Monday, 28 March 2016

Walking the Coleridge Way - Day 4

Brendon Valley
Mick had been so right to insist we did not camp yesterday evening. It had rained all night and had we been out on the green we would have woken up feeling damp and grumpy. As it was, having strewn our gear about the room, it had all dried off nicely and I had also thoroughly enjoyed a long hot soak in the bath -  which had been heavenly. This morning we tucked into a huge breakfast of cereal, a full English with all the trimmings plus toast and marmalade along with copious amounts of tea -  followed by coffee -  before our final day's walk into Lynmouth.

As we had managed to cover around 20 miles yesterday we were now left with a comfortable five mile bimble down the Brendon Valley, so we had no intention of rushing out before the last piece of toast had been consumed and the coffee jug emptied to the last drop. But finally the time came - and by now the sun had come out - so we set off across the bridge and down the ineffably beautiful Brendon Valley.

Somewhere en route to Watersmeet

Passing through the courtyard of Countisbury Mill the path followed the East Lyn River along the valley, past the hamlet of Roadwater with its riverside pub. Steep, tree-covered banks rose from both sides of the river valley which tumbles its way down waterfalls and swirling pools to meet Hoar Oak Water at Watersmeet. Here the former fishing lodge, built in 1832, is now a National Trust tea-room - although it looks like a fairytale cottage, set in a secluded glad amidst the trees with the river tumbling past the garden. The lodge was built for the reclusive Rev. Walter Stevenson Halliday who also built Glenthorne House and above the door is a poem penned by Wordsworth.

Although we had only walked a couple of miles since breakfast we were taking it easy today and so stopped for yet another cup of coffee. The small birds hereabouts know which side their bread, scones and cake is buttered and the garden was full of chaffinches, blue-tits and robins who variously took it in turns to work up the courage to land on the tables and collect the copious crumbs we put out for them.

Checking the route
Another coffee...
Tame blue-tit
And a confident robin
From Watersmeet the path climbs high into the woods above the river but I had another refusal from Mick  - he claimed it was his vertigo but I'm fairly sure he just couldn't be bothered with the high route and so we followed the 'tourist route' alongside the river and into Lynmouth. Just before the bridge the East Lyn is joined by the West Lyn River which started its journey high up at Exmoor's Chains - a plateau on the western side of the moors. This boggy area acts like a sponge absorbing the rainful which is plentiful here. On one fateful night in August 1952  these bogs were overwhelmed by the vast quantity of rain which - by a strange quirk of nature - came down with the intensity of a tropical rainstorm.  The volume was too much for the ground to absorb and instead the water rushed down the river valleys...until it reached Lynmouth. The river here had been culverted through the village and behind the bridges the river became choked with fallen trees, boulders and debris, causing the river to back up down the valley.

Thirty four people died and four hundred and twenty lost their homes that night. My parents, keen cyclists at the time, had stopped at Lynmouth the night before on their way down from Bristol to my grandparents house at Bideford and I can't help but wonder what might have happened to them had they happened to have set out a day later on their ride. It might have changed my history - perhaps I would not have been sitting here writing this now.

Emerging into Lynmouth it is easy to see how the village warned the epithet "The English Switzerland". The name was coined by Robert Southey who visited here in 1799. At the time Europe was out of bounds due to the Napoleonic Wars and so, deprived of the Grand Tour, people were forced to holiday at home. Lynmouth, to its credit, quickly caught on the economic potential and soon Swiss style hotels and villas were popping up all over the hills. It has been used in local marketing and tourist literature ever since. Well done Southey!

There is something remarkable about this unique and beautiful place - and it's no wonder that not only Southey, but also Percy Bysshe Shelley waxed lyrical about it when he honeymooned here in 1812, as did Coleridge who, in 1798 in a letter to his publisher Joseph Cottle wrote: "we will go on a roam to Linton and Linmouth, which, if thou comest in May, will be in all their pride of woods and waterfalls, not to speak of its august cliffs, and the green ocean, and the vast valley of stones, all which live disdainful of the seasons, or accept new honours only from the winter's snow."

For us it was journey's end of our four day sojourn in the land of poets. Although we had maybe cheated a little at the end due to Mick's fear of heights, we reckoned we had done enough of the Coleridge Way to justify claiming our certificates and so we headed for the Exmoor Park Visitor centre . We proudly informed the nice woman at the desk that we had just completed the walk and she obligingly completed two certificates with our names to record the fact we had walked the route. We badgered another member of staff to take our picture before strolling back to the car, stopping on route for a celebratory bag of chips.

Four days, 51 miles (plus a couple of erroneous ones), three nights free accommodation, one B&B, a respectable number of pints of beer (c.15?) and a certificate! All-in-all a thoroughly enjoyable and successful Easter Weekend Jaunt.

Collecting our certificates for completing the Coleridge Way

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Walking the Coleridge Way - Day 3

This morning when we came round  the rain had eased a little and the tent was dry which makes a massive difference to the weight. Mick then discovered that the tent bag which we had spent twenty minutes looking for at Bicknoller was in fact in his pocket. He offered to carry the tent today and I took the poles.

Attached to the petrol station in Bicknoller was a well stocked local store so we headed in there for a breakfast of coffee and warm bacon and sausage rolls. While we were standing in there munching on our food a fit looking man who I guessed was in his sixties came in. As soon as he saw us he came over and asked where we were walking. We explained that we were heading to Dunkery Beacon and on to Porlock and he smiled. "know it well, he said. "I used to live near then and I ran up Dunkery Beacon every day until two years ago when I moved here."
'You look well on it," I observed.
"Guess how old I am."
"Um, sixty-five?"
"I am eighty-four next birthday."

After breakfast we shopped for provisions for the day, deciding on a bunch of bananas, a packet of currant buns, some nuts, a bar of chocolate and a couple of rounds of sandwiches. As Mick had the tent I volunteered to carry the food. We set off and had not gone far when I suddenly stopped and said, "Hey Mick, I did pack the food didn't I?"
"Of course you did, I saw you put it in your rucksack."
"OK, that's alright then. I can't remember doing that at all." It's weird how one can do things on auto-pilot and not be consciously aware you are doing them.

We headed up the road to pick up the Coleridge Way again at the neighbouring village of Cutcombe. This is an ancient settlement, perched on the ridge above a steep valley. According to the History of the Hundred of Carhapmpton (1830): "Cutcombe is called a hill-country parish; the soil is generally a white rage, or as it is here called, a shellety soil, lying over a kind of bastard slate, not fit for roofing."
The slate may not be up to much but it is a pleasant little place all the same with a pretty Thirteenth century church and best known for its thriving livestock market. Wheddon Cross is more recent - it grew up around the turnpike gate which was put here in the 1820s when the Rest and Be Thankful was built as a coaching inn for travellers.

Packing the tent - Like trying to put
a condom on an elephant...
From Cutcombe we soon found ourselves walking along the drive of Raleigh Manor, a 'magnificent detached country residence' according to the sale particulars. (It was on the market for a cool £1.4 million last year.) The path plunged into the woods next to the manor before turning left up "Tom's Path". As so often is the case near country houses the woods were a mixture of indigenous and imported plants with rhodedendrons and bamboo competing with the deciduous trees and local flora. High in the trees we could hear a woodpecker thrumming away on the bark.

Unusual tree 
After crossing a road the path tipped steeply down towards the stream winding through the bottom of the steep valley before crossing on stepping stones. Soon we were climbing steeply out the other side, puffing our way out of the valley and up towards the open moorland of Dunkery Hill where Exmoor ponies roamed through the heather. The path skirts the bottom of Dunkery beacon and as we had been up there just two weeks before we didn't bother with the detour to the top and headed on down the other side, following alongside the beautifully-named Spangate Grove to arrive at the bottom of a steep valley and facing an equally steep climb up the other side.

It was a lovely spot with a stream bubbling along over mossy rocks and next to it an inviting soft tump of grass to sit down upon and rest awhile. By now we were pretty hungry - breakfast seemed a long time ago. "Time to demolish those hot-cross buns," said Mick rubbing his hands together. "i'm starving." I opened my rucksack to retrieve the goodies we had purchased from the shop and stared into the pack in disbelief.   What is it?" said Mick. "Hurry up and pass me a bun and a banana."
"It's not here."
"I told you I didn't remember packing the stuff at the shop!" I exclaimed. "You said you saw me put it in my pack!"
'I thought you did,' said Mick, perplexed. "I could have sworn I saw you do that."

So we tackled the hill on empty stomachs, distracting ourselves with a conversation about unreliable witnesses.

The route took us to Webber's Post where there was a large carpark and a couple of handy benches for a sit down. There was a fantastic view across the moors which would have been enjoyable had it not been for the very disconcerting huge black raincloud which was scudding its way in our direction. Three minutes later we, and everyone else in the vicinity were running for shelter from a sudden and very violent hailstorm which caused Mick to once again bemoan the fact he had left his gloves at home.

A bit farther on Horner Mill was a fabulous place to stop for lunch  - we had a superb ploughmans each and the visit was uneventful aside from one smashed cup  - pretty good by our standards. From here it was not far to Porlock where the route took us through quaint backstreets to emerge via "The Drang" into the traffic on the high street next to the church.

Lunch was very welcome as we had not had our elevenses...
It was allegedly a man from Porlock who disturbed Coleridge when he was partway through his poem Kubla Khan. Coleridge had been scribbling away in a drug-fuelled frenzy of inspiration. The interruption broke his train of thought and he was never able to finish the poem. Porlock is a nice village although slightly marred by the volume of traffic which trundles through it on the A39.  We called into the grocery stores for more provisions - this time I made doubly sure I had packed them before leaving the shop.

There is a pleasant and popular path which goes through the woods down to Porlock Weir. From here the path takes on a new and serious intent - for the walker is now faced with the towering hulk of the infamous Porlock Hill. The next section was a serious climb up through Worthy Woods. It was raining now and underfoot was muddy and slippy, making progress slow going. It was a relief to meet the Toll Road which had followed us up through the wood and stick with it round the top of the hill and along the hills towards Lynmouth, following the lane which ran high above  but parallel with the South West Coast Path.

Eventually we parted company with the SWCP and we swung left up another hill and over the A39. The wind whistled through us again now were out of the shelter of the hills as we pressed on along the ridge. Then a glorious route down the shoulder of the hill to Oare. The path dropped away steeply either side which Mick, what with his vertigo, did not like at all, but he gamely stuck with it. The deciding factor was when I told him that if he refused to come down then there was no way we were going to make the pub.

Rainbow over Porlock
It was becoming dusky now and Storm Katie was beginning to show what she did next, which was to start dolloping rain on us without mercy. If Oare had had a pub we would have stopped there, but as it was we pressed on along the bank of the river to Brendon. When Mick saw that the path once more begain a steep climb up the side of the hill he finally rebelled. "I'm not going up there. Its pissing with rain, its getting dark and I want a pint." We had walked 20 odd miles, and had our fair share of weather so I suppose he had a point.

We backtracked to a bridge which said no right of way, ignored it and crossed over to the road and trotted purposefully to the Stag Hunters Inn. It took ages to divest ourselves of our now filthy outer garments but once in the pub with our gear draped over radiators and a pint in front of us we relaxed. Shortly afterwards we were ushered into the lounge and we were very soon tucking into huge roast beef dinners and a second pint of Otter Ale.

I mooted the idea of camping next to the village hall where there was a handy piece of grass. But the rain was coming down hard now and Mick rebelled for a second time. He stalked off to the bar and came back clutching another couple of pints and a key to one of the rooms upstairs. "We're booked into a twin room for the night," he said, sticking his chin out obstinately. "And if you don't like it, you can camp and I'll see you in the morning."

Hmm. I thought about it for a nano-second and then said "Ok. Can I have the bath first?"

Stag Hunters Inn, Brendon


Saturday, 26 March 2016

Walking the Coleridge Way Day 2

We had planned to be up and gone before seven o'clock reasoning that anyone who was not in the pub last night would then be none the wiser but the plan didn't quite work. It was gone eight when we finally got up and began packing away our gear, moving gingerly so as not to disturb the hangover too much. Various locals came and went while we were packing, they evidently had an arrangement with the shop for collecting papers from a box outside when the shop was closed, but no-one seemed to mind our presence.

The only hiccup was that we had somehow managed to lose our tent bag last night so I stuffed the wet tent (it had rained in the night) into a plastic carrier bag and stuffed it into my rucksack. Mick had the pegs and poles which I felt was the better deal.

Camping behind the village shop
Today's route began by crossing the flat vale between the hills of the Quantocks and Exmoor. Just before we crossed the railway line I felt a stirring in the pit of my stomach. Oh no! Must have been all that beer because suddenly I desperately needed a Number Two. I informed Mick of my predicament and we looked at the map. Nope, nothing for miles, no chance of a loo then.
'You'll have to dig a hole and shit in the woods,' said Mick, handing me a roll of toilet paper and trying not to snigger. The operation took a while but after I had finished and covered the area with sticks and leaves and put the wet wipes in a little bag for disposal later (NEVER leave wet wipes behind if you are caught short in the countryside), I felt quite proud of my efforts and we went on our way.

We headed through the quiet village of Sampford Brett, stopping for a few minutes at the seat outside the church for some sustenance. But as soon as we stopped walking we began to feel the cold and it wasn't long before we heaved our packs on to our backs and started walking again to warm up.

At Monksilver we took a quick peek in the ancient little church.where it is thought that Sir Francis Drake married his second wife Elizabeth Sydenham, daughter of Sir George Sydenham, the High Sheriff of Somerset, in 1583.

Flowers in Monksilver church

A little farther on we came to a small footbridge with a little pile of pennies on the post at each end.  A man was crossing in the other direction, carefully holding a penny in his outstretched palm. As he reached the other end he put the penny on the post on the other side. "just in case,' he said, as he walked on. A sign on the bridge explained that in ancient times it was " to cross considered prudent for travellers about to cross a wooden bridge to make an offering to the spirits of the trees which were cut down to make the timber."

From here the route started to climb and we puffed and panted our way up Bird's Hill, feeling the weight of the packs on our backs. The weather had been deteriorating over the past couple of hours and it was now raining and blowing a hooley as we reached the top of the climb. Dropping down into the valley at Roadwater was a relief, giving us a bit of respite from the wind. I pulled out my hat and gloves and ask Mick why he wasn't doing the same.
"I didn't bring gloves," he said, ruefully, "I thought I wouldn't need them."

After Roadwater we climbed again, up a track through Langridge Wood. At the top there was a small fence and a sign for Langridge Cist. Mick wasn't keen on a detour but I reassured him it was only a few steps and he followed me over the grass to the cist - a Bronze age bural cairn. It was discovered by workers digging for road stone in 1820 and found to have a skeleton inside which was reinterred in a nearby churchyard. We stared at it for a while, standing in the rain with water dripping off our clothes, our pack and faces before carrying on, stomping through waterlogged, muddy fields with great clods clinging to our boots as we went. Every time we reached a stream Mick stood in the water to wash his boots which I considered pointless as within ten seconds they were covered in mud again.

The Langridge Cist
Classic Exmoor beech lane
By the time we reached Luxborough we were in dire need of some shelter and a hot drink so we removed our boots, opened the door of the Royal Oak and went in. There was no porch at this little Exmoor Inn to divest ourselves of our outer layers and the woman behind the bar laughed when she saw us standing there, completely drenched. 'I didn't think it was raining that hard!' she said.
'It is up there,' I replied, pointing in the direction of the hills we had just traversed. We ordered coffee and sat on the settle by the door, trying not to drip on the other people in the pub. They all looked like they were settled in for the day, drinking pints and playing board games or reading the paper in the comfy chairs by the fire. We looked at them enviously, they had evidently correctly deduced that it was not a day for outdoor pursuits. Outside the rain started coming down harder.

Mick capitulated first. 'Lets get a room,' he said. 'I've had enough.'
I hesitated for a moment-  reluctant to give in. But I was cold - and very wet. 'OK.'
I went to the bar and asked if we could book in. The landlady shook her head regretfully.  "I'm sorry, we're fully booked up. Easter weekend.' Bugger. She kindly lent us the phone (no mobile signal here!) and we called the Rest and Be Thankful Inn farther on at Wheddon Cross. Same answer. Ah well. We heaved ourselves up, thanked them and departed, leaving two large wet patches on the seat.
'They don't care about us at all,' Mick said scornfully, as we plodded down the road.
'What did you want her to do?' I asked. 'Give up her own bed so you had somewhere to sleep?'
'Don't see why not,' he said grumpily.

He cheered up as we made our way on to Wheddon Cross at the top of Exmoor. The weather was worse than ever but by now we had resigned ourselves to it which somehow made it almost enjoyable. We had Lype Hill in front of us as we headed through the fields where inquisitive sheep gathered behind us in search of food before suddenly charging off as if their life depended on it. 'They really are dim animals,' Mick observed. At the top of the hill my plastic cape made a terrific din rustling and flapping as the wind whipped round us. It was getting late now and we had eaten all our supplies. Wheddon Cross is slightly off the route but when we neared the village we detoured onto the road and headed down to the crossroads and the pub.

On Lype Hill

Inside it was packed with people enjoying an Easter Saturday evening meal. Thankfully there was a table for us and we ordered a three course meal and extra chips and extra bread and tucked in with gusto. A couple of hours later, installed by the wood burner and stoking my now distended stomach, I felt much better. Mick suggested I check the weather forecast on my phone. Logging on to the homepage I saw the message "sever weather warnings have been issued."
"Oh no," I said. Look at this."
"When is it for, tomorrow?"
I clicked the link and checked. "Oh, it's for today. No wonder it was windy. We've been walking in Storm Katie."

The Rest and Be Thankful, Wheddon Cross
We camped surreptitiously this time, in the playing field next to the pub. although I can't imagine anyone would feel anything other than pity if they had seen us. But in fact it was not too bad. There was a shelter so we pitched there which protected us from the rain and there was a toilet block which was clean, well-stocked with soap and free to use (Take note Lostwithiel parish council who have just started charging 20 pence a visit!)

Before going to sleep we had a debate about resetting the time as the clocks go forward onto British summer time this evening. For forty or so years I've been doing this and every single year I say the same thing - "Ok, so tonight the clocks go forward - does that mean it will be lighter in the mornings or darker?"

Weathering the storm...


Friday, 25 March 2016

Walking The Coleridge Way Day 1

Coleridge Way signpost
Well, its been a while - over the winter I have been posting at The Other Place - my blog recording my research into the portraits of Jane Austen which you can find HERE.

But Easter is here and the sun is shining so time to dust off the walking poles, scrape the worst of the mud off the boots and get out into the countryside!

Mick and I have decided to walk The Coleridge Way - a 50 (ish) mile walk through Somerset from Nether Stowey to Lynmouth.  You can read a good description of the route on Encounter Walking Holiday's website HERE. The route was established about ten years ago and originally finished in Porlock but in 2014 it was extended to Lynmouth over the border in North Devon. 50 miles seemed a perfect length for a long weekend's walk. Plus the Daily Mirror had announced a couple of weeks ago hat Britain was going to bask in a heatwave so it seemed a great way to spend Easter. (If the Daily Express had run the headline I would have taken no notice  - after all, the Express only has three headlines: Temperatures About To Soar,  House Prices Are UP; and New Cure for Alzheimers) but this was in the lefty Mirror so had to be true!

So last night Mick and I met at Lynmouth where we planned to leave a car before heading up to Nether Stowey to start the walk. I would have much preferred to have used public transport but as anyone who has tried to catch a bus near Lynmouth knows, unless you want to go to Barnstaple you will be standing at the bus stop for a very long time indeed.  My journey up from Cornwall was fine - Mick on the other hand was stuck in the mass exodus of traffic leaving Bristol so arrived three pints later than me, despite having less miles to cover.

We slept in the car in a quiet spot. I don't know why more people don't do this - in Japan car-camping is perfectly normal and you see people all the time overnighting in their cars, having picnics next to them and no-one thinks anything of it. Here you are considered weird or sad if you don't pay £80 or so for a bed and instead get the quilt out in the back of the motor. But as Mick remarked, we all wake up to the same morning, and £80 is a lot of beer money!

Nether Stowey
 So, this morning we drove to Nether Stowey and left the car in the little car park in the village. The route starts at Coleridge Cottage, where S T Coleridge lived for three years and where he composed some of his best known poems including the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. (There is a clue in the name of the pub opposite the cottage.)

Coleridge Cottage 
Its a pity the National Trust do not open the cottage until 11am as if you are walking the route it means a very late start, impractical if you have booked accommodation farther along the route. But we had our tent on our backs and no plan at all about where we were going to stay so we decided to get a nice cup of tea in the corner cafe and wait for them to open up. When we finally gained entry we were impressed with the cottage however. The NT has invested a lot of money and we had a very enjoyable couple of hours here. A member of staff pounced on Mick when we entered the little front room and handed him a dress coat. "Ooh you look like Coleridge" she said.  "Put this on and you can be him!" Mick didn't need asking twice and soon was sitting at the desk composing a poem. "I'm struggling to find inspiration," he said. "Don't suppose you've got any opium have you?" Unsurprisingly no drugs were forthcoming so we decided it was time we got on our way.

Mick is S.T Coleridge

Inspiration is not forthcoming...

On leaving the cottage we walked through the picturesque village and up the hill. At the stop we stopped to look at Stowey Castle - just a mound now to show where an 11th century motte and bailey castle had once been.  The castle was destroyed in the fifteenth century after the locals got a bit uppity with the king, backing the pretender Perkin Warbeck's Second Cornish Uprising, for which the local lord of the manor Lord Audley lost his head. (I mean literally lost his head; he was executed on the orders of Henry V11 in 1497.) From the castle we were treated to fantastic views across Somerset to the coast and over to Wales. A wooden cross had been erected here for Easter which was visible for miles.

The first part of the route took us through rolling Somerset countryside past Walfords Gibbet where wife murderer John Walford was hung with his body left hanging in a cage until it rotted as a deterrent to other would-be murders. He had left his wife's body in nearby woodland at a place still known as Dead Woman's Ditch.

Cottage on the Coleridge Way
Mick said he had had enough of all this death and violence for one day so we changed the subject and were so merrily chattering away that we missed a turning and walked half a mile up the road by mistake. Reluctant to retrace our steps, instead we followed a path which took us up to the top of Dowsborough Hillfort. It was a serendipitous mistake as had we followed the correct path which skirts the bottom of the hill we probably wouldn't have bothered. As it was, we wandered through the fort, and were treated to another panoramic viewpoint, which  must have been jolly useful for iron age folk to check what the marauding neighbours were up to and made a great spot to stop for a bit of lunch.

View from Dowsborough Hillfort

Lunch spot on the hillfort
Cairn marking highest point of the route

The walking was easy, along ancient lanes and through sleepy villages with quaint thatched cottages and squat little churches. At Holford we passed a square building with a plaque on the wall. This was Holford dog pound which was used to house stray dogs to stop them unsettling the hunting dogs owned by the local squire. It was built following an unpleasant incident when a huntsman was savaged by his own dogs when he went out to investigate what had spooked them.

Dog pound at Hollford

Just after here the path becomes a long sweeping drive past Alfoxton House which was the home of the Wordsworths for a year from 1797 until 1798. For a while it was run as a hotel and presumably there was once as a youth hostel here too as we noticed an old YHA sign on a tree, but is now privately owned. What a pity, its a great location for a hostel.

Alfoxton House
We were skirting the edge of the Quantocks now, the path meandering at times close to the A39 before wandering off again. We stopped and talked for a while to a young couple with a baby who wanted to know about our walk. We should do that one day, the chap enthused! His partner look less convinced. As she was the one carrying the baby in a papoose perhaps this was not so surprising.

Just before Bicknoller the path descended steeply through the woodland until a lane took as into the centre of the village. It was late afternoon now and we decided to call it a day. We headed for the Bicknoller Inn and had a brief moment of panic when we discovered that the pub was closed before we realised that a) it was closed for the afternoon only and re-opened at 6 o'clock and b) it was now five to six. Five minutes later we were at the bar ordering a pint of Palmer's Dorset Gold which was superb. Five hours later we were still at the bar ordering pints of Palmer's Dorset Gold which was going down exceedingly well.

That night in the Bicknoller Inn was one of the best nights out I've had in a long time. After offering to swap tables with a bigger group we got chatting to them and to the group of farmers sitting at the bar and soon we were all roaring with laughter and having a fine old time. We had no idea where we were going to sleep that night and asked the locals for advice. After some debate during which one farmer offering us a field which we gratefully accepted until we realised his farm was 10 miles on towards Taunton, somebody suggested the field behind the village shop. We were a little doubtful at first but were reassured that no-body would mind.

Putting the tent up in the dark after copious amounts of beer was a bit of a challenge but eventually we managed it and soon slipped into a booze-fuelled stupor.

A fine night in the Bicknoller Arms

A fine choice of ale