Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ten Mile Walk from Withypool to Tarr Steps and on to the Bridge Inn at Dulverton

This is not a circular walk. To return to the starting point entails catching the 401 bus, which travels between Bampton and Lynmouth twice a day, on Wednesdays and Sundays only, from 29th July to the 27th September.

Discounting the dash from the roadside car park to the summit of Dunkery Beacon, Withypool to Tarr Steps is the Blackpool of Exmoor walks, or at least its Weston-super-Mare. On a sunny Wednesday morning in early August the gridlock was hardly on the M5 scale, but the evidence of past heavy traffic was there for all to see. In the heavy rains of July the path in places had been turned into a sucking morass by the splatter of passing feet. This riverside walk, however, is a lovely one, and is easily accessible, either from Withypool where the car park is free, or from Tarr Steps where it is not. For refreshments, Withypool boasts the “Royal Oak” as well as its famous tea room, and at the other end you can choose between the sophistication of the Tarr Farm Hotel and the ice cream kiosk.
We left Withypool village by taking the road in front of the “Royal Oak” and climbing some hundred yards up the steep hill which leads to Comers Cross. First you see the stile on the left which would take you towards to Exford and then, just a few yards further on, the stile to Tarr Steps is suddenly visible on the right hand side of the road. The path gives a good view back towards the village as well as over Kings Farm, a very smart and comfortable B&B.

The path here in wet weather can be greasy and fairly tricky, but soon enough you drop down to the level of the river Barle and begin to walk along its banks.
This path is now the only easy access to the walk. Sadly the handy stepping stones below South Hill Farm were put out of commission by a fallen tree over a year ago, and the depth of the water would deter all but the most adventurous from trying the ford except, of course, on a horse. The Exmoor National Park authority shows no signs of any intention of clearing the tree away. “Outraged of Withypool” has already written a letter of complaint. Please feel free to do so yourself.
No one would wish to compose mentally letters of complaint to a quasi-government bureaucracy while walking by the side of the Barle. The rushing sound of the river is always with you. After crossing three wide meadows, the path climbs through a wood of old oaks with the water far below you. When you emerge, you are perched high above a big sheep pasture. Look carefully across the river into the bracken below the woods on the opposite bank. We recently spotted a magnificent stag here.

The wired-in cover on your left is part of the furniture of an important shoot. In September you would find it difficult to move without treading on a pheasant.
It is best to keep to the outside of the pasture and enjoy the nearness of the river. At the end of this huge field, the path again enters woodland. The going for the next couple of miles is poor after wet weather. You find yourself dotting from side to side to avoid the dirtiest bits, and it’s not the place for trainers, which some people like to affect on this route. The nearer to Tarr Steps you come, the better the path again. A footbridge allows you to cross the river and walk the last half mile on the other bank if you prefer. If you stick to the left hand side of the river, the woodland suddenly ceases and opens into a wide grassy walk which leads to the Steps themselves.No one seems to know how old the ancient clapper bridge may be; six hundred years, a thousand years, two thousand years? Take your pick. It’s a magical place even so. Tarr Farm Hotel high above the Steps was a humble farmhouse tearoom when we knew it first thirty years ago. Now it is a luxury establishment, much frequented by shooting parties in the autumn and winter, with a finesse of cuisine far beyond our rustic tastes. There are plenty of tables on the terrace overlooking the river where you could enjoy a coffee, a drink, or a meal.

We passed over the footbridge by the ice-cream kiosk and took the bridleway upwards towards Ashway Farm. At first the river is still there below you, but then the path turns away from it and, after you have passed the farm, it becomes a metalled lane. Far below is Three Rivers, where stags hunted up from Marsh Bridge often turn and go over the top towards Molland Moor.

This road winds up and down, quite steeply in places, towards Dulverton. We had hoped to escape from it, down to the river again but, as the map shows, there are no paths leading to it. If you want to walk the Barle between Tarr and Dulverton, you need to be on the other bank. This is only accessible by walking from Tarr to Hawkridge, along the Hawkridge Ridge, and then down to the river again at Castle Bridge where the Barle is joined by the Danesbrook. From there you can follow the path as far as Marsh Bridge. We marched on from Ashway to Ashwick, past Mounsey Farm where the celebrated huntsman, Captain Ronnie Wallace, lived when Master of the Exmoor. He was known to some as “God”, making him, I suppose, a sort of Eric Clapton of foxhunting.
Eventually we passed Draydon Farm and came down to Marsh Bridge, or bridges to be exact.

Here we crossed the imposing iron bridge and climbed the lane up to Kennel Farm where we were able to get off the road at last. Signs on the road had warned us that the riverside path was closed and, sure enough, where paths diverged, there was a barricade. Apparently there had been a landslip. We, however, were determined to be near the river. What’s the point of a second childhood if it can’t be a naughty second childhood? We clambered over the barrier and pressed on regardless. Well, the authority, whichever it might be, had a point. Only a narrow path remained, and even that will soon be in the river if bolshy walkers keep on ignoring the signs. But signs, don’t you get fed up with them? This is one that they cooked up later.
The huge black hand, the gaping shouting mouth - doesn’t it just make any self-respecting child want to climb them?
The path gives a splendid view of Dulverton as you near the town.

The pub stands on the far side of the old stone bridge at the entrance to the main car park. The Bridge has just one cottagey room but there are numbers of tables outside, each with a substantial umbrella to ward off the elements. There were three cask beers on offer; Exmoor Gold and Ale as well as Otter Bitter.

The Bridge is well-known for its food, and it had certainly pulled a big crowd that lunchtime. Although there are the usual staples of homemade soup and filled baguettes and sandwiches, at the usual prices, its menu is just slightly different from the Exmoor mainstream. The Bridge burger would give that pantomime villain of fast food a really good name with its home minced beef and red onion relish. There are homemade pizzas too. Unlike some pubs, it doesn’t rely on most of its customers ordering steak and chips, which is probably reflected in its price of £13.95.
You can drink and eat your lunch and still have plenty of time to catch the bus at 3.30. Or you can go into the Lorna Doone Stores for some milk, bump into an old friend, and be driven back to Withypool in style, as we were.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ten Mile Walk from Hawkcombe Head to the Ship Inn, Porlock Weir, via Porlock Marsh

This walk has a little of everything – bracken and heather moorland, a beautiful wooded river valley, a salt marsh, and finally a climb from sea level to fourteen hundred feet in fewer than three miles. The going to begin with, however, couldn’t have been easier as the narrow path from Hawkcombe Head, marked by the remains of a broken signpost, dives off between the heather and bracken.
Soon the coast and the sea appear, framed by the edges of the combe, and the path climbs down into ancient oak woodland.
It follows the river, and so there is no chance of missing your way. Even after the recent heavy rain, the fords were easy to cross and, where there was deeper water, we found handy footbridges.

The woods are a haunt of the wild pony herds, especially lower down the valley where there are riverside pastures. The path eventually comes out of the woods and into a lane bordered by pleasant cottages. If one called “The Peep-Out” is a typical Exmoor hideaway, with the river opposite the house falling over a succession of steep steps, another further on is not. Indeed, anyone who has been frustrated by the notorious rigour of the Exmoor National Park planning office may take comfort from this particular edifice. The setting is magical with the river flowing through the garden. The pedigree of the house, however, complete with a black and white mosaic approach, is by Walt Disney out of Ludwig of Bavaria. Ambitious Exmoor property developers will take comfort from its singular architecture.

Further on the charm of Hawkcombe becomes more conventional as the lane follows the river. The climate here seems positively tropical compared with the head of the valley. Flowers are everywhere, and in one cottage garden a waterfall cascaded between luxuriant hydrangeas.

Hawkcombe seamlessly becomes Porlock, and soon the lane tips you out into the Porlock tourists know so well with its winding high street and lethal traffic. We crossed the road and, turning right, soon came to the entry into Sparkhayes Lane which takes you away from the village and out towards the sea.

When we reached the foreshore, we turned left on to the coastal path which took us across Porlock Marsh towards Porlock Weir. On our right loomed the mass of Bossington Hill. In 1942 a Liberator bomber, hopelessly lost in dreadful flying conditions after a U-boat patrol in the Bay of Biscay, clipped the edge of the hill and crashed into the marsh. Only one member of the crew survived. You will find their memorial at the side of the path.

The grassy path also takes you past the remnants of a submarine forest. The shingle bank is deteriorating in places, and a decision has been taken to allow the sea to go where it wilt for the time being. Eventually the path disappears, and the going for the last few hundred yards is over the shingle before some steps take you onto the road just outside Porlock Weir.

Porlock Weir, even on a greyish day, is a nice spot with its backdrop of wooded hills and its tiny harbour. If you cross the lock gates, you come to a rank of thatched cottages called Gibraltar perched on top of the shingle. It must be some experience to sit there by your fireside in a winter storm, listening to the sea crashing on the shore within yards of your home. The “Anchor Hotel” closed in a hurry – the ghostly dining room tables are still covered by their table cloths – but the Ship Inn next door is very much in business. The bar is a long, narrow room with low black beams, although there are a considerable number of tables outside facing the water where most punters choose to sit. There were four cask ales available, together with the usual industrial concoctions and a remarkable series of taps which distributed draught wine by grape variety; cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay-semillon, and so forth. Living as we do in a complete backwater, this was a magical emanation of vinous progress. What next? Taps, perhaps, which spurted particular vineyards, Chateaux Petrus or Lafitte, perhaps?

Sadly, I didn’t see them in use, and we chose to drink Cotleigh Harrier. Typically, when we are all ready to taste a brew new to us, the barrel gave out as our pints were being poured. We switched to Otter, which is a strongish bitter with good, typical colour. It also came in the brewery’s charming glasses with its standing otter on the side. Meanwhile the lady behind the bar was pumping bravely at the new barrel of Harrier and so, just as we drained the Otter, we were able to move on to our original choice. Harrier is a modern version of the “boy’s bitter” I used to drink as a youth. You would have drowned in it before you were incapable. Even so Harrier is an excellent beer to choose at lunchtime. Despite its low alcohol strength of 3.5% and its lemony colour, it bursts with flavour. The brewery claims that it appeals to the “more modern, health-conscious, drinker.” Well, that recommendation should kill it dead if nothing else does but, despite that ghastly bit of copy-writing, we liked the beer.
The Ship serves plenty of grub at reasonable prices. The menu comes on one of those ugly laminated cards, but I don’t expect that it’s felt necessary to change it too often. The Ship knows what the tourist trade likes and gives it to them. That marker of pub grub prices, the baguette, comes in at around a fiver, and there is a wide selection of popular fillings. You can have them all in sandwiches if you prefer, something of a rarity in some pubs these days, and welcome to those who find eating a baguette as tiring as a visit to a dental hygienist. We also approved of the pub’s offer of all its main courses in small and large portions, suitably priced; something others would do well to imitate.
We eventually accepted the inevitable and set off to climb to Pitcombe Head. We walked up past the Porlock posh noshery, “Andrews On The Weir”, (lunch a reasonable £10 for two courses,) and turned right towards Worthy tollhouse. After only a short way a narrow path started upwards to our left, and we began to climb. It’s a steep haul, and I soon found myself thinking of President Sarkozy of France, a mere sprog compared with a bus card holder like myself, collapsing while jogging a few days previously. I consoled myself by remembering that I wasn’t married to Carla Bruni, either, and eventually the track became wider and the gradient more tolerable as we approached the toll road above Yearnor Mill.
After a few yards on the road, we turned up the no-through road towards Pitt Farm, where a team of builders was refurbishing the old house and buildings. Behind the farm we turned left, and then we followed a broad track up through forestry until we reached the main Porlock-Lynmouth road opposite the old AA box.

It stands redundant, a reminder of a more gracious period of motoring when AA men rode to the rescue on motor cycles with sidecars, dressed in khaki uniforms like despatch riders of the Great War, deferentially saluting drivers like my father who sported the chrome and yellow AA badge on the radiator grille of their Morris Minor shooting brakes. We crossed the road and passed a lovely mare and her foal as we walked from Pitcombe Head along the bridleway back to our truck.