Exmoor – a place of history, secrets and treasures where memories are made each and every day, whether they be good or not so good. It is fair to say that I have my very own secret and special locations that I return to over and over again. Places that hold the best memories for my family and me. That’s not to say that I don’t venture out to find new spots, where I can make new memories, because that’s something I try to do quite regularly. But there are those golden places where I alone exist and can bring all my thoughts and energies together for contemplation and a good old reminder at how lucky I am. Places where I can find complete peace, where I can be at one with my thoughts and, in my mind, that is a priceless treasure.
Living in this part of the country you find yourself growing with the seasons and getting on with the sideways rain, the biting winds, the mists and drizzle. Nature waits for no one and you have to take the rough with the smooth. With this in mind, on a bitter cold Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I decided that I would take myself off for a mini road trip across the areas of the moor that are special to me and that I’ve visited many times before.
So, done up to the nines (and tens) in an inner fleece layer, a waterproof and windproof outer layer, walking boots and accessories, I began with a warm-up and blow-the-cobwebs-away trudge up Dunkery Beacon. As I left the car park it began to snow lightly and the flakes whirled around in the chill wind. Within minutes the flakes had disappeared and I was left with the joy of climbing the pathway with the wind against me, making my ears sting through my head covering. I’m used to walking up steeper inclines than the one before me, yet my throat and lungs were burning with the cold and the effort, as I progressed step by steady step. Burying my chin into the high collar of my coat and pushing onward, I reached the top with an invigorating burst because I knew that what I’d see before me would gladden my heart and set me up for the rest of the day. I enjoy the feeling of being alive and revel in the fact that I can come out onto the moor and be part of its bleakness, even for a short time.
Clarity was not on the cards and the views, although spectacular, could have been better but things like that don’t seem to bother me. After all, I know the beauty of what’s before me and I don’t need to see it every time. Just to be out on the moor, being a part of it is enough and I don’t ask for anything more.
After a quiet half hour or so with my thoughts and of looking towards Selworthy, the coast, Webber’s Post and Cloutsham, I began the descent with the wind behind me and not a soul in sight. Although the sight of a child’s lost, red and woolly hat laying on the ground told me that I’d not been the only one to climb to the top that day. I popped it on top of the stone pillar in case the owner returned.
Back in the car, I decided a hot coffee and then lunch would be on the cards in the next half hour. So, turning right out the car park and making my way up the hill over moorland the colour of hamstone, I made my merry way to the left turn that would take me, first down and then up, onto the moor. Snow flurries were still fluttering past the window but they became fewer the closer I became to the valley floor. High up the lane you are able to hear the river tumbling along and I earmarked my diary for a riverside wander a bit later on. A steep drop to one side is peppered with gnarled and twisted trees, standing like skeletons minus their leaves at this time of year, yet the creeping, clinging ivy gave colour to the trunks. The mud is deep and soft on either side of the lane here and not a friend of the motorist if you don’t have the right vehicle. Over the shallow ford at the bottom of the combe the land flattens a little for a short time and there are green areas where you can stop and watch the river wending its merry way. However, on one of the grassy flats, the wet ground and the weather held an abandoned car prisoner for the time being, as the tyres were deep in the mud and not going anywhere without assistance.
My journey so far had been eerily quiet and devoid of wildlife, apart from the odd Exmoor pony, which is very strange but maybe that was just me concentrating and weighing up the ground I was travelling over. As I neared the moor at the top of the hill, there was a herd of red deer to the left of me, taking their pickings from a lush, green field beside a row of trees. From here I could look back over the moor, with its dark heather patches and pathways, and know that I deserved my lunch on such a chilly day.Over on the moorland, among the heather and gorse, a herd of highland cattle were sitting, keeping their patch of land dry but still chewing the cud. These beautiful beasts with their friendly, pretty faces give the moor a splash of rusty colour and you can only admire them for their resilience to the weather. Ragged sheep grazed alongside the handsome cattle but felt the need to scatter as I crawled by, unlike the cattle who stood fast, as is normal for them.
One of my best-loved spots is up on top of this moorland, which looks across, on one side to where I’d just come from. It is usual from this spot to be able to spot red deer and some magnificent stags way off into the distance, at the right time of year. It’s windy up there but you can usually find a buzzard or two and always a few kestrels. I remember the times of laying back on a flat boulder photographing the underside of a kestrel as it hovered on the wind above me. Treasured times, but today… nothing. Anyway, it was here I had my lunch and hot, steaming coffee before wandering carefully over the tussocks of grass for a bit so that I could look down into the combe. It was with a very chilly wind trying to freeze my ears off, that I made my way back to the warmth and protection of the car.
Winding lanes took me slowly up and down towards my next stop. But at the end of the lane, another group of highland cattle were having their lunch with blue-black crows flapping above them for company. I don’t think the cattle minded their smaller companions.
Passing an abundance of differing landscapes is one of the things I love about being on Exmoor. With its combes, hills, woodland, moorland and coast, you can glean exactly what you need from a walk or a drive. Should I need a valley with a greenness of greens or a wild, windy turn across the moor, I know I can find both and quite quickly too. On either side of me, fields stretched as far as the eye could see – reaching up and over and then leaning down again towards the yellowy moor. Beech hedges still sporting their brown, crinkly leaves lined the fields, giving habitat to many a creature in the winter months. I look forward to the burst of citrus green that the beech hedges and trees will give out when spring comes along. Underneath the hedges and along the roadside, clusters of snowdrops shone out like diamonds, holding their white and green heads proud against the weather. For me, snowdrops herald the beginning of the return of the light after winter – tiny jewels at a dark and patchy time of the year giving a smile where it’s needed.
A bridge crosses the Barle river and glancing left I can see the valley where the Barle cuts through giving dramatic rises to the left and right. Covered with shrivelled bracken to the right and tussocks of sedge to the left the moorland here is steep and damp. I’ve climbed the rises several times, where the fields are stepped and a keen foot is required but it’s worth every step you take. It was here on the right that I saw my first ever stag, many years ago but it’s something that I’ll never forget. Antlers rising out of the bracken, very well hidden by its colour but there all the same. A simple pleasure that will always remain a treasure.
Up and over the moor to a junction that gives you choices – left, right or straight on and down. Each way offering a different chance as to what you’ll find along the chosen route. Today I knew where I was going because it’s a spot I’ll return to again and again. It’s where I’ve been privy to fourteen buzzards soaring in the sky at one sighting and where my first hare came to say hello. It’s a special stopping place for another coffee because if you stay and wait you never know what you’ll see about these parts. Sometimes I’ll wander along the narrow lanes here, I’ll crouch in the corner of a field out of the wind or perch atop the ancient hillocks at the side of the track watching for owls. It doesn’t matter where I choose to sit or walk, each and every place is special to me, they have furnished me with memories that I’ll recall time and time again and I’m happy to keep those memories safe within me. It’s here that I can relax, look out at the far-reaching views and put my life to rights. There is a peace to be had here if only you take the time to stop and listen to the silence.
The day was tramping on and I’d yet two places to visit. So, journeying on along the lanes with hedgerows blocking most of my view, I was happy to trundle along to my next destination. It will come as no surprise to many of you that Landacre Bridge is where I was headed. The area around here has it all – moorland steep and rising, green fields that hold a multitude of treasures, the river and the bridge. It’s where I’ll head towards should I need re-energising and, whether I am alone or not, I’ll always find much-needed solace here. Stand still and you can hear the history of this place and the footsteps of those that have gone before you. I have my own vision of what life was like around here and often wonder who crossed over Landacre bridge and where they were going all those years ago.
My first sighting of Landacre was many years ago when I followed a herd of sheep up the hill to Lanacre Farm. I waited patiently whilst they were moved from one place to another. I’ve walked from Withypool to this spot, I’ve looked down at the bridge from up on the moor and I’ve walked from Simonsbath to where I stood on that bitter cold day. I’ve flown Harris hawks with Nigel of the North Devon Hawk Walk up on this moor and it is a privilege that I can come here at the drop of a hat. As the river flowed under the arches and I stood on the bank watching it course by, I knew sure as eggs is eggs, that this place would always be special to me.
Tearing myself away, I retrace my steps up the hill and towards my final destination for the day. I hang a left and then a left again passing fields and ancient beech lines, crossing a cattle grid and am now on bleak moorland again. Gorse clumps, tussocks of grass and bracken pattern the ground but it is a ground that I love to be travelling over. Exmoor ponies graze here, backs to the wind, their manes ruffled in the breeze. They cross the road in front of me and it’s no hardship to wait and watch for a while.
Now I’m looking over the moor where I’ve wandered so many times before. Along, down, up and over the combes, the grass where wild flowers are in abundance come late spring, where, if you sit and wait patiently, you will be rewarded with treasures abound. I’ve sat here during the month of May, year after year, waiting for the first call of the cuckoo. Waiting to see the flight of the cuckoo in and out of the thorn trees, watching them tussle in flight with the meadow pipits and knowing that it is here, that I’ll lay my weary head when all is said and done.
It’s a very special part of Exmoor, popular for all kinds of different reasons and rightly so.
Out of the mists that shroud the moor, I’ve watched the hunt appear like ghosts from a Bronte novel – off and over the moorland before you’ve even had a chance to breathe. But today, as always, it’s where I can be alone, where I can hide if I want to and be anonymous to those around me. Where I can be part of the land if I choose and where I can wander to my heart’s content, oblivious to what’s going on around me. I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat among the rabbit droppings with my trusty, old field glasses, one eye on the rabbits cavorting about on the incline in front of me, another on the bird life around me and listening to the lowing of the cattle that roam this part of the moor. Here, I am at total peace with the world and that’s not a bad thing – it’s a simple pleasure that is priceless and every day I count my lucky stars that I am able to be part of a land that is loved by so many.
It’s late in the day and still cold. A cloak will soon wrap itself around Exmoor immersing it in darkness once again, protecting this land of secrets, treasures and memories. Always.
It’s time to go home.