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 façade 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.

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