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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Six and a half mile walk on Yarde Down and back to the Poltimore Arms

The Poltimore Arms at Yarde Down is tucked away off the road between South Molton and Simonsbath, and so this sign wisely sticks out of the hedge to warn the thirsty traveller of its presence around the corner. Opposite there is a convenient indent in which the truck could park snugly. “Delectare in Domino” – “Delight in the Lord” - is the motto of the Barons Poltimore, who were once big cheeses in this part of the world. When Lord Poltimore in the 1940’s divided his hunting country between the Dulverton Farmers and the Dulverton West, it still produced two very sizeable hunks of land. Even today the latter pack hunts three days a week anywhere between Withypool in the east and the sea at Braunton in the west.
The Poltimores’ motto comes from a psalm which continues, “Et dabit tibi petitiones cordis tui…” – “Delight in the Lord and he will give you what your heart seeks.” As we walked away up Sherracombe Lane, we could feel that He indeed had granted all our wishes that morning. It was a beautifully sunny autumn day and, with crystal-clear air flooding down from the north, we were blessed with far-reaching views to the south over Devon. The track soon led us to Sherracombe Ford where a sign informed us that there had once been an iron bloomery here, obvious from the smelting’s surviving spoil heaps. Well, they probably were there, and probably they were obvious to the archaeologists who had excavated the site a few years previously, but we blinked and still missed this detritus from Celtic-Romano industry. It hardly mattered because, as we ascended the almost perpendicular footpath which led away northwards from the track, we were not only blessed with a marvellous view down the combe, but we found ourselves above two circling buzzards as they soared and gyred above the sunlit valley. Sadly, every attempt to capture the moment with our little digital camera failed, but soon the mewing raptors, now joined by a third, were mobbed by a squadron of rooks.
The ascent eventually levelled off somewhat and we reached the ridge road between Mole’s Chamber and Kinsford Gate. We turned right on to the road and walked along it a little way before turning right into another track which skirted Five Barrows Hill. The farming on these favoured southern slopes is more prosperous than in the middle of Exmoor and, although there are several farm tracks for getting across the country, there are few footpaths and bridle ways. It is a pleasure to walk along them nonetheless, and when we reached Five Barrows Cross, we went straight across and along the lane until we reached Span Head.
Here we turned right down another farm track which led us south towards the hamlet of Bentwitchen. Again the view was superb and stretched as far as the brooding shadows of the northern slopes of Dartmoor. Near the foot of the track a farmer, with the aid of a tractor battery, was shearing sheep. A little further on we came into Bentwitchen, a sleepy huddle of farms, barns, and cottages. We walked westwards along the narrow lane, over a stream crossed by the “Irish Champion’s Bridge” as it was named on the map. What fabulous story could lay behind this extraordinary name? We passed a couple of farms, one receiving a major make-over, but not a single vehicle passed us.
We eventually came out into the South Molton-Simonsbath road, but even on this highway we met fewer than half a dozen cars as we turned right and climbed back towards the Poltimore Arms. We had been expecting the approach of a tractor for some time but, as the sound of a diesel engine grew louder but one of John Deer’s finest never appeared, the explanation finally dawned on us. It was the pub’s generator in full swing. The Poltimore Arms does not enjoy mains electricity, nor mains water, nor mains anything for that matter. We had once enjoyed an atmospheric evening at the pub when a burst pipe had shorted out the electrics, and we had dined by the light of the roaring fire and some candles. There is everything to like about this splendid pub. New landlords have given the old bar a lick of paint but otherwise nothing has changed. Here’s a place where you can sit beneath the pictures of the old timers who have used the pub over the years and of meets of hounds, and enjoy a pint in front of the fire. The beer is still tapped straight from the barrel. We had two excellent pints of Betty Stoggs, brewed by Skinners of Truro, a very decent traditional bitter at 4%. Litehouse, from the Forge Brewery, was also available.
An archway leads through to a small dining room furnished with scrubbed wooden tables and chairs. The blackboard in the bar offers a wide selection of good grub at reasonable prices. We had supper here just after the new people, from nearby North Molton, took over, and it remains one of our favourite places to eat out. On this occasion we were enjoying a liquid lunch, but Alan and Pauline Lockwood gave us a very friendly welcome. Good luck to them! Opening hours at present are Tuesday to Saturday, 12.00 pm to 2.30 pm and 5.30 pm to 11.00 pm; Sundays 12.00 pm to 3.00 pm; closed Sunday evening and all day Monday.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Twelve Mile Walk from Withypool around Horsen Ford and back to the Royal Oak

Withypool is a wonderful centre for walking. We know, we live there. This website may give its occasional readers the misleading impression that the sun shines every day on Exmoor, but all those cheery pictures only look that way because, if the weather is wretched, we stay at home. More accurate is the old saying, “In the summer, on Exmoor, it rains every other day; in the winter, it rains every day.” On this sunny September morning, however, the river Barle looked its best as we crossed the bridge and walked past the village shop.
A few yards further on we turned left up a narrow path with a handrail, and then followed the footpath past the abandoned school and uphill through the fields belonging to Summerhill. The planning authority in its wisdom has refused permission for change of use for the school from a redundant field centre, (I know of at least two others within the National Park,) to a private dwelling, and thus its missionary zeal has rewarded the owner with a white elephant and the village with a long-term eyesore.
We came out into a lane between steep banks topped with beech and turned left, passing the drive entrance to Summerhill. This is Kitridge Lane, a wonderfully sheltered place to exercise horses in rough weather, when the ripping winter winds send the rain, hail and snow flying horizontally over the hedgerows. We walked up it until we reached the gate out on to Bradymoor. To the left we caught glimpses of Brightworthy Barrows, a highpoint on Withypool Common.

Here we followed the track straight ahead until we crossed the road and kept on over the moor, following the path correctly signed, for the time being, to Cow Castle. The wooden finger posts on the moor take some fearful punishment, particularly from the wild ponies rubbing themselves against them, and all too often you find the board here splintered or pointing in an eccentric direction.
Where the path began to descend, the landscape opened before us. To the south stretched the valley which leads up Sherdon Water.

In high summer where the Water meets the River Barle at Sherdon Hutch, a wooden barrier to hold back uprooted trees in time of floods, families with picnics sit on the bank here and plunge dauntlessly into the stream.
As we walked downwards, on our left we could see the river Barle shimmering silver as it flowed towards the ancient columns of Landacre Bridge.

A bridge has stood here for centuries. In Anglo-Saxon times, a feudal parliament known as the Wainsmote met here.
The path eventually led us through a plantation of conifers to Horsen Ford, where there is a footbridge over the River Barle. Upstream are the hummocks of Cow Castle and The Calf.

Downstream the water dazzled in the sunlight. Near the bank we found a patch of Field Scabious, another wild flower to add to our list.

The track from the ford led upwards through a remote valley. There are few paths on this part of the Moor, and the uplands to the left, which we know well from hunting there in winter, stretch from the evil Horsen Bog over the top of the hill known as Ferny Ball back towards Sherdon Water. The track took us through a number of gates and a herd of cattle, until it reached Horsen Farm. We stayed on the concrete farm road for only a few yards before we turned left and headed up the bridleway towards Horsen Hill. The farm is a large and well-kept holding, particularly for Exmoor, and the pastures are carefully maintained leys for the good-looking cattle. Horsen Hill itself, however, is a different matter. Although this rough, rushy, moorland top is easy to negotiate in September, later in the year it would be a nightmare for walkers. Even horses labour through its sticky, black morasses.
On the far side of the hill the country around Barkham opened before us.

We followed the track round towards what the maps call Withypool Cross and the locals, Woolcombe Cross. Just past where an attempt to build some form of sheep pen had been abandoned half-completed for some reason, we came to Sherdon Farm. This isolated dwelling may appear to be empty, with a disembowelled car rotting quietly before it, but it is not. We did not dwell, and soon we were at the foot of the track, crossing Sherdon Water.

A steep climb, with Woolcombe Farm on our left, took us to a motor road where we turned left. As we walked northwards, on our left we could see the cottage in the lee of Ferny Ball hill. Up until ten years ago the cottage was in ruins and only served to shelter an old caravan, in which lived the famous Exmoor writer, Hope Bourne, who sadly died a few weeks ago. Her only comfort in the caravan was a wood-burning stove, and she fed herself by shooting pigeon, deer, rabbit and hare with a .22 Winchester rifle or a twelve bore shotgun. Her water came from a stream, and to save washing up she ate straight from the frying pan and drank from three mugs; one for tea, one for coffee, and one for lemonade. When in her eighties she was persuaded to live in a house in Withypool, she slept on the floor in front of the fire. Books like “Living On Exmoor” brought her a measure of fame, but she never compromised her way of living and only just missed her ninety third birthday.
To the right of Ferny Ball lay the valley of the Barle which led back to Horsen Ford.

As we crossed a cattle grid back on to the open moor, we could see as far as Dunkery Beacon. We walked downwards towards Landacre Bridge, and then swung right up the path which led back to Withypool.

As we approached Brightworthy Farm, in a dense tunnel of beeches, we came across an extraordinary object.

A banana skin, a rotten bloody banana skin! What kind of mind could have dropped litter in this most beautiful of places, a good fifteen minutes walk from the nearest public highway? Even a monkey would have paused for thought before dumping it. Banana skins may well be biodegradable but could he not have put it back in his pocket? Only the waters of the Barle tumbling over its low ledges could soothe away the irritation.

The path followed the river closely until there was the Withypool bridge in front of us again.

The “Royal Oak” at Withypool has been one of our favourite pubs since we first drank here thirty years ago. Even then Jake Blackmore probably was keeping the bar and its excellent pint of bitter.

Landlords have come and gone, but Jake has remained loyally at his post, as much a part of the scenery as the hunting prints and relics which crowd the walls. If you disapprove of hunting, you are as entitled to your opinion as the next man, but just remember if you are standing in the Royal Oak at Withypool, its odds on that the next man loves hunting with a passion. And that includes the long-haired bloke behind the bar.
The Royal Oak today is leased by the owners of the nearby Tarr Farm Inn, famous for its haute cuisine, and so you would expect the pub grub at the “Oak” to be of a superior kind. You can get a sandwich or a ploughman’s at lunchtime, but the specials are the thing – fresh figs with blue cheese and parma ham, wood pigeon and peach sausages, venison steaks, and so forth and so on.

It’s difficult to think of anything more pleasant than sitting in the low black-beamed room, the fire blazing, with a day on the Moor behind you, and before you a pint of Jake’s bitter.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Eight Mile Walk along the Exe Valley from Exford, returning to the White Horse

This is an ideal pre-lunch canter from Exford, the village which stands at the hub of the Moor. If you start at ten o’clock, you will be walking through the door of the White Horse at one. We parked in the spacious and free Exmoor National Park car park, and took the riverside path at its southern end. Since we passed by the National Park workshops, it was not surprising that this walk is particularly well-signed. We walked with the river glinting in the sunlight on our right, with Melcombe House above us, until we reached the bridge to Court Farm, and there struck off to our left towards Lyncombe.
Where a path climbed away to the left towards Higher Combe, we kept to the right, passing through the riverside meadows until we joined a bridle path which led us past Lyncombe Farm itself. The path continued through bracken, climbing above the river to give good views across the valley towards Room Hill.

Eventually the track led through the isolated settlement of Nethercote, only accessible by vehicle along a couple of miles of rough lane from the Winsford direction.

We crossed the Exe by the bridge, the only one between Exford and Larcombe Foot, and soon afterwards left the track to climb steeply upwards towards Bye Common. It’s a sharp ascent but worth it for the view from the top. The bracken cover towards Staddon Farm to the north is a great place for seeing deer.

To the east we could look out over the Brendon Hills.

We passed through a gate and made our way along the edge of the Common over some wobbly going where the field had been reseeded. Soon, however, we could see the two paths which lead down to the river again at Larcombe Foot. On a hot day this is a deliciously cool spot where the river runs through the trees, and a good place to water your horse after a run with the stag hounds.

We crossed the bridge and took the track known as Kemps Lane back towards the top of the valley. It’s a steep and enclosed way, but at the top we were rewarded with some marvellous views to the north over Staddon Hill towards Dunkery Beacon.

There are few paths down the northern side of the Exe valley and, ignoring the track to Staddon Farm which would have returned us to Nethercote, we kept on the now metalled lane which took us along, with steep wooded valleys on our right, until we reached the concrete road down to Higher Combe.
We walked past the two dwellings at Higher Combe until we could pass through a gate at the beginning of a footpath which would take us back to the river. We scrambled across a foot bridge and through a little wooded valley, and then passed through a line of meadows until we rejoined the path by which we had left Exford earlier in the morning.
The White Horse, its fa├žade covered in Virginia Creeper, is an Exmoor icon. It is very much a hunting establishment, and to its left there is a livery yard still housing its traditional complement of hunters.The handsome kennels of the Devon & Somerset Staghounds, built in 1875, stand at the edge of the village on the Simonsbath road.

We walked past the main door of the hotel and round to the right to go straight into the bar. Coincidentally there we found together Exmoor’s two best-known barmen. Jeremy Connell, a fixture at the White Horse for many years, was in his usual position behind his bar with Jake Blackmore, barman of the “Royal Oak”, Withypool, for over thirty years, perched on a stool opposite him.
The White Horse always has Exmoor Ale on draught along with a couple from Sharps’ Cornish Brewery, but on this morning it also offered Exmoor Antler, specially brewed to celebrate the Wiveliscombe brewery’s thirtieth anniversary. Jeremy did not hesitate to give us a sample in a shot glass, always a welcome courtesy. Darker and a little stronger than the ubiquitous Ale, it was a very satisfying and well-kept pint. If you want something more than a liquid lunch, the White Horse has the widest range of bar meals on the Moor, many of them at the most reasonable price too. A sandwich for less than £3 still survives here, and you can even treat yourself to that retro masterpiece of English cuisine – and I myself would look no further – of egg and chips.
The run of the staghounds from Upcott Cross and other important matters had been thoroughly discussed when a gentleman sitting on a stool at the bar piped up, “I can’t think what’s happened to my wife. She’s over half an hour late and can’t have got lost. After all, there’s only one pub in Winsford, isn’t there?” He was assured that in this he was indisputably correct but that, unfortunately, he was in Exford.