Monday, July 26, 2010

Nine Mile Walk from Dunster to Minehead, and back to the Stag’s Head via Dunster Beach

This is a walk of contrast to say the least, between the sweeping views over the Bristol Channel from the hog’s back between Dunster and Wotton Courtenay, and the garish seaside tatt of Minehead. We parked in the small car park on the southern edge of Dunster, and walked towards the village centre, past the Stag’s Head, our ultimate objective. Just by Exmoor’s only traffic lights, we took the path which runs past the handsome church, as its famous clock chimed the hour, and climbed upwards past the school, cemetery, and allotments into the woodland of Grabbist Hill.
After a steepish climb, the path broke into the open with a grand view over Minehead and North Hill.

Under a sullen sky the air was remarkably clear, and we could see the Welsh coast and beyond as well as the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm further up the Severn estuary.

To our left we could look back over the wooded slopes of Croydon Hill and the vale of Timberscombe. We walked on along the ridge way until we reached a major crossroad of paths, and here we turned right and took the byway down through the conifers towards Minehead.
The track became a metalled road, and suddenly we were confronted with Minehead and the main A39. We crossed this and dived into a path opposite which took us between the close-tiled bungalows and villas towards the seafront. Some of the quiet streets have thatched cottages, and one a little antique shop, with a handsome china pig and crockery with hunting scenes in the window, its owner drowsing away the morning in the hope of custom finding its way there somehow. I had hoped that we almost might skirt the centre of the town, but our quiet way inevitably tipped us out into the crowded main street. There was no other way forward but, as soon as it was possible, we escaped into a road to our left which led past the ornamental Blenheim Gardens and finally to the esplanade.
Seaside resorts have a melancholy fascination for me, after spending five years in the 1950’s at a preparatory school at Burnham-on-Sea, although they are seen at their best in mid-winter with the waves crashing on a deserted beach and the arcades boarded up and abandoned. Minehead on the first day of the school holidays seemed a pretty subdued example of the genre, although it boasted a crazy-golf course and the usual ghastly amusement arcade.

Low tide didn’t help to enliven the scene.

The tides in the Bristol Channel are legendary, rising and falling by quite staggering degrees. In the far distance a little band of hope trailed off across the sands in pursuit of the elusive water while the majority of the visitors clung nearer to the delights of the town.
The glory of Minehead, of course, is the Butlins holiday camp, opened in 1962. Its magnificence is celebrated by the almost oriental splendour of the entrance, visible for miles from the hills above the town, far white pavilions of something or other. We tried for a photograph which would combine this with Sir Billy Butlins’s great discovery, which set him on the road to untold riches in the late 1920’s – dodgem cars. The Great Man not only imported the first dodgem cars from the USA for his amusement parks, but made sure that he secured an exclusive franchise for what remains the best of fairground rides.

We walked on past the Butlins Blue Skies apartment block, a remarkable construction which admits to paying homage to art deco but also recalls the concrete modernism of 1930’s seaside building in places like Brighton and Bexhill. It certainly stands out in comparison to the blocks of flats built between Butlins and the station which only recall the architectural chic of Soviet bloc cities of the 1950’s.
That was enough of Minehead, and we left it without regret via the entrance to the golf club. From there a coastal path took us on a bank above the beach towards Dunster. Soon a wire fence dividing us from the golf course disappeared and was replaced by a succession of white stone posts as we tramped along to an accompaniment of the whoosh and clink of clubs and the whirr of motorised golf caddies.
We had noticed from afar what appeared to be a holiday encampment of some kind, but as we drew closer it turned out to be rows of little wooden chalets drawn up in two lines on a low bluff above the beach. There were more than two hundred of them, half facing the sea and the other half an inland lagoon known as The Hawn. The path took us by these cheery dwellings, their inhabitants out in front of them, reading or just sitting, with washing flapping on the lines.
The Luttrell family of Dunster Castle had a beach hut here, and the chalet village followed just after the Second World War. There is something very 1940’s and 50’s about this place. You can imagine families fifty years ago trailing up the lane towards it from Dunster Station a quarter of a mile away, laden with suitcases, buckets and spades, and copies of Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five”. There is absolutely nothing, and everything, to do here. The same families have owned the chalets for years, and they rarely come on to the market.
Beyond this Shangri La we took the Sea Lane back into Dunster, crossing into the village via a subway under the A39. As we walked up past the church, the carillon of the clock chimed out a tune before the striking the hour of one o’clock. It repeats the feat every four hours, at five and at nine.
We had made an earlier attempt in 2009 to get inside the door of the Stag’s Head but had been frustrated by it being on a Thursday, when eccentrically for a boozer in Exmoor’s most visited village it is closed in the morning. This time, however, on a Saturday there was no problem. The Stag’s Head lays claim to being the oldest pub in Dunster, and is a single, low, curving room with a bar in one corner. It is nicely half-panelled and pleasantly decorated with knickknacks, books, and pictures in bleached lime frames, and the small, cottage windows create a kind of cool twilight.
There were three real beers on offer; Litehouse from the Forge Brewery, Otter Amber, and Exmoor Ale. Always ready to go boldly where we had never drunk before, we chose Litehouse from Hartland, near Bideford. Despite our prejudice against “golden” beers, this was a very good pint, well-kept and deep in flavour. It was Supreme Champion at the Society of Independent Brewers Maltings Festival recently. Several parties were eating lunch, and the shortish menu was attractive and not over-expensive for Dunster. There was an imaginative sandwich menu for less than a fiver.
Even so we did not feel at ease in the “Stags Head”. It was rather like having a drink in a National Trust gift shop, but then most of Dunster has this feeling to it. We elected to have our second pint in an old favourite, the “Foresters Arms”, and check on our old friend, Nelson, the only pub parrot with Tourette’s Syndrome. The last time we had seen Nelson, he had been watching the Tory party conference on the television next to his cage and making appropriately obscene remarks. This morning, however, the television was out of commission and Nelson was sulky and silent, although the barman assured us that earlier he had been in irrepressible form, shrieking “Fuck off!” at the top of his voice at all and sundry. Noting that the pub now served food at lunchtime, after downing a pint of Cotleigh “Harrier”, we prepared to leave disappointed. As we passed through the door, Nelson stirred at last and screamed a final valediction at us, “Wanker!”