Thursday, August 19, 2010

Twelve and a Half Mile Walk from Withypool to the Royal Oak, Winsford, via the Caractacus Stone

This route turned out to be longer than we expected, but it can be trimmed by three miles or so by parking by the cattle grid near Comer’s Cross on the Exford-Dulverton Road above Withypool and walking straight over Winsford Hill to Spire’s Cross. We started at Withypool by walking out of the village past the Royal Oak pub and up the hill towards Comer’s Cross. Half-way up the hill we climbed over the stile on the right of the road and started off on the well-trodden path along the River Barle towards Tarr Steps. At first the path gives good views of Withypool Hill over King’s Farm, one of Withypool’s several top-class B&Bs, popular with riders, walkers, and shooters alike.
We continued along the river bank through meadows and old woodland until we reached the junction with the bridleway which leads towards Winsford Hill. This led us steeply upwards, eventually through an enclosure into which the Great Bradley shoot releases its young pheasants. With less than two months to go before the start of the shooting season, there already were squads of them scuttling about in panic at our approach.
At the lane which leads down to the farm, we turned left and walked up towards Winsford Hill. Behind us loomed the mass of Withypool Hill, and in the field on our left, grazing with sheep for company, a grey hunter waited patiently for his master to start the new staghunting season.
At the gates by Great Bradley Lodge, we inclined slightly right to take the track up over Winsford Hill until we met the path coming up from Comer’s Cross. Here we angled right so that we walked across the moor parallel to the road, now on our left. Winsford Hill rises to fourteen hundred feet and usually there can be magnificent views from here to the south, first over Anstey Common, and finally to Dartmoor itself. Sadly, on this August morning, despite the weather forecast’s promise of a dry day, the landscape darkened and a shower veiled the horizon. Eventually we could see Spire’s Cross below us, where a narrow lane comes up from Tarr Steps to cross the main road over the hill. We walked just a little way from the Cross towards Dulverton before we were rewarded with a sign to the left pointing towards the Caractacus Stone. We threaded our way through a maze of gorse bushes before suddenly confronted with the Stone snug under its little shelter.
There are endless theories about the Stone but the most persuasive perhaps is that the mysterious letters stand for “Carataci Nepos”, meaning in Latin “a kinsman of Caractacus.”
Caractacus was a Celtic leader who led resistance against the Roman invasion. Captured, he was taken to Rome in chains but, after making a heroic speech to the Senate, he was released to live the rest of his life in Rome. The stone may have been inscribed around 500 AD by a local war leader laying claim to kinship with Caractacus to help rally support against Anglo-Saxon invaders. The stone, after all, may be much older, a Neolithic menhir, on which the local Romano British Taliban carved some boastful graffiti.
From the Stone we walked straight on across the moor known as The Allotment, keeping a field boundary on our left. This path eventually met a track coming down from the right from Mounsey Hill Gate. A little further on we passed through some gates and walked diagonally across a large pasture towards the road at Summerway. Just before we reached the road, we turned left through a gate which led into Yellowcombe. A bridleway, very steep to begin with, descends the wooded combe in parallel to a new track which has been driven through to permit vehicular access and which is private. Sometimes the two merge but for the most part the bridleway continues independently.
At the foot of the valley, in a clearing, stands Yellowcombe Cottage.
We had passed it on an earlier walk, and had speculated then on how this remote dwelling was supplied. The new track does not lead up to the cottage and appears to have been built to service the forestry. The house is ringed by a stream, and how fuel – wood, bottled gas, or otherwise – could be delivered easily, was a mystery. A paraffin lamp standing in one of the windows promised that there were few modern comforts here. The path to the house was printed by the many slots of passing deer.
As we passed on towards Winsford, the owner of the cottage came the other way, his needs packed in a plastic bag.
We came out into Halse Lane descending from Winsford Hill and walked into the village. The Royal Oak is one of Exmoor’s iconic buildings, with its handsome thatched roof. Its sign boasts a very good portrait of Charles II, the monarch who named a thousand pubs by hiding in an oak tree to escape Cromwell’s troopers after losing the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
If England wishes to celebrate a patriotic national holiday, it should do so on “Oak Apple Day”, the 29th May, the date in 1660 when Charles returned to London and to the throne, ending years of religious totalitarianism, and allowing the reopening of theatres, racecourses, cockpits, and everything else that makes life worthwhile.
Thirty years ago we used to stay at this lovely hotel. It has been much altered and extended, but the first part of the bar is much as it always was. It usually offers Exmoor Stag as well as Ale, but this time the Stag sign on the pump had been turned inwards. With the Punchbowl waiting for us, it was probably a blessing that we made do with the weaker beer. Food at the Royal Oak is at the smart end of pub nosh, and you would have to expect to pay a couple of pounds more than cheaper places on the moor. Foodies, however, would appreciate the imaginative menu. For meanies like us, there are complimentary dishes of nuts on the bar.
Winsford, a beautiful village, is a place of streams and bridges.
One of its plainer cottages was the birthplace of Ernest Bevin, the sort of Labour politician that most conservatives would approve of. He was a key member of the Churchill wartime coalition and, after the 1945 Labour landslide, served as Foreign Secretary, championing Britain’s nuclear arsenal as a bulwark, not only against Soviet Russia, but against the United States as well.
We walked out of Winsford up Ash Lane towards Withypool, before turning left into a narrow footpath signposted to the Punchbowl. The path is very straightforward and led us past Withycombe Farm and up the very steep climb up the edge of the Punchbowl. The views are magnificent as much from the bottom
as from the top. From the rim of the Punchbowl we took a path which led across the moor back towards Comer’s Cross. You need to steer a middle course here;- turn too far uphill and you will reach the main road, turn too far downhill and you will find yourself heading for Ash Lane. We reached the road at the cattle grid at Comer’s Gate, and turned left at the Cross to walk back down into Withypool.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Nine and a Half Mile Walk from Withypool to Tarr Farm Inn via Withypool Hill and Old Barrow Down

Many may walk down the valley of the Barle from Withypool to Tarr Steps, but far fewer take the wild way over Withypool Hill to Porchester’s Post and on by Old Barrow Down. Up there you follow in the footsteps of the ancients as you march past the burial grounds and stone circles of Bronze Age man across the windy uplands. History, of course, comes at a price, and first there is a climb of five hundred feet from the village car park in Withypool to the top of Withypool Hill. You should turn right out of the park and at the junction keep straight on towards Hawkridge, ignoring the road to the right which leads to Sandyway and to North Molton. During the summer locals like ourselves would appreciate a fiver for every car which dithers here, the husband at the wheel purple with fury, the unwilling and tearful navigator at his side staring desperately at the map on her knees.
We walked up the steep hill past the village hall and on until we passed the entrance to Blacklands. A hundred yards further on, opposite the cattle grid and the drive which leads to Batsom Farm, we turned right off the road to follow a track upwards towards the summit of the hill. The barrow which once stood on top of Withypool Hill was excavated, or robbed, many years ago and only a slight crater remains, marked with a small cairn of stones. All too often the weather conditions here at 1300 feet justify an adaptation of the famous saying about Skiddaw, the mountain of the Northern Lake District. “If you can’t see Withypool Hill, it’s raining. If you can see Withypool Hill, it’s about to rain.” Fortunately, on this morning, there was a brisk breeze from the north west and the views over the heather and gorse of the moorland were superb. At ten o’clock a stand of trees marked Warren Farm and the Forest beyond.

At two o’clock the summit of Dunkery Beacon stood out.
At four o’clock lay the crest of Winsford Hill.

When we turned to the south west, we could see a large enclosure in the middle distance, split into four sections. Locals know it prosaically as “Four Fields” but on a map it is given the magnificent title of “Tudball’s Splats”. The origins of the name remain stubbornly obscure. “Tudball” as a surname is straightforward enough, an English corruption of the old German “Theobald”, meaning “brave people”, but “Splats” is more difficult. A “splat” is a strip of wood, from the old German “splatten”, to split. Perhaps, therefore, it was local dialect for simply a division of land, in this case into four segments.

. The importance of Tudball’s Splatts, as you stand on the top of the hill, is that, if you take the path from the summit towards the enclosure, it will lead you through the famous stone circle. Walkers who try to find the circle from the southern edge of the hill are often disappointed as the stones lie half-concealed in the grass and heather, and are difficult to spot from below.

There were once some forty of them, dating from 1700 to 1400 BC, but you shouldn’t expect a mini Stonehenge. SH Burton, however, in his seminal study “Exmoor”, considered the Withypool circle the outstanding example on the Moor. “What gods were worshipped we cannot know for sure, but may guess,” Burton speculates, “that the sun, fire, and sex were deified.” If you have ever been out on Withypool Common in winter in driving wind and rain, you wouldn’t be at all surprised that our ancestors considered the above three things worth praying or sacrificing for.
When we left the circle, we kept on towards Tudball’s Splats as the main track from the village to Porchester’s Post passes the enclosure. The beech hedges have run wild and the edges of the banks have softened, but a band of wild ponies, together with a herd of sheep, was sheltering there from the sun and the flies. In the winter the ponies will have it to themselves, apart from travelling deer or foxes, as under the modern management of the Common, all cattle and sheep have to be off from November until the end of March.
We climbed on up the sand and stone track until we reached a gate, beyond which lay Porchester’s Post. The original post, which marks the boundary between Hawkridge and Withypool parishes, was set up by the Carnarvon family of Highclere Castle in 1796 when it acquired Hawkridge by marrying into the Acland family. In today’s hierarchy, Lord Porchester is the eldest son of the Earl Of Carnarvon. At 1272 feet above sea level, the post is almost as high as Withypool Hill itself.

We passed through the gate and then, following the direction of the finger post, we turned left off the track and scrambled over the sheep fencing and bank on to the open moorland beyond. There is no stile. We kept close to the field edge on our left until we reached a gateway where another finger post pointed across the moorland at an angle to our right. The sign is not strictly accurate but, if we had halved the angle between the field edge and the sign, this would have brought us directly to the next gateway.
With a great view to our left over Worth Farm and Winsford Hill, we walked on to the corner of Old Barrow Plantation and then, without a path to guide us, we kept the enclosure close on our left as we made our way through dense grassland. The going is not for the faint-hearted, even on a dry day in July, and would present a serious challenge later in the year. It’s an area we know well in winter, but only on horseback. At the end of the plantation we inclined right handed towards the far hedge to find the gate which led into a pasture. This we crossed to a gate directly opposite.
Here we met our first bull. He was standing amongst his wives, staring at us balefully, a real comic book bull with a ring through his nose. Now the key to understanding bulls is as follows. If they are “beef bulls”, bred to produce meat, they are probably pussy cats. If they are “dairy bulls”, bred to produce cream teas, they are probably homicidal. As there are no dairy cattle in the area, and as I had enjoyed an in-depth discussion with the bull’s owner the previous Saturday on his summer breeding plans, I thought that we were pretty safe. Even so we kept close to the fence in case we had to resort to an undignified scramble for safety. As with pavements, so with bulls; a gentleman walks on the outside of the lady. The bull and his entourage loftily ignored us.
We crossed the Withypool/Hawkridge road into another pasture, this time with a Belgian Blue bull and his girls, who resolved any doubts about their intentions by running off in the opposite direction. We made our way to the gate opposite and then inclined to the left through another field before another gateway led us into the bridleway between the Westwater and Parsonage Farms. Here we turned right and walked through a succession of pastures overlooking the Westwater valley, thick with clover and wild flowers and ready for cutting. On the far side of the valley a farmer was mowing a field into a geometrically precise maze-like pattern. Elsewhere haymaking in late July would be a last-chance affair but on Exmoor it goes on until September, whenever the rain stops for five minutes. Just before Parsonage Farm, we turned left away from the farm and followed the path downwards until it became a sunken lane. On our right was a house which once was the Tarr Steps Hotel, and then suddenly the Steps themselves were in front of us.
There is an on-going quarrel over how old the bridge is. Some claim that it dates back to the Bronze Age, others only to the early Middle Ages. If SH Burton is correct in thinking that “Tarr” derives from the Celtic “Tochar”, meaning a causeway, it is of considerable antiquity. The very landscape tells you that there has been a crossing of some kind here since earliest times. Try crossing the river on a horse anywhere else between Dulverton and Withypool in deep midwinter.
This wonderful “clapper” bridge in its beautiful woodland setting is one of Exmoor’s most popular attractions, and you should not be surprised to find the crowds. A kiosk sells fishing nets and ice cream, and small children can happily wile away a whole summer’s day here. Set high above the river there is a pay car park with all the usual facilities.
When we came here first over thirty years ago Tarr Farm was just a tea room, but now it is a luxurious hotel, famous for its haute cuisine. The “Inn” part of the “Tarr Farm Inn” is, perhaps, a little misleading. You could hardly call it a pub – you can’t play darts or spit on the floor - but it has a nice little bar with alcoves created from old wood and iron stalls, and it serves Exmoor Ale and Gold in prime condition.
It also provides pub grub at lunchtime in every shape and form, from things with chips to cream teas, and meanies can get away with a ciabatta sandwich for a fiver. Otherwise expect to pay a pound or two more than is usual on the Moor. You can eat them in the terraced gardens high above the river.
To see how the same management run an undeniable pub, visit its marvellous Royal Oak upstream at Withypool.
The walk back to Withypool up the east bank of the river remains a delight, however often you may have passed that way. When we passed the foot bridge which helps form a short circular walk from the Steps, the crowds dwindled away. The closer you come to Withypool, the better the views through the old woodland to the waters of the Barle below.
Once you could cross the river near Withypool by the stepping stones below South Hill Farm, but a couple of years ago a fallen tree was washed down stream and blocked them. After a considerable delay, the Park Authority at last has removed the tree, but some of the stones have been dislodged and the survivors no longer provide a safe crossing. You would do better to wade.
We kept to the conventional path, and entered the village by passing the Royal Oak and walking on over the bridge. There is no better centre for walking than Withypool. It has a car park, a shop, a pub, and a tea room. What more could you want?