There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Entering Devon and Leaving Exmoor (in that order) : Day 25 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

This year's instalment started with a disappointment. Alison, who has been ever-present on this and previous walks that have taken us among other places, from Hadrian's Wall (see Intro) to Exmoor was missing. A domestic crisis cropped up two days before the start of the walk and she understandably felt this was not a time to be away. She was missed and I hope her absence is only temporary.

The surviving four walkers, and Lynne, who provides the essential logistical support gathered on Monday at the Royal Oak in Withypool where last year's walk finished. Proceedings kicked off with a good dinner.
Dinner in the Royal Oak, Withypool
In the morning we gathered for a photo outside the Royal Oak, standing in the middle of Withypool's main street – not as dangerous as it sounds.

Francis, Brian, Mike and Me
Standing outside the Royal Oak, Withypool - or is it a poster for a bad cop film
We walked through the village, down past the tea rooms whose cream tea featured at the end of last year’s walk, over the Barle Bridge and up the hill beyond.
Bridge over the River Barle, Withypool
Why Mike chose to run up this road is a mystery, but he kept a up steady pace far longer than I would have thought reasonable - or possible – even if he did flag a little before the top.
Leaving Withypool
A hundred metres beyond the houses we turned on to a track across the moorland. It was a lovely surface to walk on, dry and springy after recent good weather.

Onto the open moor, Exmoor
The gradient was gentle and the path soon bought us tangentially to the ‘main’ road from Withypool where we swung away south. We swung a little early, following a narrow track, probably made by ponies (or Land Rovers), and missing the wider path hiding in the grass just a few metres away.

This might be the moment Mike spotted the wider path
 We seemed to correct ourselves one by one, but we were all on the wider path by the time we reached Tudball's Splats. This splendidly named location is apparently known locally as 'Four Fields' which may be prosaic, but accurately describes the almost rectangular fields marked out on the moorland long ago. ‘Tudball’ is believed to be a Somerset mangling of ‘Theobald’, but who Theobald was nobody knows.  'Splats' is even more mysterious, though we did pass a Splatts barn in 2012 (Day 14, North Nibley to Old Sodbury) so it must mean something - though whether the doubled ‘t’ is significant I have no idea.

Tudball's Splats behind the grown out hedge, Exmoor
Crossing the moor Francis and Brian observed and confidently identified stonechat, chiffchaff, willow warbler, meadow pipit, marsh tit and kestrel. We all spotted the first swallow of spring and the circling buzzards and heard and saw a plethora of skylarks.

Less than 10 minutes from Tudball’s Splats is the Porchester Post. As we discovered last year this part of Somerset is full of useful posts telling you exactly where you are in the middle of nowhere. Lord Porchester is the title of the Earl of Carnarvon's eldest son before he inherits the earldom and this particular post was originally erected in 1796 by the Carnarvon family of Highclere Castle (better known as Downton Abbey) to mark the boundary between Withypool and the parish of Hawkridge which they had recently acquired from the Aclands - whom we encountered last year. The piece of wood in the photo is not particularly old – the post has been replaced many times.
The Porchester Post, Exmoor
A little further along, Upper Willingford Bridge  over the tiny Dane's Brook is of little significance as a bridge, but it marks the point where we left Somerset, through which we have been walking since 2013, and entered Devon the fifth and possibly last county in this walk (though the end point remains a matter for conjecture).

Dane's Brook flowing under the Upper Willingford Bridge, Exmoor
Encroaching farmland has left only a thin neck of moorland here but beyond the bridge it opens into the larger areas of Molland and Anstey Commons. We crossed a small corner of this moorland to White Post, which is, believe or not, a white post – and also a perfectly ordinary road sign where two minor roads reach the moor.

We paused here for coffee and to consider our next move. The route Francis had chosen while sitting in the comfort of home involved setting out across Molland Common just to the right of the high point then swinging right to find a ford back across Dane's Brook.
Coffee at White Post, Exmoor
It looked fine sitting at a desk in Stafford, but less good perched on a bench on Exmoor. Although a path theoretically existed there was no sign of it on the ground, the high point was a barely discernible bump and the map was covered with those little green tussocks that indicate marshland.

Carver Doone, the villain of Lorna Doone, drowned in a bog on Exmoor and although we would have been unlikely to suffer the same fate, crossing an area called 'Soaky Moor' seemed unappealing. We would be better off, we decided, walking a kilometre along the road following the edge of the moor and then, hopefully, locating a path leading down the edge of Triss Combe.

The path along the top of the combe was easy to find, though a little churned up and muddied by the resident ponies.
The path beside Triss Combe which drops away to the left
Exmoor ponies have lived semi-feral on the moor for a very long time. The local belief that they have been pure bred since the ice age is unverified, bur fossil records dating from 50,000 years ago show that local horses have changed little. They almost became extinct after the Second World War and are still threatened with only 500 in Britain, mainly on Exmoor, and another 300 elsewhere.

Exmoor Ponies
Our descent of the combe eventually picked up a farm track at which point we crossed the southern boundary of the Exmoor National Park. Following the track, we regained the planned route just west of Smallacombe Farm. From here field paths took us down to a small, unnamed stream and up the other side.....
Down to a nameless stream nearing Molland
  .... from where we descended across the fields to Molland.

Over the fields to Molland
Molland has a population of 200, half what it was in 1900. It has a large 15th century church and, remarkably for a small and remote village, a fully functioning pub. The London Inn proved welcoming and provided us with a very decent glass or two of lunch. The morning had started cool and April sunshine takes a while to build up much warmth but as the morning had progressed outer clothing had been shed and it was now balmy enough to sit outside the pub. The sign suggested it had once been a coaching inn while the name hinted that passengers were en route for London. I am no expert in old coaching routes but I suspect any coach bound for London that found itself in Molland was seriously lost. I would, though, congratulate all those concerned with keeping the pub open when so many have closed and I hope their promised new website will give some historical information. [Update April 2018: their promised website is up and running and dates the pub to the 16th century, but gives no further history. They remain open when so many have closed, for that three hearty cheers.]

Day 25 of the South West Odyssey
 Our approach to Molland, descent to a stream followed by a sharp incline established a pattern that would become familiar over the next two days.

Down through Bond Wood
Climbing the low hill south of the village allowed us to descend steadily through Bond Wood to re-cross the nameless stream we had encountered earlier. The stiff climb up the other side eventually provided a good view back to Molland.

Looking back to Molland
Soon after, we joined a minor road, the start of some 4km of road walking broken only by a brief shortcut contouring through Middle Lee and East Lee farms. Most of this flat stretch involved walking east with the sun on our right shoulders. Roads might be hard on the feet, but the weather could not have been better.

For the final kilometre we turned south, joining the Two Moors Way, a 166km long footpath crossing Dartmoor, Exmoor and the land between. It is usually described as stretching ‘from Ivybridge in South Devon to Lynmouth on the north coast’ inferring most walkers travel south to north. We were going the other way, which several locals told us was odd, if not downright perverse – so why did we encountered so few walkers coming the other way?

Francis checks the map
We crossed the River Yeo, one of eleven rivers of that name in Devon and Somerset, and not the most important of them.

Near Yeo Mill
From the bridge we climbed gently upwards to the end of the road. The next two kilometres crossed Easter New Moor and Owlaborough Moor, which despite their names, are level(ish) farmland rather than moorland, ending with a wooded descent to the hamlet of Owlaborough.

Wooded descent into Owlaborough
I regret not having a picture of Owlaborough’s unusual small circular barn. According to a local, very possibly the owner, until a little over a hundred years ago a horse plodding round in circles in this barn providing the motive power for  the threshing machine next door.

Back on a minor road we descended to a bridge over a stream called The Crooked Oak, then climbed up to the village of Knowstone, the nearest settlement to West Bowden Farm, our B &B for the night. We had been advised that if we wanted to eat in the Mason's Arms we would need to book, which Francis had duly done. This morning the landlord of the Royal Oak in Withypool had casual mentioned that the Mason’s Arms was a Michelin starred restaurant.
The Mason's Arms (thatched building set back from the road), Knowstone
We paused to read the menu, which read very nicely as you would expect. It also involved big numbers. I am not averse to a little fine dining - Lynne and I enjoy an annual wedding anniversary excursion into that world, as this blog will witness (click on the Fine Dining label on the right). This, though, was a walk, and walks demand simple hearty fare.

We followed the Two Moors Way through Knowstone and down the minor road towards the A361, turning off after a kilometre onto the farm track leading to West Bowden. We crossed a field of spring lambs...
Spring lambs, West Bowden Farm
...then after 200m the path dropped sharply to the farmhouse.
Down to the farmhouse, West Bowden Farm
We pass through many farmyards in these walks. Their extraordinarily variable state tells you something about the quality of the farmer and West Bowden was as clean and tidy a farmyard as I have seen. Geese patrolled conscientiously while unstressed cattle lounged in clean straw in their pen and ducks swam quackily on the pond.
Brian inspects the ducks, West Bowden Farm

Installed in the B&B Mike found his smart phone had a signal – a rare luxury in rural Devon - so after phoning the Stag Inn in the larger but slightly more distant village of Rackenford to check they had room for us, he called the Mason's Arms to cancel our booking, a task he accomplished with impressive tact.

The Stag Inn is very much a village local. It claims to be the oldest pub in Devon, and its menu provided the required hearty fare. The pub was rescued last year by landlady Anita Singh and chef Mike Horne. On the evidence of one evening they appear to be doing an excellent job. [Update April 2018. Sadly, The Stag closed in September 2016, but was sold and reopened in 2017 and is now a 'gastropub']




  1. It's great to read this, and I look forward to the next installments. I hope to do the walk in June, so I'll be on track to join you all again next year.

  2. This will be the last county on the walk. The aim is now to get to Prawle Point on Devon's South Coast and that should be in 2018 if we can all stay healthy. This was a lovely walk and got us significantly nearer our destination.

  3. A really goods day's walk, if a little soggy underfoot at times. I have been impressed with the walking on Exmoor and I am sure I will return. Brian

  4. I did this walk on Monday (22nd Aug). A really good day. A pair of Alisons set off in the drizzle, after a drive from Cheltenham and a coffee and cake in the café. I was very keen to get going, and shot off onto the moor immediately after the houses. I know we were heading for the track, but we were immediately up to our knees in wet grass. Alison must have wondered about the wisdom of walking with me. However, we easily saw the proper track that you lot missed, after meeting the road.
    I took the exact same photo at the Upper Willingford bridge (lovely spot), and there we removed our kagoules, and didn't need them again.
    We only saw ponies in the distance, but we did come upon some deer while walking along the top of Triss Combe (thanks for the tip about this route). I saw what looked like sticks poking up from the moor, just below us on the convex valley side, which turned out to be antlers, and two deer heads peering at us.
    The London Inn at Molland is closed on a Monday lunchtime, but we had no intention of having two pints anyway, so we sat at a table in the garden and had our sandwiches. It's lucky for Francis that you didn't do the walk on a Monday.
    The muddiest bit of the walk was immediately before we got to the road for that long slog - one extreme to the other. We climbed over the gate, as the last few had been really creaky and stiff to open (no men to do it for us), and jumping down splashed my legs with mud.
    We saw the round barn at Owlaborough, but didn't take a photo of it either.
    The Mason's Arms at Knowstone isn't serving food at the moment - I assume the chef is on holiday - but in any case, we agreed with you that the Stag could provide for us better on this occasion, and we enjoyed it.
    Mrs Bray at West Bowden had read this blog and seemed pleased with it. She said it was very interesting. Alison and I found it really interesting to read having done the walk, and also looking at the photos taken in springtime.

    1. Personally, I did not miss the main track from the road just out of Withypool. I chose to take the earlier path because I could see that ahead there were two paths and that they ran parallel to each other. The earlier path saved a few metres of walking.