Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ten Mile Walk from Bossington to Selworthy and Horner and back to the Castle at Porlock

This was to be the end of the quest. After visiting thirty four pubs, tasting twenty nine different beers, and walking two hundred and twenty four miles, the finish line was in sight. We had toyed with prolonging our project to walk to every pub on Exmoor by counting in Woods at Dulverton, but at the end of the day Paddy Groves’s excellent establishment on the southern fringe of Exmoor is described accurately by its signboard. It’s a “public bar with a dining room”, not a pub.
The Castle at Porlock thus remained the final enigma and challenge. Despite naming itself as a “hotel”, it had always looked a boozer to me – when it was open. Landlords seemed to come and go with the seasons and the swallows. The plan was to start at Bossington and then circle through Selworthy and Horner Woods before attacking Porlock in the rear, hoping to take the Castle by surprise during one of the infrequent periods when it was open.

It was one of the few truly beautiful days of a dreadful summer which recalled the dreary meteorological disasters of my 1950’s childhood, but at Bossington we experienced the first of a day of disappointments. The car park which I had picked out on the map was administered by the National Trust and, therefore, required £3 from its pay-and-display machine for the necessary all-day ticket. Ever since the National Trust banned stag hunting in the wondrous Horner Woods, despite the understanding of the Acland family that hunting would continue there in perpetuity, any contribution to the already swollen funds of the landless middle classes’ favourite charity has been wrung from me with the ease of an appendectomy without anaesthetic.

Even this could not cloud such a beautiful morning, and we set off along the shaded bridleway towards Hurlstone Point. Here we turned right up Hurlstone Combe, climbing a gradient which is as steep as any we have encountered on Exmoor. It’s the sort of climb where you find an excuse every now and again to stop to admire the view so that you can get your breath back. We were sobered by the thought that a week later our son would be required to run up it as part of the Seaview 17 race from Countisbury to Minehead.
You don’t have to go too far to enjoy marvellous views of Porlock Bay.

The views from the very top at Selworthy Beacon are even better but, sadly, our camera failed to do them justice. Here are the pictures for what they are worth, but on the ground the all-round prospect of the Exmoor hills, and of the Bristol Channel with its shipping and the Welsh coast beyond, is quite staggering.

We walked down from the Beacon towards the road which runs in from North Hill, Minehead. When we joined the road, we walked eastwards without any sign of the path required to take us down to Selworthy village. When we were almost upon it, it suddenly became visible through the dense bracken and we turned down through Selworthy Combe, the track following a stream through woodland until we finally reached the village. Here the famous landmark white church was just turning out after matins, which had pulled as big a congregation as any modern clergyman might wish for.

We followed the lane through the lovely village of Selworthy, given to the graceless National Trust by the aforementioned Aclands, until we were almost at the main A39 road. Just before reaching it, we turned left into a no-through road past some handsome cottages so that we emerged exactly opposite to the entrance to Holnicote House. A footpath runs through the grounds which would eventually lead us to Horner. We followed it until it took us into a large meadow, in which the grass had been cut for hay, and here we walked parallel to the house until the path disappeared in a maze of nettles in the corner of the field. It should have continued into the next ground where one would have turned sharp left, but this way was blocked.

I had experienced the same difficulty a couple of years previously when walking from Minehead to Withypool, and we were obliged to improvise as I had done then, turning left and following the boundary of the first field. We then went through a gateway on our right near the foot of this field, turned left, and scrambled through a muddy corner into a lane. Here we turned right and walked up it until an overgrown stile appeared in the hedge on our left. This we climbed and headed for Horner, now back on the path intended. It is irritating not to take the way one should, but two attempts have left me none the wiser as to the correct path at Holnicote House. It just dives into the nettles like a rabbit and disappears.

We followed a line of stiles until we passed through a belt of trees, on the far side of which were two of the biggest ant-hills I have ever seen. We then walked down across a large meadow of sheep until we reached the lane which leads from West Luccombe into Horner. Here we turned left until we reached the packhorse bridge at Horner by which we crossed into Horner Woods. We turned right into the bridleway which would have led us straight into Porlock, but after a hundred yards or so we turned left up the Cat’s Scramble path to reach the top of Ley Hill. This we did, despite a convoy of pony trekkers stumbling down in the opposite direction, and despite the path beginning to run westwards away from the summit. We took a right incline here and fortunately found ourselves back in the sunshine amid the bracken on top of Ley Hill.

Our intention was to walk down in to Porlock through Doverhay Plantation but we missed a turning and to our chagrin found ourselves back on the original bridleway, not a hundred yards from where we had entered the Cat’s Scramble. We had all but come round in a circle. Hot, bothered, and with the navigator’s credentials seriously compromised, we walked into Porlock by a familiar lane, more than ready for the best pint that mine host of the Castle might purvey.

Matters looked more than promising as we walked past the church. Boards, no doubt advertising a selection of local beers, stood on the pavement in front of the building, and there was an encouraging sense of hustle and bustle. The familiar tile-hung fa├žade looked as it always did.

Stepping from the bright sunlight into the dark of the interior, however, what met our gaze? – sofas, sofas, sofas, and books, books, books, rows and rows of them! Sofas are all very well at home to fall asleep on in front of the television, and not a day goes by when I don’t open a book, but not in a pub. The answer, of course, was that I wasn’t in a pub, and I wasn’t in the Castle any longer. I was in Miller’s Hotel and Bistro, which had taken over the building of the old watering-hole. Well, good luck to you, Mr Miller, and I hope that you succeed where too many others have failed.

This sophisticated ambience was not one in which I would have felt comfortable, but then there aren’t too many pubs these days which, instead of sofas and books, would have displayed such comforting and nostalgic personal totems as glass ashtrays with “Castella” printed on them, or jars of green pickled eggs on the bar, or a rank “Gents” across the yard. Like homing pigeons, we flew back along the main street towards the “Royal Oak”. For more about this unpretentious boozer, please see our entry for September 19th 2009. Little had changed since our last visit. The bloke who’s a dead-ringer for the albino bluesman Johnny Winter was still talking football, and there was still a mixed crowd of local families and trippers getting outside the very reasonable grub. This was a Sunday morning so that we dined for free from the  crisps and cheese on the bar – even the “Oak” has its Surrey Hills moments - and drank two very welcome pints of Summer Lightning. “Golden” ale remains too near a relation to the dreaded lager for my liking but on a hot and sunny morning, when you’ve walked a couple of miles further than you intended, in search of a pub which no longer exists, that chilled citrusy tang goes down a treat.

We made our way back along the foreshore to Bossington to pick up the car. As we drove out of the park, I enjoyed the petty revenge of handing my all-day ticket to a delighted and grateful driver coming in.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seven Mile Walk over Rowley Down and back to the Old Station House Inn, Blackmoor Gate

Blackmore Gate is the Hyde Park Corner of Exmoor, a traffic hub between Barnstaple and Lynmouth, South Molton and Combe Martin, which includes a cattle market and a pub. There is also a large park, which on our arrival hosted amongst others a squad of British Telecom vans, two draymen sorting out beer barrels on a lorry, and another couple of blokes offloading a huge carpet from one white van to an other. There is a toilet block and a curious open-sided shelter whose only apparent purpose is to house some information display boards. Still, these added to my knowledge with the information that "Blackmoor" is a corruption of "Blackmore", the family which once owned the surrounding land and included "RD", the ubiquitous author of "Lorna Doone". The boards also told me complacently that the Exmoor National Park had acquired the site for improvement when it was occupied by a filling station and a scrapyard. You may wish to consider whether it succeeded.
All this activity made moorland dwellers like ourselves feel quite giddy, and we set off along the A399 towards South Molton for five hundred perilous yards before we could dive into the footpath on our left which led to Rowley Cross. The way ran, sometimes by gates and sometimes over ladders set in banks, through sheep-bitten pastures loud with the bleating of lambs and with a Bronze Age standing stone just minding its own business.
It was a day of warm and brilliant sunshine, with an easterly wind which drew a veil of blue haze over the hills between us and the coast near Heddons Mouth.
At one point only does the path divert from a straight line, and here you just go through one gate to the left, and then immediately through one to the right, to "gehen immer geradeous" as our German friends would say. Here we met a small herd of Jersey heifers, an unusual sight in an era when butterfat is a dirty word. If the British Medical Association spotted them, these wonderful dairy cattle would be rounded up for immediate execution.
The path finally grew into a track, and soon we reached the road at Rowley Cross. It was only a step along it before we turned right into the bridle way which would take us up over Rowley Down. We climbed up through a steep enclosure, taking a middle way through a marshy piece of ground which stretched to the right hand boundary, where to Exmoor's own version of muzak, the serenade of the chain saw, the beech hedge was being expertly relaid. In the top left hand corner of the field, a gate led through to where the bridle way diverted across a large pasture, while a permissive path led away towards Holwell Barrow. We kept to the bridle way, as we intended to return by the other path, and crossed the pasture at an angle before following a line of gates to Brockenbarrow Farm, with good views over the hills to the south.
At Brockenbarrow Farm we braved the road again, and walked eastwards for some half a mile before turning left at Yelland Cross into the bridle way which led northwards, past Whitefield Barton Farm, towards Holwell Rocks and Parracombe. The track led straight up over the down until we stood above the unmistakable punchbowl of Holwell Rocks.
Here we turned left and walked up to the Barrow which is of impressive size.
The path led on, with views over Parracombe and its two churches to the north, until quite quickly we rejoined the way which we had come earlier in the morning.
We retraced our steps and, despite a game attempt to run us over by an elderly gentleman, who drove straight at us with intense concentration, we successfully regained the safety of the car park at Blackmore Gate.
The Old Station House Inn occupies a large site on the opposite side of the road. It's "old", not in the sense that it has been a pub for many years, but because it's built around a former station on the Barnstaple-Lynmouth line, which closed in 1935. The line, despite for the sake of economy being built to a narrow guage and, in some places, in looping horseshoe bends to obviate the excavation of cuttings, was yet another of those Exmoor industrial projects doomed to make a loss. You come to Exmoor to spend money, not to make it. The original station building has all but disappeared as it has been surrounded by a bungalow extension, which gives it the air of a Surrey tea garden.
Indeed, after the collapse of the railway company, the building was first a private house, then a tea room, and only finally a pub and restaurant. Inside it is big and airy, and outside there are any number of picnic tables, as well as weird structures to amuse children, and further on what amounts to a small zoo. Even in late March there were plenty of punters enjoying the sunshine, one wearing a football shirt emblazoned with the name "Cruyff" as well as the legendary Dutchman's talismanic number 14.
There's room for everyone at the Old Station House Inn. We found a sympathetic corner indoors, surrounded by a positive mausoleum of stuffed animals and by photographs of the old railway.
The Old Station House is all things to all men. On Boxing Day the Exmoor Foxhounds meet here, every week there's a live band, and on one evening you can play pool for free. There is an extensive menu of everything you would expect from a roadside pub, with the small mark-up you would expect from one on a well-beaten tourist trail. We sat enjoying a very good pint of Sharp's Doom Bar, (there was Exmoor Ale on offer too,) surrounded by shelves of second-hand books at a pound each, watching Johnann Cruyff 14 playing with his baby with unrelenting enthusiasm.