Barnstaple to Warren Farm. 22 miles. Miles to date: 196.8.
What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday I was sweating my way along the South West Coast Path cursing guide books and the slow treadmill of the bay, today I was picking my wet way over Exmoor bog, clag on the tops, suncream packed deep. That didn’t stop it being a fine day’s walk.
A restless night. Not just the foot pain, which builds at rest after these long days, but sheet lighting rolling around Barnstaple Bay. It was the talk of the B&B breakfast tables. No one had got much sleep by the sound of things.
The result was a 10 degree drop in temperature. Typical English bank holiday, said my cheery host - a keen cyclist who dreams of biking LeJog. It's just finding the time, he says.
But the cool weather suited me fine. A spring in my step, I stopped in at Barnstaple Post Office, packaged up my maps of the South West Coast Path and sent them back to Rebecca. Then inland it was.
For the first day since I set out nearly a fortnight back I would be leaving the Coast Path and the sea, constant companions since I set foot on the trail. And good ones too. Having known little about the Path before last week, I’m a convert. The route is adventurous and interesting, full of colour, drama and challenge. The signposting is great and the Trail almost always a pleasure to walk. Hats off to those who maintain it: the National Trust, National Parks, local councils, the South West Coast Path Association. To look after 630 miles of public footpath, with all the work that requires managing landowners, farmers, environmentalists and visitors is a thankless task. They’ve done a great job.
Leaving the town behind, the walk used the delightfully named Smoky House green lane to make its terraced way up the Barnstaple Yeo valley. There were no views to see, even when the path rose; the lane was sunk so low, the hedging so dense, you glimpsed only slithers of the rich valleysides, stream creases covered in steep-banked woodland.
Miles passed. Then the trail picked up country lanes - flowers on either bank - cut across meadows, though plantations, over streams, the countryside changing, views shifting while mist persisted on the hills above.
Unlike on previous days, the route rarely put a foot wrong. There were the occasional quagmires to negotiate - you got the feeling it could be dry for a month and there would still be mud on the greenway - and once in while a disappearing track, but by a large the paths were good to stride out on.
Shame then that so few people seem to use them. In the entire 22 miles and eight hours I was out I didn’t meet a single walker. In fact I met almost no one. The pub at hillside Bratton Fleming was closed and the villages had a winter feel - no dog walkers, playgrounds empty. The only soul I met was a mountain biker on the moor. He’d seen no one either.
Chelfham Viaduct - it once carried the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway across the Stoke Rivers valley. Although it has been redundant since 1935, it was most recently restored in 2000.
There were the inevitable challenges, of course - that’s the nature of linking popular waymarked trails. On one occasion, path disappearing into a hedgebank, I was forced to climb over using Hawthorn roots as handholds. On the far side I heard a gunshot. When the third one came I concluded either I wasn’t the one being aimed at or the farmer was a lousy shot. Either way, I was probably going to live to walk another day.
Bratton Fleming church.
Kate Brown would almost certainly ask me to leave her clinic if she saw the state of my feet.
Challacombe: Felt a bit unloved.
Lovely little bridge in Challacombe: verges needed a strim.
After passing through the hamlet of Challacombe, my track made a long, steady incline through ever mistier uplands until it hit the moor.
These are grazing lands, sheep and cows clustered everywhere. Not that the rolling moors offer much in the way of nutrition. These are not the rich meadows of the vales. Instead rough windswept grasses and sedge. Peat bog too - as the warning signs were keen to remind you.
Penning the land are miles of hedgebanks. Not the colourful ones of Cornwall, but higher and starker, topped by hedges and often full-grown trees. The banks not only serve as field boundaries, but provide shelter to livestock, help reduce rainfall runoff and provide a rich wildlife habitat.
Someone had been hedge laying.
Lovely beech hedges.
And soon even they were gone. Just moorland in every direction; wide, gently sloping hills with a stark kind of beauty.
I kept trudging my way onwards. Rookie error at mile 16 – a left taken for a right, another two miles added. But I like walking in hill country. The feet are always working, unlike on the tarmacced Tarka trail.
Old beech hedge.
This part of Exmoor is empty and bleak.
Long, remote valleys, most of which were very wet.
Red deer. They vaulted the bank with more elegance than me.
Warren Farm. Journey's end.
Rare sighting of the hairy Beast of Exmoor?
Patch of blue.
A tiresome descent to Warren Farm, just inside the Somerset border, proved yet again that too few people use these paths - neither of the two on the OS map could be followed on the ground and I ended up losing an expletive-heavy half hour negotiating bog pools and clambering over waist-high drainage ditches in a valley that was home to nether man nor beast.
But it’s been a good day. My accommodation for the night is remote even by hill farm standards: a farmhouse B&B at 1,500ft with bluebells - still out - splashing blue on the sepia moor. They don't advertise online - it's word of mouth only. But the Aga’s on and there’s a warm welcome.
The farmer offers to dry my boots, lending me flip flops and dropping me down the valley at her Simonsbath local (it's six miles door to door). All the bitter's got an ottery theme: Tarka, Otter Bitter, a reminder we're still in Williamson country. I try a pint of each, then, knackered after two long days, fall asleep in this isolated farm on the moors as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Warren Farm: the sun was out as I walked into the farmyard.
What about John o' Groats?
Next: Day 14 – Warren Farm to Wheddon Cross.
Previous: Day 12 – Clovelly to Barnstaple.