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.