Saturday, 18 January 2014

An A-Z Exmoor Adventure

A couple of years ago A-Z launched their Adventure Series of atlases with four titles covering Dartmoor, the Lake District (2) and Snowdonia. Since then they have been rapidly adding more titles including the South West Coast Path and Exmoor in my neck of the woods.

So when Lisa from A-Z suggested accompanying me on a walk round Exmoor to road test (or rather walk test) the map, I jumped at the idea. A nice warming winter walk, what could be nicer?

Hmm. By the time the agreed date for our walk drew near it had been raining on Exmoor more or less every day for at least a month. It had been blustery too, with vigorous winds blowing in off the Bristol Channel. Many of the paths had degenerated into muddy, slippery quagmires. Were these the conditions to head up onto the moor or venture along the steep and exposed cliffs of the coast path? Probably not. Lisa had told me she had never been on a proper walk before, surely she would be put off by the weather? I confidently waited for her to cancel. Lisa, however, was undaunted. Instead of the cancellation email I received one telling me she was looking forward to our walk. She was obviously made of sterner stuff than I realised. There was no getting out of it now.

I arrived in Combe Martin a little early and called in to the local bakery for a coffee and sausage roll. 'You're not off walking are you?' asked the baker. I nodded and told her we were walking up to Great Hangman. 'Well be careful,' she advised, 'I went flying when I was out walking the dog earlier this week. It's lethal up there.' Great.

We had arranged to meet outside local landmark, the Pack o' Cards, Combe Martin. The story goes that in the seventeenth century a fellow by the name of George Ley who was fond of spending time on the gaming tables had a big win at cards and built a house to remind him of his luck, with four floors to represent the suits, thirteen rooms for the number of cards in a suit, fifty-two windows and fifty two stairs. The whole building was then constructed to resemble a pack of playing cards. By the nineteenth century it had been converted to a pub. Originally officially called the King's Arms Inn, locals had always known it colloquially as the Pack o'Cards and it officially took that name in 1933.

A wet start
Just as we set off it started to rain, bang on cue. Out came the waterproofs. The coast path out of the village was a mess because of the incessant rain, so instead we took the minor road up the hill to West Challacombe and then took the stream, sorry path, up the hill and over the stile to join the South West Coast Path (SWCP). We were now directly under the distinctive peak of Little Hangman and we stopped for a moment to catch our breath and take in the view. I informed Lisa that Wild Pear Beach just below us was the local nudist beach. She looked less than impressed and I can hardly blame her. It's hardly Euronat after all.

Above Wild Pear Beach

We were now heading up to Little Hangman's big brother. Great Hangman, at over a thousand feet is the highest point on the South West Coast Path and the highest sea cliff in England, with spectacular views up and down the coast. The wind was whipping round us now, settling any lingering doubts about the wisdom of heading too far along the coast path. No trees, just a wild expanse of brown heather and gorse bushes tipping down to the sea below. Up here it was easy to understand the inspiration Richard Doddridge Blackmore derived from Exmoor for his novel Lorna Doone.

But then a minor miracle occurred - the rain stopped and the heavy grey clouds parted to reveal a crisp blue sky as we made our way across the moor.

Top of Great Hangman
As we approached Sherrycombe it felt as if the very earth was falling away.  We were like a couple of Flat-earthers tentatively approaching the edge of the planet as the carpet of grass disappeared over the edge in front of our very eyes.
'Is it safe?' Lisa asked with understandable concern.
My reply was somewhat non-committal and not terribly reassuring. 'Uh, yes, I think so. Er probably.'
The disappearing path
The  muddy way down
Sherrycombe is a deep cleave between the hills of Great Hangman and Holdstone Down through which a stream rushes pell-mell to the edge of the cliff where it tumbles into the sea. Here, during the Second World War, so the story goes, U-boats would creep in at night to replenish their water supplies from the waterfall. We slipped and slithered our way down the muddy path to the bridge over the stream at the bottom and then started the steep climb up the other side. At least this side was grass rather than mud. Just before Holdstone Down is a right turn back to the road, leading up a muddy track. The path soon forked and we had our first chance to put our map to the test.

Not all routes are as well sign
posted as this!
I think its pretty uncontroversial to assert that Ordnance Survey maps are the best maps in the world. The detail of the 1:25000 is exquisite with every tiny structure and feature marked on there. I adore them and can look at them for hours. The downside of them is that they can be rather unwieldy to use when out and about and if walking any distance you need quite a lot of them. For instance the SWCP requires seventeen OS Explorer sheets. A-Z have resolved this by using OS mapping but converting them into an atlas format, allowing them to focus on the areas walkers are likely to need. Thus instead of seventeen OS maps, only five Adventure Atlases are required. The atlas has the added bonus of a place names index giving page numbers and grid references and a page of useful QR codes for use with smartfones, although this feature is no use to me as I grimly and stubbornly refuse to give up my very ancient Nokia handset.

Walking the cliff tops would have been foolish so we were now heading back inland. After glooping through ankle deep mud the tarmaced road to Trentishoe provided welcome respite as we continued on, passing grazing sheep on the verges and spindly trees with trunks leaning back from the coast, away from the wind coming off the sea.

Windswept trees

A permissive path travels across Trentishoe Down, rather boggy but we were used to the mud by now. At the far end a new hazard was introduced in the form of soggy, wet leaves as we made our way down through the oak woods to join Ladies Mile, the path from Trentishoe Manor to tiny Trentishoe Church father along the valley. I've never walked this section of the route before and for the next mile the map was in regular use as we traced our way along ancient sunken lanes lined with moss covered stone walls and across sheep dotted fields.

Devon lane

It was not only the map that was getting a try-out. Our boots were pushed to the limit too and we squished and squelched our way along. Lisa's performed significantly better than my old tatty boots; she assured me her feet were dry and warm whereas my left sock was by now feeling distinctly soggy. If this was indeed Lisa's first proper walk as she assured me, she was doing remarkably well pretty challenging terrain. But we were both feeling rather weary by now and we both stared in dismay at the hill in front of us. 'This is the last one,' I said to Lisa.
'Huh, you've told me that before,' she replied. I assured her that this time it was true and showed her the map to prove it. Sure enough, at the top there was nothing but a long steep lane down to take us back to Combe Martin.

A little grubby by now
We agreed that a pint would be a fine idea, we had definitely earned it so it was back to the Pack O'Cards for a welcome pint of Tribute before we parted company, both of us in dire need of a hot shower. I only hope I haven't put Lisa off country walks for good. As for the map - a definite thumbs up. Easy to use and to stuff into a map pocket. My only small gripe was that after a day out in less than wonderful weather it was already showing signs of wear and tear. But then again, so would a regular paper OS sheet if not protected. OS offer a laminate map option (albeit at twice the price of a paper map) and I understand there are plans for A-Z to bring out an edition of their Adventure Atlas made from more robust materials - I for one will definitely be on the lookout for that. But all-in-all a big thumbs up to A-Z - and also to Lisa for braving the wilds of Exmoor in less than ideal conditions.

If you want to check our route click here.
Total distance 9.27 miles.

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