How does the nursery rhyme go? ‘Rain, rain go away, come again another day’. We can always hope, but on Exmoor sometimes it rains for days on end: misty rain , drizzle, showers, heavy rain, torrential rain that falls like solid, silver stair rods. We have it all.
As the seasons have turned, I’ve peered out the window, watching the rain as it runs in swift, glistening rivulets down the panes. Inclement conditions have never put me off venturing out. If they did then I’d never set foot outside the door some days. I am not a fair weather type of person and living up here, I can’t afford to be. Firstly, things would never get done and, secondly, I’d miss out on some extraordinary sights across the moor.
I have the clothing to keep me dry and my trusty boots for all eventualities, so some weeks ago, rain or no rain, I thought a good, bracing walk would blow the cobwebs away. Peaceful Withypool seemed to call to me – a walk along the River Barle, up and over the fields and, perhaps, down to Landacre Bridge would while away a couple of hours. Walking beside the river is one of my favourite places to be, when I’m outside. I feel the river takes all your cares and troubles away with it, as it meanders along or flows on by. I had a shin of beef stew very slowly simmering away on the wood burner and I’d add a herby dumpling to it on my return, so, dinner sorted, off I set.
Withypool, an unspoiled village, close to the middle of Exmoor. It sits on the River Barle in the Barle valley and has a wonderful tea room offering sustenance to the weary walker. Mouth watering pasties, delicious cream teas and the like have been devoured both inside and out, over the course of my wanderings. It’s a small but perfectly formed tea room. It was over the bridge from here that I started my wander along the river.
Amazingly, the rain can stop as quickly as it started…but not today. However, over on this part of the moor, it was more akin to a very fine drizzle than rain. It would take more than a little of the wet stuff to strip this beautiful spot of its old-fashioned charm, which oozes from every corner of this small village.
Standing on the grassy stretch of bank, I look towards the stone bridge that spans the river. Exmoor has a good quota of old bridges, full of character and each with a story to tell. I’ll often wonder who and how many have crossed over a bridge before me. Just by running my fingers over the carefully placed stones seems to take me nearer to those that have passed before. I’ve crossed many bridges in my life. Bridges connect places, they allow you to cross and to be somewhere new, scary or exciting. They give you a different viewpoint when you’re on the other side and no matter how large or small, we need them now as our ancestors did all those years ago.
I headed off along the narrow river path, ducking under overhanging trees, still dripping with the jewels of the morning. Green, flowing weed, attached to the rock and river bed, is wafting about in the water, being straightened by the flow of the river. But it clings on for all its worth, not wanting to go who knows where and is happy to be part of Withypool on this damp day.
Just aside a wooden gate sits a solid, tree stump where a walker has left their stick, rammed into the soft earth. Is it a notable communication that this is a pathway loved by all those in tune with the outdoors, or has a fellow walker given up, abandoned their stick and gone back to the warmth of their four walls? Either way, I needed to push on and began to pick my way along a path dotted with muddy puddles, some of which are quite lake-like. Even though the drizzle is the type that wets you through, it’s still a pleasant day for walking and I find myself engrossed in thoughts of how a river just keeps on going. Taking its tales of the riverbank along with it, it stops for nothing and nobody and the miniature waterfalls that tumble over the exposed rocks make their own music to keep me company on my walk.
At some points in the pathway I have to abandon the given route, due to large puddles, and move away from the winding river to a slightly drier pathway. I pass two fellow walkers here who kindly inform me that the pathway up ahead is flooded and impassable, so they’ve turned back. Looking at their footwear, it’s no surprise they’ve bowed to the weather, so I press on. My helpful walkers were correct in that the pathway is very wet but in walking boots it’s not an insurmountable problem and I’m moving away from the river now, up into the fields. I’ll start to climb a little and will be out from under the canopy of trees soon.
Crossing stiles, skirting farm buildings. I find myself in, what looks like, an ancient wooded walkway. The wide pathway is dotted with gnarled, exposed tree roots, there is an ancient looking bank topped with beech trees, bare of their leaves, that guided me towards yet another sloping field. Again, the path is wet underfoot and I’ve had to use raised pieces of stone to pick my way towards a gateway, which is gateless. Here I realise that the drizzle has ceased and I’m becoming quite warm in my waterproof clothing. Quickly sliding my hood back off my head, I stand and look around me at the surroundings. I see grassy fields, looking quite dry from where I stand. They are rutted, undulating and hide the bogginess that lies underneath. The pathway I’ve just wandered is edged by banks of trees and, I can imagine the multitude of wild flowers that would adorn the bank in the warmer months to come.
On the other side of the gateway sits quite a large puddle. It looks deep in places and I know I have to find a way across it. By sidling up the hedgerow beside the gateway, I am able to place my foot on top of a large stone and take a leap of faith across the remainder of the obstacle. Having prodded about in the water with a long stick, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cross it simply by striding through it and I needed my feet as dry as possible for the remainder of the walk.
After a while, I find myself at the top of moorland, looking down on Landacre Bridge, some way before me. It’s about 2 miles upstream of Withypool and is a late medieval five-arch stone construction. Being one of my favourite bridges and with the rain stopped, I rest against an old wooden post to eat some chocolate and take in the view. From here, if you bend down a little, the bridge can be seen through the boggy grass and reeds up here on the moor. One of my most favourite photos is of this shot and it has pride of place on one of the walls at the cottage.
Brown fern and bracken surround me and a slight mist is hanging over the valley but I push on and walk to where the moor begins to slope downwards to the bridge. It’s wet here underfoot and small miniature rivers cascade through the tussocks of grass. Across to my left there are one or two deer standing in the bracken and they blend extremely well with the colours of the land. Being quite a way from me, they are not disturbed by my presence, even though they will know I’m hereabouts.
Whilst I’m resting here I spend a moment thinking about my grandchildren and looking forward to a time when they can accompany me on my walks. It’s important that I leave a trail for them, so that they know what their Nana thought and what she did on Exmoor. There are still so many questions I would have liked to ask my own mother about her life but it’s too late to ask them now, because we thought there was always tomorrow. Tomorrow came but then the day was gone, in the blink of an eye. So much I needed to know, so much I needed to ask her. I can only remedy what I feel by leaving words that my children and grandchildren, in turn, will be able to read one day. It’s so important for me to leave them a story in the only way I know how. Whether it be basic or not, I need them to know how I feel regarding the place in which I live and how I lived my life. My precious children and their offspring may not be with me at the moment but I still want to share with them what’s happening in this beautiful part of the world.
The deer are the only sign of wildlife that I’ve been able to see since removing my hood but it’s not the be all and end all. There have been times when I’ve sat on the hill opposite and watched as 5 kestrels flew in the wind, dipping and diving only to hover again watching out for their quarry. Buzzards usually fly high above the moor here too, but not today. You could get lost out here in the beauty of the place and, on many occasions I’ve been happy to go along with that, but today I must head home to the cottage. I give one last look down at the river, winding towards me like a silver ribbon in the overcast day, and make the decision to drive over Landacre Bridge on my way home. It never fails to make me smile.
I’ve enjoyed the wander and I know that if I carry on down to the road, I’ll have to cross the bridge, trudge up the steep hill and take a right over the fields back towards Withypool. It’s a glorious walk over the fields but it will add a bit to the route and I need to make my way back to my cottage and its simmering stew. Although the rain is still holding off, I make the decision to go back from whence I’d come as it is mostly downhill. I could romp away, picking a path through the puddles, and be back to the car park in no time.
Back in the village, the walking stick is still standing by the tree, unclaimed, the wood smoke from the cottages in the village is reminiscent of my own woodburner and the welcome smell of my beef stew is making my mouth water so, boots changed, I’m in the car. A quick look in the mirror at my dishevelled appearance reveals that I’ve lost an earring along the way somewhere – probably when I whipped my hood off. Perhaps a magpie will find it as a piece of treasure and hive it away for prosperity. I’m off home – back to the cottage that I love so much… until the next time.
At least the rain had ceased here – but who knows what it was doing up on the moor at home. Only one way to find out…