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Day 14: Sandwich

Warren Farm to Wheddon Cross. 10 miles. Miles to date: 206.8.

One of the common discussion themes among LeJog bloggers is - unsurprisingly - the state of their feet. Read most for long enough and you're confronted by a gruesome litany of blisters, carbuncles, sprains, swellings, rashes, reactions... and so on. Some bloggers go the extra mile and offer readers photos that an enterprising individual could probably bundle into a podiatrist's photo library.

I don't plan to spend too much time or any photographic energy on foot woes - I've been lucky not to get a single blister so far - other than to say the reason for today's relatively short up and down over the crest of Exmoor was that the heel of my right foot has gone numb. I assume this is related to the last couple of days on the South West Coast Path so am not concerned about it, but it seems only fair to give myself a bit of R&R.

The route, then, was to be a swift ten miler (strange how fast you re-evaluate distances on a walk like this), from Warren Farm to the hillside hamlet of Wheddon Cross, the highest village on Exmoor. In between I'd summit beaconed Dunkery Hill and slip down into the lovely Avill valley.

Down the Avill valley.

My host at Warren Farm was heading south to River Cottage and a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cookery school for the day so let me leave in my own time. I took the opportunity to spread my maps and think about my route over the days ahead, and a particular point of anxiety, the crossing of the Somerset Levels, with its puzzling miles of storm drains, canals and rivers – all with limited crossing points. Think the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, but without the elf corpses.

Here's the thing: my route is largely based on a series of long distance footpaths. They have the advantage of being well used and (mostly) waymarked, with plenty of published guides. I've already discovered that trusting other footpaths can be unwise. Getting stuck knee-deep in nettles or crops, or having to climb hedge banks, is no-one's idea of fun, and with so many miles to cover each day delays and frustrations mount fast.

On the SW Coast Path I was in good hands. And my crossing of Exmoor, mainly using the Macmillan Way West, but also on routes identified by Andy Robinson, has been a pleasure so far. But after reaching the Quantocks (two days from now), I am on my own. Nor are the accounts of other bloggers much help; most either come inland from Land's End - and are therefore further east - or only very roughly indicate their route.

It was fortuitous then, to meet my first walker in two days, and the second long distance trekker of my LeJog (he was making a journey from Clovelly to Glastonbury), who it turned out had spent the best part of a week working out the best route across the Levels. And there it was, carefully highlighted, as he took out his OS 1:50,000, sharing his thoughts on why he'd chosen particular paths, lanes... and storm drains. I've no idea if I'll pass him again as we both head to Glastonbury, but I was grateful for his time and I've already used his insights to adapt the route I'd started sketching out.

A few minutes after that there was a teacher scanning the miles of empty moorland with binoculars. Had I seen a lost Duke of Edinburgh Award party, he asked? Four teenagers with packs? Experience from my own DoE days suggested the obvious place to start would probably have been local pubs - not the featureless moor - but I wished him well in his search.

The walking was easy up to Dunkery Hill, with its huge summit Beacon. It lies in the heart of the 12,000 acre Holnicote Estate, one of the largest in National Trust hands, gifted to the nation by the Acland family back in 1944.

At 1,705ft the Beacon marks the high point of Exmoor and Somerset. It will also be the highest point of my LeJog until the Pennine Way. Although it's hard to be too enthusiastic about the scenery on the moor - grass, bog, heath (though in late summer, I imagine the heather must give it a colourful brush) - the views were good, with the Welsh coast visible on the horizon north, and my route east across lower heights towards the Quantocks.

The paths were easily graded and made for stride-out walking.

There was about a mile on the road, but almost no cars about.

Dunkery Beacon is the grassy dome on the left. The scenery was a photography curse: which part of nothing shall I focus on?

Distant beech hedges. Many of these were planted in the 1820s by the Knight family. Beeches are not native on Exmoor, and saplings were grown specifically, by their thousands, for the job.

The Beacon - now visible on the skyline. It's a whopping great thing, visible from miles around (if there's not mist on the tops, which there frequently is).

One for Paul and the Rt Hon...

From Dunkery Hill the trail follows the fledgling River Avill from its headwaters down into the deep Avill valley, with its hillsides of rich woodlands. The riverside path was a delight, and I took my time among the hawthorn blossom, watching dippers and enjoying the fact that for a change I didn't have to rush on through. A short, stiff climb back onto higher ground bought me into Wheddon Cross, unremarkable bar its elevation, and with a car park out of all proportions to the attractions on offer.

At my stopping point for the night - the Rest & Be Thankful Inn - I managed to cause an inevitable Trip Adviser 1-star review when the landlord took pity on me and broke the Inn's 'no food after 3pm' policy to make me a sandwich and chips.

Turns out another table had been refused the same request just five minutes before. The row that erupted, with me in the middle, was quite something. Before long locals were involving themselves, defending the honour of the landlord. Given drink had been taken by a large number - not only was it Carvery day, it appeared the village had just triumphed in a local horse meet - I was half expecting my cheese sandwich to kick off a bar brawl. But in the end the offended party made an angry exit and I carried on munching my way through the illicit lunch, enjoying every last mouthful.

Distant Wheddon Cross, over the valley. Looks better from a distance.

Down in the valley. The walking was good and the woodlands rich.

Beech and ferns.

There were little thinned-out glades that broke the tree cover.

View down the Avill valley from the sharp pull up to Wheddon Cross.

Wheddon Cross. Not the hillside Somerset village I had been expecting...

...But the pub, on the right here, is nice enough. Even if I got unwittingly dragged into a row over food serving times. (The evening Carvery was also very good).

It's things like this that make the trip worthwhile. A fine touch. Could even make it onto this list...


Next: Day 15 – Wheddon Cross to Williton.

Previous: Day 13 – Barnstaple to Warren Farm.

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