Sumer is icumen in, / Lhude sing cuccu! – Mid-13th century round in Wessex dialect
To reach moorland, we left the Exmoor Forest Inn, for a short spell on the road and then shuddering down through the immaculately-kept Warren farm and up and out onto Exmoor proper.
Because of the prevalence of sheep and deer ticks on Exmoor, and especially because I have previously been infected with Lyme disease, we tucked our trousers into our socks and exercised Constant Vigilance. We were really looking forward to the Exmoor paths today. Perfect turf took us up through fresh air, chittering with swallows and martins around the farmhouse, up into the stratum of the larks on the high moors. Here we were at about 300m, with Dunkery Beacon at 519m in front of us. At this height, spring was about a fortnight behind. Not a peep yet out of the heathers. New green grass was just starting to poke through, but mostly the colours were the yellows and browns of autumn. The only flowers were minute rushes, low to the ground.
We recalled the late snows that they had had on Exmoor, when people had been stranded in their cars on the motorway. It’s bleak up here, and although today there was no rain, a stiff wind was blowing and I wished I had not buried my gloves inaccessibly at the bottom of my pack. We encountered no walkers at all on the moors. We saw a fair number of local people, however: a farmer racing down the road on the other side of the valley on his 4×4, his dog tearing behind him, then a minute later coming up the track past us, dog in the back with tongue lolling.
Unlike the coastal path, so beautiful but so foreign to us, this moorwalking feels so much more familiar, and points us forward to the Welsh Marches, to Offa’s Dyke, and Wenlock Edge. After the chossy path of yesterday (Stephen’s word – you may substitute your own) this walking was pure pleasure. Pleasure that is until we realised we’d missed the path turning off the moor, and had inadvertently added half an hour of road walking to our day: two sides of a steep isosceles triangle. But it did give us splendid views opening up in the distance over the Bristol Channel out into Wales, a close encounter with a couple of Exmoor ponies, and the tiniest lone furry brown calf imaginable.
There was another bit of tricky route-finding on the top: the Macmillan Way had been re-routed. On the map it was clearly marked, but on the ground it was non-existent. Our trusty OS map location software showed us exactly where we were (famously not dependable technology in such a remote location, but on the tops it seems fairly constant), and we eventually found the Macmillan way, but it was not where it was supposed to be. We heard our first cuckoo calling from the right – a return visitor all the way from its wintering grounds in Africa. A little way further on we heard another calling from the left. I do wonder though, whether we were not going round in circles, and whether in fact it was not just a single cuckoo!
Most of today’s walking was characterised by really beautiful underfoot conditions: quite the best, percentage-wise, we have had so far. This was a good thing because the walk which the guidebook promised to be 29km and we thought was going to be 30, actually turned out to be 36.6km – almost the longest of all the walks we have plotted for the entire route. Some of this extra distance was explained by our route-finding errors, but not all.
There were a couple of sections where the path was very rocky. Why do they do that? My heart sinks. It’s tiresome and tiring and all my attention goes eyes down to selecting tiny ribbons of uneven verges as this seems a lesser evil to the impact on knees and plantar surfaces.
But there was also plenty of excellent quality green motorway – kilometres of it. And this helped us keep our average walking speed up at 4.4km/hr, even over such a distance, with 770m up and 985m down: 1749m in total. By the end of the day, that felt like quite a lot.
We had our first break in the car park below Dunkery Beacon. At 16km, we thought this was about halfway through the route, and we were hoping (futilely, as it turned out) for an ice-cream van – or at least a picnic table. I took off my boots to give my feet a rest, and swapped over my socks. To my horror I found an adult female deer tick actually inside my boot, crawling around on the footbed. It definitely wasn’t attached, and I don’t think it had had the chance to bite me. A lucky escape.
Dunkery Beacon car park marked the end of the moors. I was quite surprised: I had thought that we would be walking over them for days. After days of coherent landscape on the coastal path we seem to be covering a lot of ground very rapidly. But we dropped down into a beautiful wood, a little behind Devon and Cornwall in the spring stakes and still with its freshest green on display and bluebells coming newly into flower, and a bubbling river keeping us company.
Climbing up out of the dale, we were enchanted on one sloping field by the greatest proliferation of primroses we have ever seen in one patch, reminding me a little of the glorious bluebell field in North Malvern.
We had been going for quite some time by the time we reached the first village likely to have a café, Wheddon Cross. A dog walker coming down the hill as we sweated up it called out to remark that the pub was still open and ‘Eric makes really good cream teas.’ Since one of the rules of the road is never ignore local knowledge, it would have been rude not to have accepted the advice. The pub turned out to be called ‘The Rest and be Thankful’. It was an omen. We did rest. And we were thankful. And the cream tea was truly spectacular.
Fuelled by enormous scones and generous dollops of clotted cream we started off again, this time on the exceptionally well-signposted Coleridge Way. It turns out that Porlock is just down the road. Romantics obviously liked it soft underfoot, because for about 16 km the path traverses the softest turf imaginable, with patches of aptly-named speedwell,
and inquisitive cows and sheep hoping for a feed.
It maintains encouraging views out towards the Bristol channel, and gives forward views of a very un-moorlike rolling landscape: stripey or softly ploughed red-earth fields, open vistas of increasingly sunny rounded hills,
and picturesque villages with just the right number of perfect thatched cottages. We were certainly off Exmoor. We passed a polling station, and reflected that this was the first ever election we had failed to vote in.
I don’t know what I would have done had the Coleridge Way been less thoughtfully constructed. As it was, I had a tearful moment around the 34 km mark – not exhaustion, just pounded feet with a half hour still to go. It is quite hard to distract myself with chat, since so much focus is required just to put one foot in front of the other. It is at these moments that I feel guilty that Stephen is a psychologically as well as physically stronger walker than me. But we prevailed, and got to Roadwater in the end. The cheering weather helped, clearing to blue sky and fluffy clouds after a lowering day, (as did the judicious consumption of a couple of Shot Blocks, a kind of grown-up jelly baby for cyclists). But this is the first day when my feet have not recovered, even after three and a half hours, as I write this.
Mystery plant of the day
Stats for today
Exceptional quality poems composed (whilst asleep or otherwise): 0
Tickageddon averted: 1
Superfluous kilometrage inadvertently added: circa 2
Benches and picnic tables affording the tired walker a chance to take weight off feet: literally 0