Search Results : exmoor

Mar 072020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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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,

Accommodation: George Inn, South Molton EX36 3AB (01769-572514,

Info: South Molton TIC (01769-572591);;

 Posted by at 04:51
Nov 212009

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A dawn start on West Anstey Common, watching a magnificent red deer stag roaring rivals away from his harem of hinds. How to follow that? A pint and a sandwich at Tarr Farm Inn didn’t hurt at all, and we strode out across Tarr Steps among the gold and green oaks of the Barle Valley just as if the western sky were not heaping with ominously slaty clouds.

No-one really knows how long the ancient clapper bridge of Tarr Steps has spanned the nut-brown River Barle in its narrow combe. Saurian in shape, resistant to flood waters yet built to allow them free passage, this subtle old bridge might have been placed across the river by medieval monks, or it could have been carrying travellers dryshod over the Barle for as long as three thousand years. Its flagstone decking rang underfoot, and the swollen river rushed through the rough piers in curling trails of bubbles.

High above the valley an enthusiastic dog came to meet us at Parsonage Farm, drawing his black lip back from his teeth in an ingratiating grin. At Hill Farm it was the hens that greeted us with fat volleys of clucks; at Cloggs Farm, a sweet smell of hay from the barn. From farm to farm we pursued the path, dipping to cross Dane’s Brook among rushes and thorn hedges, climbing to Lyshwell Farm and sight of a scattered herd of hinds on the canter. Some Exmoor farmers detest the red deer for the damage they do; others, such as Raymond and Sarah Davey of Lyshwell, rejoice in the sight and sound of them.

On Anstey Rhiney Moor the weather caught us a smack. There were smells of wet bracken and turf, sodden grass and sedges. The rain-slick path fell away to a flooded ford over Dane’s Brook. Take the detour to Slade Bridge and forgo the pleasure of splashing across? Not on your nelly. The brook came up to our knees, and sent impertinent scouting parties higher still. On the far bank we tipped a good pint of peat-stained water out of each boot, and squelched on up past Zeals Farm, up the lane and field slopes to Hawkridge on its crest.

A mile or so along the heights, then a final plunge down through dripping trees to walk up to Tarr Steps against the brown tides of the Barle; a beauty of a walk, all in all.



Start & finish: Tarr Farm Inn, Tarr Steps, Dulverton TA22 9PY (OS ref SS 869322)

Getting there: Bus: service 401 (, summer only

Road: M5 Jct 27, A361 to Tiverton; A396, B3222 to Dulverton; B3223 towards Exford; Tarr Steps signposted in 5 miles; minor road to car park (872323)

Walk (7½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL9): From car park, down path to cross Tarr Steps (868321); bear right off road up Two Moors Way/2MW (‘Withypool Hill, Hawkridge’). In 50 yards at private gateway, keep ahead uphill on stony lane which doglegs right. In field above, left along hedge, and on with hedges on your left. At end of 3rd field, through gate; follow yellow squares through farmyard of Parsonage Farm (857320). On down lane (2MW) to sharp left bend; right (854318) across stile, diagonally left up slope, aiming for 3rd telegraph pole to left. Follow hedge up to top corner of field; through gate; on to gate above. Don’t go through, but turn left with hedge on your right. Through left-hand of 2 gates close together; in 50 yards, right through gate; left along hedge; through next gate. Skirt below Hill Farm (847320); through another gate, and on to road. Left to Withypool Cross (845315); right (‘Molland’), then left (‘Bridleway, Shircombe Drive’) to Cloggs Farm (840310). By barn, left through gate (‘Anstey Gate’); down to cross stream (841311); through gate, right along fence above stream for a few yards, then left up bank (‘Anstey Gate’ fingerpost at top). Descend to cross Dane’s Brook footbridge (840308); right up stony track, then field slopes, aiming for line of trees on skyline. Through gate (fingerpost), on past Lyshwell Farm (837306); farm drive to road at Anstey Gate (835298). Left across cattle grid; then diagonally left across Anstey Rhiney Moor (left-hand of 2 diverging tracks) for 1 mile, descending to cross ford (850300; NB – Deep, maybe up to knees! Detour via Slade Bridge signposted!). Up track to pass below Zeals Farm house (853300); through white gate; right between barns, out of farmyard gate. Bear half left off drive (bridleway fingerpost) on grassy field track to gate; continue to Slade Lane (855303). Left to next corner; right (bridleway fingerpost) across field to road. Right through Hawkridge. At crossroads in village, left (‘Withypool’) for 100 yards; right to follow 2MW through fields for ¾ mile. Right (856317) through Row Down Wood, down to road at Penny Bridge (860316); left to Tarr Steps.

Lunch: Tarr Farm Inn (01643-851507;

Accommodation: The Bark House, Oakfordbridge, Devon EX16 9HZ (01398-351236;

More info: Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841;;;

 Posted by at 00:00
Nov 062009

Martin French deserves a medal. Not only did he get up in the cold and dark to see me off from his Bark House Hotel at Oakfordbridge, but he put porridge, bacon and eggs on the table at six in the morning. They make them tough down there on Exmoor. Ranger Richard Eales was nursing flu and the effects of a kick from an over-excited Exmoor pony, but he turned up for our dawn rendezvous at Exmoor National Park headquarters in Dulverton in his usual form – humorous, observant, and passionately knowledgeable about red deer.

From West Anstey Common Richard and I surveyed the ground around Lyshwell Farm. The farmer, Raymond Davey, enjoys seeing red deer, so Lyshwell is a likely spot to find a sample of Exmoor’s herd of some 4,000 of these beautiful and impressive creatures. Red deer have been native to Britain since shortly after the last Ice Age. Stags and hinds spend most of the year apart, but in autumn they come together briefly for the rut or mating season. That’s when the wooded combes and farm pastures of Exmoor echo to one of the most thrilling sounds in nature – the roaring of the stags.

As Richard and I watched from the high common, a deep dog-like bark rose from the oakwoods in the combe of Dane’s Brook far below. ‘A hind,’ said Richard. ‘She’s spotted us, and she’ll be warning the others.’ Then came the sound we had been waiting for – a grating, throaty roar from the direction of Lyshwell Farm. ‘Ah, he’s bolving,’ exclaimed Richard with satisfaction. ‘That’s the Exmoor word for the roaring. It’s a threat and a challenge to any other stag: “I’m here, and I’m in charge!” ’

Through binoculars I made out the stag as he stood by the hedge, head back and bolving, a large figure indistinct in the early morning light. In the field above him several hinds and two little calves came into focus. Beside them were a couple of prickets, two-year-old stags with two long dagger-blade horns where their antlers would eventually grow. ‘When a stag’s in his pomp,’ Richard expounded, ‘he’ll have his “rights” – his brow, bay and tray spikes at the base of the antler – and up to three “points” at the top of each antler. That stag we’re looking at, he’s a fine beast – he’s got all his rights and three points on one side, and all his rights and two on the other. Let’s have a closer look at him.’

Down in the Lyshwell fields we crept with bent backs along a hedge to a point where we could see through a screen of twigs. The stag was the size of a racehorse. He stood sideways on about 50 yards away, a magnificent spectacle against the rising sun, his dark form dazzlingly outlined in dewdrops, his heavily-antlered head thrown back as he bolved. The roar, a mixture of circular saw, Harley-Davidson and outraged lion, echoed out across Lyshwell Wood, projected forth on a puff of steamy breath.

‘See how dark his coat is?’ breathed Richard. ‘He’s been wallowing in his soiling pit, peeing in the mud and rolling in it to get a good stinking smell all over. A stag’s cologne, that is.’

Among his harem of a dozen hinds, most faces were turned towards us, but the stag seemed oblivious. He was sizing up one of the hinds, and had nudged her a little apart from the others, scenting her hindquarters and lifting his head between sniffs as if pondering a rare old vintage. Hinds are in season for a matter of hours only, so the stag relies on all sorts of clues to tell him the time is right. ‘He’ll lick up the hind’s urine,’ murmured Richard, ‘and run it along the Jacobson gland in his upper lip to see if she’s ready to be served.’

This hind was ready. It has to be admitted that the red stag is no languorous artiste du chambre. Ten seconds and the embrace was finished. The hind resumed her grazing, the stag his bolving and scenting of other posteriors. But the group of hinds remained uncomfortably aware of us. Soon enough they began to move off. Richard’s nudge was followed by his whisper, ‘We’ll go down in the wood and catch them there.’

Deep in Lyshwell Wood the stag’s soiling pit lay well-trodden, the wet mud exuding a powerful goaty smell. We crept along a sunken path. From the field above came the groans and roars of bolving in several separate voices – not just one stag, but three. Peeping over the top we saw ‘our’ stag trotting and roaring, and another animal making off in disappointment.

‘He’ll be back,’ said Richard as the herd disappeared into the wood and we straightened our stiff backs. ‘There’s a lot of hard work for the stags during the rut, keeping the hinds together, seeing off rivals, not to mention the mating. But they must think it’s worth it – they’ve been doing it for about ten thousand years.’


Red Deer Watching: Ranger-led expeditions: contact Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841) or Exmoor National Park Authority, Exmoor House, Dulverton (01398-323665); NB Lyshwell Farm is private property, but there are several footpaths across it.

Richard Eales’s deer-watching hints:

  • Go at dawn or dusk

  • Take good binoculars

  • Keep your eyes open, and give them time to adjust to spotting the deer

  • Be quiet, move slowly and keep downwind of the deer

  • Keep low to break up your outline

  • Stop still as soon as you spot a deer

World Bolving Championship: Held each October at Blaydon Rails above the Barle Valley, in aid of Devon Air ambulance. Details: Rock House Inn, Dulverton (01398-323131;


Accommodation: The Bark House, Oakfordbridge, Devon EX16 9HZ (01398-351236; – really charming, welcoming small hotel, happy with very early starts!


Kia – A Study of Red Deer by Ian Alcock (Swan Hill Press); Red Deer by Richard Jefferies (Halsgrove); Exmoor’s Wild Red Deer by N.V. Allen (Exmoor Press)


 Posted by at 00:00
Sep 222007

An answering roar, deep and melancholy, echoes from the hillside opposite. “Ah, there they are, dear old boys, giving each other the early warning,” smiles Richard Eales, Exmoor National Park Ranger of several years’ experience and a born deer fanatic.

“There are about 4,000 red deer on Exmoor,” whispers Richard. “The stags can tolerate each other’s company most of the year, in a laddish sort of way – a fair amount of bumping and barging, and even a bit of boxing with their forelegs when their new antlers are growing and itchy.
“But come this time of year, a hint of rough weather gets the old hormones flowing. Their necks thicken up into a big, dark mane and they get all edgy and restless. That’s when they have to collect a harem and try to hold on to it.”

The throaty roar, like a turbo-charged ram in full voice, comes up from the edge of a wood that we’re cautiously approaching. “Some call it belling, others say boving,” Richard murmurs. “It’s a challenge and a threat. Usually that’s enough to keep a rival away, but sometimes two stags will come face to face. If they’re serious, it’s heads down and let’s get to it.

“Lots of people think they fight to the death, but normally it’s just a clash of antlers. Or you’ll see them walking round each other, sizing one another up, like two blokes in a pub – ‘Come on, then, if you think you’re hard enough’, that sort of thing. Then one will back off, and it ends there.”
Hunched down and tiptoeing through the wet grass, we creep towards a five-barred gate.

Here he comes, cantering into view a couple of hundred yards away, a magnificent stag with heavy antlers and a big muscular body. He launches himself clean over a five-foot barbed-wire fence and then a hedgebank before charging straight up the hillside towards his opponent, who’s guarding a small hind – sole member of his harem.

The other stag skitters about nervously. And a particularly loud roar seems to convince him that the game is not worth the candle, and he backs away and moves uphill.
The victor stops to bell a couple more times, then turns his back and makes his way downhill and into the wood. Behind him trots the hind, now his exclusive property – unless and until some new stag, bigger, stronger or more aggressive, can manage to lure her away.

Crouched by the gate, we draw breath at the conclusion of this drama. “That one up on the common has to start all over again,” Richard says. “And this one in the wood, he’ll have one more hind to guard. And that’ll go on for another month or so, until the rut’s over and he’s mated with as many hinds as he can. The stags get really run down by the end of it, all thin and on edge.
“They’re absolutely knackered, poor old boys. Come to think of it – I was up at five this morning, so I’m feeling a bit that way myself. Fancy a cup of tea?”


 Posted by at 00:00
Oct 022020

The River Severn’s estuary was at a fantastically low tide as we crossed the ‘new’ bridge on a day of no cloud whatsoever. Looking seaward through the stroboscopic flicker of the bracing wires, we could see the tidal outcrop of the English stones fully exposed and slathered in red mud. Downriver, the little hump of Denny Island off Portishead stood marooned in a huge desert of sand. Other sand and mud banks lay around the widening tideway like beached whales. Unwary strangers might even suppose you could cross the five miles from the English to the Welsh bank on foot and do no more than bespatter your spats. And maybe you could, if you were able to walk on water while negotiating quicksand, slow mud, sudden drops, fathomless pools, and the second highest tidal range in the world sneaking round the corners to cut you off.

Over in Wales we hightailed it to Llanfihangel Crucorney, a placename whose sound put the immortal walking writer John Hillaby in mind of ‘a toy train scampering over points’. LC lies in the River Monnow’s valley that forms the eastern boundary of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons. It’s a great jumping off point for walks westward into those mountains, but today we were aiming east to climb The Skirrid (Ysgyryd Fawr, the ‘big split one’), a tall hill that lies north-south with its head cocked and spine raised like an alert old dog.

The Skirrid is made of tough old red sandstone lying in a heavy lump on top of thin layers of weaker mudstone – hence its history of slippage and landslides. We came up to it in cold wind and brilliant sunshine across fields of sheep, skirting its western flank through scrub woods, gorse bushes blooming yellow and holly trees in a blaze of scarlet berries, with the dark purple crags of the northern end hanging over little rugged passes of landslide rocks fallen in a jumble.

The ascent is short, steep and stepped, but it’s the sort of ‘starter mountain’ that families with six-year-olds can manage. Many were out – mums, dads, children, students, ‘maturer’ folk such as us, all hurrying to revel in this one-in-a-thousand day before the threatened reintroduction of lockdown in Wales should come into force.


Once at the peak in this unbelievably clear weather we gasped to see the landscape laid out in pin-sharp detail a thousand feet below and fifty miles off – Malverns, Black Mountains; farmlands rising and falling towards Gloucestershire and the Midlands; the slanting tabletops of Penyfan and Cribyn over in the Brecon Beacons; Cotswolds, Mendip, Exmoor; and the south Wales coast trending round into far-off Pembrokeshire.

Nearer at hand a grey streak of softly glimmering sea showed the tide rising in the Severn Estuary past Brean Down’s promontory, the slight disc of Flat Holm and the hump of her sister island Steep Holm, their lower edges lost in mist so that they looked like floating islands in some fabulous sea.











 Posted by at 19:43
Jun 042020

Leaving the village early on a hot windy morning, we skirted the west end of Quarry Hill. Ash dieback disease has got a firm grip of the young trees here, and is reducing them to pale skeletons in the wood. On the far side we crossed the dry yellow pastures of Dragondown where the cattle plodded one after another towards the shade of oak trees now turned as dark as iron by this two-month drought.

In the quiet green valley of the Russet Mere stream beyond Dragondown, a private revolution is taking place. The old knockabout farmhouses, beautifully sited but long neglected, have been bought up and spruced to the nines. The former dairying pastures of poached slopes and tough grass have been transformed into wildflower meadows thick with buttercups, knapweed, clovers and silky grasses with lovely names – Yorkshire fog, cock’s foot, crested dog’s tail. Aspens in stout tree guards, rustic park fencing and carefully signed paths all point to new influences, welcome ecologically, but oddly troubling too. At what point do the economics of everyday farming fall below feasibility, obliging the old farming families to give way to well-heeled conservers of the countryside?

Food for thought as we wandered the path through these delectable meadows and up to the strange gritty outcrop called Monk’s Kitchen. From here a really wonderful view down over the track of an old railway sneaking round the foot of Quarry Hill, and out across fields and woods to a prospect opening over the distant coast and the Quantock and Exmoor hills beyond.

The path to Holdfast Farm below had been impenetrably blocked with a crop of wheat. Damn you, farmer! We pushed our way along the field margin ploughed and sown right up to the spiky hedge. Hmm, yes, old style farming ahoy!

Up on the rise beyond we stood looking down on our neighbour village with its tall grey church spire, roofs and trees – a classic English view in early summer.

In a quiet green valley beyond.









 Posted by at 17:40
May 122020

From the crooked elbow of Slippery Lane you can look back over the village and the valley. It’s a view that never palls in any season: the red and grey roofs, the chimneys and windows among their trees, and on across the flat country to far hills, Quantocks and a hint of Exmoor, pale blue with distance against the sky.

It’s a fight for life in the verges of Slippery Lane. The flowers have left the season of yellow, primroses and celandines, and they are slipping out of their blue attire too, bluebells and violets. Now crimsons and whites are all the rage, tall red campion shooting up two feet tall, racing for the light against the delicate white fretwork of cow parsley – gypsy lace, the schoolchildren used to call it, and maybe still do. Snakes of spineless bryony twine round anything they can find to support them in the hedges.

This Time of Covid is a curious mix of curse and blessing. The plug has been pulled out of the socket. No engine roar, no tyre swish from the valley road. No cars climb Slippery Lane, poisoning walkers with their diesel farting. Birdsong seems twice as loud, the woods seethe with insect hum. No con trails in the abnormally blue sky. And a tantalising spring of unbelievably sunny days in a long straight line.

Halfway up the hill we glance over a gate and are struck stock still by something we’ve never seen here before – three brown hares, great fat fellows, twitching their black-tipped ears in the lush unmown grass of Long Field. They face one another like cats, socially distancing, but only just.

A chiffchaff has been getting his declaration in order down in Valley Wood. Chiff-chiff! Chaff! Chiff-chaff-chaff! Chiff-chaff! Now he stows his gab, and there’s just the fat hum of a bee in the campion and a rustle of grasses in Long Field – Three Hares Field, it will be from now on – where the hares crouch and lollop, nibbling the stems and measuring each other up, indifferent to our little existence.

 Posted by at 16:23
Jan 182020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A perfect Somerset winter’s day of sharp blue sky. Sunlight gilded the roofs of Rowberrow, nowadays a quiet little village, but in times past a rough mining centre where men dug calamine for the brass-making industry. Martha More, visiting in 1790, judged the locals ‘savage and depraved, brutal and ferocious.’

The long shape of Blackdown, highest point of Mendip, looms on the southern skyline. Today its slopes were trickling with water. With a hollow gushing a stream tumbled into the chilly depths of Read’s Cavern, one of dozens of water-burrowed caves in Mendip’s limestone massif. When Read’s was excavated in the 1920s, a set of Iron Age slave manacles was unearthed, their story untold but ripe for imagining.

A broad track rises up the flank of Blackdown. We climbed through fox-brown bracken where cattle grazed and thirty-five semi-wild ponies snorted and cantered away in a bunch. From the ridge the view was enormous, from the Quantock Hills and Exmoor down in the southwest to the steely grey Bristol Channel with its twin islands, pudding-shaped Steep Holm and sleeping-dog Flat Holm.

Along the foot of Blackdown the muddy Limestone Link footpath took us sliding and squelching past Burrington Combe. Wild goats were grazing the grey striped cliffs of the gorge, their white coats contrasting with the scarlet berries of cotoneaster.

On the slopes opposite the combe the Reverend Dr Thomas Sedgwick Whalley, rich through a ‘good marriage’ in mid-Georgian times, developed a humble cottage into the Italianate extravaganza of Mendip Lodge, a massive country house with a state bedroom, mile-long terraces and a verandah nearly a hundred feet wide.

Mendip Lodge, like the good doctor’s wealth, eventually fell into decline. All we found of the grand design was a huddle of ruins behind an archway in Mendip Lodge Woods, beside the winding path that was once a fine carriage drive.

High above on the limestone upland of Dolebury Warren the sloping ramparts of a massive Iron Age hill fort encircle the western end of the ridge. Here we sat to catch our breath and gaze across the channel to the far-off hills of Wales.
Start: Swan Inn, Rowberrow, Winscombe, Somerset BS25 1QL (OS ref ST451583)
Parking: please ask, and give pub your custom.

Getting there: Rowberrow is signed off A38 between Churchill and Winscombe

Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 141): Left down School Lane. Just after right bend, left down track (453583); in 300m at T-junction, right (454586). In ¾ mile, right (465586, ‘Bridleway, Ride’, waymark post); in 100m, left on path through bracken. In 250m detour left to Read’s Cavern (468584). Resume bracken path, uphill to ‘Rowberrow Warren’ sign (469581); left through gate; right uphill. In 200m fork left (469579), upwards for ¾ mile to track on Blackdown ridge (477573); left to Beacon Batch trig pillar (485573). Left downhill to foot of slope; left (490577, waymark post, Limestone Link /LL) for 1¼ miles. On open ground 350m after crossing West Twin Brook, at crossing of broad grassy tracks, right downhill (473583). In 700m, near Link hamlet, left (475590, fingerpost) on path through Mendip Lodge Wood. In ⅔ mile pass Mendip Lodge ruin (466591); in 150m, left up bridleway. Pass gate/’Dolebury Warren’ sign on right; in 100m right (gate, blue arrow, ‘National Trust’) across Dolebury Warren (LL) for 1¼ miles, down to T-junction by Walnut House (446591). Left (LL) for ¾ mile; right (454586) to Rowberrow.

Conditions: Can be very muddy.

Lunch: Swan Inn, Rowberrow (01934-852371,

Accommodation: Woodborough Inn, Winscombe BS25 HD (01934-844167,


 Posted by at 03:00
Mar 232019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A windy cold noon on the Foreland promontory outside Lynmouth. Moor ponies chewed the gorse on the slopes above Countisbury church, drawing back their lips as though seized with private laughter as they delicately snipped off the yellow flowers with their pale green teeth.

We walked north along the cliff path, treading warily above steep drops where the sea creamed in lace-edged waves on black pebble beaches eight hundred feet below. A milky sky stretched over land and sea. A big blue and white freighter idled in the Bristol Channel, and fifteen miles away the dunes and low hills of the south Wales coast rose under a white surf of cloud.

A teetering path descended over skiddy scree to Foreland lighthouse. But we favoured the wider South West Coast Path and the narrow service road to the lookout eyrie above the stumpy tower, where great curved scimitar blades of shaped glass flashed a continuous message of danger to shipping.

This is a wicked coast in winter, all unforgiving tides, cross currents, hidden reefs and a lack of safe havens. In a January storm in 1899, the lifeboatmen of Lynmouth hauled, shoved and cajoled their vessel up and over these cliffs by night. Heavy seas had rendered their home harbour inoperable; there was a ship in distress requiring their attendance. So they dragged the boat for fifteen precipitous miles to the next harbour of Porlock, and rowed to the rescue from there – an extraordinary feat.

The coast path ribboned eastward through oak and birch woods, up and down along the cliffs. Glimpses forward showed the plunge of slit-thin combes to dark narrow beaches.

In the cleft of Glenthorne Cliffs we passed a walkers’ honesty café – tea, coffee, mugs, milk, a thermos of hot water and some chocolate bars on a picnic table. ‘What a treat to find in the middle of nowhere!’ Colin and Adrian had written in the comments book. ‘It made us laugh and smile! Thank you!’

The sense of height, space and freedom up here in the cold winter wind set my head spinning. At last we turned inland below the unseen farm called Desolate and followed the field path back past Kipscombe. The grey and white house lay quiet below its sheltering beech trees, looking out across a wooded combe to a misty grey and white sea that lisped and murmured at the edge of sight and sound.
Start: Barna Barrow car park, Countisbury Hill, Lynmouth EX35 6ND (OS ref SS 753496))

Getting there: A39 (Lynmouth-Porlock); car park is at top of Countisbury Hill, beyond Blue Ball Inn.

Walk (5¾ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL9): From car park walk seaward; left along wall; in 500m, right on Coast Path/CP beyond bench (747499). In 600m bear left downhill at 3-finger post; right at 2-finger post below (‘Porlock’), descending to road (756505). Left to lighthouse viewpoint (754511); return up road. At sharp right bend (758503) keep ahead on CP. In 200m CP zigzags right (759503, YA). In 1 mile CP rises up steps; at top, right off CP (775498, ‘Countisbury 2’). At top of rise, right at 2-finger post (770498); in 50m, left (YA) up path to Desolate farm drive. Right to gate (770496); right (‘Countisbury 1¾’) across fields (fingerposts, YAs) past Kipscombe Farm, back to car park.

Conditions: Careful on coast path – unguarded edges, steep slopes.

Lunch: Blue Ball, Countisbury EX35 6NE (01598-741263,

Accommodation: Rising Sun Inn, Lynmouth EX35 6EG (01598-753223, – comfortable, cheerful, full of character, wonderful food.

Info: Lynton & Lynmouth TIC (01598-752225);

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Transworld) is published on 11 April

 Posted by at 15:30
Oct 272018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A wild, blustery autumn day had marched in on Exmoor from the west. We waited in the car park at Dunkery Gate until the rain army had charged through and away, and set out in its heels to climb the path to the crest of Dunkery Beacon. A piglet-like squealing came down the wind from above, and when we came over the brow we found three children leaping and yelling for sheer glee round the summit cairn, their coats flying in the gale.

Up here on Exmoor’s highest point, standing by the cairn on the rocky tomb of some long-forgotten king, we drank in the view, as brisk and refreshing as a great gulp of cold water. Ninety wide and beautiful miles stretched out from the tiny tip of the Sugar Loaf, north across the Bristol Channel in Wales some 50 miles away, to Yes Tor’s hummock on Dartmoor nearly 40 miles to the south. Not that we could see those two distant landmarks in such conditions of wind and sun dazzle and rain curtains – it was enough to know they were out there, visible from Dunkery Beacon on the clearest of clear days. What we saw today were rolling ridges of moorland, humped green fields squared with tall hedge-banks, and a sunlit valley leading north to the bulky seaward slope of Hurlstone Point.

We turned east on the rocky ridge track, bowling along with the wind astern pushing us like a second-row rugby forward. The sun burst out across the hills, bringing the whitewashed farm houses far below into brilliant relief against their green meadows and woods. Suddenly a flight of twenty small birds went skimming across the path just ahead, cutting and turning like one creature, the sun flashing on their white breasts and sabre-blade wings – dunlin or plovers, they passed and vanished too quickly to be sure.

From the ridge, a squelchy river of a bridleway made a sloshy descent southward into the sheltered cleft of Mansley Combe. Down here, deep sunk in the valley bottom, the day fell suddenly calm. Gale-driven clouds tore over from rim to rim of the combe a hundred feet overhead, and the wind rushed and sighed in the beech canopy where leaves scattered horizontally in showers of gold.

We forded the River Avill, hurrying in bubbles and miniature rapids under a canopy of silver birches and luxuriant, rain-pearled ferns. As we followed the red mud track steeply up towards Dunkery Gate again, from the trees in the depths of the combe came a grinding, grating roar – a red stag bolving*, calling out a defiant rutting challenge to all comers, a wild voice to suit the wild day.
* Yes, that’s the word!

Start: Dunkery Gate car park, near Wheddon Cross, TA24 7AT approx (OS ref SS 896406)

Getting there: Dunkery Beacon is signed off B3224, 1 mile west of Wheddon Cross (A396 Dunster-Dulverton)

Walk (4½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL9): Cross Dunkery Bridge; in 100m, left (‘Public Bridleway Dunkery Beacon’) to summit cairn (892416). Right along main ridge track for nearly 1 mile. Cross road (904420) and continue; in 300m, right (907422, cairn) on bridleway through heather for nearly 1 mile. At hedge-bank (914410), don’t go through gate; turn right, keeping hedge-bank on left. In 450m, bear sharp left (910410); follow hedge-bank downhill, through gate (910407, ‘bridleway’), down to track in combe bottom. Right (‘Draper’s Way, Dunkery Gate’); uphill for 1 mile to Dunkery Gate.

Lunch/accommodation: White Horse, Exford, TA24 7PY (01643-831229;

Information: National Park Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841);;

 Posted by at 02:22