Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Seven and a Half Mile Walk at Brendon Hill & the Raleigh’s Cross Inn

This was more of a ramble than a walk as we wandered about Brendon Hill, in pursuit variously of the Clatworthy Lake, the source of the River Tone, and the remains of the Raleigh’s Cross iron ore mine. Our quest to visit every pub on the Moor is nearing its end, and taking us to the very boundaries of the Exmoor National Park. Indeed, after parking our truck just down the road from the Raleigh’s Cross Inn, we walked into the track at the side of the pub towards Tripp Farm and out of the Park. The B3190 road here is the Park’s southern boundary. Raleigh’s Cross takes its name from the Rale(i)gh family of nearby Nettlecombe Court which included the well-known tobacco industry lobbyist. The metalled track took us away between the fields with far-reaching views over the hills towards Dartmoor.
Eventually, where the track turned left-handed towards the farm, we turned right through a gate into the fields and headed down towards the Stolford Woods. Sadly the contours of the hills and valleys denied us even a glimpse of the elusive Clatworthy Lake. If earlier we had turned to our left off the farm drive, we could have made a clockwise loop around Tripp Farm which would have brought us to the shore of the lake, but we would have missed what happened next. We kept to the left boundary and soon a hunting gate took us down a path into the trees. On a beautifully sunny autumn morning, after a hard frost, the beeches and sweet chestnuts were at their best. At the foot of the wood, we forded the River Tone, thankfully still no more than a stream. Fifty years ago this month it turned most of the county town of Taunton into a Somerset version of Venice. The bridleway began to climb again and soon we came to a farm where nothing stirred. In a neglected range of wooden loose boxes, resting on a half-door, an abandoned saddle was mouldering away. In the middle of the track lay a tan and white collie. I approach all dogs with caution on the reasonable assumption that, if it isn’t ready to savage intruders, there’s not much point in keeping it. The collie, curled in the warmth of the October sun, slept on, snoring gently as we passed it by.
As soon as you leave the National Park, the signing of rights of way becomes somewhat random. We failed to hit Syndercombe Lane in the exact spot, but a turn to the right quickly corrected matters. Then the bridleway to Beverton Pond, source of the Tone, somehow disappeared into thin air, but a muddy lane took us past a radio station to the main road, and a quick hike up it put us right again. Here lay the birth of that mighty waterway which gives the Clerk of the Course of Taunton Racecourse so many sleepless nights during the winter. First it feeds the stubbornly invisible Clatworthy Lake.Leaving Beverton Pond on our left, a track took us away through magnificent avenues of beeches in search of the Naked Boy’s Stone. Again we wandered off the path as shown on the map, but we reached the lane between Sminhays Cottages, the only surviving buildings of the nineteenth century village which housed some two hundred mine workers, and the Naked Boy’s Stone. There seems no reasonable explanation for the monument’s name, but it is obviously an ancient standing stone and coincidentally a boundary marker. Just past the stone a hump in the lane indicates that it is crossing the old railway which once served the mines. Here, at Naked Boy’s Bridge, we climbed over a stile on to the disused track way and walked westwards to the remains of the Burrow Farm Engine. This impressive ruin once housed a “Cornish Engine” to pump the water from the adjacent iron ore mine. This kind of engine, popular in mines of all kinds of the day, was probably more successful than the mine, which had an even shorter life than most Exmoor mining ventures. We walked back to Naked Boy’s Bridge and then scrambled down the other side under the barbed wire so that we could walk back to the site of the old Brendon Hill Station. Its location is plain enough, a wide expanse where once there would have been sidings and platforms, but a house and its boundary prevented us from reaching the road. We skirted it easily enough and, as we walked back towards Raleigh’s Cross, we passed the Beulah Chapel. The chapel, and a Church Of England tin tabernacle which once stood next to the old railway line, was built for the benefit of the miners. (The Chapel holds a service each Sunday to this day.) These guardians of Temperance were in direct competition for the allegiance of the miners, of course, with the inn at Raleigh’s Cross. Miners can be thirsty chaps, and my family’s fortunes, such as they are, were founded partly on running a pub and a small brewery in a North Somerset pit village. I quickened my step in sympathy, therefore, past the chapel and towards the pub, with marvellous views to our left over the Bristol Channel towards Wales. Raleigh’s Cross Inn says the sign. My wife reckoned that it was more of a “road house”, but that conjures up images of places on the Kingston Bypass in the 1930’s, full of characters from Peter Cheyney novels drinking cocktails with nightclub hostesses before returning to the Bentley or the Alvis in the gravelled car-park. To me it was a caff, a nosher, which also sold beer.

We fully realise, however, that, without another chimney pot in sight, no other business plan for the pub will do. We had two so-so pints of Cotleigh Tawney. Exmoor Ale also was on offer. I didn’t take the trouble to take notes on what food was available as you really could have just about anything. There was a carvery four days a week rather than just on Sundays as at most pubs in the area. I did note with satisfaction that on Wednesdays “seniors” received a free pudding. And what puddings! – blackberry and apple, rhubarb and ginger… in a schoolboy reverie I could see the thick, yellow waves of custard lapping at the edge of the crumble. Don’t miss the extensive collection of photographs of the mines and their railways in a corridor off the main room.
A new driveway and car park has been constructed off the road between the chapel and the pub for visitors to the “Incline”. A 1 in 4 gradient lay between Brendon Hill and Comberrow on the railway line to the coast at Watchet, and the Incline was an arrangement of two parallel tracks. Using a cable system, empty trucks were drawn up one while loaded ones were lowered down the other. Passengers who reached Comberrow from the coast in conventional rolling stock were permitted to ride for free in the empty trucks to Brendon Hill at their own risk. We walked down a new forest roadway through pines of a more than Teutonic gloom until we joined a narrow, wilder path which took us to the Incline. Even seen today, with the rails long gone and the banks of the cutting softened by nature, it is an awe-inspiring sight. Sadly, our photo makes it look absolutely level!
We climbed the Incline back to the top. Here still stand the ruins of the Winding House, which held the massive drums on which the cables were wound. From the road you can see how the track from the Incline to Brendon Hill Station ran right over the top of the Winding House. We walked past the Chapel again and back to the new car park to recover the truck. The time had come to find Clatworthy Lake at last. To reverse the usual order favoured by TV chefs, here’s something we prepared later.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Circular Eleven Mile Walk from Trentishoe Down to the Pack Of Cards at Combe Martin

This is not a walk for the faint-hearted, either the literal or the metaphorical kind. Although the outward journey is entirely on the coastal path, it has its downs and ups, from near a thousand feet to five hundred, back to a thousand feet, and then down to sea level. Then you do it all over again on the way home. Your reward is some stunning coastal scenery and a visit to one of the quirkiest pub buildings in the country.
We had set out a week earlier but had been forced to abort our mission when we couldn’t see in front of our faces because of dense fog and drizzle. Our intention had been to park on Trentishoe Down near the Glass Box, a bungalow with distinctive panoramic windows but, even though the house is only a few yards from the road, we never saw it.

Our patience was rewarded with a beautifully sunny autumn day with the air coming from the north, which made for spectacular views over the cliffs and the Bristol Channel. There is no problem finding your way on the coastal path. It is very clearly signed. Climbing down and up the sides of Sherrycombe, however, is a different matter.

The path has none of the zigzags of an alpine pass. It just goes straight down and straight up again. In places you might feel that it would be better to sit down on your bottom and toboggan down. Old and decrepit as we are, we crept with tiny sideways steps down the worst bits. We took a picture of the footbridge at the bottom as an excuse for a pause before tackling the other side. On the descent you tend to say, “I always think it’s worse going down a slope like this than climbing it.” On the ascent you tend to say nothing quite so silly as you are saving your breath to climb the wretched thing. Slowly but surely the path evened out and we reached the summit of Great Hangman, graced by a cairn of near Freudian proportions. Someone called Mike had borrowed some of the stones to trace his name in the grass. Well, he had climbed a thousand feet for the pleasure. The views, not surprisingly are stunning, both east, and then west towards Little Hangman, a grassy knoll on the edge of Combe Martin Bay. Lundy Island was a hazy presence on the horizon. Little Hangman is obviously a popular walk for Combe Martin visitors. There were plenty of people and their dogs climbing it from the footpath out of the village, but very few afterwards pressed on to Great Hangman. The call of Sunday lunch was too strong. From Little Hangman there are grand views across the bay. We ignored the siren call of footpaths leading directly into Combe Martin and clung to the coastal path. The path itself is not particularly rewarding – a graffiti plastered wooden pavilion was obviously popular with the local youth for one purpose or another – but it did deliver us into the village right by the beach. Combe Martin is a delightful spot, and on a warm, sunny day you could almost imagine swimming here - almost. Trapped between the sides of the combe, the village has one long street. Half way along it stands the Pack Of Cards. As one local assured us, “You can’t mistake it,” and you can’t. It was built in 1690 by George Ley to commemorate a major win at the card table. The original building had four floors to represent the four suits in the pack, thirteen rooms for each card in a suit, and fifty two windows and fifty two stairs, all on an area fifty two feet square. It has been extended since. By the early 1800’s it was no longer a private house but an inn called the “King’s Arms. In 1933 the pub officially adopted its colloquial name of “The Pack Of Cards”. The bar has a comfortable lived-in look with some pleasant wood panelling and furniture. One of the two columns which support a moulded ceiling grows out of the middle of a table. There were complimentary dishes of crisps, nuts and cubes of cheese on the counter, and a “Have you enjoyed your walk” from the lady behind the bar. We had two good pints of Courage Directors, not exactly an artisan brew but one worth drinking when you find it on draught. The alternative was Sharp’s Doom Bar. The pub does all the usual baguettes and jacket potatoes at the usual price as well as a Sunday roast.
We crossed the road and by the post office took a lane upwards through the village. Where the houses ended, we came to a T junction. Here we turned right into a farm track and followed it before taking the first left. This track took us up a long steep climb with good views of the bay behind us. Eventually we passed Silver Mines Farm on our right. The remains of Combe Martin’s last working silver mine are a little further with some of its chimney still standing. It was abandoned in 1875. There was a royal silver mine in Combe Martin by 1292, and you will find some of the village’s silver in the Crown Jewels. Without ever being a California or a Nevada, Combe Martin sporadically produced quite a chunk of silver over the centuries.
When we reached a metalled road, we turned left and then right along the driveway to Girt Down Farm. We passed round the edge of the farm and then the track took us through the fields and out on to Girt Down where we met the coastal path again. As we took a breather before turning right towards the truck, watching the odd walker puffing up out of Sherrycombe, a sparrow hawk raced round the corner of a wall.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Eleven Mile Walk from Washford to Minehead via The Butchers Arms, Carhampton

Railway posters for British seaside holidays are an art form in themselves. The sun always shines, yachts scud across an azure sea, improbably shaped bodies chuck beach balls at each other, and children play on improbably golden sands. As a small boy, I stared fascinated at the ones which decorated the compartments on the trains from our village station. I even went by train for our annual seaside holiday at Burnham-on-Sea and still managed to forgive the posters for the lies which they cheerfully peddled. Such is the seductive power of art.
We found this one outside the Minehead terminus of the West Somerset Railway. These resuscitated railways are fantasy made flesh, or at least steam, smoke and metal. The stations are immaculately painted in the old colours of the Great Western Railway, and the flower beds are lovingly tended. It only needed a whiff of a paraffin lamp and of Jeyes Fluid in the Gents and I could have imagined Mr Gate with his whistle and flag still standing on the Hallatrow platform as we set off for Mells Road. We clambered into an old carriage and the locomotive chuffed off northwards, leaving a tattered ribbon of smoke hanging over the fields. At Blue Anchor the line ran so close to the tide line that the train seemed to running along the edge of the waves. We clambered out at Washford and walked along the busy A39 to find the footpath leading back towards Minehead. It was well-marked through some old pastures and eventually became a track. As we climbed there were good views towards the coast as far as Minehead, and above us brooded the tops of the Brendon Hills. We were only just outside the boundaries of the National Park, but this rich farmland seemed a world away from the moors and marshes of Exmoor proper. Here stubbles had been cultivated and in some fields winter cereals were already well-advanced.
When we reached a three-way cross, we went straight on up the narrow lane until we reached a house called Forche’s Gardens. Here we turned right and followed the track to Escott Farm, passing in front of its handsome buildings and then through a belt of woodland. We marched forwards through a succession of gates and fields until we crossed a fenced alleyway of well-tended grass. This was the top of the racehorse gallops belonging to Sandhill Farm where Philip Hobbs trains one of the most successful strings in National Hunt racing. Far below us we could see the ranks of schooling jumps. We passed through a gate into some rough woodland, and it was soon after we emerged from it that we made our only mistake of the day. The footpath sign directed us to our left to follow the headland around some exotic new ley grass which the sheep were munching with enthusiasm. When we came to a gate into a lane, we passed through it and turned to our left, as we had planned in advance after studying the map. We had forgotten, however, that we had been diverted from the original course of the footpath which went straight across the field and which led to a different gate.
Every walker knows that sense of growing unease as anticipated markers - a lane here, a curve there – fail to appear in their proper turn. We floundered on until it became obvious that we were walking the wrong way. Disregarding all that chauvinist prejudice about Mars and Venus as she peered at the map, my wife immediately grasped where we were and spotted a bridle way which would repair the damage. We sped along to its end, and there turned down a lane which took us into Withycombe.
The plan had been to climb up Withycombe Hill before descending to Carhampton to sample the delights of the Butchers Arms. We were thirsty, however, and behind schedule, and so we took the narrow lane which quickly brought us to the A39. Carhampton is a substantial village, and even boasts a set of traffic lights, a rare mark of distinction and sophistication in West Somerset. We made our way along the main road until there, in the centre of the village, was the Butchers Arms. The Butchers Arms is trying hard – very hard. There is not one box on the pub landlord’s list of survival techniques which the “Butchers” has failed to tick. Two well-kept cask beers, Exmoor Ale and Courage Best… extensive menu of very reasonably priced food…kid’s menu…games room…kid’s play area…quiz nights…log burning stove…pleasant service. It’s open every day of the week and virtually every hour of the day. It’s not like some pubs we know on the Moor for which you just about need Old Moore’s Almanac, or even a crystal ball, to work out whether the door will be firmly locked at the most surprising of times. I say “Good luck” to the Butchers Arms and all who sail in her, but it’s not my kind of pub. Probably I was still grumpy after my map reading skills had lost some of their lustre, but I felt ill at ease. Every table was set with place mats for eating, and was surrounded with soft, high backed chairs. In most pubs the geography leads you straight to the bar, but here you weaved your way thither between the tables. It was a bit of a caff. In fact one punter came in off the street, wandered about for a bit, studied one of the laminated menu cards and, perhaps disorientated, disappeared the way that he had come without ordering. There was a television screen on in one corner but the sound system played unrelated muzak. Two elderly ladies got stuck into curry, but one sent hers back because “it wasn’t hot enough.” Presumably she was referring to the temperature rather than the intensity of the flavouring.
We found our way into a lane which ran parallel with the main road, and this led us to Carhampton Gate. From there a footpath took us through the old deer park of Dunster Castle which stood before us on its wooded eminence. When we reached the edge of the village, we took a path which led us around the perimeter, passing the old mill and its remarkable bridge. We had decided to return to Minehead by walking along the edge of the sea, and so we left Dunster by the subway under the A39. When we had walked this way previously, we had been intrigued by a building at the side of the main road which originally had been a police station. Now divided into cottages, it looked more like a French chateau than a Victorian copshop. As it turned out, it had been designed by none other than the celebrated architect John Norton in 1858, just two years before he began work on Tyntesfield House near Bristol, one of the most exotic examples of the gothic revival and currently being restored by the National Trust.
We passed by Dunster Station. If we do a similar walk again, we will join the train here. The parking’s free, as opposed to £5.50 in Minehead! The path took us to the lovely Old Manor at Lower Marsh Farm, and then out on to the golf course. We soon discovered that the golfer’s traditional shout when he missed a putt was quite different to the warning on the poster, although coincidentally it began with same consonant. As we walked between the course and the beach, most of West Somerset Community College appeared to be coming the other way. Were they on their way home? A hundred or so children surely didn’t live at Dunster Beach. Were they on a field trip? No one was carrying a clip board or note pad. They wandered amicably and aimlessly along, with just one melancholy teacher nominally in charge. Perhaps walking had become part of the national curriculum, in which case we deserved an A*.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ten Mile Walk around Wimbleball Lake and Haddon Hill to the Lowtrow Cross Inn

Remember, children, not to try this experiment at home. What is it about Tuesdays? When I was a member of the Wonderful World of Work, everything went wrong on Tuesdays. Machinery or computers failed, staff went awol, customers winged. Even your hangover from the weekend was just a distant memory, and still there were four days of unrelenting toil until the end of the week. Tuesday, we should have known.
It could not have started better. We managed to find the obscure car park at the end of a single track lane at Lyddons, strategically above Wimbleball Lake. As it is shown on the map simply as “Car Pk.” in the smallest possible letters, one suspects a conspiracy to ensure that as few people as possible use it. We set off for the lake along the footpath with a light heart, the sun glinting on the water below us. When we started to walk clockwise around the eastern shoreline, Wimbleball Lake looked more like Wimbleball Puddle, even though it has not been the driest of summers. No one appears to be panicking about the low water level in the reservoir, least of all a lonely heron on the edge of the water, and so no doubt the torrential winter rain on Exmoor and the flight of the tourists at the end of autumn is expected to put matters right. “Rugged” is the favourite word of the sign writers here. We were warned against a “rugged path” towards the dam at the south-western corner of the lake, but took it all the same. It was entirely straightforward, even a mite tedious as it ploughed straight through the woodland above the shrunken waters of the lake. Eventually, when the grey mass of the dam was staring us in the face, we found a small hunting gate and took a broad track leading upwards over Haddon Hill. At a T junction we turned left on to a concrete road which led us to the top of the hill, where there were ponies and commanding views. If we came here again – which we won’t – we would keep to the north of the plantation on the crest of the hill, but somehow we found ourselves stranded on a major road. It mattered little as traffic was negligible, even though the road is probably the only straight one in West Somerset. I was so impressed that I stood in the middle of the carriageway to record it for posterity. I expect that the local boy racers come up here at night and drag their John Deeres and silage bale wrappers. We had intended to walk through the woodland known as Britannia’s Shield, planted and divided in imitation of the eponymous patriotic piece of armour. Sadly, there was no obvious access and appropriately, on a day on which a defence cuts scandal broke, half of the shield appeared to have been chopped down.
We plodded on along the highway, past the odd dead pigeon or squirrel, the verge decorated with bits of the “Daily Star”. Each piece was separate, as if a white van man had jettisoned his reading matter carefully sheet by sheet as he drove along, assassinating the odd small animal as he went. The dog racing page, written by my old chum Jim Austin, fluttered in the strengthening wind.
Morale now had perceptibly declined, rather as when Captain Scott discovered that the primus stove had run out of juice a few miles short of One Ton Camp. Through Bridge End and Upton we tramped, the sky darkening all the time as an odd sprinkle of rain brushed our faces, past bungalows, cottages and the plain Victorian church, onwards towards Lowtrow Cross and its famous inn, ready to welcome us with a tawny pint of ale.
At last we turned a corner and there it was. Reader, you knew it all the time, didn’t you? And so did we, if we tell the truth. It was just one of those Tuesdays. A bloke was up a ladder, painting the window frames. “It’s closed,” he announced, and so it was, the door firmly shut. The Lowtrow Cross Inn doesn’t open on Monday and Tuesday mornings. We are becoming used to public houses turning out to be semi-public houses. The internet later informed me, not only of the opening hours, but also that for a hundred grand I could buy the lease. I only wanted a pint. We could only shrug our shoulders and study the map for a way back to the truck.
This proved easier than we might have expected. Footpaths through farms and farmland can turn out to be the proverbial minefield, but some officer of West Somerset Council must have spent a happy day spattering the countryside with myriads of signs. We whizzed from Moorhouse Farm to Hayne Farm and along the lane towards St James Church (remains of), which was probably a good thing as the rain was now falling in earnest. Only the tower of the fourteenth century church remains. The rest was pulled down in the middle of the nineteenth century when they built the nondescript edifice which is now the local place of worship. Presumably the worshippers had tired of walking up the hill once a week.
A quick dash up a lane brought us back to the secret car park and shelter.