Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nine Mile Walk from Withypool to the Rock House Inn, Dulverton, via Hawkridge

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

This is the antithesis of the walk from Withypool to Dulverton, found elsewhere on this site. Then we had walked to Tarr Steps along the Barle valley before taking to the heights of the Ashway road to Marsh Bridge. This time we kept above the river past Hawkridge until we joined the Barle where it meets the Danesbrook at Castle Bridge. If you are a dedicated valley walker, you would be best advised to walk to Tarr Steps along the valley before crossing the river and climbing up to Hawkridge via the track to Parsonage Farm. You can’t keep with the river all the way from Withypool to Dulverton, but this would allow you to do so as much as possible.
We took the road out of Withypool which passes the village hall on the left. It’s a stiff climb, but it soon levels out before arriving at the cattle grid at Greystone Gate. The view to the left was of Winsford Hill, darkening in a piercing north easterly wind.

If you fancy climbing Withypool Hill and finding the Stone Circle, as many walkers do, take the sheep path on the right almost opposite to the cattle grid and lane which leads down to Batsom Farm. When you reach the top of the Hill, to find the Circle, take the path which runs almost due south. Don’t expect an Exmoor Stonehenge or Avebury. If you blink, you’ll miss the stones lying flat in the heather.
We kept on the road from Greystone Gate until over the bridge at Westwater Farm and then turned left through a gate into the bridle way. The next gate on the track is straight ahead of you, from which we took the path which winds up through ragged gorse and thorn trees. The sun broke through as we climbed, rewarding us with a splendid view back to Withypool Hill.

The track led straight on through several fields before turning sharp right, as it meets a path coming up from Tarr Steps. A couple of gates takes you into the buildings of Parsonage Farm, and then the farm lane leads you down and then up to a point where various paths diverge at the foot of the road coming down from Tarr Post. We went straight on through the gate to take the path to Hawkridge, which provided views over towards Ashway Farm as we approached the village.

We walked down into the village, past the workshop of Tom Lock, who makes all sorts of wondrous artefacts from antlers, to the little church, which still holds weekly services. Ernest Bawden, the legendary huntsman of the Devon & Somerset Staghounds, is buried in the churchyard. Despite its tiny size, Hawkridge also boasts a splendidly appointed village hall.

Leaving the church on our right, we took the track which leads straight on and out on to Hawkridge Ridge. To begin with the track is sheltered by banks and beech hedges but, when it opens out, there is a grand view towards Zeals Farm with Anstey Common towering above it.

A little further on, the vista of the Barle valley opens before you.

The track descends into old woodland, and now both the Barle on your left and the Danesbrook on your right are within hearing. The two rivers meet at Castle Bridge.

After crossing the bridge, the broad path stays with the river, past New Invention House, until Marsh Bridge.

We could have continued to Dulverton as we had done previously, by following the riverside path which begins at Kennel Farm. For the sake of change, we crossed the Dulverton-Winsford Hill road and took the bridle way up through the woods. A stiff climb takes you up to the top of Looseall Wood where we turned right. A good path between banks then takes you into Dulverton where you emerge by the side of the church.

We turned left up the hill to find the Rock House Inn. The “Rock’s” position on the fringe of Dulverton makes it a very different pub to the “Bridge” or “Woods”. Where the “Bridge” looks towards visitors, and “Woods” is Exmoor chic, the “Rock” is the town pub, with a darts board, a pool table, and looped background music. It’s none the worse for any of that, even the music as they had the 60’s CD in the machine. It has the best selection of real beers in town, expertly kept. This lunchtime there were four on tap; Cotleigh’s Barn Owl, Avocet from the Exeter Brewery, Taunton’s Phoenix, and Sharp’s Doom Bar. My wife immediately plumped for the Barn Owl, an old favourite but, in the interests of research, I started on the Avocet. I never shall prefer the fashionable light golden beers to a traditional bitter, but Avocet was a refreshing and pleasant pint after a walk in the sun. It weighed in at 3.9%, which gave it the call above the Phoenix’s 3.6%. I wasn’t driving, after all. No-one present was much interested in eating, but the Rock has a full menu, and chalked up for lunch you could have an imaginative choice of toasted sandwiches, including roast pork and stuffing, and beef and onion, all at £2.95, or a jalfrezi curry with rice or chips – that’s what I call a choice – at £4.95. The beer wasn’t dear for this part of the world, either. Barn Owl was £2.60 and the Avocet £2.20.

The Rock is the HQ of the annual Bolving Contest. The “bolving” of a red deer stag during the autumn rut is the roaring which he makes to keep other stags away from his girls. The competition, which started in the Rock as a private bet between two locals, involves the competitors in gathering at dusk near Marsh Bridge and bellowing in turn to induce nearby stags to answer them back. The best bolver gets a shield. It’s a kind of Exmoor version of karaoke. We didn’t realise at the time that in the pub that morning were such bolving notables as judge Chinner Kingdom and previous winner Elvis Afanasenko. My thanks to Elvis for recommending the Avocet, and to Chinner for remembering who sang the ghastly “Pushbike Song” which swam to the surface on the loop – Mungo Jerry, God rot them. There was no bolving in the pub that morning, although I did win the easiest £10 in my life – from my wife who bet that “Yellow River” was trilled originally by Credence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty would have turned in his grave, if he wasn’t still alive and playing. Before you rush to Google, this bit of bubblegum singalong tosh was performed by Christie.
The bus whisked us away from the car park by the river at bang-on 3.30 pm. Let us hope that the service does not fall victim to public expenditure cuts in 2010.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Eight Mile Walk from Allerford to the Royal Oak at Porlock via Selworthy

Allerford is a picture-postcard village, particularly on a gloriously sunny September morning. Its cottages and pack-horse bridge would grace the lid of the proverbial chocolate box in a way that the villages of the Exmoor interior, like Exford or Withypool, never could. There is always plenty of room in the village car park, opposite the rural life museum.
We walked back through the village and turned left over the pack horse bridge. The lane quickly dwindled into a narrowish track, bordered by ivy and briar covered banks, but the footing is solid, and this would make a good walk in any season. Above us to the north was thick woodland, and to the right there were far-reaching views over Horner woods and Dunkery.

We ignored the track which promised to take us straight to Selworthy Beacon, and pressed on into Selworthy village itself to see its landmark church. Painted white and standing on an eminence, the church can be seen for miles from the south. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is much visited, and the National Trust owns the village and large hunks of the surrounding country. Sir Thomas Acland, once the landowner, built most of the cottages in the 1820’s to form a “model” village, but now that they have stood for almost two centuries, you would have to be some kind of carping Marxist to dismiss them as just a paternalistic fake.

The church’s airy interior is marked by a splendid gallery into which, sadly, the general public are prohibited from ascending. A lengthy Roll of Honour generously includes those parishioners whom God permitted to return, as well as those He didn’t, although a former rector must have spent many hours pondering on the irony that his son fell in the South African War in some dusty dorp on the veldt with the name of Bethlehem.

The track up Selworthy Combe starts just on the western side of the church. It makes a pleasant climb through ancient woodland, with a stream splashing through the floor of the combe, until the path divides. Here we turned right and soon emerged on to open moorland. When you reach the road which crosses North Hill from Minehead, you need to bear left, and not take the metalled lane straight ahead. The track then takes you up to Selworthy Beacon, from which there are grand views to the south.

We followed the Coastal Path onwards towards the sea, meeting more walkers than you would normally expect in a month of bank holiday Sundays. The reason probably is the handy proximity of the car park and view point at the terminus of the “Hill Road” which comes over from Minehead. The sea was soon below us and, beyond, the Welsh coast, crystal clear in the north easterly breeze. As we picked our way down steep and stony Hurlstone Combe, the cliffs beyond Porlock Weir, and then Porlock beach itself, swung into view.

At Hurlstone Point we turned left and the path took us through woodland and over a foot bridge into Bossington village. The road winds round towards Porlock and at a sharp left hand turn we went straight on where it was signed “No Through Road” to pick up the Coastal Path again. Here it is a wide, grassy, lane between high banks covered with brambles. Exmoor can be a desert for dedicated blackberry pickers like ourselves as the altitude, and the carefully tended beech hedges, mean that briar patches are few and far between. The rotten weather of the past two summers hasn’t helped, either. Here, however, at sea level, there was an abundance of ripe fruit which provided rich pickings on our return from Porlock.
It is best to keep to the Coastal Path until you reach the top of Sparkhayes Lane before turning left into Porlock. If you take an earlier turn, you will land up in a maze of social housing projects on the eastern fringe of the village. We walked up Sparkhayes Lane until we reached the main street, and turned left into the Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak has claimed to be “the only pub in Porlock,” something which “The Ship” at least would feel entitled to dispute. The thrust of some lively internet exchanges between Porlock drinkers appears to be that “The Ship”, known as the “Top Ship” to distinguish it from the “Bottom Ship” at nearby Porlock Weir, is more of a hotel, and only fit for people “over sixty five.” With just three years to go before I can “go down the post office” as some pensioners put it, I can see their point.
The “Royal Oak” is undeniably a pub. Locals were sitting at the bar holding a lengthy conference about association football, and at the far end of the extensive room there was the hallowed collection of fruit machines, pool table, and jukebox, the sine qua non of any self-respecting boozer. None were in use. Out the back there is a skittle alley.
Makers of industrial beers and lagers appear to be competing to create post-modernist beer taps of remarkable size. They are so tall that a careless slip on a wet floor might find you impaled on one like a hooked fish. The surprises among the real beers were Adnams Explorer and Courage Best. As a sort of Bristolian, I have a sentimental attachment to Courage beer. I know that it is now brewed in Reading, or even in Yorkshire, wherever that is, but I can still remember the thick malty cloud which hung over Bristol on a Monday morning when they were brewing in what was the old Georges brewery. I had a pint of Courage, and my wife went for fashionable Adnams. I had called it right as the Adnams, although statistically stronger, failed “to punch its weight” as Sheila summed it up in a favoured family phrase. Indeed, the Adnams was a curiously feeble lemon colour, suspiciously like the dreaded lager, and a far cry from the manly bitters which made the name of the Suffolk coast brewery. The Courage was a good, honest pint, the sort of thing no one would be ashamed to be seen drinking, from Portishead to Peasedown.
You can eat as well as drink at the “Royal Oak”. There were three “specials” chalked up, but I expect that the “caff” food is the most popular on the menu. You can even get an all-day breakfast if you like which includes, miracle of miracles, the ultimate constituent of that glory of English cuisine – fried bread. Let’s face it; how many of us would choose to go to the gallows, or face the revolutionary firing squad, after a plate of lemon cucumber tofu salad? The diners that lunchtime, however, didn’t look exactly as if they were carrying a torch for the politically incorrect. They sat round the edge of the room, side by side and in pairs as if in charabanc seats, staring morosely at the disputants at the bar. The grey pound had never looked greyer.
We retraced our steps to Bossington, picking blackberries as we went. Half way down Sparkhayes Lane, we spotted at the gate of a camp site a flag of St George, torn in half by the winds. It seemed a ragged but appropriate emblem of our country of today - half-price England. That afternoon at Lords, our national cricket team, clad in its red and blue jimjams, was being humiliated by Australia yet again.

We were behind schedule when we reached Bossington, and headed back through the village with its remarkable tall chimney stacks down the lane to Allerford.

If we had had more time, we could have turned into the woods again at West Lynch and walked back past St Agnes Fountain.