Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ten Mile Walk from Bossington to Selworthy and Horner and back to the Castle at Porlock

This was to be the end of the quest. After visiting thirty four pubs, tasting twenty nine different beers, and walking two hundred and twenty four miles, the finish line was in sight. We had toyed with prolonging our project to walk to every pub on Exmoor by counting in Woods at Dulverton, but at the end of the day Paddy Groves’s excellent establishment on the southern fringe of Exmoor is described accurately by its signboard. It’s a “public bar with a dining room”, not a pub.
The Castle at Porlock thus remained the final enigma and challenge. Despite naming itself as a “hotel”, it had always looked a boozer to me – when it was open. Landlords seemed to come and go with the seasons and the swallows. The plan was to start at Bossington and then circle through Selworthy and Horner Woods before attacking Porlock in the rear, hoping to take the Castle by surprise during one of the infrequent periods when it was open.

It was one of the few truly beautiful days of a dreadful summer which recalled the dreary meteorological disasters of my 1950’s childhood, but at Bossington we experienced the first of a day of disappointments. The car park which I had picked out on the map was administered by the National Trust and, therefore, required £3 from its pay-and-display machine for the necessary all-day ticket. Ever since the National Trust banned stag hunting in the wondrous Horner Woods, despite the understanding of the Acland family that hunting would continue there in perpetuity, any contribution to the already swollen funds of the landless middle classes’ favourite charity has been wrung from me with the ease of an appendectomy without anaesthetic.

Even this could not cloud such a beautiful morning, and we set off along the shaded bridleway towards Hurlstone Point. Here we turned right up Hurlstone Combe, climbing a gradient which is as steep as any we have encountered on Exmoor. It’s the sort of climb where you find an excuse every now and again to stop to admire the view so that you can get your breath back. We were sobered by the thought that a week later our son would be required to run up it as part of the Seaview 17 race from Countisbury to Minehead.
You don’t have to go too far to enjoy marvellous views of Porlock Bay.

The views from the very top at Selworthy Beacon are even better but, sadly, our camera failed to do them justice. Here are the pictures for what they are worth, but on the ground the all-round prospect of the Exmoor hills, and of the Bristol Channel with its shipping and the Welsh coast beyond, is quite staggering.

We walked down from the Beacon towards the road which runs in from North Hill, Minehead. When we joined the road, we walked eastwards without any sign of the path required to take us down to Selworthy village. When we were almost upon it, it suddenly became visible through the dense bracken and we turned down through Selworthy Combe, the track following a stream through woodland until we finally reached the village. Here the famous landmark white church was just turning out after matins, which had pulled as big a congregation as any modern clergyman might wish for.

We followed the lane through the lovely village of Selworthy, given to the graceless National Trust by the aforementioned Aclands, until we were almost at the main A39 road. Just before reaching it, we turned left into a no-through road past some handsome cottages so that we emerged exactly opposite to the entrance to Holnicote House. A footpath runs through the grounds which would eventually lead us to Horner. We followed it until it took us into a large meadow, in which the grass had been cut for hay, and here we walked parallel to the house until the path disappeared in a maze of nettles in the corner of the field. It should have continued into the next ground where one would have turned sharp left, but this way was blocked.

I had experienced the same difficulty a couple of years previously when walking from Minehead to Withypool, and we were obliged to improvise as I had done then, turning left and following the boundary of the first field. We then went through a gateway on our right near the foot of this field, turned left, and scrambled through a muddy corner into a lane. Here we turned right and walked up it until an overgrown stile appeared in the hedge on our left. This we climbed and headed for Horner, now back on the path intended. It is irritating not to take the way one should, but two attempts have left me none the wiser as to the correct path at Holnicote House. It just dives into the nettles like a rabbit and disappears.

We followed a line of stiles until we passed through a belt of trees, on the far side of which were two of the biggest ant-hills I have ever seen. We then walked down across a large meadow of sheep until we reached the lane which leads from West Luccombe into Horner. Here we turned left until we reached the packhorse bridge at Horner by which we crossed into Horner Woods. We turned right into the bridleway which would have led us straight into Porlock, but after a hundred yards or so we turned left up the Cat’s Scramble path to reach the top of Ley Hill. This we did, despite a convoy of pony trekkers stumbling down in the opposite direction, and despite the path beginning to run westwards away from the summit. We took a right incline here and fortunately found ourselves back in the sunshine amid the bracken on top of Ley Hill.

Our intention was to walk down in to Porlock through Doverhay Plantation but we missed a turning and to our chagrin found ourselves back on the original bridleway, not a hundred yards from where we had entered the Cat’s Scramble. We had all but come round in a circle. Hot, bothered, and with the navigator’s credentials seriously compromised, we walked into Porlock by a familiar lane, more than ready for the best pint that mine host of the Castle might purvey.

Matters looked more than promising as we walked past the church. Boards, no doubt advertising a selection of local beers, stood on the pavement in front of the building, and there was an encouraging sense of hustle and bustle. The familiar tile-hung fa├žade looked as it always did.

Stepping from the bright sunlight into the dark of the interior, however, what met our gaze? – sofas, sofas, sofas, and books, books, books, rows and rows of them! Sofas are all very well at home to fall asleep on in front of the television, and not a day goes by when I don’t open a book, but not in a pub. The answer, of course, was that I wasn’t in a pub, and I wasn’t in the Castle any longer. I was in Miller’s Hotel and Bistro, which had taken over the building of the old watering-hole. Well, good luck to you, Mr Miller, and I hope that you succeed where too many others have failed.

This sophisticated ambience was not one in which I would have felt comfortable, but then there aren’t too many pubs these days which, instead of sofas and books, would have displayed such comforting and nostalgic personal totems as glass ashtrays with “Castella” printed on them, or jars of green pickled eggs on the bar, or a rank “Gents” across the yard. Like homing pigeons, we flew back along the main street towards the “Royal Oak”. For more about this unpretentious boozer, please see our entry for September 19th 2009. Little had changed since our last visit. The bloke who’s a dead-ringer for the albino bluesman Johnny Winter was still talking football, and there was still a mixed crowd of local families and trippers getting outside the very reasonable grub. This was a Sunday morning so that we dined for free from the  crisps and cheese on the bar – even the “Oak” has its Surrey Hills moments - and drank two very welcome pints of Summer Lightning. “Golden” ale remains too near a relation to the dreaded lager for my liking but on a hot and sunny morning, when you’ve walked a couple of miles further than you intended, in search of a pub which no longer exists, that chilled citrusy tang goes down a treat.

We made our way back along the foreshore to Bossington to pick up the car. As we drove out of the park, I enjoyed the petty revenge of handing my all-day ticket to a delighted and grateful driver coming in.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seven Mile Walk over Rowley Down and back to the Old Station House Inn, Blackmoor Gate

Blackmore Gate is the Hyde Park Corner of Exmoor, a traffic hub between Barnstaple and Lynmouth, South Molton and Combe Martin, which includes a cattle market and a pub. There is also a large park, which on our arrival hosted amongst others a squad of British Telecom vans, two draymen sorting out beer barrels on a lorry, and another couple of blokes offloading a huge carpet from one white van to an other. There is a toilet block and a curious open-sided shelter whose only apparent purpose is to house some information display boards. Still, these added to my knowledge with the information that "Blackmoor" is a corruption of "Blackmore", the family which once owned the surrounding land and included "RD", the ubiquitous author of "Lorna Doone". The boards also told me complacently that the Exmoor National Park had acquired the site for improvement when it was occupied by a filling station and a scrapyard. You may wish to consider whether it succeeded.
All this activity made moorland dwellers like ourselves feel quite giddy, and we set off along the A399 towards South Molton for five hundred perilous yards before we could dive into the footpath on our left which led to Rowley Cross. The way ran, sometimes by gates and sometimes over ladders set in banks, through sheep-bitten pastures loud with the bleating of lambs and with a Bronze Age standing stone just minding its own business.
It was a day of warm and brilliant sunshine, with an easterly wind which drew a veil of blue haze over the hills between us and the coast near Heddons Mouth.
At one point only does the path divert from a straight line, and here you just go through one gate to the left, and then immediately through one to the right, to "gehen immer geradeous" as our German friends would say. Here we met a small herd of Jersey heifers, an unusual sight in an era when butterfat is a dirty word. If the British Medical Association spotted them, these wonderful dairy cattle would be rounded up for immediate execution.
The path finally grew into a track, and soon we reached the road at Rowley Cross. It was only a step along it before we turned right into the bridle way which would take us up over Rowley Down. We climbed up through a steep enclosure, taking a middle way through a marshy piece of ground which stretched to the right hand boundary, where to Exmoor's own version of muzak, the serenade of the chain saw, the beech hedge was being expertly relaid. In the top left hand corner of the field, a gate led through to where the bridle way diverted across a large pasture, while a permissive path led away towards Holwell Barrow. We kept to the bridle way, as we intended to return by the other path, and crossed the pasture at an angle before following a line of gates to Brockenbarrow Farm, with good views over the hills to the south.
At Brockenbarrow Farm we braved the road again, and walked eastwards for some half a mile before turning left at Yelland Cross into the bridle way which led northwards, past Whitefield Barton Farm, towards Holwell Rocks and Parracombe. The track led straight up over the down until we stood above the unmistakable punchbowl of Holwell Rocks.
Here we turned left and walked up to the Barrow which is of impressive size.
The path led on, with views over Parracombe and its two churches to the north, until quite quickly we rejoined the way which we had come earlier in the morning.
We retraced our steps and, despite a game attempt to run us over by an elderly gentleman, who drove straight at us with intense concentration, we successfully regained the safety of the car park at Blackmore Gate.
The Old Station House Inn occupies a large site on the opposite side of the road. It's "old", not in the sense that it has been a pub for many years, but because it's built around a former station on the Barnstaple-Lynmouth line, which closed in 1935. The line, despite for the sake of economy being built to a narrow guage and, in some places, in looping horseshoe bends to obviate the excavation of cuttings, was yet another of those Exmoor industrial projects doomed to make a loss. You come to Exmoor to spend money, not to make it. The original station building has all but disappeared as it has been surrounded by a bungalow extension, which gives it the air of a Surrey tea garden.
Indeed, after the collapse of the railway company, the building was first a private house, then a tea room, and only finally a pub and restaurant. Inside it is big and airy, and outside there are any number of picnic tables, as well as weird structures to amuse children, and further on what amounts to a small zoo. Even in late March there were plenty of punters enjoying the sunshine, one wearing a football shirt emblazoned with the name "Cruyff" as well as the legendary Dutchman's talismanic number 14.
There's room for everyone at the Old Station House Inn. We found a sympathetic corner indoors, surrounded by a positive mausoleum of stuffed animals and by photographs of the old railway.
The Old Station House is all things to all men. On Boxing Day the Exmoor Foxhounds meet here, every week there's a live band, and on one evening you can play pool for free. There is an extensive menu of everything you would expect from a roadside pub, with the small mark-up you would expect from one on a well-beaten tourist trail. We sat enjoying a very good pint of Sharp's Doom Bar, (there was Exmoor Ale on offer too,) surrounded by shelves of second-hand books at a pound each, watching Johnann Cruyff 14 playing with his baby with unrelenting enthusiasm.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Seven and a Half Mile Walk at Brendon Hill & the Raleigh’s Cross Inn

This was more of a ramble than a walk as we wandered about Brendon Hill, in pursuit variously of the Clatworthy Lake, the source of the River Tone, and the remains of the Raleigh’s Cross iron ore mine. Our quest to visit every pub on the Moor is nearing its end, and taking us to the very boundaries of the Exmoor National Park. Indeed, after parking our truck just down the road from the Raleigh’s Cross Inn, we walked into the track at the side of the pub towards Tripp Farm and out of the Park. The B3190 road here is the Park’s southern boundary. Raleigh’s Cross takes its name from the Rale(i)gh family of nearby Nettlecombe Court which included the well-known tobacco industry lobbyist. The metalled track took us away between the fields with far-reaching views over the hills towards Dartmoor.
Eventually, where the track turned left-handed towards the farm, we turned right through a gate into the fields and headed down towards the Stolford Woods. Sadly the contours of the hills and valleys denied us even a glimpse of the elusive Clatworthy Lake. If earlier we had turned to our left off the farm drive, we could have made a clockwise loop around Tripp Farm which would have brought us to the shore of the lake, but we would have missed what happened next. We kept to the left boundary and soon a hunting gate took us down a path into the trees. On a beautifully sunny autumn morning, after a hard frost, the beeches and sweet chestnuts were at their best. At the foot of the wood, we forded the River Tone, thankfully still no more than a stream. Fifty years ago this month it turned most of the county town of Taunton into a Somerset version of Venice. The bridleway began to climb again and soon we came to a farm where nothing stirred. In a neglected range of wooden loose boxes, resting on a half-door, an abandoned saddle was mouldering away. In the middle of the track lay a tan and white collie. I approach all dogs with caution on the reasonable assumption that, if it isn’t ready to savage intruders, there’s not much point in keeping it. The collie, curled in the warmth of the October sun, slept on, snoring gently as we passed it by.
As soon as you leave the National Park, the signing of rights of way becomes somewhat random. We failed to hit Syndercombe Lane in the exact spot, but a turn to the right quickly corrected matters. Then the bridleway to Beverton Pond, source of the Tone, somehow disappeared into thin air, but a muddy lane took us past a radio station to the main road, and a quick hike up it put us right again. Here lay the birth of that mighty waterway which gives the Clerk of the Course of Taunton Racecourse so many sleepless nights during the winter. First it feeds the stubbornly invisible Clatworthy Lake.Leaving Beverton Pond on our left, a track took us away through magnificent avenues of beeches in search of the Naked Boy’s Stone. Again we wandered off the path as shown on the map, but we reached the lane between Sminhays Cottages, the only surviving buildings of the nineteenth century village which housed some two hundred mine workers, and the Naked Boy’s Stone. There seems no reasonable explanation for the monument’s name, but it is obviously an ancient standing stone and coincidentally a boundary marker. Just past the stone a hump in the lane indicates that it is crossing the old railway which once served the mines. Here, at Naked Boy’s Bridge, we climbed over a stile on to the disused track way and walked westwards to the remains of the Burrow Farm Engine. This impressive ruin once housed a “Cornish Engine” to pump the water from the adjacent iron ore mine. This kind of engine, popular in mines of all kinds of the day, was probably more successful than the mine, which had an even shorter life than most Exmoor mining ventures. We walked back to Naked Boy’s Bridge and then scrambled down the other side under the barbed wire so that we could walk back to the site of the old Brendon Hill Station. Its location is plain enough, a wide expanse where once there would have been sidings and platforms, but a house and its boundary prevented us from reaching the road. We skirted it easily enough and, as we walked back towards Raleigh’s Cross, we passed the Beulah Chapel. The chapel, and a Church Of England tin tabernacle which once stood next to the old railway line, was built for the benefit of the miners. (The Chapel holds a service each Sunday to this day.) These guardians of Temperance were in direct competition for the allegiance of the miners, of course, with the inn at Raleigh’s Cross. Miners can be thirsty chaps, and my family’s fortunes, such as they are, were founded partly on running a pub and a small brewery in a North Somerset pit village. I quickened my step in sympathy, therefore, past the chapel and towards the pub, with marvellous views to our left over the Bristol Channel towards Wales. Raleigh’s Cross Inn says the sign. My wife reckoned that it was more of a “road house”, but that conjures up images of places on the Kingston Bypass in the 1930’s, full of characters from Peter Cheyney novels drinking cocktails with nightclub hostesses before returning to the Bentley or the Alvis in the gravelled car-park. To me it was a caff, a nosher, which also sold beer.

We fully realise, however, that, without another chimney pot in sight, no other business plan for the pub will do. We had two so-so pints of Cotleigh Tawney. Exmoor Ale also was on offer. I didn’t take the trouble to take notes on what food was available as you really could have just about anything. There was a carvery four days a week rather than just on Sundays as at most pubs in the area. I did note with satisfaction that on Wednesdays “seniors” received a free pudding. And what puddings! – blackberry and apple, rhubarb and ginger… in a schoolboy reverie I could see the thick, yellow waves of custard lapping at the edge of the crumble. Don’t miss the extensive collection of photographs of the mines and their railways in a corridor off the main room.
A new driveway and car park has been constructed off the road between the chapel and the pub for visitors to the “Incline”. A 1 in 4 gradient lay between Brendon Hill and Comberrow on the railway line to the coast at Watchet, and the Incline was an arrangement of two parallel tracks. Using a cable system, empty trucks were drawn up one while loaded ones were lowered down the other. Passengers who reached Comberrow from the coast in conventional rolling stock were permitted to ride for free in the empty trucks to Brendon Hill at their own risk. We walked down a new forest roadway through pines of a more than Teutonic gloom until we joined a narrow, wilder path which took us to the Incline. Even seen today, with the rails long gone and the banks of the cutting softened by nature, it is an awe-inspiring sight. Sadly, our photo makes it look absolutely level!
We climbed the Incline back to the top. Here still stand the ruins of the Winding House, which held the massive drums on which the cables were wound. From the road you can see how the track from the Incline to Brendon Hill Station ran right over the top of the Winding House. We walked past the Chapel again and back to the new car park to recover the truck. The time had come to find Clatworthy Lake at last. To reverse the usual order favoured by TV chefs, here’s something we prepared later.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Circular Eleven Mile Walk from Trentishoe Down to the Pack Of Cards at Combe Martin

This is not a walk for the faint-hearted, either the literal or the metaphorical kind. Although the outward journey is entirely on the coastal path, it has its downs and ups, from near a thousand feet to five hundred, back to a thousand feet, and then down to sea level. Then you do it all over again on the way home. Your reward is some stunning coastal scenery and a visit to one of the quirkiest pub buildings in the country.
We had set out a week earlier but had been forced to abort our mission when we couldn’t see in front of our faces because of dense fog and drizzle. Our intention had been to park on Trentishoe Down near the Glass Box, a bungalow with distinctive panoramic windows but, even though the house is only a few yards from the road, we never saw it.

Our patience was rewarded with a beautifully sunny autumn day with the air coming from the north, which made for spectacular views over the cliffs and the Bristol Channel. There is no problem finding your way on the coastal path. It is very clearly signed. Climbing down and up the sides of Sherrycombe, however, is a different matter.

The path has none of the zigzags of an alpine pass. It just goes straight down and straight up again. In places you might feel that it would be better to sit down on your bottom and toboggan down. Old and decrepit as we are, we crept with tiny sideways steps down the worst bits. We took a picture of the footbridge at the bottom as an excuse for a pause before tackling the other side. On the descent you tend to say, “I always think it’s worse going down a slope like this than climbing it.” On the ascent you tend to say nothing quite so silly as you are saving your breath to climb the wretched thing. Slowly but surely the path evened out and we reached the summit of Great Hangman, graced by a cairn of near Freudian proportions. Someone called Mike had borrowed some of the stones to trace his name in the grass. Well, he had climbed a thousand feet for the pleasure. The views, not surprisingly are stunning, both east, and then west towards Little Hangman, a grassy knoll on the edge of Combe Martin Bay. Lundy Island was a hazy presence on the horizon. Little Hangman is obviously a popular walk for Combe Martin visitors. There were plenty of people and their dogs climbing it from the footpath out of the village, but very few afterwards pressed on to Great Hangman. The call of Sunday lunch was too strong. From Little Hangman there are grand views across the bay. We ignored the siren call of footpaths leading directly into Combe Martin and clung to the coastal path. The path itself is not particularly rewarding – a graffiti plastered wooden pavilion was obviously popular with the local youth for one purpose or another – but it did deliver us into the village right by the beach. Combe Martin is a delightful spot, and on a warm, sunny day you could almost imagine swimming here - almost. Trapped between the sides of the combe, the village has one long street. Half way along it stands the Pack Of Cards. As one local assured us, “You can’t mistake it,” and you can’t. It was built in 1690 by George Ley to commemorate a major win at the card table. The original building had four floors to represent the four suits in the pack, thirteen rooms for each card in a suit, and fifty two windows and fifty two stairs, all on an area fifty two feet square. It has been extended since. By the early 1800’s it was no longer a private house but an inn called the “King’s Arms. In 1933 the pub officially adopted its colloquial name of “The Pack Of Cards”. The bar has a comfortable lived-in look with some pleasant wood panelling and furniture. One of the two columns which support a moulded ceiling grows out of the middle of a table. There were complimentary dishes of crisps, nuts and cubes of cheese on the counter, and a “Have you enjoyed your walk” from the lady behind the bar. We had two good pints of Courage Directors, not exactly an artisan brew but one worth drinking when you find it on draught. The alternative was Sharp’s Doom Bar. The pub does all the usual baguettes and jacket potatoes at the usual price as well as a Sunday roast.
We crossed the road and by the post office took a lane upwards through the village. Where the houses ended, we came to a T junction. Here we turned right into a farm track and followed it before taking the first left. This track took us up a long steep climb with good views of the bay behind us. Eventually we passed Silver Mines Farm on our right. The remains of Combe Martin’s last working silver mine are a little further with some of its chimney still standing. It was abandoned in 1875. There was a royal silver mine in Combe Martin by 1292, and you will find some of the village’s silver in the Crown Jewels. Without ever being a California or a Nevada, Combe Martin sporadically produced quite a chunk of silver over the centuries.
When we reached a metalled road, we turned left and then right along the driveway to Girt Down Farm. We passed round the edge of the farm and then the track took us through the fields and out on to Girt Down where we met the coastal path again. As we took a breather before turning right towards the truck, watching the odd walker puffing up out of Sherrycombe, a sparrow hawk raced round the corner of a wall.