After yesterday’s undemanding stroll along the England Coast Path we were venturing into Exmoor National Park today. The first high hills of Exmoor were a stone’s throw from our cottage and while I’d been happy enough to admire the autumnal colours of the trees from from our bedroom window, I was less enthusiastic about the prospect of actually tackling the steep climbs.
Fortunately, we’d woken to brighter skies this morning, although there was a definite autumnal chill to the air. We left Minehead via various grassy lanes zigzagging through little clusters of rather desirable housing. At Woodcombe, we joined a trail through a narrow valley and when we pushed open a gate marked Community Woodland, Harri announced we were now officially in Exmoor National Park (he loves his border crossings!). We followed the stony track through towering poplar trees; the path’s gradient was fine for a while, but it gradually became steeper and steeper, until I was stopping every few minutes for a breather.
At last, we emerged onto high cliffs and stopped for a moment to admire the flame-coloured moorland bracken and catch our breath. Up here, and without the protection of the trees, it was cold and blustery and I was soon retrieving the fleece I’d stripped off only minutes earlier. Our first climb of the day had been a tough cookie, but the views back towards Watchet and the Quantocks made the pain worth it. Beyond Watchet, the headlands at Brean Down and Sand Point (near Kewstoke) appeared more like islands, than high points on an otherwise low-lying landscape.
When we passed a couple of hikers kitted out in serious outdoor clothing, we wondered if we had perhaps under-estimated the demands of walking in Exmoor in October. We remembered news items about hikers being airlifted from Dartmoor. Had their been similar instances on Exmoor? We agreed we’d just have to walk faster if we got really cold.
Almost immediately, the grassy path soon divided into two and I knew without asking which way we’d be heading … to the rugged coast. Sure enough it wasn’t long before we were descending steeply into a coombe (the common name for a valley in this neck of the woods) that took us almost back to sea level.
We were soon feeling better about our own choice of clothing when we encountered a hardy, retired couple in tee-shirts who were due to complete the South West Coast Path this very day! They rejected any kudos for their achievement, explaining that they’d walked the 630-mile National Trail over several years and get their backpacks transported from place to place by taxi. We agreed we’d all do more long-distance hiking in the UK if the weather was more reliable and the transport and B&B costs less expensive. Conscious this couple would be looking for a new challenge in the months ahead, I unashamedly plugged the Via Algarviana to them.
By this time, we were getting a little peckish but the ground was too damp for sitting on so we nibbled some snacks as we walked. Nearly noon and the weather was still trying to decide what to do; there were some ominous grey clouds on the horizon but the sun was up there too, doing its utmost to push through.
Last time we walked this way, we’d stuck to the main England Coast Path route and descended to the shingle beach at Porlock Vale on a wide, grassy slope. This time, however, Harri wanted to try an alternative route he’d read about in Walk Exmoor! by David and Carol Hitt (now out of print), which involved us following a steep, winding footpath around the headland.
Here, the landscape was both dramatic and terrifying, and there was evidence of rock falls all around. Amazingly, I managed to stay upright and after a tortoise-slow descent we eventually reached a level footpath that led us past a surprisingly well-preserved old coastguard lookout tower at Hurlstone Point and across an intersection with the official coast path.
When we spotted a bench in a sheltered position high above Porlock Vale it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Right on cue, the sun made another appearance and for a short time it felt more like a summer’s day than the middle of October.
From our vantage point, the view along the Somerset/Devon coastline was quite spectacular. The village of Porlock is set back from the coast, which must have been a relief to its residents in 1996 when a violent storm breached the shingle ridge at the top of the beach. The National Trust made the (then) controversial decision decision not to attempt to restore the ridge, arguing that it wouldn’t necessarily have been stable, and the land was allowed to become a saltmarsh. With rising sea levels predicted, this kind of solution to flooding might become more common.
Our afternoon saw us transformed from intrepid hikers to National Trust visitors as we wandered from one quintessential aka quaint English village to another on the 12,000-acre Holnicote Estate. Bossington was probably the least twee of the three villages, closest to the beach and boasting some impressive chimneys, even one rundown property. From here, we followed a pretty wooded track behind the rather grand Bossington Hall before climbing up through the woods on a good-quality stony track.
At a fork in the track, Harri opted for the high road, while I took the low road running alongside a stream. Thank goodness, the two tracks converged again before we reached Allerford or I would have been in trouble. Allerford is famous for its packhorse bridge, which is thought to be medieval, so, like every tourist before us, we duly took photographs from both sides.
The old Victorian primary school closed in 1981 and now houses the West Somerset Rural Life Museum and Victorian School. It only cost £2 each and I wouldn’t have minded popping inside, but Harri was already charging off down the road.
Our final village was Selworthy. The National Trust describes it as ‘a timeless rural landscape of thatched cottages, nestled in the vale of the Holnicote estate’. Clearly, rural landscapes must have looked very different in Somerset because of all the family farms I visited in my childhood in Wales I can never recall any being painted lemon. Selworthy was teeming with visitors who trailed from one thatched cottage to another before stopping for afternoon tea at Periwinkle Cottage Tearooms. I’m afraid this Disney-esque version of England with its perfectly manicured village green was all a bit twee for us and we hurried away before a rosy-cheeked farmer’s wife appeared and enticed us into Clematis Cottage Shop for homemade scones and clotted cream.
After such an exciting few hours, we were keen to get back to Minehead. The original plan was to climb up to the beacon on North Hill but neither us of felt much like another uphill slog … we’re clearly getting soft in our old age! The single-track road we followed was signposted unsuitable for vehicles so we enjoyed a quiet stroll with a great view of a hill we didn’t have to climb.
So far Harri has been very impressed by the quality of the footpaths here in Exmoor National Park, which have been well signposted and maintained, even away from the coast. It’s a shame that so many footpaths outside National Parks are being left to get overgrown to the extent that they are becoming impassable but that’s austerity for you.
We’d walked just over eleven and a half miles today, which is no distance at all really, but we were both exhausted when we reached Periton. Of course, we blamed it on the sea air, but it could just be that we are getting old … after all, Harri celebrated his fortieth birthday today!