Now is the month of Maying, / When merry lads are playing, / Upon the greeny grass, / Each with his merry lass – Traditional
May Day, our 11th day of walking, was a linking route which took us from Devon coombe-land up onto Somerset’s Exmoor, and into our third county. It was the first day so far we have not been on a national trail, and we could tell by the quality of the footpaths and bridleways. To say that the surface was uneven would be understating the case: every scrap of farmland was churned up by horses or cows, and all attention was focused on the ground in front of us so that we didn’t turn an ankle.
After our fourth night at Siriol and Neil’s, we packed up for the last time from the lap of luxury, hoisted our packs onto our backs, and took a lane from Goodleigh to cut off a bit of road walking, a tunnel floored with and cut from the smooth blue-grey bedrock, shaped perhaps by water.
We will draw a veil over how much road walking we did today – as was probably predictable from a linking day between areas of the country otherwise well-served with national trails.
It wasn’t all road though. A path through a widely-spaced pine plantation was carpeted with moss.
Sharp-tasting wood sorrel provided a spring salad,
and yellow archangel was a new plant today.
Stephen saw a roe deer leaping down the slopes away from us. We also startled a buzzard which swooped off into dark between the trees. Apart from the woodsorrel to eat right now, later in the season this route will provide plenty of wild blackberries and raspberries – and as we gained height towards the end of the day, bilberries started to appear. Stephen reminisced about spending hours gathering bilberries for his grandmother, so she could make one perfect bilberry plate-pie.
We came out by a trout farm making the most of a crystal-clear gravel-shoaled river and then hiked the long road up into a village fighting for a sense of community: the pub was in danger of closing, judging by the posters exhorting locals to save it, and the village shop and café was a portacabin in a rough car park.
The subsequent long road section ended with a bridleway over short (uneven) turf fields studded yellow with lesser celandine. There were glorious promising views upon to the beginnings of Exmoor where we would be by the end of the day.
Our path plunged down, though, through a gorse tunnel into the coombe filled with greening trees, a little paradise marred by a stand of the über-invasive Japanese knotweed right by the side of the waterway. I hope the Council are managing its eradication.
A pair of grouse flew up from under our feet, and pheasant were a frequent sight. St George’s flies accompanied us for the entire day: completely harmless, but large, fat, jet-black, with hanging-down legs which make them look like Imperial probe droids.
On today’s walk beach trees were constant companions. It was as though some land owner in the late 19th century had got a job lot of thousands upon thousands of beach seedlings and planted them all up as hedges. Many had been laid. Some thereafter had been trimmed to produce thick hedges.
Others had grown out, so we could see the thick horizontal trunks of the original laid hedge with tall trees towering up out of it.
In Challacombe a kind woman with whom we struck up a conversation re-filled my water bladder from her kitchen tap, and climbing up from the village onto common land we got our first sensation of moorland under our feet.
Our path followed a deep ditch flanked by an 8-foot dyke on top of which had been planted beeches, fully-grown and imposing, with powerful roots which had levered out the dyke bank in places and taken its place, looking like huge moss-covered forks stuck in a line into the ground.
More beeches lines the 6km of road into Simonsbath, covered all over with thick layers of moss.
We took the valley path for the last kilometre, along the bank of a river which had been diverted to run a water-driven sawmill.
The pub where we stayed (a temperance hotel until 1933) had a wonderful bath in which to soak tired ankles, no mobile reception, non-functioning WiFi and a large amount of tourist information about the area which confirmed our surmise about the origin of the beech hedges: it was Frederick Knight in the second half of the 19th century who had them planted as windbreaks all over his Exmoor estates.
We now have four consecutive days over 30km. Some of them cover the excitingly-named Somerset Levels but nonetheless they are going to be long and tiring days.
Stats for the day:
Percentage of route covered by uneven fields: 50
Percentage of route covered by road or hardcore: 50
Modest half pints of pale ale consumed over supper in ex-temperance hotel: 2