Notes from an author: Sophie Pavelle on Dartmoor's wild, inspiring landscapes

Sophie Pavelle journeys around Britain in search of species threatened by climate change and finds magic in Dartmoor’s fierceness and fragility.

By Sophie Pavelle
Published 27 Nov 2022, 08:00 GMT
Sophie Pavelle is the author of Forget Me Not: Finding the Forgotten Species of Climate-Change Britain, ...

Sophie Pavelle is the author of Forget Me Not: Finding the Forgotten Species of Climate-Change Britain, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Photograph by Jack Johns

Dartmoor has always been my landscape of firsts. Of the UK’s 15 national parks, it was my debut moorland at four years old, freshly landed from the humidity of Augusta, Georgia in the US, where my brother and I were born. Our parents, both naval officers at the time, were keen for this chapter on British soil to take a more outdoors approach. The types of adventures we’d assumed were fiction were suddenly possible on our doorstep. Living just nine miles from the edge of the national park — and even closer to Devon’s famous South West Coast Path — altered our understanding of what it meant to ‘explore’. We had footpaths to find, hills to climb, hidden corners to bookmark. We’d arrive home, breathless and chapped; we were invigorated by this blend of habitats and found a new breed of exhaustion. 

Southern Britain’s largest area of open upland, Dartmoor’s 370 square miles are generously peppered with more than 160 granite rocky outcrops, known as tors. A love of hiking here came as naturally as adolescence. We could be on Dartmoor for an entire day without seeing another soul. As an introvert with a penchant for adventure, this continues to hold great appeal. 

“All landscapes answer to time. And yet Dartmoor has finessed the shape-shift: not just over the past 280 million years, but in the minutes that come and go, as contrasting as fingerprints”

by Sophie Pavelle

Dartmoor was the first place I wild camped; it’s one of the few places in the UK to allow it under the Countryside Code. During the British Army’s infamous Ten Tors physical challenge for under 20s, my school friends and I discovered, for the first time, that 17-year-olds had tangible limits that could be stretched in new directions, rounding corners and finding flow in a river of physical and mental muscle. Soon after, Dartmoor staged the scene of my first meeting with a boy who loved and hated the same things as me. And I like to imagine it as the glue that’s held us together for over a decade. These moors are the first place I run when life tackles me to the ground. I’ve yelled answerless questions into howling winds and at vast horizons, finding parts of myself that would have remained hidden. How different life would be, were it not for this mysterious, windswept corner of Britain. Which conversations unspoken? What relationships undiscovered? 

All landscapes answer to time. And yet Dartmoor has finessed the shape-shift: not just over the past 280 million years, but in the minutes that come and go, as contrasting as fingerprints. Like many people, I accept change reluctantly, and yet I relish Dartmoor’s multiplicity of conditions: the abruptness of a hailstorm, the glare of winter sun, fog as thick as night. It’s the only scenario where I’m at peace with the fact that I both can and can’t read the next move.

Dartmoor nourishes more than 2.4 million other people who visit the national park every year. Its rushing waterfalls, ancient woodlands, wild ponies and peculiar wildlife could quickly be taken for granted, were it not for its interwoven tapestry of globally renowned Bronze Age archaeology, folklore, farming, landscape restoration and military activity. These vistas are anything but bare.

There was no question that Dartmoor would conclude my debut book, Forget Me Not: Finding the Forgotten Species of Climate-Change Britain. After all, it’s only right to finish where it all started. Nonetheless, after 22 years of walking its ways, I should have known that Dartmoor continues to gift the unexpected. May 2021: another first. A springtime bike ride to a disused tin mine in North Bovey became the backdrop of my encounter with Britain’s endangered bilberry bumblebee. Like every one of the 10 species I chose in Forget Me Not, I was unaware of what was surviving right under my nose.

An upland invertebrate whose existence has surrendered to land-use changes, urbanisation, pollution and habitat loss, this striking bumblebee has declined dramatically in numbers since the 1990s. Its life on Dartmoor reveals an ugly truth: rising temperatures are making life for pollinators and other key species increasingly turbulent. Seeing this bee grip so tightly onto Dartmoor was a reminder that no future is guaranteed in the face of climate change. As with people, fragility persists, no matter how rugged the exterior. 

Still, like the bilberry bee, we forge on. During autumn, Dartmoor calls me the loudest with an affirmation of fresher air, quieter trails, colours I can’t paint and rivers urgent with life. For those of us lucky enough to spend time ‘on the moors’, I needn’t elaborate. This landscape’s truth is both known and unknown. Dartmoor’s magic is its ambiguity. 

Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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