Thankfully, today’s weather was a marked improvement on yesterday’s and, though I’ve long stopped believing anything the BBC weathermen say, the forecast was good. Unfortunately, good weather in October doesn’t generally mean warm and sunny, and it was as cold and windy as ever when we set off this morning.
For the second day running, Harri propelled our reluctant automatic up Porlock Hill and parked high above the Bristol Channel at Whitstone Post, a spot as blustery as County Gate and with spectacular views across Porlock Vale.
Fortunately, there was no need to hang around and almost immediately were joining a grassy footpath leading to a deep, wooded valley. As we headed downhill, we had a uninterrupted view of Dunkery Beacon, its summit engulfed by low-lying cloud. At 519 metres (1,705ft), this is Exmoor’s highest point and the views are said to be spectacular and far-reaching. The hill isn’t on our itinerary this week; however, we’ve already vowed to return to Exmoor in summer so I’m sure we’ll be climbing it before too long.
Harri has been very impressed with the excellent way-marking and signposting here in Exmoor National Park. The footpaths are generally much better-maintained than the majority in the Brecon Beacons National Park where our hiking has been frequently thwarted by brambles, ferns, missing waymarks and even fencing erected across the footpath.
We joined a wide footpath cut into the slope and before long were meandering through a wonderful oak forest where a blanket of acorns covered the ground and a stream gurgled and gushed its way through the valley. If I had to sum up Exmoor in one word if would have to be ‘water’ – we thought Wales was wet until we visited Exmoor. There is simply water everywhere, from rushing torrents to small streams and brooks. It’s hardly surprising to learn three reservoirs are located within the National Park boundaries with two more just over the border. Yesterday, I was bowled over by a riverside garden with its own waterfalls (two) and yet as we walked into Porlock this morning we passed another home adorned with a waterfall – this one even boasted its own vast waterwheel.
So why all the water? Well, the high moors cause the warm, damp air from the Atlantic to rise and cool, hence the annual rainfall (and snow and sleet) is much higher (over 2,000 mm) than just east of the moors (800 mm). Of course, waterfalls and tumbling brooks might look idyllic but all that heavy rainfall creates big problems: flooding, erosion, the washing away of topsoil and peat, and landslides (like the one we saw yesterday near Watersmeet).
The high tidal range of the Bristol Channel presents other challenges. In October 1996, the 8000-year-old shingle ridge which protects Porlock Marsh was breached after the western end was weakened by the sea’s steady redepositing of rocks to the eastern end (and a lack of ‘new’ stones from cliff falls). This wasn’t the first time it had happened, but after the October storm it was agreed to stop ‘repairing’ the ridge and allow nature to take its course. Without the rock barrier, salt water inundated the farmland and created a new tidal lagoon, now a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There are still copses of dead trees visible on the tidal salt marsh. Stand on the high cliffs on either side of Porlock and you’ll have superb views of the lagoon and Porlock slightly inland.
We reached Porlock about 2.5 miles into our walk and enjoyed a slow wander around this pretty village with its thatched cottages, whitewashed walls, converted barns, colourful floral displays and towering chimneys. Despite its many charms, Porlock still manages to feel like a village where real life is taking place unlike nearby Selworthy.
We left Porlock along a chestnut-strewn footpath which would take us to Porlock Weir, where we spent our first proper holiday nearly ten years ago. It was February and dark when we got off the bus in Porlock one evening, having found it more convenient to travel to our destination by public transport that day. Despite forgetting to bring a torch (something he’d never do nowadays), Harri was confident we could follow the route without too much trouble. Twenty minutes later we were stumbling through pitch-black woods Blair Witch Project-style and wondering if we’d ever reach our beautiful coach house. When we heard noises ahead, we very nearly turned to flee back to Porlock but it was fine, we’d just encountered another couple who, like us, had forgotten their torch!
Munching chestnuts, we turned onto the road to Porlock where we were saddened to see Chapel Knap looked somewhat neglected: leaking guttering had left the coach house’s exterior stone wall in a bad way and the roofs looked like they needed attention. I was intrigued by St Nicholas, a typical Victorian ‘tin tabernacle’ church with a small gabled porch, tiny belfry and small-scale pointed arch windows that was erected in 1880 and still holds a service every fourth Sunday. Such was the growth of nonconformism at the time that tin churches – though expensive per seat – were seen as faster option than traditional builds. William Morris, a key figure in the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, apparently hated them and wrote in 1890 they ‘were spreading like a pestilence over the country’.
The weather was much brighter by the time we reached the harbour so we found a bench and stopped for a leisurely elevenses. Now we were back on the South West Coast Path it was time for our main climb of the day (inevitably there were more to come). The track was steep and stony and passed through two short tunnels built below the Italian-style terraced gardens of Ashley Combe Manor (now demolished) so its upper-class owners wouldn’t have to see the tradesmen’s carts entering the grounds.
At nearby Culbone, we had an Escher-like experience when we crossed a bridge and descended to the churchyard, came out of a gate on the other side, walked up the stream and under the bridge we’d just walked over. At just 35 feet long, the 12th century church – dedicated to the Welsh saint Beuno – is reputed to be the smallest church in England. Surprisingly, given the lack of road access, services are still held here. I was intrigued to see the majority of graves here belonged to people called Roberts (Harri’s mother’s maiden name) and Red.
We emerged from the woodland onto a track with high hedgerows on either side to find the sun shining brightly above us. At last the weathermen had got it right! There was more climbing before we reached Silcombe Farm where there are some beautiful old unconverted barns (dated 1864) laid out in a courtyard – the main barn has several arches leading off the central yard. The farm once operated as a bed and breakfast but this no longer seems to be the case. Those barns are ripe for conversion though, what a gorgeous spot with fabulous views of the coast.
Having stoically tackled not just the ‘high climb of the day’ but several subsequent hills, we now found ourselves trundling up several very steep fields, so steep in fact that even Harri was forced to walk on his tiptoes. I was beginning to feel tired and crotchety, and even the magnificent scenery couldn’t compensate for the sheer slog of getting up these hills.
It took a while, but eventually even I had to agree all that climbing was worth it. The withering heather on the moorland had taken on a rose-gold glow and, set against the autumnal colours of the trees and distant slopes, the whole landscape was quite dazzlingly beautiful. I longed just to ‘stand and stare‘ but Harri was already stomping on ahead and the peat-bog nature of the ground meant I needed to keep my wits about me if I didn’t want to sink into ankle-deep mud. It was too cold to linger so it wasn’t until we reached the next valley and found a bench alongside another fast-flowing river that we finally stopped to eat.
Just when I thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, it did just that. We’d climbed back out of the valley and walked briefly along a level stretch of the A39 before joining an undulating footpath high above the coastline. Here, the near and distant views were simply stunning, with the rose-gold heather contrasting starkly with the greenery of the lowlands and sparking waters of the Bristol Channel beyond. In the distance, Dunkery Beacon was clear with just a string of tiny fluffy ones hanging in the air above it.
Yesterday I couldn’t get back to the car fast enough; in today’s late afternoon glow I could have walked forever.
And if you’re interested in following our 21 km walk (with all those hills) here’s a link to the route.