Note that all maps on this site are only
indicative. You should never set out without the correct OS map.
Years ago, long before electric refrigeration, someone came up
with the bright idea of "capturing" the ice which formed up on the
hills high above Sourton Down. They cut a series of huge rectangular
troughs running, ladder-fashion, across the hill underneath a spring.
Around December time the water from this spring would be allowed,
via a series of gates and runnels, to fill each of the shallow basins.
The inevitable cold - guaranteed on this high part of northern Dartmoor
before the advent of global warming - would soon turn the imprisoned
water to ice, and this would then be covered over by protective
layers of peat and fern for use in spring and summer.
This isn't quite the walk that was featured
on ITV Westcountry's evening news programme recently - but it ends
up in the same place. That is - at the Ice Works.
Basic hike: from Sourton (just south of Okehampton
on the Tavistock road) up onto the moors, heading north east to
the Ice Works and then south onto Sourton Tors. Back via the path
opposite Lake Down.
Recommended map: Ordnance Survey OL28, Dartmoor.
Distance and going: Two and a half miles - easy
Since I learned about the Ice Works
during the writing of a WMN series called Delve Into Dartmoor, I'd
wanted to visit the place - but wasn't quite sure where to find
it. The area around Sourton Tors is pretty extensive and the modern
OS map (Explorer OL28) doesn't show anything in the way of rectangular
I managed to find the place though. All you do is come off the
A30 on the Sourton Down junction above Okehampton-west, drive a
mile south along the Tavistock road, and you come to the hamlet
of Sourton. Turn left into what passes for a village green, below
the village hall and church, and there's plenty of room to park.
Now it's simply a matter of heading for the high moors which lurk
immediately above the graveyard. Take the footpath which crosses
the old railway line (now the Granite Way cycle-path) and you will
find yourself in one of the old Dartmoor drifts - a sort of stone
walled funnel down which farmers and shepherds once used to herd
their sheep and ponies.
By the way, the old WMN journalist
William Crossing, wrote 100 years ago that the "new" railway looked
set to spoil lonesome Sourton. It didn't, but one can look back
now with amusement over his fears. Crossing said the railway had
"robbed" the place of its moorland character. He needn't have worried
- the Iron Road came and went without leaving too much of a mark
upon the local charm.
At the upper, moorland, end of the funnel the walker is confronted
by a number of choices. A path called the Dartmoor Way swings away
immediately to the left and another proceeds in the opposite direction
- south west. But there's a middle option - a grassy path that curves
up around the base of the steep incline that rises in front of you
- first north-east, then east.
Up this I went, for no other reason than it looked like the best
bet as far as gaining the top of the rocks was concerned. The geology
here is a trifle strange - the Sourton Tors are ranged along a very
steep ridge, but as you ascend the track around the gentler northern
end, so you realise that there' s a second lot of much higher rocks.
Between the two there's a shallow moorland basin - it's almost as
if Mother Nature decided where she'd end the north-western limit
of Dartmoor, then changed her mind and had a second shot.
Anyway, it is to the north of all this
- on the slopes leading up from the Okehampton side - that you find
the Ice Works. The first thing you come across is a stone-walled
pit (goodness knows what this was for) and, above, you reach the
rectangular grid of long thin depressions. Each is about four feet
deep and about 75 metres long, but you can see that erosion must
have both raised the level of the actual beds and decreased the
height of their retaining walls.
Things don't get that warm up on Sourton Down even now - and somehow
you can imagine how the ice-men would start coming back up from
Okehampton in springtime to reap their chilly harvest. The ice would
be packed in fern and transported by cart all over South and Mid
It would even make it as far as Plymouth where trawler captains
took to using it as a way of keeping the fish fresh. Apparently,
this marked the very beginning of the era when fishermen were able
to go of to sea for days rather than being forced home each night
with their catch.
Having found the strange old place, I marched on
up to the top of the Sourton Tors, before returning to the hamlet
down the little coombe slightly to the east - opposite the great
sweep of hill known as Lake Down.
Before I did, I sat there in the evening light absorbing the vast
panorama that lay before me. When it comes to sunsets, Sourton Tors
offers one of the finest vantage points in the region - you get
to see half of Devon and half of Cornwall darken in the golden gloaming.
And you are just ten minutes walk and a couple of minutes drive
away from the busiest main road in the region.