Monday, September 22, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks – Nine mile walk from Woody Bay Station to the Fox & Goose at Parracombe via Hunters Inn

“And, behold, the face of the ground was dry.” Hurrah! The dove had gone missing, Noah had grounded on the top of Mount Ararat, and at last Awful August and Sodden September had relented to give us a few, precious, Indian summer days. We parked in the car park of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway station above Woody Bay, albeit with some trepidation as a rather threatening padlock and chain dangled from the metal gates. The park was marked, however, with a large P on the ordinance survey map, and there was enough space for a hundred cars, and so, with a sign promising “Train Rides Today” and thus the hope that we would not find ourselves locked in on our return, we set off cheerfully up the A39 to Martinhoe Cross where we turned left into the lane for Martinhoe and Woody Bay.

This was the way the holidaymakers at the turn of the twentieth century would have come to reach the delights of Woody Bay after the railway opened in 1898. A Colonel Benjamin Lake had bought the Bay to develop it into a resort to rival Lynmouth, and there were even plans for a branch line from the station towards the beach. The project was an extravagant failure and the poor Colonel, who was a Kent solicitor, was given twelve years in the pokey for embezzling his clients’ cash to fund his dream.
Just past a bridle path on our left signed to Kemacott, we turned right through a hunting gate into the footpath across Martinhoe Common which led to Slattenslade. We marched straight across the middle of a pasture still soaking with dew and, passing through another hunting gate, crossed a lane into a huge field of cattle and sheep. We kept close to the right hand boundary and after negotiating two 5-bar gates found ourselves in the lane above Slattenslade. We turned right down to a cottage and here turned left to climb up towards the car parks above Woody Bay. At a crossroads we bore right downhill and, at a hairpin bend, turned off left into the bridleway which leads to Hunters Inn.
This is a good, broad track along which we marched at a smart, Somerset Light Infantry pace through a woodland of old oaks which stretched away down to the sea far below. It was a beautiful, sunny morning with a veil of haze where the sea faded into the sky.

The woodland eventually gave way to open heathland, where the air was rich with the earthy scent of the dying bracken, and we were rewarded with marvellous views eastwards along the coast towards Lynmouth. The sea was denim blue, patched dark by the passing clouds.

The Coastal Path was clearly visible a hundred feet or so beneath us. If we had turned right at Slattenslade, the lane would have taken us down towards the beach and given access to the path.
The bridle path, however, suited us fine, and we bowled along towards Hunters Inn. As usual a smattering of dog walkers warned us that we were getting nearer and, after passing into the woodland above Heddons Mouth, suddenly the pub was there before us. It was too early for more than a handful of customers, and we walked past the entrance and over the river before turning left into the path which led us up the valley, first through Invention Wood and then Heale Wood until we crossed the foot bridge to regain the road. Opposite was Mill Farm, whose chimney was one of those wondrous structures which have stood for so long that their stonework appears to have metamorphosed into some strange vegetable matter. It was guarded by an elderly terrier who was enlivening his twilight days by playing chicken in the road.

We walked a short way up the lane before turning right into a metalled driveway which was signposted as a footpath to a place with the delicious name of Higher Bumsley. The sunlight was slanting downwards through the trees but an icy chill fingered upwards from the stream which foamed white beneath us away towards the sea.

The path passed behind the Heddon Mill buildings, and then climbed away steeply towards Parracombe. It levelled out and then took us along through pasture land before entering a narrow path as we neared the village. There were high hazel hedges underpinned by bramble patches on either side of the way before we came down past some stone barns into the outlying hamlet of Bodley with its old cottages propped up against the weather by vast buttresses. Just past a rank of modernish houses we took a footpath which finally took us down through a maze of cottages before it tipped us out into the street just above the river bridge and the Fox & Goose.

The pub is a late Victorian building with a curious pub sign. On one side there is the fox, luridly caricatured and about to tuck into a large pie, presumably containing the goose. On the other side is the goose itself, depicted more in the slightly mystical style of a primitive cave painting. It’s an eccentric contrast.

Inside, the bar has plenty of stained tongue-and-groove woodwork and walls crowded with prints, photographs, and even framed collections of old cigarette cards, one featuring some of my favourite boxing heroes like Jack Johnson and Jimmy Wilde. There are also some splendid stuffed animals, including a stags head, which has seen better days but has fabulous antlers, and two terrific foxes at either end of the room. There is no stuffed goose.

This sympathetic ambience was rounded out by some comfortably shabby furniture, so much more preferable to the leatherette banquettes and divans favoured by some hostelries. In the background we were treated to Benny Goodman’s small groups from the late 1930’s. These days too many pubs at lunchtime use local radio as musical wallpaper to amuse a bored barman. My wife, who loathes jazz, could have done without either.
There were three proper beers, all racked up behind the bar and served straight from the barrel at the best of temperatures. Ever dedicated to drinking anything new to us, we started for the purposes of research with a pint each of Bays Gold. Bays Brewery has been brewing in Paignton only since last year, and its Gold is a typical, lemony, bitter bitter of that ilk. If you like these citrus-type ales, you will like Bays. We are not that crazy about them, and we moved on to an old favourite, Cotleigh’s Barn Owl, a dark-red kind of junior porter which we find irresistible. The Fox & Goose takes its food seriously, and charges accordingly. You can get a sandwich for less than five pounds, but the fresh fish dishes were only just short of £15 and a fillet steak would set you back £16. The cooking obviously enjoys a reputation as on a Friday lunchtime there was a respectable number of people eating. It was a grand place to sit, however, and enjoy a five star pint.
We turned left out of the pub and walked up the narrow, winding street before taking a lane to our right which led past an obviously Victorian gothic revival church. We continued past the primary school until a track led us to the original parish church of St Petrock, usually identified as a Cornish saint – Padstow is supposed to be a corruption of his name – although he was the son of a Welsh king and gives his name also to churches in Devon and Somerset. The church dates from the eleventh century and since 1879, when the other church was first planned, has disappointed all those who have expected it to fall down. John Ruskin, who donated £10, was among the many who contributed to ensure that it was not demolished and the new church built on its site. The Georgian interior is quite unspoiled with a splendid screen and lovely box pews.
We continued up the track and crossed the A39, climbing by one of the various paths at the foot of Parracombe Common. We reached a lane, turned left, and soon found the road which led us back to Martinhoe Cross and Woody Bay Station. Just before the main road there was pull-in where one could have parked if necessary.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks – Nine mile walk from Hillsford Bridge to the Blue Ball at Countisbury via the Valley of Rocks and Lynmouth

We started from the National Trust car park at Hillsford Bridge, tucked away through a gateway on the western side of the crossroads. We walked up the main A39 road until a hairpin bend, and then passed straight on into the bridle way which leads up through the Lyn Valley Woodlands Nature Reserve. We emerged from the woods where a hump on the left marked an ancient settlement, and from here on there were marvellous views, firstly over Watersmeet. With August and the summer now in terminal decline, the constant downpour had been replaced momentarily with a thick slab of sweaty grey cloud. Drizzle was never far away and hung in the valley like smoke.
As the path wound around the top of Myrtleberry Cleave, with the muffled but constant roar of the East Lynn River beneath us, we eventually found ourselves looking down the valley towards Lynmouth with its tongue of surf distant on the shoreline.
We ignored all the paths to the right which would have taken us the nearest way into the town, and waited until we could zigzag down through the woods until we emerged at the foot of the gorge at Lynbridge and crossed the river by the foot bridge. A chilly sense of tragedy lurks here. To someone of my generation, Lynton and Lynmouth are associated forever with the appalling floods of 1952 in which thirty five people perished. The disaster coincided with the period in which television sets became popular, in preparation for the coronation planned for the next year. Family friends had a set which provided this five year old with a gallery of shocking images he would never forget – the broken little Devon town, shattered by mud, rocks and water, and then a month later the death of John Cobb on Loch Ness, his speed boat spinning in its fatal somersault, disappearing in a cloud of spray and debris.
These images remain necessarily frozen in black and white, but then it was a monochrome morning as we crossed the road and headed up a lane marked as a no-through road. It took us along the top of the gorge towards the town, the way shadowed by arches of dripping trees, while below it were the roofs of houses clinging to the cliff-face. It must have taken an extraordinary effort by the Victorian and Edwardian developers of Lynton to build these villas almost hovering in mid-air. The most remarkable, perhaps, is Lynhurst which is let as a luxury holiday home, and is all gables, balconies, and bay windows, fearlessly defying gravity high above the town.
Just past the entrance to Lynhurst, the road runs down into Lynton town centre, and we walked up Allerford Terrace in an attempt to bypass it. We did so, but then made a bad mistake. Instead of a left and a right turn which would have taken us to the Valley of Rocks by a footpath, I was seduced by a road sign to the Valley which took us out of the town by a main road bordered by guest houses and a disgracefully overgrown cemetery which had a First World War memorial at its gate. Unfortunately, it also led us into the Valley past the scenic National Park public conveniences and Mother Meldrum’s teashop, promising the delights of its Ragged Jack buns.
Ragged Jack, of course, is the Valley’s signature feature. I am unable to comment on the eponymous confectionery.
As we turned on to the coastal path, there is a marvellous view westwards Castle Rock.
The path is metalled and a popular walk out of the town for those who scorn use of the two capacious car parks in the Valley itself. Eventually a rougher track forks off to the left, and we took it so that we would come out at the edge of the Western Beach and the harbour. We passed a curious notice warning against explosive mines being used for animal control. They were said to be “humane”, which presumably meant that the mole or whatever didn’t feel anything but a warm, cosy glow when blown to smithereens. We emerged at the bottom of the cliff into a horde of motorists attempting to find a parking space, and smugly threaded our way towards the harbour, past the award-winning fish and chipper and its long queue, to the footbridge near the landmark Rhenish Tower.
The channel for the river is remarkably wide, presumably as a flood defence.
After passing the pitch and putt course, the coastal path up Countisbury Hill is clearly signed. We began our ascent of this notorious incline, although a combination of modern road construction and user-friendly gear boxes has tamed the beast since my Auntie Mary became stuck here in the 1950’s, unable to go forwards and too frightened to reverse.
For a pedestrian it’s quite a climb but a pretty steady one, and eventually the tower of Countisbury church popped up over the skyline and the job was done.

We passed through the churchyard and under the arch of yews, and there was the Blue Ball in front of us.
For a number of years the pub was known tweely as the Exmoor Sandpiper but the present landlord has wisely returned it to its original name. Parts of the long, low building are seven hundred years old. The bar consists of an irregular succession of low-ceilinged, black-beamed rooms with modern pub furniture. We sat at the bar under a praiseworthy sign which promised, “Dogs, children,” and best of all, “muddy boots welcome.”
Welcome - Doughnut, the pub dog

Beers on tap were Exmoor, St Austell, and “Blue Ball Ale”. We couldn’t resist the latter, even when we discovered that it wasn’t homebrew but our old friend Cousin Jack in disguise. It was served at just the right temperature and made excellent drinking, proving that a pint of old-fashioned boy’s bitter sometimes slips down just as well as a high-alcohol speciality. Food is middle of the road, both in price and variety. Baguettes and filled spuds were change from a fiver, and mains were £8.95. The blackboard is half way down the bar area.
On the wall is a magnificent boar’s head. One recent landlord even re-named the pub the “Blue Boar”, but when he left for America he took the head with him. The present incumbent went out and found another.

We knew the way well back to Hillsford Bridge. We took the bridle way just above the pub which leads down to Watersmeet, and then hiked up the river bank back to our truck.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks – Eleven mile walk from Simonsbath to the Crown at Exford and on to Withypool

There are some days when you should pull the covers over your head and stay in bed, days when everything is fated to go wrong. This was one of them. For a bare summer month a twice weekly bus service runs from Dulverton to Lynmouth and back, allowing walkers to hop off at places like Exford, Simonsbath, and Hillsford Bridge and yomp over the moor without having to perform a circle to reach home. Frustrated by the dreadful weather, it was almost the end of August before we clambered for the first time into the little 401 bus at Withypool bridge. Predictably, the plastic box by the driver held little more than his cash float as, apart from my wife and two other Withypool locals, this merry little band was travelling for free on its bus cards. A little community singing of the “I’m h-a-p-p-y” variety by the assembled company would not have seemed out of place except it might have woken the grey-bearded rambler on our left who seemed plunged in a deep coma, his venerable head lolling perilously on a vast rucksack which would have challenged a Royal Marine commando, leave alone this first cousin to Rumpelstiltskin.
He was still unconscious when we were put down in Simonsbath, a soggy place where the sun rarely seems to call. There had been half an inch of rain during the night, and it was still in the air as we walked up past the Exmoor Forest Inn. The path up Ashcombe appeared on the map to sprout from the Exmoor National Park car park, but we hiked up and down it twice before we discovered the signpost, cunningly concealed behind some trees, at the edge of the second level. This car park features one of the several grisly National Park information or study centres on the moor which, boarded up and locked up, are rotting quietly away until they will be no more than a heap of stones of doubtful origin, like Larkbarrow Farm or the Wheal Eliza.

Looking south from above Ashcombe

The path climbed round the edge of Ashcombe Plantation before it set off across open grassland towards the ridge between Prayway Head and Warren Farm. There we passed through a gate to put ourselves on the edge of the open moor before turning right, but even so we failed to follow the path intended. Long distance paths like the Macmillan Way are often more a theoretical conception in the mind of their creators than a signposted reality on the ground, and so we missed the tricky left and right turns across the moor – a CIA global positioning system might have helped - which would have taken us over the romantically named Ravens Nest. We had kept the field boundary close on our right, often a shrewd tactic on the moor, and found ourselves ankle deep in sheep dung. We managed to negotiate one flooded gateway with some impressive acrobatics over rails and fencing, but only found ourselves back in the mire. These antics were watched impassively by several hundred muttons, the biggest flock I have ever seen in a single enclosure.
By the time we reached the end of their enclosure, we were peering down into the Exe valley just above Warren Farm. There was no perceptible path and, after keeping to the top of the combe for a while, we lost patience and plunged downwards through the soaking bracken. The path proper was soon revealed to us by a sighting of a sedentary group of teenagers, prostrated by the gradient and by their massive burdens which would have tested the hardiest of sherpas, catching their breath and drinking coke. It was no easier going down than going up, as the way was bare rock slick with rain. Somehow we slithered downwards and fell out into the lane, soaked from the knee downwards, just above a handsome bridge over the river. The writer SH Burton in his seminal “Exmoor” rhapsodises over this valley and Warren Farm. On a grey, mizzling morning, it was difficult to catch his mood as we hiked up the hard road under the farmhouse, built by John Knight in the mid nineteenth century as part of his grand plan to make his Exmoor possessions a going concern. The paintwork was looking a little sorry for itself and it looked a damp old refuge.

High above it towers the famous stand of trees, visible for miles from all parts of the moor and a welcome landmark for staghunters on the Forest when the mist comes down. Soon we were out on the moor again heading for Larkbarrow Corner, and our troubles were just beginning. The track is ragged, dirty, and wet and, however hard you try to bypass it, you have to keep returning to it. The sweep of the open moorland would be breathtaking, if you didn’t have to keep looking at your feet to see what slough of despond they were sinking into next. It makes for slow going and the best way of crossing it is on horseback.

The moor near Larkbarrow Corner

Eventually, however, we reached the road at Larkbarrow Corner, and turned left towards Exford. It’s quite a walk into Exford from the north wherever you are on the moor, and there are surprisingly few paths leading southwards. We had had our fill of wilderness and swung along the road, ignoring the bridleway, which is churned up on a regular basis by the hunt, past the charming house and gardens at Wellshead, and into Exford by way of Edgcott.
The entrance to the bar of the Crown faces the green. The room wasn’t as large as I had expected, and it was crowded with couples and families enjoying a Bank Holiday Sunday lunch. Locals stood two deep at the bar at the far end but courteously parted like the Red Sea as we approached, our tongues lolling like elderly labradors. There was a choice of Exmoor Ale and St Austell’s lemony bitter, Proper Job. We started with the former and followed up with the latter but, if they failed to hit the usual spot satisfactorily, it probably was because the beer was served a tad cold. There was an excellent stag’s head on the wall, complete with a full description of its hunting in 1930 and an excellent photograph of Ernest Bawden’s hounds, as well as good hunting caricatures on the walls. Sunday lunch, of course, was the order of the day, but there was the usual run of lunchtime snacks with prices only just above the average despite it being a hotel. The children were well-behaved, the tables were quickly cleared of empty plates, but it was a hotel bar for all that. If you want a drink in Exford, however, it’s a hotel or nothing.
We had had enough of muck and moorland for one day, and fled homewards along the lanes, ignoring the cross country routes via Courts Farm or Chibbets Ford.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks – Eight mile walk from Holdstone Hill to Hunters Inn via Heddons Mouth

And at last the rain stopped. This has been a season which has recalled all the soggy ghastliness of childhood summer holidays in the mid 1950’s - sodden days, dripping guest houses, clammy caravans – and so a dry day made a welcome treat. We parked in the first car park under Holdstone Hill from the Combe Martin-Blackmoor Gate road. A well-defined track led straight up through the heather, now gorgeous in purple peppered with yellow gorse, towards the summit which was marked by a cairn of stones. On a clear, cool morning the all-round views were breathtaking, whether towards Lundy Island, or towards the Welsh coast, or inland towards the rugged outline of Dartmoor.

Towards Lundy from Holdstone Hill

Inland from Holdstone Hill

Our path lay eastwards along a dramatic parade of cliffs. We took the track straight down off the hill until it petered out, climbed through a gap in the stone wall of an enclosure of rough grazing, and soon turned right on to the coastal path. It took us round the side of Holdstone Down and then upwards towards a local landmark, a house known as “The Glass Box”. It even merits a naming on the Explorer OS map but anyone expecting some startling, if not outrageous, example of modern architecture will be disappointed. It’s just a large bungalow with outsize, blank-looking windows. The track swings away below this mediocrity and across the foot of Trentishoe Down towards the cliffs. On the way we came across some amazing mushrooms. The lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” insisted on meandering into my head, “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, And your mind is moving slow, Go ask Alice I think she’ll know.” I think that even Alice would have known that just a soup├žon of one of these exotic and sinister fungi probably would prove fatal.

Anyone who has felt ever that that the coastal path sometimes wanders too far from the sea will have his faith restored here. As the track approaches Heddons Mouth itself, it only just manages to cling to the side of the cliff as it circles round far above the little grey coves. These are some of the highest cliffs of the English coastline, and the turns and narrows of the way make for a giddy experience, although the heather-clad slopes and the views over the sea will repay anyone who holds their nerve.

Sheep lay calmly on the edge of the crags where just one slip would hurl them hundreds of feet into the sea below.At Peter’s Rock, with the beach at Heddons Mouth now visible far below, the track turns sharp right to follow the side of the combe which runs down from Hunters Inn. It seems to take you a long way back up the bare upper slopes of the valley but at last a defile comes in from the right and you descend a steep path to the valley floor.

At the bottom we turned left and walked down the broad, shaded track towards the beach. After the recent rains the Heddon river roared down the cleave until it boiled over the stony shore and into the sea itself. On a little eminence was a restored limekiln which years ago was supplied by sea. We turned back up the valley, crossing the river at the wooden footbridge, and walked up he eastern bank through the trees towards the pub. It’s a lovely walk and deservedly popular.

There had been quite a few people on the path, some with dogs and others with children carrying shrimping nets and rather optimistic buckets and spades, but this didn’t prepare us for the crowd at the Hunters Inn. Cars were parked in every conceivable spot, and the pub was doing a roaring lunch trade. Unlike most pubs on Exmoor with hunting associations, which normally are bullish in celebrating their origins, the Hunters Inn sign portrays a peacock. Did it refer to some eccentric form of venery only practised in the Parracombe area? No, the inspiration for this rather defensive emblem were roosting cosily on the first floor balcony, hopefully not inconveniencing in any unfortunate way the al fresco lunchers below.

The Hunters Inn is a very considerable building with two imposing gables, railed balconies, and plenty of the turn-of-the-century timbering popular with the Edwardians. The original pub, a thatched and ancient farmhouse, had burned down in 1895 and was rebuilt in the grand manner. The outdoor tables were thronged with customers, and girls in black trousers and tops scuttled in and out with loaded trays. “Lager or John Smith’s?” was my wife’s damning prediction as we made our way through a large, plain saloon to the bar at the far end. May we be forgiven for all our preconceptions, not to say prejudices. There were six pumps which ran the gamut of the Exmoor Brewery’s greatest treats – Ale, Gold, Fox, Stag, Silver Stallion and, almost unbelievably, the Beast itself. Exmoor Beast is a legendary dark porter with an ABV of 6.6.% which we had drunk previously only in bottles. Two pints were pulled up by the chatty barman who revealed that there was no problem in selling a barrel a week, and that it was always on offer. My wife, apparently, was not the only woman to square up to the Beast. The previous week he had poured a pint for a lady of a certain age with the cheery admonition, “That’ll put hair on your chest.” “Too late,” was her husband’s instant but unfortunate reply. A chilly silence fell.

The Exmoor Brewery website counsels, “This is a beer to be respected, sipped slowly to warm up a winter’s night while the weather does its worst. Or you might like it slightly chilled elsewhere in the year, a beer drinker’s version of an Irish coffee.” We drank ours as we always do, like Australian drovers with five minutes to go before six o’clock. We mellowed quickly towards the Hunters Inn. It must have considerable overheads compared with most Exmoor pubs and quite rightly chases the tourist pound as hard as it can go. The food prices are a pound or even more up on other moorland pubs, but the location of the Hunters entitles it to make hay from its proximity to the holiday centres of the North Devon coast. I admired the unorthodox attitude to the conventions of meal times of one elderly lady who for lunch worked her way through a cream tea and a large slice of sponge.
The pub never stops trying. In September there will be a beer festival, and on the second Sunday evening of each month there is a trad jazz band with the delicious name of the Heddon Valley Stumblers. Notices on the wall begged for any superfluous musical instruments its customers might have, which would be lodged in the bar for anyone to pick up and play. The notice promised that they would be tuned. There were three guitars leaning against a fireplace and, half way down my second pint of Beast, I tried one. It was in perfect tune but the assembled company was spared any fumbling attempts at my trying to remember the fingering of “Candy Man” or “Angie”.
After two pints of Beast, the rest of the walk passed in something of a blur. Leaving the pub, we turned right and walked westwards along the narrow road. After about a quarter of a mile, we forked left off the lane and up a broad track signposted to the Ladies Mile. We kept on through the woodland with a stream foaming on our left, ignoring all signs to Heale, until we came to a T junction of paths where we turned left and walked along the Ladies Mile round the southern slopes of Trentishoe Down. When we issued out into a metalled lane opposite to the gates of Trentishoe Manor, we realised that we had gone too far. We should have taken an unsigned track to our right a hundred yards or so before. We turned about and took the first track uphill to our left, and sure enough this led us up over Trentishoe Down until we reached the road just above The Glass Box. Here we turned left and a short walk along the road brought us back to our starting point at the car park.

Inland from Trentishoe Down

I borrowed the course of this walk from an article by Sue Viccars in the “Exmoor Magazine”. Exmoor’s excellent coffee table magazine features an enjoyable description of a moorland walk by Sue in each issue. To be perverse, we had walked in the opposite direction to her original, but anyone intending to sample the delights of the “Hunters Inn” would be well-advised to follow our example and complete the cliff-top section before they reach the pub.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks – Ten mile walk from County Gate to the Rockford Inn via the Glenthorne Estate & Watersmeet

This should top the list of walks on Exmoor to do before you die – or before you become too halt and lame at least. We parked in the County Gate car park, not one to receive rosettes for scenic beauty with its boxlike public convenience and boarded-up National Park Centre. On a glorious July day, however, this eyesore was immediately forgotten as we walked across the road and down to the coastal path with stunning views already over the sea. On the path someone was busily setting up a water station for a run from Countisbury to Minehead as we turned left down the track towards the Glenthorne nature reserve. We were soon in mixed woodland and then a pinery, with the sea blue beneath us through the trees. We came across a weird cistern with a cross on top and, after we had turned right into a driveway, two pillars topped with boars’ heads. Just past this impressive gateway, there was a fine lodge house with latticed windows but, within yards, the path left the driveway and led us high above what was presumably Glenthorne House. It would have done if the Reverend Halliday’s gothic country house was still standing but, like Ashley Combe House further north, apparently it had gone.

It was no matter as the views over the sea from the path were to die for, with numbers of small combes down which streams rushed towards the rocky beaches. A walker coming in the opposite direction warned us of “two coach loads” of runners heading towards us and, sure enough, soon they appeared in their singlets and flimsy shorts, puffing and sweating. They had twenty one miles to cover, and on a baking hot morning I earnestly hoped that they would not suffer the fate of the original marathon runner who brought the news to Athens of the great victory at the eponymous battle - after delivering his message he dropped dead on the spot. Feeling particularly smug, we continued on our even-paced way through shade and shadow, unaware that we all too soon would face a fate perhaps worse than death.

Just before Foreland Point we emerged into the full force of the blazing sun and, after following a service road to the lighthouse between steep gravel-patched hillocks, we turned left into a path which climbed steeply upwards towards Countisbury. To our right was a magnificent view of Lynmouth and its beach before the top of Countisbury church tower popped up over the skyline. We passed through the church yard and out between an avenue of yews to find the busy Blue Ball pub directly in front of us.

Like a good hound, however, we kept true to our line and passed by the tempting open door, keeping ever before us an image of our intended waterhole, the Rockford Inn. This mental picture had been much influenced by reading an often hilarious blog by a former licensee of the Rockford Inn on how he bought the pub and attempted to drag it screaming into the present century. His struggle to prevent passing coach parties from using his lavatories without buying a drink, and to keep his dipsomaniac customers under some form of control, is an epic of Homeric proportions. Curiously, the narrative stops abruptly. Perhaps, he threw himself into the East Lynn river.
The bridleway to Watersmeet could be clearly seen from the churchyard and, after turning left and then crossing the main road, we turned our back to the sea and set off over the ridge southwards. We passed through a grassy lane, down some pasture, and eventually into woodland. The path narrowed and then snaked downhill through a succession of hairpin bends. We ignored the first path to Rockford and Brendon, determined to reach the bottom of the gorge and to see Watersmeet itself. It was the first Sunday of the school holidays, hordes sunned themselves on the rocks, and the National Trust tearoom was in full swing. As usual with the National Trust, the institution which has allowed the middle classes to inherit the earth, the lavatories were immaculate. We took a picture of the two rivers and fled up the valley towards Brendon.

This river walk is one of stunning beauty – cascading waterfalls and churning rapids framed by the arched greenery of the trees. Sometimes the flow of the water pauses to form deep, still pools. On such a scorching day only the occasional appearance of other walkers dissuaded you from stripping off and sliding into the dark water. It was a magical experience.

The appearance of some cottages announced our arrival at Rockford. The pub was clearly visible on the far bank, and we found the footbridge and crossed into the sunlit lane where a sign confidently announced not just the Rockford Inn but that it had its own microbrewery as well.
Did it, hell! It was closed. A passer-by could tell us that the pub had been sold and that the new landlord was due to open the next day. This was not much consolation to two hot and very thirsty walkers. Somehow Slim Dusty’s wonderful ballad “A Pub With No Beer” came back to me, “There’s nothing so lonesome, so dull, or so drear, than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer.” We couldn’t even get inside. The best my internal rhyming dictionary could provide me with to sing as I stormed off up the lane to Brendon was, “There’s nothing to hit you so hard in the gut as to stand at the door of a pub that is shut!”

This was a real crisis. It was 1.45 pm. Could we reach the Staghunters Inn at Brendon before they called last orders? We made it in a hack canter by two o’clock. No closed door here… the blessed shade of the bar after the glare of the sun… a welcoming landlord… and on the pump – Cotleigh’s divine Barn Owl. Barn Owl is a sort of junior version of Buzzard. It’s a dark copper beer which drinks like a summer porter, and we didn’t need the recommendation of the two gentlemen playing pool to order up two pints. The world suddenly seemed a much better place as we sat at the bar opposite to the sepia photograph of an Edwardian meet of the Staghounds, and listened to the lady opposite complaining that her pool-playing husband’s lunch was spoiling. We sympathised with him; better a pint of Barn Owl than the roast beef of Old England. Apparently, the Rockford Inn had been opening only sporadically for some time. Let us hope that it may be about to enter on a period of new prosperity. We will give it a second chance – but we’ll check that it’s open first.

We walked on to Leeford Green, and turned left over the river. We ignored the sign that claimed that the road was closed and turned right to Hall Farm where we took the steep path which led us along the side of the valley. Where the valley swings right round towards Dooneland, we kept left past Ashton Farm and then climbed over the moorland, with views towards Badgworthy, until we suddenly we were looking down on County Gate.

Welsh coast from above Ashton Farm

Doone Valley from Ashton Farm

The good news is that the Rockford Inn is open again. Recently we returned to have lunch there. The top half of the stable-type door was open, leading into a pleasant, half-timbered room. The bar was stencilled with information about the pub, the river, and the fishing, and “Lorna Doone”, and you stepped up into a further room into which the bar extended to be served. To the side of this, through an archway decorated with a pleasant mural of fox, stag, and hare, was another room, and beyond that there was another available if the pub was packed. Each had its own fireplace or wood-burning stove. There’s also a small terrace on the other side of the road overlooking the river and the footbridge. Proper beers, served straight from the barrels racked up behind the bar, were Cotleigh 25 and our favourite Cotleigh Barn Owl. We had a cheap lunch off toasted sandwiches at little more than £3 each plus a bowl of chips for £1.50. Baguettes were a quid more than sandwiches. There’s every hope that the new team will prosper as it deserves. Several passing walkers came in on a Friday lunchtime. The pub is open every evening, and every lunchtime except Mondays.