AN EXMOOR DIARY
A good warm up awaited Stoker Jackie and Skipper Alan, Winter each morning when they set off on their tandem from deep in Doone country, hidden in the north of Exmoor …. Jackie Winter tells all.
My affection for Somerset and North Devon dates back to 1974, when Allan and I spent part of our honeymoon at the Carew Arms in Crowcombe. We've visited the Quantocks and Exmoor many times in the intervening years, always with the tandem and always marvelling at how traffic-free the area is, despite its beauty.
For those who like to follow a planned route, the West Country Way is part of the National Cycle Network and provides a waymarked ride through Exmoor, mostly along quiet lanes. Also on offer is the 62 mile Exmoor Cycle Route, which incorporates some of the region's most scenic and challenging roads.
Allan and I stayed at a holiday cottage in the small village of Brendon near Lynton, so our rides were mostly within a twenty mile radius of the cottage. Exmoor is very hilly and cycling is hard work but also infinitely rewarding.
Saturday 25th April: The First Cuckoo, Whortleberries and a Tribute To Married Happiness
Set off about 10 o'clock and cycled to Malmsmead in the Doone Valley, made famous by R.D. Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone. Here we crossed Badgeworthy Water over a seventeenth century packhorse bridge. Bought substantial sandwiches for lunch at the cafe and heard a cuckoo for the first time this year.
Cycled for five miles before seeing a car, meeting just seven cyclists, two horses and a dog. Only birdsong and the bleating of young lambs disturbed the silence.
The grassy banks were full of primroses and yellow gorse, a cold wind blowing the sweet smell of coconut towards us. Whortleberry flowers grew amongst the heather, precursors to summer berries, which are made into jam similar to blueberry jam, found on sale in every Exmoor tea shop.
Pedalled through the small villages of Tippacott and Barbrook, before reaching Martinhoe. Not enough time to explore but this village is home to the Hollow Brook waterfall, which drops 200 metres in a series of cascades down to the sea. We cycled along a toll road leading to Lee Abbey, a Christian retreat house. This hilly coastal road has stunning views of steep cliffs rearing from a lavender sea. The Exmoor shoreline is the most remote in England. Because of the height and steepness of the cliffs, there are few places where it is possible to land even a small boat.
We ate our lunch on a seat where a dedication read: "Given by Donald and Jean Knight. In thanks to God for married happiness. 1946". My huge ham and salad roll defeated me and I gave chunks to a friendly robin. We followed the road leading to the Valley of Rocks with its famous herd of feral goats. These are a huge visitor attraction but unpopular with Lynton residents when they find their way into town to wreak havoc in the gardens.
Then came a two-and-a-half mile walk from Castle Rock into Lynton, pushing the tandem along a narrow path high above the sea with dramatic coastal views, beautiful in the April sunshine. At Lynton we passed the water powered cliff railway before visiting the church, where we saw a plaque dedicated to the memory of thirty-four people who died in the Lynmouth flood of 1952. At the end of the list of names was poignant mention of: "An Unknown Woman".
Our homeward route followed a long but gradual climb up Lyn Cleave and Myrtleberry Cleave past Watersmeet, where the East Lyn river meets Hoar Oak Water. Then to Hillsford Bridge, where we bought half a dozen brown Exmoor eggs from a farm gate. Finally cycled back to Brendon via Rockford. 25 miles
Sunday 26th April: Bride Shot On Altar Steps and A Cyclist Falls off his Bike
Very cold wind first thing and no sunshine. Cycled to Watersmeet, where there are wonderful riverside and woodland walks. Visited St Mary's at Oare. It was on the altar steps of this little church that the fictional Lorna Doone was shot on her wedding day. When the book was written, St Mary's would only have held about a dozen people. A memorial to R.D. Blackmore was erected in the church on the centenary of his birth in 1825.
Climbed a 1:4 hill out of the Doone Valley to the top of Porlock. Then we took the four mile scenic toll road (bikes £1) and didn't so much as turn the pedals for the next four miles.
This road dates from the 1840s and was built to offer a gentler alternative to the notoriously steep Porlock Hill. It was dug out manually to provide work for local people following the Napoleonic Wars. To take our minds off the freezing wind, there were fantastic views over the Bristol Channel to Swansea and the Gower Peninsula, smugly bathed in glorious sunshine.
On to Porlock Weir, once a busy port but now a peaceful harbour for yachts and fishing boats. We ate our picnic in a sheltered spot beside the sea wall, where we gazed wistfully in the direction of a still sunny Wales. Cheese and Ciabatta rolls this time, which we shared with a couple of jackdaws, one of which had a dodgy leg.
We lingered for a few minutes in the car park, looking at several gleaming classic cars, amongst which was Allan's dream machine - a red and cream Austin Healey 3000. Then we cycled back into Porlock and took the Bossington Road and from there into Allerford, where like many others before us, we took photographs of the medieval packhorse bridge.
Headed in the direction of Luccombe and Dunkery Hill, before taking the Cloutsham road which turned into a long hill, very steep in places. At last the sun came out and we were treated to wonderful views towards Dunkery Beacon (highest point in Exmoor at 1,704 feet) and the starkly white outline of Selworthy Church, just visible over a distant hill.
Heard the cuckoo again and the song of a skylark as it soared above us. Some welcome rain the previous night had refreshed clusters of parched moss, which coated the stone walls and beech hedges we cycled past. First stirrings of cow parsley were beginning to crowd the grass verges. Sadly, no sign of the Heath Fritillary butterfly. Exmoor is one of the few places in Britain where this rare butterfly can be spotted.
We came to a ford, which Allan said we shouldn't cycle through because the ground looked bumpy. As we pushed the tandem over the footbridge, a cyclist on a mountain bike approached, clearly intending to whizz through the ford. But mid stream he lost control of his bike and fell off into the shallow water. He was unhurt and even managed to laugh about his misfortune, but I fear Allan wouldn't be human if he hadn't felt just the tiniest bit pleased with himself for making a wise decision.
On meeting the Exford to Porlock road we retraced our steps through the Doone Valley, stopping to enjoy a final cup of tea on a sunny bench beside the river, before returning to Brendon. 35 miles
Monday 27th April: Goose Pimply Legs and The Devil's Sunbed
Bright sunshine but only 9 degrees and with an even icier wind. Last week in Dorset the temperature had reached the low twenties. Ever the optimist, Allan hadn't brought any long cycling trousers with him and no woolly hat or gloves. I on the other hand, had come equipped for all weather conditions but my face stung with the cold. We cycled up the Doone Valley and through Malmsmead, to the top of Porlock Hill. Then dropped down into the village of Exford and pressed on to Withypool.
Our destination was Tarr Steps but the road Allan fancied taking at Tarr Post was narrow and unsigned. I was hungry and didn't want to take any chances on getting lost but before we could start arguing, a farmer on his quad bike drew up beside us. A friendly fellow, he told us that if we followed this narrow road, it would soon peter out onto a short section of unmetalled pathway that would be difficult to cycle along but which would take us in the right direction.
Sure enough, after 300 metres of very rocky downhill track, along which Allan pushed the tandem, we met a narrow tarmac path which soon led us to Tarr Steps, a lovely place we'd visited several times before. Like most Exmoor beauty spots, there was no-one to be seen and we were soon enjoying our picnic beside the river, with only a family of hungry chaffinches for company and the song of a cuckoo in the distance.
Tarr Steps is a medieval clapper bridge comprising seventeen stone slabs, which crosses the River Barle. Legend has it that the structure was built by the devil to enable him to sunbathe. It was washed away in the devastating floods of 1952 and reconstructed by the Army. Sixty years later in December 2012, Tarr Steps collapsed a second time after being struck by a ten foot wall of flood water. The bridge was rebuilt at a cost of £10,000.
The chilly wind strengthened and Allan complained of the cold so we set off again, on our homeward route. It began to rain and poor Allan became even colder. There followed a gradual climb along the B3223 before we dropped down into Exford and made straight for the Exford Bridge Tea Rooms, where a big pot of Earl Grey and a hefty slice of homemade fruitcake finally warmed my husband up.
On the road taking us away from Exford, we passed three water mills and the sun made a belated but welcome appearance. We rejoined the B road leading to Porlock and were treated to terrific views across the Bristol Channel, as we approached the A39. Here we turned left, rejoined the road to Malmsmead and returned to our holiday home. 43 miles
Tuesday 28th April: Death at Pinkery Pond, Little Switzerland and Chunky Ginger Ice-Cream
Sunny but still that cold, strong wind and only 8 degrees! Followed the Doone Valley and joined the B3223 at Brendon Barton. Cycled along an open moorland road with views of the Two Moors Way. To our right were Exmoor's Chains, a high, wild and boggy plateau on the westerly moors and the source of many rivers, including the Exe, Barle and West Lyn.
It was these peat bogs which were overwhelmed by the relentless rains of August 1952. Millions of gallons of water raced down the three main rivers, resulting in the Lynmouth flood disaster.
The Chains is no stranger to human misery. In the late 19th century, a farmer named Richard Gammon was left a widower with ten children. After six lonely years, he courted a Parracombe woman who finally turned down his offer of marriage. It was her letter of rejection which was found in the farmer's jacket beside Pinkery Pond, a forty foot artificial lake deep in the heart of the Chains.
Lynmouth Lifeboat provided a small boat to drag its depths and a diver from Wales tried his best but all to no avail. Pinkery Pond had to be drained and the body of Richard Gammon was eventually found, fifteen days after he went missing. More than a thousand people travelled to the Chains to watch the macabre scene unfold and herons came from miles around in huge flocks, to eat the stranded fish.
I found all this out later, or I might have taken more interest in the bleak landscape we cycled past. But at the time, I was more preoccupied with how cold I felt and looking forward to elevenses somewhere sheltered from the freezing northerly wind. Soon after Simonsbath we found such a spot, on a track leading to Pinkery Youth Hostel and the sun even treated us to some welcome scraps of warmth.
On into Challacombe and Blackmoor Gate before taking the A39 to Parracombe, home to that woman who didn't fancy taking on a widowed farmer with ten children back in 1889. It's a pretty village, sheltered that day from the icy wind and a chap in shirt sleeves greeted us cheerfully. We found a sunny picnic table in the recreation ground, where we ate our lunch but with sadly no birds to keep us company, although we had heard a cuckoo on the Simonsbath road.
We rejoined the A39 for a short distance before freewheeling along the very pretty and steeply sided Heddon Valley, with the River Heddon to our left, finally dropping down to the Hunter's Inn. The first pub on this spot was destroyed by fire in 1895. It was rebuilt ten years later and designed to resemble a Swiss Chalet because the district around Lynton and Lynmouth was often referred to as "Little Switzerland".
This area is part of the Holnicote Estate and owned by the National Trust. We fortified ourselves with Langage Chunky Ginger ice-cream, before tackling the 1:4 climb out of the Heddon Valley. It was a long haul and we (or Allan, to be precise) pushed the tandem for best part of a mile. But at the top, we were rewarded by a fabulous road with wonderful sea views to our left and no traffic whatsoever, only a few walkers. The toll road took us to the coastal path leading to Lynton, which we'd walked a few days previously and we thoroughly enjoyed repeating the scenic experience.
Finally it was the now familiar long and gradual ascent from Lynmouth to Hillsford Bridge, where a left turn took us back to the Doone Valley. 35 miles
Wednesday 29th April: A Travelling Puppeteer and Horner Tea Rooms
For the final time on this holiday, we climbed out of the Doone Valley and prepared to enjoy swooping down the 1:14 scenic toll road, with its two hairpin bends, into Porlock. It was still cold - bitterly cold in fact but again gloriously sunny. Leaving Porlock, we took the Bossington road and cycled through Allerford and on into Selworthy.
With its beautiful thatched cottages, neatly pretty gardens and award winning tea room, this village typifies the term "chocolate box". Selworthy now belongs to the National Trust but in the 19th century, it housed the aged and infirm former employees of the Holnicote estate. The whitewashed church of All Saints clings to the hillside, where there are superb views over the Vale of Porlock to the moors beyond.
We cycled past a plaque, unveiled on 17th June 1989, to commemorate the first wanderings of Walter Wilkinson (1888-1970), a puppeteer, writer and artist. Selworthy is believed to have been the starting point of Wilkinson's travels with his puppet show, throughout England, Scotland, Wales and America.
After our picnic lunch, we followed a high and exceedingly narrow lane described as unsuitable for motors, which gradually descended to the A39. Here we headed straight across and pedalled through Wootton Courtenay and Luccombe. Both are attractive villages but we had Horner in our sights, where we knew there was an excellent teashop and I certainly needed some sustenance before tackling the long, steep climb out of the valley.
Fortified by cherry shortcake and cups of tea, we took a deep breath, turned left out of Horner and began the long climb up Ley Hill, through Horner Woods, home to wild red deer and said to contain Britain's largest area of ancient oak woodland.
The gradient defeated us and it turned into a very long walk, our faces whipped scarlet by the strong north-westerly wind. But we were treated to wonderful views towards Dunkery and the Bristol Channel coast.
We encountered only two walkers, a lad riding a quad bike and six cows on that five mile stretch of hilly road which led us past Pool Farm at around 5.15 pm, when it started to drizzle. The weather forecast had warned of a light shower at 5 pm, so that was uncannily accurate.
Highway signs announced that they were about to re-grit the next few miles and in preparation for this the road had been swept clean, which was rather pleasant for us and it was good to be actually cycling again after such a long trudge uphill.
Turned right on meeting the Exford to Porlock road, now on the last stage of our ride back to Brendon. Saw some of the magnificent Highland cattle which can often be seen grazing on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Back to Brendon and out for an end of holiday meal at the Stag Hunter's Inn. Over bread and butter pudding with clotted cream, we agreed that Exmoor is quite possibly the most beautiful place in England. However, we're off to the Derbyshire Dales soon and who knows, those northern hills just might make us change our minds. 38 miles
OS 1: 50000 sheets 180 and 181 cover these routes.
Tourist information http://www.visit-exmoor.co.uk/
Jackie Winter's "Life in Tandem" is a story of tandeming, love and the ups and downs of someone who can't actually ride solo. Read our review and find out more here.