Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Eight Mile Walk from Porlock through Horner Wood to Stoke Pero and back to the Ship Inn

Horner Wood in autumn is one of the glories of Exmoor. It makes a pleasant place for a stroll from places like Horner or Webbers Post, but we started from Porlock, determined to walk a circuit of the ancient oak woodlands. We walked past the church towards Hawkcombe and, when we reached the cemetery, turned left up a path round its boundary and then turned right into a narrow lane. A little further on a footpath was signposted through a gate for Ley Hill. This we took and started a long, steep climb upwards through woodland with a stream on our left and an old boundary wall on our right. A carpet of split sweet chestnut shells lay amongst the fallen leaves.
The map is a dense mass of paths, but it appeared that we were walking up Ley Combe. Eventually we came out of the trees and, where the track divided, turned to the left, coming out on to the open moorland of Doverhay Down. From here there were grand views over Porlock Bay.

It was a blustery morning, fine and sunny at one moment, and then darkening with sudden showers. A magnificent rainbow arched across the sky above Porlock Bay.

A grassy track took us onwards and upwards, over a couple of narrow roads, and then it eventually sank towards Horner Wood itself, which we entered on the bridleway known as Flora’s Ride. All the paths through the wood are named after members of the Acland family, which gave it to the National Trust in 1944. Generations of Aclands, whose various branches once owned vast tracts of land on Exmoor, followed the stag hounds, and so what they would have thought of the National Trust’s decision in 1997 to ban hunting on land which the Aclands had given to the Trust in good faith, God only knows.
As the path wound ever downwards, the sunlight scattered itself through the branches of the old oaks.
Eventually we reached the upper reaches Horner Water at the foot of the combe. This we crossed by a footbridge, and then began a steep climb towards Stoke Pero.
On the map the contour lines crowd very closely together, and on the ground it’s a sharp old pull. On levelling out, the path swings to the right out of the wood, and then approaches Stoke Pero by a narrow, muddy defile. This issues out into the yard of Church Farm - with the clouds now gathering again looking a dead ringer for Wuthering Heights - and beyond lies the church itself.
At 1013 feet above sea level, Stoke Pero church lays claim to being the highest place of worship in England. With two testing ascents behind us, we wouldn’t quarrel with that. The church has a Saxon saddleback tower and was mentioned in the Domesday Book, but it was considerably restored by the Aclands in the late 1800’s. A donkey called Zulu hauled up the wood required from Porlock twice a day, and is commemorated inside the church in a drawing by Hope Bourne, the Withypool writer.

We retraced our steps into the wood and followed the footpath signed to Cloutsham Ball. There was a tricky moment with a fallen tree but, with a little luck and a compass, we kept on the right track which took us round the upper rim of the wood. There were marvellous views here over the valley through which Horner Water flows and, eventually, back towards Porlock.

Webbers Post, with its parked cars, lay in front of us, but just when it looked as if it was only a step away, the East Water Valley stood in the way. We took a steep path downwards until we reached Horner Water, and then walked with the stream on our right, through increasing numbers of Sunday strollers, down the broad path until we reached Horner village itself. Here we turned left, crossed the pack horse bridge, and followed the bridleway round until it joined the lane which returns to Porlock via Doverhay.
The Ship Inn, known as the “Top Ship” to distinguish it from the “Bottom Ship” at nearby Porlock Weir, can be found at the western end of Porlock’s main street. It is a long, rambling building which dates from the thirteenth century. As you enter from the street, the bar is on your left, a snug little room with a high counter at the far end. Otter, Exmoor Ale, and Exmoor Stag were all on tap and, after an energetic morning, we treated ourselves to two pints each of the divine Stag. At £2.80 a pint, it was cheaper than in some Exmoor hostelries. Not surprisingly on a Sunday morning, the bar was pretty crowded, mainly with local shooting dog fanciers, and so we moved back into a long room opposite which appeared to be an overflow area for the bar and the restaurant.
At the very end of the room my wife spotted something which we have been looking for in a pub for years – a bar billiards table! Forty years ago I spent many happy hours in the Baron Of Beef in Cambridge playing this addictive and frustrating game, as had my wife, not quite so many years ago, when she manned the bar of the Two Brewers in Henley. As I potted my way into a comfortable lead, I mused on Anthony Powell’s analogy in his novel sequence, “A Dance To The Music Time”, between life and bar billiards – when your time runs out, the bar comes down, the potted balls no longer return to be played again, and everything counts double. I was well paid for this bit of Eng Lit smuggery when my opponent deftly sank the red ball behind the black mushroom for the decisive score of eight hundred points. We found a bench in a corner of the bar to enjoy our second pint of Stag. A wood burner stood packed with logs ready for colder days and, next to it, a pile of sweet chestnuts ready for roasting. Food happens elsewhere in the Ship, as we discovered when we poked our noses round to the left as we quitted the bar. Out of sight and out of mind was a large caff, packed with families devouring their lunches on this half-term Sunday.
We fled in panic, and so we can give no accurate information on the Ship’s cuisine.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ten Mile Walk from Hillsford Bridge to the Hoar Oak Tree and to the Beggars Roost Inn, Barbrook

The Hoar Oak Tree is one of Exmoor’s most remote landmarks, set deep in a romantic combe on the western boundary of the ancient Royal Forest. It has stood there for a year or two. One version fell down in 1658 “with very age and rottenness.” Its replacement, planted four years later, lasted until Boxing Day, 1916. The present one dates from 1917. Its less than impressive progress over the past ninety years ironically reflects the determination of Exmoor flora and fauna to battle on regardless in an often hostile environment. The tree can prove difficult to find. At my first attempt in poor weather I followed the wrong path on Cheriton Ridge, and eventually fell into the bog at Blackpitts. On my second I was walking in thick fog and almost missed it again. At least on this third attempt it was the most beautiful day, with gin-clear skies and the best views ever over the Welsh coast.
We parked in the National Trust car park at Hillsford Bridge, and took the bridleway through Combe Park Wood towards Smallcombe Bridge. The track skirts to the rear of Combe Park House, which boasts a statue of a stag on its lawn, lovely lattice windows, and a small tower, and then the path follows the river through the trees as far as the bridge.

Here we turned left past a cottage, curiously with a large boat docked in its garden, and climbed the steep and broken lane towards Scoresdown. Here you need to ignore the first track on the right, which leads to Sparhanger Cross, and then, just before Cheriton hamlet, take the second which will take you up on to Cheriton Ridge. At least one sign lay broken in the bank. We passed through a couple of gates and then we were out on the open moorland of Cheriton Ridge. Behind us you could see as far as the Welsh Mountains.

You need to steer a middle course here. If you keep too far to the left early, you will find yourself going down into Farley Water, and later you will be led away on the disastrous path which eventually dumped me into Blackpitts bog. On a bright and sunny day the middle way is clear enough, although, when the path begins to level off, be prepared to steer south and somewhat to your right to find the entry to the valley which leads up to Exe Head. The Hoar Oak Tree stands guard at the valley foot in a landscape straight from Tolkien.After the descent from the top of the ridge, the path runs for a couple of hundred yards parallel to the river and then the Hoar Oak Tree is before you, surrounded by a cage of rails.

We passed through the gate and turned to the right down to Hoar Oak Water, which is passable by a narrow ridge of stepping stones. It makes an excellent, if treacherous, vantage point from which to photograph the valley up to Exe Head.We crossed the river and turned right to climb up to Hoaroak Cottage. It would have made a stunning place to live on such a morning, with the sunlight sparkling on the beech-lined Water beneath you. Now the house is sadly decayed, with its corrugated iron roof stooping downwards, although the remains of the kitchen range are still there. A local doctor recalled walking across the moor once a year to treat the cottager for his gout. The patient’s name was Ridd, which he shared with the hero of “Lorna Doone”, John Ridd. A few years ago there were plans for refurbishing the place as a hostel, but obviously nothing came of them.

The path towards Furzehill Common is easy to follow to begin with but, after passing through a gate, as with so many Exmoor paths, it disappears like a wraith. We were soon in difficulties as the marsh-grass tussocks became thicker and the black boggy pools more frequent. We had been led too far to our right and, at a fence line, we plunged along side it until we could see our way on the edge of the farmland above South Furzehill farmhouse. A tidy line of blue blobs on the gateposts signed the way through the cattle pastures. One compensation was being treated to marvellous views over the Bristol Channel as far as the Black Mountains.

After turning left into a narrow lane just below the Roborough Castle Iron Age settlement, we reached a crossroads of paths. We went northwards straight over Lyn Down, and another run of gates took us to a lane next to the entrance to the Lynton public rubbish dump. The welcome inaccessibility of the facility, and the fact that it opens to the public just once a month, should guarantee that no one uses it nor knows of its existence. We walked on to Lyn Cross on the main A39 road, dived into the lane directly opposite, and walked round through West Lynn to emerge again on the A39 at the side of the Beggars Roost Inn. Before we reached the road, we passed a farm which promises walking with alpacas. According to my wife, walking with alpacas is considered in some quarters as therapeutic as swimming with dolphins. As one who shares his views on human frailty with Genghis Khan, I pass. Here, however, are the alpacas.The Beggars Roost was our final pub to visit actually on the Moor, rather than within an Exmoor village. We had kept putting it off as we weren’t convinced that it was a real pub. For most drinkers, the jury would still be out on that one. The Beggars Roost is an annexe to the Manor Hotel. Set in what looks like a converted stone barn, the Beggars Roost is a single, narrow bar with wood panelling. During the high season it has more than one real beer on offer, but in late October there was just one. High Tide comes from the Clearwater Brewery at Torrington, and is a strong, sweetish ale at 4.5% alcohol – “a good bitter for people who don’t really like bitter” was my wife’s pithy assessment.It was very pleasant on such a warm October day, as was the garden in front of the Beggars Roost with a particularly fine tree by the car park.

Two Dutch ladies lunched off baguettes – the management kindly solved their dilemma about which filling to choose by putting one in at one end and another at the other. Another couple had something large with chips, several of which were fed to their pet greyhound. The dog was wearing the sort of harness which controlled me in public places as a toddler. Its straps would have tamed a Rhodesian Ridgeback but greyhounds are the quietest of creatures when not chasing small animals, and this one just footled about in the herbaceous border.
We retraced our steps past the alpacas and took the path towards Lower East Lyn. The grassy lane was bordered by ancient stone-lined banks, and here we enjoyed the treat of the day. In the fields below us there was a large herd of hinds with a magnificent stag. Although the stag continued to stare questioningly towards us, we sat on the bank watching the deer for some twenty minutes. Even when we moved on, the hinds continued to graze and the herd remained in the field until we saw it no more.We passed through Lower and Higher East Lyn farmsteads, and returned to Hillsford Bridge via the path which leads below the Myrtleberry Settlement, with views down to Lynmouth and the sea.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Eight Mile Walk from Dunster to Blue Anchor via Withycombe Hill

It was the best of October mornings with a chilly sun and the light as clear as cool water. We started from the public car park behind the Foresters Arms, (the blue sign is barely visible as you approach the village from the south,) and walked past thatched cottages and across the mediaeval Gallax Bridge to take the bridleway up through the old woodland towards Bats Castle. The trees here tower above the steep path and, where a broad path curves round to the left, you need to be careful and take the steeper way to the right.

Soon we were on to open moorland and the path took us over the two ramparts into the centre of the Iron Age encampment of Bats Castle.
Here to the north there were stunning views over Dunster towards the Welsh Coast.

To the west we looked towards Dunkery.
The broad path continued through open ground until we reached the trees again at Withycombe Gate. Here there was a somewhat equivocal sign to Withycombe but, after one false start, from the gate we inclined to the right and then after just a few steps took the next path on the left. An old boundary wall was to our left as we emerged again from the forestry and walked along the top of Withycombe Hill.
Eventually the trees fell away to our left and we walked down through open meadowland towards Withycombe. Below us Minehead and the exotic far pavilions of its holiday camp were clearly visible. “In Xanadu did Billy Butlin a stately pleasure dome decree, where Avill the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless man, down to an occasionally sunlit sea.”

The path eventually becomes a farm lane with steep banks on either side, and Withycombe came upon us suddenly.
The church, which had been obscured in dead ground throughout our descent, was both a surprise and a delight. In the bright sunlight the lime-washed walls dazzled.

Inside we found a beautifully carved rood screen. It had been worked by Flemish craftsmen living in Dunster sometime in the 1500’s.

We walked round the church and turned left into the lane which leads out to the main road between Watchet and Minehead. We passed a converted schoolhouse which boasted the original name of “Terms End” and more than one substantial farm. They make a remarkable contrast to some of the battered homesteads on top of the Moor. Here the low and rich flatlands close to the sea grow asparagus and potatoes, not just gorse, bracken and heather.
We successfully diced with the traffic on the A39 at Withycombe Cross before diving into a green lane exactly opposite, marked on the map with the splendid name of “Black Monkey Lane”. I don’t think that this mysterious simian, or anyone else, had been down it for a long while. We wobbled our way uncertainly through the docks, nettles, and long grass, but eventually the track became more open. Where the path began to curve to the right, we passed through a gate on our left, which is weighted by a line to ensure its closure, and then headed straight across a big pasture to the opposite gate towards Marshwood Farm. Ignore the stile on the left of the weighted gate. It leads nowhere.
Marshwood Farm is an imposing if plain building, but with an impressive porch, the stone of which may have come from nearby Cleeve Abbey.

The footpath passes through the middle of the farm and its buildings before it leads you out into the public road. Here we turned right and walked into Blue Anchor over the level crossing of the West Somerset railway.

We turned left on to the beach to walk back to Dunster. There is no actual coastal path here, and the easiest way of going is to walk on the beach itself just above the tide line. Nearer the railway the large, flat pebbles can be difficult to walk over.

As we neared Dunster Beach, we passed the mouth of the River Avill flood defence scheme. The concrete channel stretched away and out of sight and, even on such a lovely morning, seemed oddly threatening and apocalyptic. No doubt feet in Dunster keep all the dryer for it.

Soon we reached Sea Lane End, and we left the beach to walk along the road towards Dunster. A steam engine, all brass and smoke, puffed along the railway through the fields. We crossed the lines and, as we reached the first buildings of the village, we turned left into a footpath which ran along the side of the River Avill. It took us back to the main road at Loxhole Bridge and on into the parkland surrounding Dunster Castle.
The path ended at the top of the main Dunster car park, and we walked through the main street, past the yarn market where a busker in eighteenth century dress was playing an amplified dulcimer. Dunster’s that sort of a place.

We negotiated Exmoor’s only traffic lights and were now in search of our goal, the Stag’s Head, reputedly the oldest pub in Dunster.

It was closed. Thursday lunchtime on a sunny October day in Exmoor’s most popular tourist trap, and it was closed? Words, even the most vulgar, for once failed me.

The Stag’s Head is fortunate indeed to be able to indulge in taking time off on a Thursday during the season. Five Exmoor pubs are advertised for sale at the moment - from which you may draw your own conclusions - including the “Foresters Arms” in which we took refuge for the second time in a week. The beers had changed and, without being asked, the landlord kindly poured us samples of Old Peculier and a new brew, Cotleigh’s Nutcracker. Nutcracker is a good, old-fashioned mild; dark in colour and flavour but light on alcohol at 3.4%. I can remember old gents drinking mild and bitter when I was a lad. Nutcracker made a delicious lunchtime drink.
We took our glasses to the end of the bar, where Nelson, the pub parrot, rules from his roost. We tucked ourselves away in a comfortable corner of dark panelling under a splendid cartoon from the 1950’s depicting the pub’s skittle team.

From his cage Nelson seemed to be watching the news channel on the TV high up in the corner opposite the pool table. Famous politicians at a party conference passed silently across the screen. After a few of his favourite whistles, Nelson made his own apposite comment in a rich West Country accent. “Wanker! he squawked, “Wanker!”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ten Mile Walk from Nutcombe Bottom to the Foresters Arms, Dunster, via Clicket

Weird places, woods. One minute you know exactly where you are, and the next you’re completely lost. It’s no wonder that children’s literature is packed with multiple tots lost deep in the forest, constantly waylaid by cross-dressing wolves, or enticed to sample bits of cottages made from doubtful, if not illegal, substances. We hardly endured any major psychological trauma in search of the lost village of Clicket, but one member of the party suffered several critical sense of humour failures while uttering those words well-known to all walkers, “The map must be wrong.”
We parked at the spacious Nutcombe Bottom park off the road between Dunster and Timberscombe. Our intention was to walk south west through the woodland, keeping the road from Nutcombe to Luxborough on our right, until we were in striking distance of the footpath which would take us to Clicket. The trouble with walking through forestry is there are too many paths to choose from, and Sod’s Law decrees more often than not that, the broader and straighter the way, the more likely it is to lead you in the wrong direction. Our chosen path just fizzled out, but we knew that the road was somewhere on our right, and a step or two took us to it.
The woods here are a pleasing mix of trees, especially in late September, and we cut our losses by sticking to the narrow road, meeting only one or two vehicles in the process. After a longish climb we found ourselves walking along the edge of the wood, and we could look down over Timberscombe towards the sea.

The path to Clicket is clearly signposted, and we walked down a farm track, keeping to the left when we came to the farm itself and unhindered by quite the oldest collie dog in the world. As we passed beyond the farm buildings, to our left we saw a remarkable tangle of beech trunks, oddly reminiscent of a Henry Moore sculpture.

The ruins of Clicket can be found at the foot of the valley. There’s not much left of the little community which once numbered six dwellings and thirty inhabitants. Clicket once boasted a mill, but now there is little more than the ruins of a cottage and a little pack-horse bridge. There has been considerable speculation on why the village was abandoned sometime in the late 1800’s, one theory being that it was wiped out by a diphtheria epidemic.

One suspects that the truth is more mundane. Clicket Mill at the bottom of its narrow valley was inaccessible even then, and the grain was brought to it on the back of a donkey. The miller of Clicket obviously didn’t recognise the connection between commercial success and good communications. The real puzzle of Clicket is why they built the mill and the village there in the first place. Water supply on Exmoor is never a problem.

We crossed the river by the little bridge and took the footpath towards Bakers Farm, keeping the water on our left.
The track wound through woodland until it tipped us out into the road again and, when the Beech Tree crossroads was in sight, we turned left off the road and started to climb up to the forestry on Croydon Hill. Here Christmas trees stand in regimented ranks but there are good views to the right over Luxborough and the Brendons.

Soon we reached the open moorland of Withycombe Common. There is a bewildering choice of paths here, but we took the track signposted to Dunster which led past the summit of Black Hill and down past the deliciously named Withycombe Scruffets. There were grand views over the Bristol Channel towards Hinkley Point and then the track passed into old woodland.

We are still not sure where we went wrong. It may well have been where we forded a gated stream and went straight on up a steep bank. We probably should have turned left, to take us as intended to Withycombe Hill Gate. Instead we floundered along on to Withycombe Hill itself and only the use of a compass led us back in the right direction.
At last we found the Gate, and took the footpath down towards Dunster. It led us over the mediaeval Gallox Bridge, a rather more grandiose example than Clicket’s, and then a lane between some attractive cottages brought us down one side of the Foresters Arms.

The Foresters Arms is a long way from the centre of Dunster, and it must be difficult for it to gets its fair share of the tourist pound. It’s a big pub, recently refurbished, with plenty of seating for diners, but also all the trimmings of a “local”; darts board, pool table, and skittle alley.

There was a choice of two real beers, either Cotleigh 25 or Theakston’s Old Peculier (sic.) I was tempted by the Theakston’s, which had come a long way from Masham in North Yorkshire, but that dark and heavy old porter didn’t seem the thirst quencher which the occasion required. Cotleigh 25 is one of those golden beers which make a good lunchtime drink, but I wouldn’t fancy them in the evening. The brewery originally produced it as a celebration of twenty five years in the business, but it proved such a success that it was kept on as a permanent brand. It was created to appeal “to younger consumers” – oh dear – but it’s pretty good for all that. It wouldn’t hurt to be lower in alcohol than its 4%.
The Foresters helped us choose by providing a couple of free tasters in shot glasses, a courtesy which is always much appreciated. The Rock House at Dulverton and the Staghunters at Brendon are two more obliging hostelries which have done this for us recently. The Foresters had that slightly unworldly ambience that pubs tend towards on a Tuesday lunchtime in late September. Everyone seems slightly larger than life, as if you had stumbled on to the set of a television soap opera. Chief amongst the Foresters’ cast was that popular pub standby, the garrulous Irishman. His flight of verbal fancy so winged him away that the girl behind the bar was obliged to pull him up with, “Are you going to stand there all day talking or are you going to order a drink?” I have no idea what we had said which had attracted his interest, but suddenly he was there before us, like some Celtic genii, listing all the showbiz “artistes” which he particularly admired and had travelled the world to see in person...Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and “ I tell ye the greatest of them all” – long pause for dramatic effect – “Barry Manilow.” It was probably our total indifference to the talents of the Brooklyn cantor that encouraged him to retreat to his table where thereafter he sat with his wife in rigid silence. Any quiet moments in the Foresters are filled by the pub parrot, who flaps and whistles away near the television set above the pool table. Only in this part of the world would a pub TV be tuned into the Countryside & Equestrian channel, showing a documentary about the Cheshire Draghounds. A blackboard proclaimed that there was no food that lunchtime. The pub website, the bar furniture, and a fully laid-up dining room glimpsed in the recesses of the building, would imply that this famine could be only temporary.
It should have been a couple of miles back to the car park at Nutcombe Bottom but we managed to make a trek of it. After retracing our steps across Gallax Bridge, we set off into forestry again where a wide track, guarded by a wooden bear, seduced from the true way and we landed up at the wrong end of Kings Hedge Coppice.

For the second time that day, the compass saved us.