First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
It’s just as well that the Courtenay family, stout recusants and traditionalists, held such sway in the countryside around Molland back in the 19th century. They didn’t see why Victorian ‘improvers’ should be allowed to lay a finger on the tiny moorland village’s Church of St Mary. So no-one did. What’s survived here is the most perfect Georgian interior, a rare treasure.
We opened the church door on a maze of softly shining box pews, a fine 3-decker pulpit, and the Ten Commandments sternly admonishing us from their place above the low chancel screen. The north arcade leans so dramatically out of kilter that it had to be braced with wooden beams. And the elaborate, faded Courtenay wall monuments are a-bulge with cherubim, swags, scrolls and elaborate encomia.
Daffodils and primroses were struggling out in the churchyard, whipped by a cold wind from the south. We put our backs to it and went trudging up a stony bridleway over the moors that rose to the north in waves of creamy grass and black heather.
Up here it’s all airy bleak and open, proper Exmoor upland where the weather comes hard at you. The views are enormous, across the winter-dried moors to lush pasturelands lower down. A lark sprang up singing, the first of the year, and a group of moorland ponies champed their way along a combe bottom, shaggy manes and tails flailing in the wind.
We followed the hoofmarks of trekking ponies along the bridleway until it reached Anstey Gate. Just down the road we passed a memorial stone to Philip Froude Hancock (1865-1933), genial huntsman and international rugby player. A rugged monument to a rugged man, this 13-ton granite boulder was hauled up here in 1935 by a steam lorry, which almost blew up its boiler climbing the steep Exmoor lanes.
Below Guphill Common we turned back along a moor road, skirting its winter potholes and dipping into muddy combes. A bridleway brought us down into lower country of steep green pastures, where heavily pregnant ewes lumbered off and starlings whistled their jaunty vespers from the bare oak tops far below.
Start: Church car park, Molland, South Molton EX36 3NG (OS ref SS 807284)
Getting there: Molland is signed from B3227 (Hayne Cross intersection on A361).
Walk (6½ miles, rough moorland tracks, some short steep sections, OS Explorer OL9): Up lane between church and London Inn; left by church; in 30m, right on footpath past farmyard, across fields (fingerposts) and Moor Lane (810286). Ahead (yellow arrow/YA); down to cross footbridge (812288); steeply up to gate; up to far right corner of field (814290). Lane to Smallacombe. Follow bridleway (blue arrows) across ford (816291). Fork left; in 100m, ahead (not right; fingerpost). Follow bridleway hoofprints northeast, then east across moor. In ½ mile ignore left fork (821297); keep ahead on track bending gently right over hill ahead.
At Anstey Gate, right along road (835298). In 500m pass memorial stone on left; in another 100m, right opposite boundary stone (840296); between posts, and follow faint track running half-left across Guphill Common, heading for line of trees, then for their right-hand end. At road, right (845288); in 1 mile pass 4-finger post (830293, ‘Molland’). Cross Anstey’s Combe (827294), then the following ford (824294). In 300m, bridleway bends left with hedge-bank; on through gate (821291, fingerpost). Follow it down to road (819282).
Right (‘Molland’); cross stream; immediately right (817283, steps, stile, fingerpost). Steeply up to YA post; up to stile (YA). Follow YAs to road (813283); follow ‘Molland’ to village.
Lunch: London Inn, Molland (01769-550269, londoninnmolland.co.uk)
Accommodation: George Inn, South Molton EX36 3AB (01769-572514, thegeorgesouthmolton.co.uk)