It’s Sunday and I’ve been proper rambling this morning… but not of the outdoor, walking, wandering type. No, I’ve been rambling on the telling bone for the last hour to my oldest and best friend of 52 years. We live miles apart and have done for many years but it’s never stopped us being there for each other. Spending an hour out of my day to laugh like a drain, chat about our small grandsons and reminisce is a small price to pay for starting out later than expected, on a morning ramble along the river. We always giggle like the teenagers we once were – it’s so good for the soul to share and laugh. We’ve shared many a wander too in our lives, both emotionally and on foot. Today, after saying goodbye, eventually, I am on my own.
However, I digress somewhat… and a-rambling I will go, after a bacon sarnie and a cup of Earl Grey. As I watch the birds at the feeders, from my kitchen window, I can see the vibrancy in their feathers now they are mating and nesting, especially the brave, little blue tits. It’s good to see a pair of goldfinch back for another year, as they nest in the rhododendrons at the front of the house. It’s peaceful out there in the lane for them, and I have the added bonus of being able to see them from the bedroom window whilst drinking my early morning cuppa.
I’ve decided today to wander along the Barle river from Simonsbath. It’s quite a glorious day and I’m looking forward to seeing the sunlight reflecting on the river as I walk. So, donning my Bear Grylls charity shop fleece (don’t know how I ever managed without it!) I’m off and up the road. The moor looks as if it’s been bleached in the sunlight and it seems to shimmer as the grasses move in the gentle breeze. Exmoor ponies graze around the thorn trees, backs still to the breeze, but enjoying the welcome break from the recent wet days. Two of them cross the road in front of me and it’s always worthwhile stopping to admire them when out and about.
At Birchcleave Wood I join the newly laid path that follows the stunning river Barle. It’s a river that winds itself through the valley in a twisting, turning fashion. Full of character, wherever you choose to join it – always a firm favourite of mine. I try to remind myself that Simonsbath is situated at the centre of what once was the Royal Forest of Exmoor. That back as far as the 1500s Simonsbath was simply a criss-cross of tracks over this beautiful, wild and, sometimes bleak, moorland of ours. Walking this part of the moor, you can easily find yourself back in those days, with a little imagination. If only the moors could talk – I’m sure they’d have more than a few tales to tell about the residents back then. I’m headed for Cow Castle – it’s not a new haunt as I’ve been many times before but it holds a certain peaceful quality and the walk is never dull.
Trees are plentiful at the beginning of the path, as I’m passing Birchcleave Wood on my left. It’s said to be the highest beech wood in the country and, whether it is or not, there are some wonderful shapes to behold. I love to witness the trees at this time of year, minus their foliage, as you can really see into the heart of the branches and wonder at their skeletal structure. It’s also an excellent opportunity to see the many birds that flit back and forth from the woodland to the meadow, as I wander.
The pathway opens out, leaving the woodland behind, with just the odd tree hanging on. But there are still the wonderful ancient lines of beech to be seen here and there before leaving them behind for gorse, bracken and marshland grasses. The ENP have done a grand job of re-laying the new pathway and it’s not as undulating as it was on previous visits. However, the character of the walk is still evident as the path follows the meandering great Barle river making its way on to Landacre Bridge. On either side are hillsides which rise dramatically toward the sky and, as you wander, you feel as if you’re being cushioned by these huge natural mounds. They reach down from the sky and tempt you to walk to the next bend – further and further. Who knows what you’ll find as you round the next corner? Greens and browns in abundance, with smatterings of yellow, paint the perfect picture for me – Exmoor at its very best at this time of year.
Sometimes you’ll lose sight of the river, as you round a bend or make the climb to a rise – but it’s not for long and you know it’s there…you can hear it! I can lose myself in my thoughts as I walk this route – the track taking you up a little and then dropping you down again, following in the wake of the many sheep that graze this area.
I will always keep my eyes open for wildlife as I walk and today I came across a slow-worm, sunning itself on this beautifully warm day, just off the pathway. Its body glowed golden brown in the sunlight and I knelt down to take a closer look and hopefully, encourage it to move into cover and off the pathway, with just a look and silent plea from me.
The slow-worm evokes childhood memories for me as silky feeling creatures, such as snakes and the like, are of no worry to me. I used to keep two grass snakes as a youngster, that lived by our fish pond. They were never kept indoors and happily lived in the garden. I would carry them with me, in my pocket when shopping with my Mum or playing out and, as I kept a toad on me too, people thought me strange and never knew what I’d produce from any part of my clothing, at any given time. I had a wonderful childhood!
Passing Flex Barrow and tramping on toward Wheal Eliza, the mine ruins, I sit for a while and look across the river. I remember a time when I walked this way at the end of summer. The riverside was awash with orange and green as crocosmia flowered profusely, dangling and swaying into the flowing water. So many colour palettes can be found on Exmoor and each and every one of them different as the seasons change. No area stays the same as we travel through spring, summer, autumn and winter and that’s why the moor is loved by so many.
I cut through a hedge-bank on the left. It’s a beech hedge, gnarled and full of history and now find myself walking along the river once more. It’s greener here and has flattened out somewhat. It’s peaceful, enchanting and, stepping through the beech hedge, I feel as if I’ve popped into a different world by simply traversing a hedgerow. However, I find I’ve nearly reached my destination – the hillock on which Cow Castle sits. To fully appreciate where I’ve wandered this fine day, I need to walk a little further to see the rise of Great Ferny Ball. I also get to view the wooden bridges that cross the river and which would take me up towards Horsen Farm – but that’s for another day.
Having crossed the small wooden bridge spanning the river here, I’ve come into a clearing. There is evidence of more work done by the ENP and I can rest for a while and partake of my apple and bag of crisps, on one of the tree stumps. To the right of me is Cow Castle and to the right is open ground which rises to Great Ferny Ball. I am sorely tempted to walk on, over the bridge, across the boggy, damp grass and through the gate toward a further bridge, but know I should be making my way home again. Instead I sit, eyes skyward, watching a lone buzzard, circling and dipping and diving over the wonderful landscape I’m part of. Just across the way is a ford, primarily used by horses. The river is so very clear and clean – watching it flow and tumble over the stones and boulders is spell-binding and, even though I am fully aware that time is passing by, I have to perch on a ready-made step, legs dangling over the water, and watch as the water passes on by.
Time to retrace my steps and I turn a circle, taking in my quiet surroundings. I nod my thanks for being able to walk this moor, steeped in history and character and for being able to be part of it in my lifetime. I wish I could bottle the emotions and feelings that I have when I walk so that others, caught up in the rat race of life, could experience what I do…peace and utter joy at being out in the open with my thoughts. Away from the humdrum of what life throws at us on a daily basis. This, out here, is freedom of a very special kind. I wish my friend of 52 years could be with me now so that she could experience it too, or that I could pop her a bottle of my ’emotion potion’ in the post so we could share yet another memory together in the years to come. But that’s for another day too.
So it’s homeward bound for me then and, perhaps, a half of cider at the Exmoor Forest Inn. Simple pleasures – it’s what I’m all about.