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.