Flying west to Exmoor for the winter

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Thoroughly fed up with the snow, the cold and the grey skies in the east of England, we fled west. A four-day break on Exmoor has given us an abundance of clear blue skies, mild weather and sunshine before we had to return home to the cold and damp and the refrozen slush on the verges.

Early-morning snow in Lambourn Woods

On the way down we stopped off at a couple of interesting places – Lambourn Woods, just in Berkshire but really at the junction of three counties, was a great place to slip off the motorway for a morning stroll among snow and mist. Also around Ashdown, just about in Oxfordshire, which has a number of interesting features including a field of undisturbed Sarsen Stones, an unusual Restoration hunting lodge and a hillfort. Our motivation was, of course, the caching opportunities presented by the confluence of three counties.

On arrival in Somerset, based in one of the villages on the eastern edge of the moor, we were able to walk extensively in the area, although short days meant sunset always approached much sooner than was entirely convenient. On the best days we enjoyed warm, sunny mornings with early mist burning off the hills and the smell of pine in the air.

The National Trust’s Holnicote estate has miles and miles of walks which largely cover Exmoor’s North Hill – the five-mile range running between Minehead and Bossington Hill before the land dives down to sea level for the Vale of Porlock. Scenery ranges from deciduous woodland and stream-filled combes to bare hilltops with views over miles and miles of moorland. Since these ran literally past the doorstep, we took full advantage. On Christmas day we met a large guided group of senior citizens taking in the view from Selworthy Beacon. Staying at a local hotel they were, like us, busy escaping the demands of Christmas – and the cold.

A viewpoint high above the Vale of Porlock

Highlights for walking here include Selworthy Beacon, Bossington Hill and Hurlstone Combe, an area that is accessible and unbeatable for views but also quite demanding in terms of the climbs and descents you will encounter. One local feature to see is the stone memorial hut for walkers just below the beacon, built in 1879 in memory of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 10th Baronet. (A descendant subsequently donated the estate to the National Trust, which is how we come to be walking over it today.) It always raises a smile, for this sturdy stone structure is a definition of ‘hut’ that you will not often see.

A trek up to Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor’s highest point, is always worthwhile. There are car parks at different locations around it, meaning you can make the walk as easy or challenging as you like. It’s a wonderfully bleak spot with views for miles, as you would expect. In fact, looking across to North Hill, it can sometimes be quite difficult to remember that there is a valley below with a major road and a number of settlements, all out of sight from this eminence. Like Selworthy Beacon this can be a popular spot but choose your moment well and you will feel like the only soul in the world.

The shingle beach at Porlock Weir is close to a submerged forest

We’re extremely familiar with the coast path in this area and any section of it that runs through the Exmoor National Park can provide excellent walking – easy in some areas, demanding in others, but always with spectacular views and access to places you simply would not discover otherwise. We visited an area where things have changed a little since we came through on the first stage of our long-distance coastal walk in 1997. Then the Porlock Shingle Ridge, which kept the sea out of the low-lying area behind, had not been breached by the sea. Now it has, uncovering a rubbish dump in th eprocess, and the area is a saltmarsh, a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The beach at picturesque Porlock Weir is also an interesting feature, being the site of a submerged forest dating back to mesolithic times and sunk by rising sea levels following the end of an Ice Age.

On the day of our visit the skies above the village were slate grey, with great clouds rolling off the high moorland above and out to sea. The wooded slopes of the towering hills above looked dark and forbidding and there was a fierce wind. Part of the price you pay for a December visit, and an enchanting smell of burning wood suggested many residents were keeping to their cosy cottage interiors, drinking tea beside an open log fire.

This WSR train is returning to Minehead

We also learned about one very welcome development since we were last here – the link to the South West Coast Path eastwards from Minehead, on a route known as the West Somerset Coast Path. This is great, even though it destroys our bragging rights and means we will need to return to walk this new section of path running for 25 miles between Kilve in the Quantocks and Minehead. We briefly encountered sections at Dunster Beach to Blue Anchor and in Watchet and heartily look forward to coming back to do it properly. The highlight of this day was seeing the steam trains running up and down the stretch of the West Somerset Railway that runs along that section of coast, including a close encounter at Blue Anchor station that proved popular with everyone nearby.

All too soon it was time to return home. There had been a plan afoot to visit the gardens at Dunster Castle – famously terraced, subtropical and featuring a national collection of strawberry plants. But it came to us that, really we had squeezed the most we could out of this visit and that December was hardly the ideal time, with the castle itself also closed. So instead we drove back through what felt like several climate zones to resume work and everyday life, and wished heartily that we didn’t have to.

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Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow - Thoreau