Friday, June 27, 2008

Nine Mile Walk from Luxborough to the Valiant Soldier, Roadwater, via Treborough

There is no problem with parking in Luxborough. The village hall is grand enough to stage a Led Zeppelin Reunion gig, and it has a car park to match. We walked across the road from the car park and took the bridleway which leads upwards towards Lower Court Farm. It is a steep pull through green tunnels of banks and hedges until you emerge on the top of the hills looking over the Washford River. To the south west there are lush strips of game crops, which will hold the pheasants when they are released in the early autumn. The valley is ideal country for game shooting, providing the ideal terrain for the “high birds” which makes the sport a vital element in the local economy.

You pass through a series of gates, which would be tiresome indeed if you were on a horse. They may have afforded a welcome degree of rest for the couple which came running towards us down the pasture below some farm buildings. They must have been in their sixties, greying bird-like creatures with arms and legs no thicker than twigs and little knapsacks bouncing on their backs. We watched them with awe and then passed through the farm buildings and crossed the lane, which would have led down to Lower Court Farm, into a field of sheep. In the next field there is a tricky turn where you pass through a gate on your left before some sheds and then turn sharp right. Away to your left there is a good view of Druids Combe leading back to Luxborough with a typical Brendon Hills landscape of conifers, old woodland, and pasture. As you climb further, you gain a marvellous panorama looking out over the sea with Flatholm and Steepholm in the distance.

We walked up over some crags before the path took us to the lane which leads to Treborough. Here in the bank we discovered Ladys Slippers flowering. Thanks to avoiding all science at school apart from physics, and to being born colour-blind, the discovery of wild flowers such as these is very much a latter-day pleasure.

In Treborough nothing stirred. The Black Death might have nudged it only yesterday. St Peters Church stood none too steadily under a wrap of protective sheeting and scaffolding around its unappealing grey rendering. It was the only sign of any progressive restoration work, and the door was locked. Rattling the door handle too vigorously might have brought the Victorian tower down on our heads.
We passed out of the hamlet without seeing a living soul and climbed up the lane towards the ridge of the Brendons until we turned left at the sign towards Leigh Barton. Beyond the livery stables there was a fox on the track before we inclined right down the restrictive byway. At first the going had been dirtied by horses but soon the track opened into a long and pleasant valley, wooded on the southern side and with an abandoned cottage in the bottom. This brought us to some modern farm buildings and, keeping straight ahead, we came round the side of Leigh Barton Farm, home of Brendon Hill Stoves, with its majestic courtyard of old barns, complete with a wheelhouse.
Gawping at these helped us miss our way for a moment. The sign to Leighland Church (sic) is opposite the wheelhouse and points to a narrow nettle-bordered path past a forgotten pond. Out in a field where the grass had been harvested, we climbed to the highest point to see that the path on to Leighland Chapel was below us to the left on the margin. The next gate was marked clearly “Bull In Field” but, with the cattle fortunately gathered at the bottom of the slope, we bravely marched on until the path tipped us out in the road by the church of St Giles at Leighland Chapel. St Giles is as plain as St Peters but a great deal more stable. The unassuming interior is dominated by an organ grand enough for the Phantom of the Opera to doodle a few melodies.

The footpath which leads straight through the churchyard soon forks, and a left turn took us downhill, past a cottage with a lovely stream and bridge in its garden, to the road down to Roadwater. This straight thoroughfare, which passes some attractive cottages and borders the fast-flowing stream, I fancy was part of course of the old mineral line which once ferried iron ore from the workings at Brendon Hill down to Watchet harbour. We could have taken a path through woodland if we had followed a sign to Woodavent Farm, but we kept to the lane through the sinisterly named Traphole.
Roadwater is an attractive village. The foothills of the Brendons may not be as beautiful as Exmoor proper but the cottages in the villages are more varied and interesting than those west of Wheddon Cross. We walked down a little street and, turning left, we could see the pub far down the Luxborough road on the edge of the village.

I can’t recall ever seeing a “Valiant Soldier” before, and I certainly haven’t had a drink in one. This one is a smart affair, with a long extension at the back which seems to house the skittle alley and accommodation, an extensive car park, and a children’s play area. The front of the pub has pleasant thatched porches and an unusual caricature of the eponymous soldier in relief on the wall. The bar is spacious, and we were greeted by an array of pumps offering Exmoor, Sharps, and Taunton. After our disappointment at the Culbone Stables the week before, Taunton was the obvious choice. This time the pint was spot on, a good colour with a sharp edge to its flavour. Snack food looked attractive, with ciabattas, shepherds pie, lasagne, and omelettes coming in at less than £5. The grander blackboard was rather unambitious and, for the area, in the higher price bracket. B&B, however, is a modest £25 a night. You win some, you lose some. The bar had been quietly active when we entered, but it was soon taken over by a funeral party. Funeral “party” in modern England is the exact word, and these “celebrations” of the deceased lives is a welcome change from the grim and grey rituals of my youth.
We set off up the road back to Luxborough, past a fish farm in the valley bottom, until we came to Langridge Wood. Here we took the second path on the left up into the pines, and climbed steeply through the dark conifers until we broke out into the light. Here our runners suddenly appeared again, jogging downwards without a puff between them. I hoped that they had lunched on two all-day breakfasts washed down with pints of Guinness, but I suspect that they had pecked on some mess of pottage, potent with protein and energy and sealed in plastic boxes, which had been secreted in their knapsacks. We recrossed our morning’s path again above Lower Court Farm but this time turned down into Druids Combe, pungent with the warm spicy scent of bracken and fir. The track took us painlessly back into Luxborough along a lane, stream-bordered with bridges leading into each cottage garden.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks - A Nine Mile Walk from Robbers Bridge to the Culbone Stables Inn

On this walk it is worth remembering throughout Sir Isaac Newton’s most famous and comforting discovery – “What goes up, must come down.” We parked at the spacious and very empty Robber’s Bridge car park, on your right as you approach the bridge after leaving the Porlock-Lynton road. Trippers have just enough room to abandon their vehicles adjacent to the bridge itself. Thus they save themselves the short walk to admire the view up Weir Water as it tumbles over a stone step and through the arch.
We crossed the bridge and walked on down the lane to Oareford. Just before you reach the Old School House, there is a footbridge on the right which leads to the bridleway to North Common. A steep and narrow grassy path climbed ever upwards with sentries of foxgloves standing stiff amongst the heather, now just beginning to flower into purple and blue. Just as we were beginning to doubt Sir Isaac’s word, we reached the stile to the Common. It was a sunny morning after a day’s rain, and the view behind us up to Great Tom’s Hill and beyond was slashed by light and shade.
The climb over the Common was an easy one and a track led us on past stubby thorn trees and then through open heath to the A39. We turned left for a few yards before crossing the main road and following the bridle path signed towards Broomstreet Farm. Over the crest we found the sea stretched blue below us with the Welsh coast clearly visible beyond.

We soon reached the junction with the South West Coastal Path and turned right along the grassy path which led past Broomstreet Farm, one of the several candidates for the house where the poem “Kubla Khan” came to Coleridge in a reverie, before the fatal interruption by the “Man from Porlock” reduced a narcotic epic to a mere fragment. The other places which bid for the honour, Silcombe and Ash farms, are a little further east. For much of its length here, the coastal path runs between high grassy banks, and so the sea is only visible at gaps and gateways. The hedgerows, however, often meet to create long, shadowy tunnels of green which have a charm all of their own. Silcombe Farm is an unusual building with walls of hanging tiles, holding on by their fingertips when the winter gales rush up Silcombe Combe from the sea.

Beyond the farm we took the path which led down into the Withy Combe woods towards Culbone Church. The way through the ancient woodland eventually passes the church, and we turned off the path and into the churchyard with its prominent cross, which the unsympathetic elements have aged quickly since it was erected in the 1960’s. The church, which may or may not be the smallest in England, is certainly a peaceful sanctuary with Anglo-Saxon origins, a stream rushing noisily by, and a splendid box pew for the Lovelace family.

We hiked on downhill through Yearnor Wood until the ancient woodland began to change into a derelict arboretum with varied species of trees, laurels, and even a huge, bushy fuchsia. Benches and bits of litter announced that we were approaching Porlock Weir, and a ruined folly and some eccentric tunnels indicated that there must have been some great house in the area. There had been - Ashley Combe House, an Italianate mansion which had been built by a Lovelace who had married a sister to Lord Byron. The tunnels, supposedly, were to conceal the trades people as they trekked up to the house from Porlock, thus preventing them from spoiling the view from the house. Ah well, time wreaks its own revenges and the crumbling edifice was torn down just after the War.
We emerged from the woods at the Worthy Tollhouse, an unusual thatched cottage with an arched gateway which leads to the Worthy Toll Road. We passed through the gate, declined to pay the £1.50 toll presumably intended for motors and, with no sign of a troll to extract some form of due, started to climb the metalled road which would take us to the Culbone Stables Inn.
It is well worth keeping the image of Sir Isaac Newton before you as you climb the road with its stream on your left roaring towards Porlock Bay. From the tollhouse to the pub is an 1,250 feet climb, and you will have deserved your pint by the time you get there. At Yearnor Mill Bridge, where a path dives off the road down towards Porlock Weir, we looked back to see a sign which yelled at our sweating selves, “No Horses! No Walkers!”, referring presumably to the toll road. It received that two-fingered gesture popular with free Englishmen ever since the archers at Agincourt indicated to the French knights that they had all their digits ready for action. There had been no companion sign at the foot of the road. Perhaps, one is allowed to walk up, but not down. It would be a suitably silly restriction on a road which sees a vehicle only once in a blue moon.
We plugged on up what was now a public road. The lane to Pitt Farm does not permit access to a bridleway which would have taken us to the summit, but the views on the road are to die for all the same.

As we neared our goal, a path to the right would have taken us to the Culbone Stone, an early Christian monument. Sadly, we had beer, not religion, on our minds and we strode on towards the main road on the ridge. The pub was directly opposite on the other side of the road.

The Culbone Stables Inn is a project of the David family from Porlock. Famous for its butcher’s shop with its home-killed meat, the David clan has branched out into a fresh fish business and the pub, and recently has refurbished and reopened the Castle Hill Hotel at Dunster. The Culbone Stables Inn is very much modern, spick and span, pub chic. There are wonderful views towards Robbers Bridge from the terrace and some of the tables inside. The furnishings are new wood and leather for the numerous tables laid up for eating and, if you want to sit down and just drink, you do so in deep, leather sofas and armchairs. Beers were Exmoor, St Austell, and Taunton. Taunton was new to us and so we obviously chose that. Sadly, it was cloudy and sour. When I took our glasses back, a check was made on the barrel and it was confirmed that it was down to the lees. Without fuss and bother, two excellent glasses of Exmoor Ale were provided in exchange. The food on the blackboards is, understandably, sourced from the David butchery. Mr David Senior came in while we were there and ate his own lunch. The meat has the highest reputation and a price to match. For those who in these days of government warnings on hypertension and high cholesterol see eating as a political act, there is a well-hung 32 ounce T-bone steak at £16. A signature moment came when a harassed motorist invaded the bar, claiming that someone leaving the car park had driven into him but hadn’t stopped. Could the bar staff identify him if he was local? “We don’t have any locals,” was the reply.
The path back to Robbers Bridge runs round the back of the pub. After the Himalayan climb up the Worthy Toll Road, it was a joy to amble back down the hillside and catch a final omigod view. In the car park I tidied up a fast food box complete with its white plastic fork and several sodden tissues. At least some people had bothered to park and walk to the bridge. Or perhaps they had parked for some other mysterious purpose?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks - A Ten Mile Walk from Dunkery to the Lion at Timberscombe

This route would appear to be, as we would say in the West Country, “arse back’ards.” Starting with a lengthy descent from one of Exmoor’s highest points and away from its most famous skyline does appear slightly dotty. Remember, however, that our major objective is to end up in a pub, and the Dunkery region is a desert in this respect.
There is no harm, either, in being able to start from a National Park car park. Dumping your vehicle where you will not irritate both fellow drivers and local farmers can be a sticky problem on the Moor. We abandoned our truck in the park intended for trippers making a final, bold assault on Dunkery Beacon, and perversely set off in the opposite direction down the bridle path towards Wootton Courtenay. It was a lovely sunny day with a north westerly wind to clear the air. There are wonderful views away to the Bristol Channel, and you can see the whole of your walk mapped out in front of you. To your left is the hog’s back which runs between Wootton Courtenay and Dunster, and to your right is the vale which leads to Timberscombe.
Not far down the track, typical of the Dunkery region, rough with clusters of loose stone, we passed a ride coming the other way; the insouciant guide in an old check flat cap and his charges in their crash helmets, plonking along happily on the stable’s safest conveyances. A little further on a herd of a dozen hinds crossed our path and loitered for a moment, frozen on the skyline. The path eventually entered some woodland and led down to the lane at Brockwell which takes you along towards Wootton Courtenay.

Wootton Courtenay is a spick and span little village with smart chichi properties and both a shop and a church. We walked through the village and, after passing the church, struck off left up a steep footpath through a meadow. At the top there was a grand view of the village and the way we had come, and then we climbed the stile into woodland leading on to the top of Wootton Common. You need to ignore any path which is not uphill, and then your efforts will be rewarded by gaining the broad path which runs along the ridge of the Common. (The Macmillan Way “Mac” signs here seem to have been put up for those travelling from east to west only.)

There are grand views to both sides of the path, particularly towards the Bristol Channel, whose charms are probably best appreciated at a distance. From Wootton Common even I, who spent five testing boyhood years at a prep school in Burnham-on-Sea, may sympathise with Coleridge’s vision of “deep romantic chasms” on the Severn estuary. We surprised an enormous grass snake, asleep in the middle of the path, which slid away into the bracken. When the woodland on your right becomes conifers, you turn right and walk down through the woods until a farm track tips you out into the lane. A cheery gentleman on a bicycle politely confirmed that we should turn right. No wonder he looked so smug on his wheels. A few yards further on we came across his jogging wife puffing along behind him. We took the next left away from Wootton Courtenay and walked along a narrow lane until, turning right on to the main Minehead to Wheddon Cross road just past a cricket ground, we came to Timberscombe.

An unassuming passageway leads you into the pleasant, narrow bar of the Lion Inn. This is a pub which caters as much for locals as tourists with a games room with a pool table and a skittle alley. As well as the usual battery of electric pumps, there is St Austell’s “Proper Job” in addition to the more common “Tribute”. We had enjoyed “Proper Job” previously at Wood’s Bar in Dulverton, and did not hesitate to down two more pints each in the “Lion” where it is very well kept and served cellar cool. “Proper Job” is very much in the St Austell style of lemony, fruity, off-sweet ales, and makes a change from the sharper, hoppy bitters of the Exmoor brewery. There is an extensive lunch and evening menu. There are some original fillings for inexpensive ciabattas for a light lunch, and plenty of mains around the £7 mark, to be enjoyed in an attractive room off the bar with scrubbed tables. Sitting at the bar enjoying our liquid lunch, we decided that our project should extend itself to having supper in the pubs where the food looked really attractive. A further report on the Lion’s grub will follow in due course.
We stepped out into the sunlight and made our way westwards out of the village until turning into a broad path which ran behind the village school playing field. The path crossed the main road and led us over a footbridge across the rushing River Avill and through the fields by a well-worn path back to Wootton Courtenay. When we reached a lane on the edge of the village, we turned right but soon turned left up a shaded path between high hedges. Soon another path crossed at right angles and we turned left up some steps before emerging on to a large playing field with a traditional wooden pavilion. What exactly the sporting element of Wootton Courtenay plays there remains a mystery although the position of the well-tended square of grass meant it couldn’t be for cricket. Anyone for tennis, perhaps? There were no white lines to help us in our quest. The path led into the next field where there was a windsock and a neatly mown runway for some local Biggles.
Where the path ended in a lane, we turned left and almost immediately right, and we were back on the moor proper. Soon we had passed through the woodland and rejoined the track leading back towards the Dunkery summit. Here the arse-backards nature of the expedition became somewhat daunting. It’s a steepish climb, especially at the end of the day with two pints of Proper Job swashing about inside you. When necessary, stop on the pretence of admiring the superb views.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Exmoor Pubs & Walks - The Sportmans

It took us almost thirty years to get inside the door of the Sportsmans but it’s been worth the wait. One wet Sunday in the early 1980’s we set out for a walk on the moor with the Sportmans as our watering hole objective. It was a miserable morning and, as we negotiated bogs, barbed wire fences, and the odd dead sheep, the only thing that kept us going was the thought of a pint at a pub new to us, the Sportsmans Inn at Sandyway. The nearer we came, the thicker the fog came down. In my soggy misery I cherished a vision of a cosy bar, a roaring fire with a few ruddy-faced farmers warming their bums, the winking of polished horsebrasses, mine host ready with a pint of the foaming... The last misty half-mile was along a straightish road which we now know so well and at last there it was, the Sportsmans!
It was derelict. The empty windows gaped like the eyes of a skull and the roof sagged. It was as if the army of the Visigoths had passed through and stopped to eat their sandwiches. There’s nothing more depressing than a closed pub, and it’s a rare miracle if they ever open again. Happily, that’s not the case at the Sportsmans, which is now in the capable hands of father and son, Graham and Martin Macro. Graham mans the bar while Martin cooks. The Sportsmans enjoys a loyal local trade, and there’s plenty of room at the bar and on the settles next to the woodburner for drinkers to lean and sit and gas. The remainder of the main room is given over to restaurant tables, while a function room runs parallel to it. The Macros, when they bought this remote pub high up on the moor between North Molton and Withypool, had reconciled themselves in winters to shutting up the pub except for a snug for locals. In fact, they have developed an all-year-round trade based on their function room with a popular Sunday lunchtime carvery, quiz nights in support of local good causes, skittle matches, and pool tournaments.
Draught beers are Exmoor Fox and St Austell. The food is excellent value. Starters like broccoli and stilton soup or whitebait are £3. Mains like the excellent steak and kidney suet pudding are £8. A steak is £10. Unlike some pub blackboards, the Sportsman’s is always changing and full of surprises, often with an oriental flavour. We once had smashing spring rolls as a starter. Puds are £4. If you eat that dreadful meal, Sunday lunch - to me a cooked midday meal is one of the most miserable rituals of European civilisation - the carvery will cost you £7. The selection of vegetables is always more than generous. You won’t leave the Sportsmans hungry or poor, and you won’t go home, as I did once after eating at one of the locality’s most celebrated restaurants, and eat a banana to fill the gaps.