the day ahead. His ears perked up as his senses burst into life with new smells, shapes and sounds. These before moments are always exciting. The curiosity and anticipation to experience what lay ahead is what makes time spent in nature so fruitful. Even the simplest of walks, wherever located, will have its rewards both physically and mentally, not just for me but for the dog too. I know our bond will tighten with each stream we jump and stone bridge we cross.
I tighten the hip-buckle to my rucksack as I look up at the windswept summit of Haytor, the region I’ll explore for the duration of my two day stay. The Tor (high point) reaches into the mist up to my left. In front a rising contour covered in granite boulders leads to another high point up to my right. Trees dot the landscape. As an adventure photographer my eyes are drawn to these features and lines, also how people experience and interact with the landscape, whether hiking or with their animals. Today my camera was waterproofed and neatly stowed away, my phone switched to airplane mode. I wanted this journey to be about the senses, slowing down ,and looking more. Also to become more mindful of time, touch and place.
Moving up onto the moor with Rudie by my side and making our way slowly through the landscape there is an immediate sense of wonder. I find this ancient landscape to be inspiring, internally and creatively. The sensory overload of London doesn’t exist here, but a calm still feeling, only felt with time spent in nature. The ball, normally brought to run Rudie through dips and hollows has been left behind in a bid to engage his nose more and let him connect to the landscape in his own special way. Tiptoeing through the fiddletips of bracken and gorse, I reference my OS map of the area. I’m reminded how we are spoilt for choice on which route we can take to explore. Dartmoor has miles of footpaths through ancient woodlands, along river banks and across the openness of the moor. When exploring an area with a dog it’s important to remember that Dartmoor is home to cattle, sheep and ponies which can be found roaming freely over the wild hillsides. There are also footpaths through enclosed fields of livestock, near rare species of nesting birds. Mindfulness is not only allowing yourself to connect but observing and respecting the natural world around us. For this reason Rudie stays on the lead at all times, a kind suggestion made by the Dartmoor National Park Rangers.
The high point of the Tor is a blustery place as the day draws to a close. The mist has cleared, tangerine skies send shards of orange light onto the moor, it feels like mother nature has arranged the show and given us front row seats. Myself and Rudie have quietly manoeuvred across the landscape throughout the day to where we sit now. My phone hasn’t beeped and I haven’t used it to take a single image. Today has been about engaging the senses, surrounding myself in natural detail and not comparing these moments to anything else. I take time to notice the direction of the wind and the movement of clouds. I pause to feel intermittent warmth from the sun on my face. These moments are here and now, and they are ours. Gratitude, is the word that springs to mind.
The following morning as I rub my tired eyes and take a sip from the coffee cup, I look out and up to the moor again, the mist has rolled back in, gently obstructing that magical Dartmoor perspective of ancient time and place. Today my aim is to focus on people, connection and how others experience this wild and rugged place. How do they connect, is it through growing up here, working here or walking the dog here? This morning there is a squelch under dog paw as Rudie explores our public footpath by lead. In the high ground to the left I notice the grey box silhouette of a land Rover, rocking side to side and making its way down a larger path towards me. As it approaches closer I see the wooden board that stretches side to side above the windscreen, it says “Dartmoor Park Ranger”. The vehicle chuggs to a stop beside me and Bill steps out, the first thing I notice is his smile.
Bill Allen has been a Park Ranger here for 30 years, starting the job in his early 20’s. “The beauty of Dartmoor is that is can be all things to all people” Says Bill. “The beauty of the open moorland gives you chance to mindfully explore. It could be spending 30 minutes of time walking and bonding with your dog to spending a few days hiking, watching wildlife and wild camping. When you’re here you’ll have a chance leave the hustle and bustle behind. Dartmoor has meant a lot to me over the years.” Bills love for this wild place is displayed in his eyes as he closes the door to his Land Rover. His enthusiasm resonates with me as we shake hands through the window and say our goodbyes. With Rudie in tow we wander to another high point. As we walk we breathe in the aromas of the moist air and flowering hillside plants. I lean down and touch the earth as Rudie circles around me. Lifting my head up I notice a dog walker approaching me. Two Dalmatians eagerly nudge the fruit bars hidden in my trouser pocket. Extending a hand to Jessi we discuss mindfulness and how it plays a role in her daily life. “I often find quiet spots and listen to birdsong. Sometimes I close my eyes and sit with the dogs around me. The moor is alive with different animals and rare bird species.” Her unique mindfulness approach is to listen to the notes, and how each bird makes her feel. This to me is her own special way of connecting, listening and being more mindful. As we smile and move on, I suddenly hear more birdsong than before. The fact she shared that touching insight, made me more aware to how the birds share the same landscape, how I’m a visitor in their world.
While Rudie sits quietly on his lead by my wet boots I watch sun drift down behind the horizon for another day. I notice the sweeping mist across the moor accelerating the softening colours of the sky. This act of noticing and listening is something I’m beginning to enjoy and something I’ll take forward. As I sit there, I realise that mindfulness, to me, is all about slowing down to a point where I physically take part and sense the intricate details of the world around me, including that of my trusty K9 companion. The direction and strength of the breeze, the feel of wet rock on my hands or the smell of a foxglove in bloom, these moments pull me into the here and now, drawing my senses inwards towards calmness, intuition and the inner self. They also encourage me to look closer at the natural world, towards an ancient story of cycles and seasons. As I focus on the final golden arms of sunlight over the landscape I realise this alone is worth more than a million likes on a social page.
Forthglade is encouraging more dog walkers to pick up the lead, switch off mobile devices and maximise precious dog walking time to become more mindful. So give it a try, you and your dog won’t regret it.
For more information visit www.forthglade.com