Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ten Mile Walk From Dunkery Gate via Dunkery Beacon to the Rest & Be Thankful, Wheddon Cross

This is a walk which punches well above its weight. We had to measure it twice to convince ourselves that it wasn’t much further than the map tried to persuade us. The only answer to the conundrum must be that the various steep ascents and descents involved slow one’s normal rate of progress. There was no problem in parking at Dunkery Gate, even though this was a fine Saturday morning in late July. Anecdotal experience has convinced me for many years that leisure experts consistently overestimate the enthusiasm of the British public for hiking over the moors. What the BP wants are views accessible by road and toilet blocks.

The broad path to Dunkery Beacon starts just above the Gate, and in no time at all you are on the summit. Anyone who does an Exmoor pub quiz needs to know that this is the highest point on Exmoor, indeed the highest point in Somerset, at 1703 feet high.

The views can vary between the magnificent and the impenetrable. On this morning the air was not as clear as it can be, but the compensation was some marvellous cloud scapes above the Bristol Channel looking towards the Welsh coast.

We turned down the well-worn path which carries most of the human traffic between the road and the Beacon, passing the popular car parks and heading downwards towards Wootton Courtenay. This is a steepish track, with clusters of the loose, rough stone typical of the Dunkery area. Still, it’s easier going down than up as hard experience has taught us. See our walk to Wootton Courtenay and Timberscombe. There were good views over the sea, and ponies too, as we headed downwards with the oddly roofed tower of Wootton Courtenay church in the distance.
Just before the track descends into woodland at Brockwell, another path forks away to the right, back uphill through the bracken. It is signposted as “Mick’s Path” and to “Span Gate”. This we followed upwards until we turned downwards into Hanny Combe, crossing a stream, with the woodland of Elsworthy Allotment to our left. It’s important next to stick to the ascending moorland path, following signs to “Span Gate”. As we made our way between the bracken, there was a sudden rustle to our left as a hind jumped up and plunged downwards towards the cover of Spangate Grove.
We eventually climbed to what was clearly Spangate, with a four-way signpost, one of whose arms pointed to Wheddon Cross in rather cavalier fashion through an impenetrable clump of bulrushes. We skirted this to the left and followed the edge of the moor until we reached an inviting gate, with thick wedges of woodland below away to the south which appeared to block the way to Wheddon Cross. The partnership then had a brisk exchange of cartographical theories, but we finally kept to the side of the moor and were rewarded with another gate, duly signed to Wheddon Cross. The signpost is easy to miss as it is stuck up on top of a high bank to your left for some reason.
The path takes you into woodland just at the point where the track from the first, contentious, gate joins you from the left! This is rated as a bridleway, but it would be some horse which willingly negotiated the steep and narrow defile which leads you down to the River Avill. The path then follows the river until you start climbing again, and then cross a narrow lane into Little Quarme Wood. This is a steep haul until you reach the asphalt drive of the Raleigh Hotel, at the gates of which a path to your right takes you round the back of Wheddon Cross cattle market and on to the main road from Exford. From there it’s just a short walk into the settlement itself.

Wheddon Cross couldn’t help but be an important Exmoor centre with the two main moorland roads meeting here. There is a garage and shop, guest houses, the market, and, of course, a substantial hostelry, “The Rest & Be Thankful”. The present owners have spent a tidy sum on it, and it now looks very smart, and is as much a hotel as just a pub. The bar area is long and narrowish. One end was laid up for lunches, and the far end is a “public” with pool table, flashing fruit machines, and jukebox. Geographically and culturally in the middle, there were a couple of low, leather sofas where we established ourselves. There were three cask ales on offer, and we chose Sharp’s “Doom Bar”. The lady behind the bar was having trouble with the pump, which she was pulling with all the desperation of a sailor on a sinking ship. The condition of the pint, however, looked excellent, but I found the flavour on the flabby side. My wife enjoyed hers, and had seconds, but I switched to the ever-reliable Exmoor Ale. The hotel end of the bar was busy with lunches, and the menu looked good value. An 8oz rump steak with all the trimmings was just short of £10, and cod and chips was landed at £6.75. Baguettes were £5.75. It was just what you would expect in an Exmoor pub firmly placed athwart the tourist track.
We walked across the playing field which, like the village hall, is very much on the grand side, considering the size of the village. The public conveniences are decorated with some remarkable murals, as if some rural Banksy, working in mosaic, had passed this way.
The path to Luckwell Bridge is easily found behind them. It’s a pleasant enough walk, and you come into the tiny hamlet near to its eponymous bridge. Luckwell Bridge is one of those places which obviously has seen busier times. We passed “The Old Chapel”, “The Old Shop”, “The Old Inn”, and “The Old Forge”. We crossed the main Exford-Wheddon Cross road, and took the steep track known as “Long Lane”, a wet and dank tunnel which improves as you climb towards Dunkery Gate. If we did this walk again, we would probably seek to find some way of returning via Blagdon and Mansley woods.
As we reached the road just below the Gate, we felt the first inevitable spots of rain. In the twenty five days of July to date, there had been just two dry days on the Moor.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nine Mile Walk from Kennisham Hill to Croydon Hill and the Royal Oak at Luxborough

We shouldn’t have bothered. The forecast was dire but, after a fortnight or more of the weather euphemistically known as “changeable”, we were willing to chance that the rain might hold off for an extra hour or two. We parked at the picnic site on the eastern end of Kennisham Hill and set off, like the Start-Rite kids on their golden pathway, along a broad straight track between conifer plantations towards the wireless station at the far end of the wood.
All walking addicts should be aware that the way on a map often looks very different on the ground. Forestry can be very misleading with its seductively straight and even tracks and, when we reached the edge of the trees, we turned right and headed cheerfully downhill. The further we walked, the more our unease grew as we seemed to be swinging away from our true bearing and, eventually, we took the unwelcome but inevitable step of turning round and climbing back to where we had made our turn. What mugs we were. The map showed clearly that the path was beyond the boundary of the trees and, if we had walked but a few more steps, we would have seen the signpost neatly obscured by a thicket of bracken.
We passed through a gate out of the plantation, and turned right downhill to walk through grass meadows still soaked by previous rains. The flies had been persistent but tolerable in the forestry, but now they buzzed around our heads in thick clouds worthy of the Australian outback.
There is probably a moralistic ratio in walking, in that the more appealing a track appears, the more likely it is to be in the wrong direction. When we reached a point where a signpost pointed cheerily to the right for Luxborough, it was quite obvious that our way to Churchtown, unsigned, was through a dense patch of nettles into a gloomy tunnel of beech. It was one of those ways which vary between loose rubble and slick stone, and we slid and crunched our way downwards until we plunged into the open again with the hamlet and the church below us.

The correct path eventually eluded us for some reason, but there was no problem in getting out of the fields above Westcott Farm, and crossing the ford to reach the lane. Here, however, was another of those crises of uncertainty which walkers habitually are obliged to weather. On the map the bridle path to Croydon Hill shot straight across the lane. The signpost, however, pointed equivocally towards an inpenetrable steep bank and hedge. If the map was correct, the way led through the firmly gated garden of a neat cottage. There was not a single reassuring blue blob of paint to be seen. Nothing could have looked less like a public bridleway. The rain began to spot down, and disaster threatened. Fortunately a lady issued out of the cottage at this very moment. Yes, there was a bridle path. Yes, we were welcome to go through the gates and make our way up across the neatly mown grass. No, very few horses ever came that way, but some walkers. At the top of her domain there was even a little bench for their use.
Then we found ourselves suddenly back in forestry. We took the track which promised to lead to Dunster and walked uphill between tedious squares of Christmas trees. The rain now became more insistent, and by the time we had reached the top of the hill, it was a steady downpour. The plan was to walk round the open circle of Withycombe Common but, not only were we greeted by the full force of the rain as we emerged from the trees, we were mugged by great clouds of flies.
We cut our losses and fled downhill towards Luxborough and the comforts of the Royal Oak. By the time we neared the edge of the dripping trees with their scanty protection, the rain was streaming down. We stood in the lane, hopping from one surviving dry patch to another, there to cower beneath the densest available foliage until almost run down by the postman. When the deluge eased somewhat, we made a final push towards the pub past the painted stone cottages of this charming village.
If you are a walker, a pub is often approached with some sense of trepidation. Has it closed down? Is it open? Will you be greeted with signs demanding that you remove at least your boots, if not more intimate bits of your attire. My face must have conveyed all these reservations as I pushed open the old wooden door. From behind the bar, bang opposite the entrance, the landlady’s cheery greeting came, “Come on in and drip over here.”

The bar of the Royal Oak is a good place to sit and drip onto its ancient flagstones. On the left there is a lovely old settle, piled high with the day’s newspapers. Old chapel pews provide much of the seating. We sat one end of a big, wooden table, near the cheerily lit wood burner on this July day of what the Met Office had predicted as “a barbecue summer.” There is a further room with tables behind the bar, and also a formal dining room. There were four cask bitters on offer; Cotleigh’s Tawny, Exmoor Ale, White Hart from the Taunton Brewery, and Palmer’s IPA. We drank Palmer’s, from Bridport in Dorset, on the principle that we had never tasted it before; and we enjoyed it. Although termed as IPA, it is strictly a best bitter of 4.2%. If anything, it was kept a tad on the cool side. On a Sunday morning a few months later, the Palmers had been replaced by the Cottage Brewery's Boxer Jack, a dark, sweetish brew from near Castle Cary; unusual and worth searching out.
When we had passed by the Royal Oak outside opening hours a year previously, a scan of the menu hung outside had half frightened us to death. It promised haute cuisine of the hautist kind and prices to match. Either there has been a change of policy, or even a change of ownership, as the food on the various blackboards dotted around the bar was much more user-friendly. A bowl of soup was £3.95, a baguette £5.50, and fish and chips, always a reliable signpost to value in Exmoor pubs these days, £7.95. There was a succulent selection of fresh fish dishes around the £15 mark, but then fresh fish is always an expensive treat. On a Thursday lunch time the pub was pretty busy. A large local party occupied the dining room. Four other couples were having lunch, a regular was reading the newspapers, and two elders of the village were working their way through current affairs from immigration to helicopters for Afghanistan. A solitary walker, surrounded by enough kit to storm the north face of the Eiger, ate his way stolidly through pie and veg, ice cream, and two pints of bitter. As he worked away at them, he listened through earphones, which would have graced an SOE operator of the last world war, to an MP3 player the size of a brick. What was it which so engaged his attention? The test match? Wagner’s Ring cycle? He was still there when we left.
We walked past the incredibly luxurious village hall and at a fork took the lane on the right. Soon we turned left off the lane and headed for Chargot Wood, through which we hoped to make our way back to our truck. You pass through what once must have been the parkland of Chargot House, a faintly Palladian villa which you can see above you near to the lane. Below you is a small ornamental lake with landing stages and a boat.
The famous huntsman, Captain Ronnie Wallace, once recalled that, when his family in the 1930’s took Chargot House as a holiday home for the summer, his mother looked out of the window to see his younger brother lying face down in the lake amongst the lilies. She rushed down in the nick of time to save him from drowning.
Any drowning we were doing was in the persistent rain. I wish that I could give precise directions, but we just fiddled our way through the woods, ignoring any sign to Langham, following slavishly any sign to Kennisham, and hoping for the best when, frequently, there was no sign at all. Chargot is a celebrated shoot and walking here in the autumn must be akin to a stroll through the OK Corral on the day the Clanton clan came looking for the Earp brothers.
We eventually regained the dry sanctuary of our truck. A minibus, bearing the internees of a local care home, drew up in the car park. It sat there in the pouring rain, facing the endless stretch of conifers, as a carer distributed cups of coffee from a Thermos. One old lady sat, her cheek pressed against the glass, her eyes open but unseeing, her image fading as the windows slowly misted over. It was time to go home.