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Explore More – Do A Navigation Course On Dartmoor!

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Navigation course on Dartmoor - open featureless landscapes like this are the perfect place to practice
Dartmoor National Park – here comes the rain!

NNAS Silver Navigation Course On Dartmoor

Review Of A Two-Day Course

Moorland evokes an uneasy feeling – no one wants to get lost in swathes of featureless, boggy terrain in poor visibility and the thought of it can be enough to put you off for life!

There’s so much to miss though, whether you want a remote wild camp under a clear starry sky or to find enigmatic standing stones and circles (Dartmoor’s famous for them). There’s no doubt about it, learning the skills to get off the path is a major boost to your self-confidence and makes walking an even richer experience.

Dartmoor

Here’s Why We Did A Navigation Course On Dartmoor

I love Dartmoor and it’s the perfect place to hone your navigation skills. It’s the nearest national park and large wild space to home (about 70 miles away), but it’s been a while since I’ve hiked there on a regular basis, so there’s inevitable ‘skill fade’. (Thanks to not having a car for 8 or 9 years). I want to change that, not least because I aspire to train as Hill and Moorland Leader over the next couple of years (much sooner if I can afford to get away to the required 3 different moorlands).

More importantly, I wanted some time away with my son and as he loves the moor as much as me, we thought an NNAS course (National Navigation Award Scheme) would be a fun way to do that. And I was pretty sure he’d be a natural!

We picked the 2-day Silver NNAS navigation course on Dartmoor with Crag 2 Mountain, based in Princetown. (It’s easy to get to without a car). I’ll say right now that I highly recommend them – they were brilliant. (They offer courses all around the country so don’t dismiss them if you can’t get to Dartmoor.)

If you’ve got some experience you can bypass the gold award and go straight to silver, but you can’t bypass silver if you want to do gold. The skills you’ll learn on the silver award are beyond the basics and focus more on understanding contours, compass work, and choosing good routes through open country, especially in poor visibility.

A small group looking at a map on a navigation course on Dartmoor
Day 2. Poor visibility – perfect navigation training weather!

Day 1 Navigation Course On Dartmoor

The weather was pretty miserable and cold and only 3 of us turned up (there’s a maximum of 6) thanks to the inevitable no-shows. No worries, we thought, we’ll get more individual instruction this way – and of course, we did.

The day kicked off with a workshop where we discussed things like our experience, equipment, the syllabus, and how we’d put it into practice over the next couple of days. It seemed to go pretty quickly and we were out on the moor with our instructor, Georgia, within a couple of hours – the excitement was mounting!

Onto The Moor

We head out for a circular walk (about 4.5 miles), getting a feel for what was around us. The initial route was on a bridlepath where we practiced identifying different features and the catching features we could see before we went onto the open moor after South Hessary Tor.

From this point, we practiced bearings, back bearings, and boxing, as well as familiarising ourselves with contours. It was really good fun and we each got to lead different legs, working out the best routes between various points (usually ‘micro’), and learning how to correct our course along the way. There were interesting reminders of how the landscape can vary or change from what’s on the map too. A great example was how a small pond had basically disappeared in the drought!

We stopped for lunch in the shelter of some old tin workings, which was a great opportunity to learn about the local landscape from Georgia. There’s so much history in this area and having an instructor that knows it really well was fascinating.

At this point, it was chucking it down so we picked up where we left off and navigated back to Princetown.

What Next?

Georgia explained that day 2 would be with another instructor called Geri, on a different part of the moor. We’d learn more skills, and reinforce what we’d learned today, but it would be more intensive. And, there’d be the assessment…

I felt really good by the time we got back to Princetown but we were all knackered. Sometimes you don’t realise how hard you’ve been concentrating until you stop! So, bunkhouse, relax, eat, sleep, ready for day 2.

Navigation course on Dartmoor - a graphic for Pinterest

Day 2 Of The NNAS Navigation Course On Dartmoor

Day 2 was a few miles away at Postbridge (Geri gave all three of us a lift), where we navigated our way around Hartland Tor, Stannon Tor and White Ridge.

Georgia wasn’t wrong – Geri got us working hard right from the off! We paced and timed our way onto the open moor, using handrails and other features to keep us on track. It was obvious that today was going to take a whole lot more concentration than the day before, not least because it was pretty misty before we started.

In fact, this is why I don’t have many photos – once we were on the open moor we were surrounded in clag and treated to torrential rain. Oddly enough we were all quite pleased with this turn in the weather! Anyone should be: if you’re learning to navigate there’s no better way to do it than in poor visibility. Incidentally, if you do happen to get a clear, dare I say it, sunny day, Crag 2 Mountain offer night navigation courses, which is another great way to learn.

Two people and an instructor take a break and look at a map on a silver NNAS navigation course on Dartmoor
Where to next?

Things I Learnt On The Navigation Course On Dartmoor

Today’s walk (about 6 miles or so) gave me the opportunity to re-familiarise and consolidate the navigation skills I felt I was losing. But without a doubt I was learning new skills too (things like quickly recognising when you’ve gone wrong and how to reorientate yourself). And especially learning to trust myself! Sometimes I’d stride off to a point with all the confidence in the world (and still be surprised when I found it haha!) and other times I’d question every decision I made.

One of the things I really want to get better at is orienting myself using contours, and Geri absolutely helped with this. (That extra individual time was priceless.)

Pinpoint Accuracy Doesn’t Exist!

I always felt that you have to be pinpoint accurate with your navigation, but I learned this really isn’t the way it works. No one had ever said to me ‘you have to get this spot on first time or you’ll die’, but it’s something I’ve absorbed from somewhere. I suspect it’s the edict ‘take a map and compass and know how to use it’. Yes, I understand a map, and I’m confident in that. But, it’s what’s not on the map that’s important, and that’s knowing which skills you need to utilise in any given situation.

You have to be as accurate as possible, of course, but what I learned is that it’s easy to drift (particularly in low visibility), that you will come across things you have to navigate around, and so on. For example, on the map, you might see that you can take a direct path, but in reality there could be unseen obstacles. What do you do? Go back the way you came? Adjust your route? Navigate around them? The map can only tell you so much, the rest is up to you.

Valuable Lessons

One of the most valuable takeaways is that I need to focus my attention on a much smaller radius. That’s the way to be more accurate. It’s ridiculous to try and identify hills that are 3 miles away if you haven’t identified what’s in front of you!  Keep your attention close, keep looking for small details (including contours) and then put them into the context of the bigger picture. Finally, contours were beginning to take on a 3-d shape and make much more sense.

Say What?

Somewhere along the line, completely out of the blue, we heard the magic words “I should tell you, before we head off on the next leg, that you’ve all passed”. Whaaaat?! “I’ve been assessing you all day!”. Cheeky. Even so, I looked Geri in the eye and asked “are you sure I’ve passed?” Ahem, “yes!”.

Needless to say, I was thrilled for my son and knew he’d nail it the first time. He’s definitely a natural and he needs to believe in himself too!

“You Lack Confidence Not Competence!”

On the way back Geri gave us individual feedback, chatting about what we thought might be our strengths and weaknesses. It’s evident she could hear my lack of self-confidence in just about everything… “you lack confidence, not competence!”. Never a truer word said, but this time, at last, I think I might have actually heard it!

When we got back to the bunkhouse I asked my son how his chat with Geri went… “Oh I just wanted to know about doing gold”, he said – re.sult! “Next year then?”, “oh yeah!”.

The certificate I received after a Silver NNAS navigation course on Dartmoor
External validation of competence? Yes please!!!

Plan Your Own Navigation Course On Dartmoor

Staying At Fox Tor Bunkhouse Princetown

I’d loved to have wild camped on the moor but my son’s averse to carrying a tent for miles so we stayed at Fox Tor Bunkhouse. Anyway, a good night’s sleep, a shower and somewhere to cook without fuss aren’t to be underestimated when you’re on a navigation course on Dartmoor for two days.

What’s It Like?

Fox Tor Bunkhouse has 12 bunks in three rooms, but we hired a room just for the two of us. The facilities are pretty basic, but there’s everything you need to cook a meal, plus dining tables and chairs and a shower room/toilet (one for women, one for men). The only thing missing is a drying room (or maybe a tumble dryer ) – it’s Dartmoor after all and it rains and rains (and then some!) right through the year, and this weekend was no exception. It being summer though, the heating wasn’t on –  and there’s no way to turn it on from in the bunkhouse so our clothes stayed wet. Ugh.

Fox Tor Bunkhouse - our clothes handing up to dry in our private room
A 4-bed bunk (/drying!) room hired for two

Advantages

The Bunkhouse has other advantages though – it’s right in the centre of Princetown (and so was the NNAS navigation course) which has some great amenities. There’s a post office, grocery store, cafes (including Fox Tor Cafe attached to the bunkhouse), the excellent Basecamp outdoor shop, a pub, and the Princetown Visitor Centre.

You can turn up at Fox Tor Bunkhouse any time you like too, as long as you arrange it before you get there (you need the code to the key box outside). Handy, because we walked there from Yelverton and arrived in the pitch black and furling fog (seems appropriate for Princetown tbf!). In fact, it was gone 9pm thanks to the excruciatingly slow pace set by my son’s blisters – even a policeman stopped his patrol car to ask us if we were ok and where we were going…ahem. It was a great walk though, even if it did take forever.

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Getting To Princetown

A Walk From Yelverton To Princetown Via Burrator Reservoir

GPX File free to download via OS Maps

The route we took was a straightforward 9 miles (give or take) and easy to navigate.

A Late Start

We left home really late (close to 3 hours) because my son hadn’t slept well the night before. This meant we had no choice but to walk: the last bus from Tavistock to Princetown was long gone.

He was keen though and wanted to see the reservoir at its lowest level in 100 or more years. Unfortunately, I got the distance wrong; I didn’t measure it, I told him “from memory it’s about 6 miles” (I thought it was closer to 7, having done it before!), “that’s ok if we don’t rush”, he said.

A granite block bridge with 2 piers straddles a stream with lush green trees in the background
Leather Tor Bridge

Umm 6 miles later and still 3 miles from Princetown (I finally measured it), he wasn’t happy! And who can blame him: he was tired, it was a long walk for him, and he had huge blisters. By that point, it was dark and patchy fog was descending – although it was still warm and muggy.

Be Prepared

Thankfully we both had torches. I took us along the main road (not busy) for safety for the final stretch and I felt pretty smug that we had plenty of reflective stuff on our clothing and rucksack covers too. (This is definitely worth considering even if there’s only a remote chance you’ll end up on Tarmac.)

Once we got plodding his agitation soon dissipated and he (we!) were in awe of the stars. In fact, he used it as a perfect foil for resting his legs: he stopped every 10 minutes to photograph the moon and wild ponies! (He had a fantastic camera with him – one of his passions is nature and landscape photography.)

The flat water of the reservoir is very low and the earth and mud that would normally be below the tideline is clear to see
Burrator Reservoir
An arched granite damn with a road along the top spans the reservoir but there's no water flowing through the 5 archers
The beautiful damn – with no water
As the water levels of Burrator Reservoir have fallen in the drought you can spot relics of what lay below like this old tree stump
Uncovering the past

By the time we got to the bunkhouse (in thick fog at that point), he declared he wouldn’t be “doing any long walks over the weekend” (‘long’ is currently about 5 miles). Sorry mister, there’s no choice about how far we walk on a navigation course on Dartmoor: you make your bed and you lie in it – quite literally, this morning!

I’m glad to say he was so engrossed in learning to navigate he had no idea how far he’d actually walked (around 5 or 6 miles each day). By the Monday though he was exhausted so there was no last walk on the moor, which I’d hoped we’d use to practice the skills we’d learned (and tbf so had he).

Let Go

One thing I learned though, is to let go of my impatience and irritatation about the torturous walking pace. Once I did, it was a joy to see the wondrous things through his eyes, and despite his exhaustion and pain, we had a walk neither of us will forget.

(If you can explain to me why it’s so easy to get irritated with your child’s ‘behaviour’ though, whatever their age (mine’s 24) I promise to try harder! I suspect, in my case anyway, it has something to do with perceiving it as though he’s behaving like a stroppy, reluctant teenager when nothing could be farther from the truth. My bad as they say!).

Tavistock

So, no last walk on the moor and a bus straight to Tavistock instead.

I love visiting Tavistock; it’s a bustling market town with some interesting architecture and loads of ancient history to explore (if that floats your boat). Besides that, there are plenty of shops to pick up supplies, as well as an excellent pannier market. It’s also where the bus from Plymouth terminates so unless you’re rushing off it’s worth a mooch about – which is what we did on our way home.

Before we got there my son emphatically declared he didn’t want to spend hours shopping (er, nor did I – I can’t stand shopping) and then went into every charity shop he saw! My only prerequisite on the other hand was finding somewhere for lunch – and Tavistock has plenty of choices. Never the twain shall meet, you might think, but I picked up a book on interpreting the landscape for £2 and, well, we both have to eat! (A bog standard chain store this time because I had a couple of free drinks.)

Tavistock Guildhall - a castellated stone building with mullioned windows
Tavistock Guildhall was built on the site of an ancient priory by the Duke of Bedford in 1848
Tavistock Guildhall - a view of the town through a stone archway
Bedford Square seen from the Guildhall

A couple of hours was enough for us both this time, so after a wander beside the river Tavy it was time to head back to Cornwall. (I’d love to have visited the museum first but, sadly, it was closed.)

What A Weekend!

The last time we last had a holiday together was before the pandemic so it felt like there was a lot riding on this time away. In part, it’s because it’s never easy to find somewhere when you like being in the middle of nowhere but you don’t have transport. (We usually ended up camping on Exmoor.) As it turned out a relaxed ‘activity holiday’ was the perfect solution. Crag 2 Mountain were brilliant – even though it was a course, there was no pressure, lots of encouragement, and most importantly loads of fun. Throw in the fantastic Dartmoor landscape and you’ve got a recipe for a weekend made in heaven!

Costs For The Navigation Course On Dartmoor

For 2 People

  • 2-day NNAS navigation course with Crag 2 Mountain: £200 (£100 per person)
  • Fox Tor Bunkhouse: 3 nights in a private 2-person room: £139.50 (£46.50 per night) (a single bunk is also available at £16 per night pp)
  • Return train fare from Truro to Plymouth (with a Devon and Cornwall railcard): £26.50 (£13.25 pp)
  • One-way bus fare From Plymouth To Yelverton: £10.80 (£5.40 pp)
  • One-way bus fare from Princetown to Tavistock: £11.80 (£5.90 pp)
  • One-way bus fare from Tavistock to Plymouth: £ (£ pp)

Total cost for 2 people: £388.60

Incidentals, etc

Coffee at Fox Tor Cafe; groceries from Princetown village stores; cattery (flippin expensive holiday for 2 cats!!)

Navigation Course On Dartmoor -Travel Details From Plymouth

Outbound – Public Transport

  1. Arrive at Plymouth Railway Station (GWR)
  2. Take Stagecoach bus service no. 1 Plymouth to Yelverton (this service also runs through to Tavistock where you can catch another bus to Princetown – see below)
  3. Walk from Yelverton to Princetown (the route we took was approximately 9 miles)

Return – Public Transport

  1. Take bus service First Dartmoor Explorer from Princetown to Tavistock (NB there’s also a service operated by Oakley’s Coaches – no. 98 – neither of which are that regular)
  2. Take Stagecoach bus service no. 1 from Tavistock to Plymouth
  3. Train from Plymouth (GWR)

Travelling By Car

Princetown is on the western side of the moor and is easily accessible from Yelverton on the B3212 or Tavistock on the B3357

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Graphic for Pinterest

Thanks for reading. Until next time…

Happy hiking!

Stephie x

Want To Explore More Of Dartmoor?

I highly recommend this 108-mile trail around the National Park:

image link to The Dartmoor Way article

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