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.