On a ‘balmy’ August evening – a bit of mist, a little drizzle and with a slight chill in the air, we ventured along the A386 and onto the A30 – destination Okehampton Camp. The trip had been pre-arranged with fellow local history enthusiasts and the plan was to arrive at the camp at a specific time with our cars pre-registered and our personal photo identification with us, in order that we would be allowed entry at the specified time.
As with all good plans it went somewhat awry when a caravan snaked across the A30, completely disintegrating and causing a massive traffic tailback on the eastbound carriageway and the arterial roads leading into Okehampton. We only got caught in the traffic jam for 20 minutes or so, but were convinced we would not get to the Camp on time and be allowed entry and were very surprised to be one of the first cars to arrive. Some of our colleagues were not so lucky however, arriving in dribs and drabs during the next hour or turning back completely.
We were welcomed into the Officers Mess where the current Colonel in charge of the Camp – the youngest we have ever seen – gave us a very interesting presentation on the history and importance of Dartmoor to the military. Dartmoor provides realistic training for our troops and the rigours that soldiers experience, build resource and initiative. The Royal Marines based in the South West gained their reputation on foundations built with Dartmoor’s granite. When they re-took the Falklands in 1982 they had the advantage of having trained over similar ground and in similar weather conditions. They had done it all before on Dartmoor!
Troops have been training on Dartmoor since the early 1800’s – from wars with Napoleon through to the conflict in the Falklands and on the walls of the Officers Mess were many pictures depicting scenes from some of the battles.
The previous Colonel – an ex-para – took us on a walk around the Camp pointing out some of the oldest buildings and the challenges faced by men, machines and animals. The army are keen to preserve as many of these buildings as they can and modern day soldiering dictates that they are used in a very different way.
A lot of the buildings have been converted for use as classrooms – today’s soldiers are much better informed and educated – and others house 21st century requirements – leisure facilities, bar, photocopiers etc.
The Army are very keen to work collaboratively and in harmony with all other interested parties on Dartmoor, whether it be supporting conservation, hill farmers, local landowners, the National Park Authority or indeed the general public. The Ten Tors challenge, organised and run from the camp, is an annual exercise enjoyed by thousands. The right for the public to access Dartmoor’s common land on foot or on horseback was established by the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 and access is only restricted on the Range Danger Area, for the public’s safety, when live firing is notified.
The tour ended with a visit to the Commandant’s Office and a chance to view some of the memorabilia that has been collected over the years.
Due to the delayed start, darkness had descended and we very carefully followed our guide back to the cars. The camp does not have streetlights – soldiers are expected to have a torch or to safely know their way around the camp.
It was a fascinating visit and soldiers and walkers enjoy Dartmoor for many of the same reasons.