Turf Burning

For gardeners, peat is a well-known, although less used than before, mainstay of seed and potting composts.  It’s ability to absorb large quantities of moisture and to retain nutrients plus being very light when dry, thereby reducing transportation costs, made it the perfect growing medium.  In recent times, the environmental impact of industrial scale peat extraction has given rise to concern leading to the development of alternative composts becoming available.

Exmoor’s rolling moorland: a wild, windswept and boggy place

In the areas where peat is found – mostly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere – it was also a common fuel source and is still used for this purpose today.  On a non-commercial scale peat for burning is also in decline as the hand digging of the bogs, the drying out process and the carting all takes time for very little financial gain.  The days of the ‘turf cutter’ being paid sixpence a load have long passed.

Turf cutting creates deep trenches across the bogs

On Exmoor, in England’s West Country, peat is always referred to as ‘turf’, a dialect word, that means something very different from the velvety, green sward of gardeners.  Turf was still being cut there into the 1970’s and was one of the very first tasks I was given when arriving as a lad to work on a remote hill farm.  It was back breaking labour turning the individually cut pieces over and over to allow the wind to dry them before stacking them in heaps which later would be carried back to the farm to supply the fires that were needed all year for both heating and cooking.

 Cut turf in Ireland’s Connemara

Despite the backache, it was an enjoyable time being up on the moors all day with just the sound of the wind and the curlews mournful cry for company.  The native Exmoor ponies and the wild Red Deer all would appear from time to time for you became part of the moorland scenery too. Returning to the farm tired after a hard day’s work to be greeted by the sweetly fragrant smoke from the turf fires within was reassurance enough that it was all worthwhile.


 

Curlew and Red Deer on Exmoor

 

Last summer a visit to Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, brought back all these memories for there turf burning is still commonplace.  There were the rows of turf lying on the ground waiting to be wind-dried, there were the stacks of turf waiting to be carted.  And, best of all, there was the heady smell of dozens of peat fires wafting over the landscape. 

Connemara turf stacked ready for carting – cut to a very different shape to Exmoor

Recently, on Exmoor, it has been realised that turf cutting kept the bogs ‘open’ providing a valuable wildlife resource and although not reinstating the practice the National Park has instigated the Exmoor Mire Restoration Project. This has involved blocking old drainage systems and re-wetting over 300 hectares; the project is on-going.  Visit there website by clicking here to find out more.

The trenches fill with water creating a very special and rare wildlife habitat


Exmoor is still as beautiful as ever and my love for it never diminishes but, without the scent of the turf fires, there is that little ‘something’ missing.  However hope may be around the corner: the entrepreneurial Irish are selling peat incense blocks by mail order so that you can have the scent anywhere.  I may even take a few blocks and light them on Exmoor for old times’ sake.

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A Walk in the Doone Valley

Exmoor is one of England’s smaller National Parks and it is also has one of the most varied landscapes: heather moorland, grass moorland, wooded combes, rushing streams and waterfalls, the lush farmland of the Porlock Vale, high cliffs and sea views.

The moor is especially beautiful at this time of year now the heather flowers, which in midsummer had turned hundreds of acres purple, have changed to a golden bronze. The bracken, also yellowing as the autumn progresses, helps to make the landscape a combination of coppers, oranges, golds, browns and greens.

I had returned to my spiritual home to refresh my soul, as well as my body – for I was pretty knackered after a hard summer of gardening – hence the lack of posts recently. I always stay at the Blue Ball Inn, a traditional pub with rooms, where you can be certain of a warm welcome from the blazing log fire in the 13th century inglenook and an even warmer welcome from the owners, Phil, Jackie and Nick. An added bonus of being on Exmoor is that my mobile phone does not pick up a signal for miles so I am isolated from the world.

For an English holiday at this time of year, I couldn’t have been luckier with the weather either: day after day pleasantly mild and with only a couple of days rain. Perfect conditions for walking and, because it is now ‘out of season’ with the summer visitors long departed, the moor was even more empty of people than usual.

There must be many people that have read R D Blackmore’s great Victorian novel, set in the 1600’s, or seen the film ‘Lorna Doone’, yet never visited the area where the action took place or, perhaps, realise that it is an actual place. It is a tale of the Doone’s of Badgworthy (pronounced Badgery), wicked outlaws terrorising a remote rural community, of kidnap, love and, best of all, it has a happy ending. It is questionable how much is fact and how much is fiction but the places exist and, even now, there are Ridd’s (the hero’s family name) living on the moor. The Doone’s, if they existed at all, are all long gone.

One day, the Doone Valley, their remote moorland stronghold beckoned, a walk of some 15 miles. There are two ways into the valley, the easiest is at Malmsmead, a pretty little place with a couple of houses, farms and coffee shop. I chose the more difficult – and to my mind, more exciting, way across some of the wildest moor, Exmoor can offer. Parking the car at Brendon Two Gates (there isn’t a gate in sight – I’ll explain how it got it’s name another time!), my choice proved wise for I was met by the sound of the wild red deer stags calling, for this was the start of their breeding or ‘rutting’ season. Standing on the skyline a stag roared, keeping his herd of hinds close and to fend off rivals. As I took a photograph, a flock of curlew flew past, a lucky coincidence and a great start to the walk. The photo is rather small but I doubt if I will have the chance to take a second, larger one!

The moorland here, is a vast, open and empty space, full of bogs to catch the unwary. Although not dangerous in themselves, it is unpleasant, to say the least, to be up to your knees in cold, black, peaty water. A minor injury such as a twisted ankle in bad weather, or as dusk falls, could become potentially life threatening. Squelching my way along, my strong, waterproof boots made light work of this first stage and after an hour or so the first fold of the combe appeared – I had reached the head of the Doone Valley.

The path from here is well marked, yet even in midsummer, few but the intrepid walk as far. The only sounds are of water rushing over rocks and the occasional calls of sheep, ravens and buzzards. The walk is now downhill all the way as the path follows the river back to Malmsmead although it is still far from an easy stroll. As the walk continues, more and more side streams meet the main river and Badgworthy Water becomes faster flowing and wider, although two or three bounds and you would be across it. This time it was gentle and the sound relaxing: after heavy rains it will become thunderous and capable of sweeping you away.
A third of the way down the Doone Valley, Hoccombe Combe is reached, said to be the site of the Doone’s village although the ‘waterslide’ that John Ridd climbed to reach Lorna is not here. Some say that it is based on the river that runs through Lank Combe a little further to the north.

The photograph below is of the waterslide at Watersmeet some miles further west and not part of the Doone country.

Soon the valley becomes more gentle and lush although the hills of the moor still tower above. There are trees too: larch, beech and rhododendron. Soon the river will run through farmland and to Malmsead itself, a good place for a rest and a coffee. It is also a place where the walk could stop if another car was available to take you back to your starting point. However, I was only halfway and so turned up the steep lane making my way back to the open moorland.

It was a long and tiring walk back across the heather. In the distance a small group of the wild Exmoor ponies, the oldest native breed in the UK and virtually unchanged from pre-history. Athough free to roam the moors they tend to keep to their own territories and are quite tolerant of strangers approaching. Only those that live in the tourist ‘hotspots’ will allow themselves to be touched and these ones soon galloped off once I got too close.

By the time I reached Brendon Two Gates, a pint of ale at the Blue Ball and a hot bath beckoned. It was almost dark when I returned to be greeted by a spectacular sunset, the perfect end to a very satisying day.

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Exmoor: The Blue Ball Inn

Autumn has been at its best the last week or so with blue skies and warm sunshine by day, the perfect weather for long walks. And afterwards, as the evening chill sets in, what can be better than to laze contentedly in front of a blazing log fire, losing your thoughts in the flickering flames? This is what I have been doing the past ten days.
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And where better than to do this than on Exmoor, the 270 square mile national park in England’s West Country? I have known this place for over 40 years and it’s dramatic scenery never tires with the passing years. The coastal area between Lynmouth and Porlock, where the open moorland meets clifftop and plunges 800 feet to the sea is the most dramatic of all. And the tiny village of Countisbury can lay claim, in my opinion, to have the best views on Exmoor.
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I made a decision when I started this blog that I would not go commercial – either for my own garden based business or for anyone else. Somehow, it just seems to put a different slant on your writing. However, I am always being asked where I stay on my Exmoor visits and I am more than happy to break the rule on this occasion. There can be no better place to spend your time than at the Blue Ball Inn, situated in the heart of the village.

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The Blue Ball Inn, which dates back to the 13th century, was originally a coaching inn where horses and travellers rested after the exhausting 1 in 4 climb up Countisbury Hill from Lynmouth. Today it still welcomes travellers, whether it is for just a drink, a meal or to stay in one of their sixteen bedrooms.

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The building both inside and out is dominated by a vast and ancient inglenook fireplace and chimney, so big that you can look up it and see daylight. It is a great place to relax and unwind with a pint of locally brewed ale and is the hub of the inn.
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The bar, with its low ceilings, blackened beams and loads of character, is a busy area but there are also several other places to sit. Each has its own fireplace and comfortable chairs, ideal if you want to find a quieter space to read or plan the next day’s walks.
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It is not just the beer that is produced locally. The restaurant, which serves food all day, is committed to offering a wide choice of menu, much of it sourced from the area – they even rear their own rare breed pork. During my stay, I never once had the same meal twice (although I wish it would have been possible to have forced down a second helping of their spare ribs they were so delicious). The chips are the best in Britain. By the time dinner was over, I was usually too tired to continue drinking in the bar and would disappear to bed. The bedrooms, which have all the usual facilities, are comfortable and clean and, after so much exercise and fresh air, sleep guaranteed.

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Awake and refreshed and after a hearty breakfast, walks can start from the door and can vary in both their length and the steepness of hill. Ours varied from twenty minutes to five or six hours. With instant access to heather moorland, ancient woodlands, rushing rivers and the spectacular clifftop walks with its views across the sea to Wales, you are spoilt for choice. (Exmoor is, of course, great dog walking country and the Blue Ball welcomes them too). If you are lucky and walk quietly, there is a very good chance that you will see the wild Exmoor ponies or the herds of Red Deer – we saw both within a mile of the pub.
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But it is not just good food and drink, comfortable rooms or amazing views that make a good holiday. It is people. Phil, Jackie and son Nick, the owners of the Blue Ball, and all of their staff without exception, do everything possible to ensure that your stay is memorable. The ‘locals’ too, for this is still very much the village pub, are very welcoming and friendly – where else would you meet someone who lends you a book to return “when you next come down”? And I have never spent such a riotous evening as with them all at the Harvest auction, held in the pub. Apart from bidding for a crate of the local beer, I also have managed to get a days hawking on neighbouring Dartmoor. I was too slow to get a day’s salmon fishing on the local Lyn river – but that, of course, gives me an excuse to visit again next year. I have already booked!
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Exmoor – at it’s best

Followers of this blog may have noticed a gap – I have been away on Exmoor. How I love that place! First visited just over 40 years ago, it seems to be an unchanging landscape, partly due to it being one of England’s National Parks. Of course, there are changes but they do not seem to have altered the character of the place much and the changes are subtle – removal of signposts to (I assume) dissuade drivers from taking their cars down impossibly steep roads and over almost impossibly narrow bridges. And, up on the high moor, passing and parking places for cars are slightly larger to allow for an increase in visitors.

October on Exmoor saw weather changes from day to day: one moment mists, another driving rain and cold winds but, more often than not, warm sunshine. How many times do walkers get fooled into wandering on the moor only to find the mists creeping up the deep coombes (as the valleys are called here) before spreading out across the wider, open spaces where landmarks are few and bogs many? To my knowledge, deaths in the bogs only happen in fiction but a cold plunge to chest height in sticky, peaty water and a twisted ankle miles from anywhere has the potential to be fatal. The wild ponies of Exmoor are one of Britain’s oldest native breeds and survive all year finding their feed on the moor. During this month they are gathered up by the local landowners and checked over, branded and the foals weaned. These are normally sold at the annual, local pony sales although this year, for various reasons, the sales have been cancelled leaving a gap in the social calendar, for the sales are one of the great meeting places of the widely scattered population. Another meeting point is the local hunt. On Exmoor, there are packs of staghounds as well as fox, for the moors are one of the few places where the Red Deer still run wild in England. With the change of law, only two hounds now hunt the deer, the unfortunate creature having been selected by the Harbourer – a local person who knows both the deer and the moor inside out. Once the correct deer has been found and separated from the rest of the herd, the beast is shot. This is a necessary culling as the population is continually increasing to the detriment of both the moor and the deer themselves. Hunting is becoming ever more pouplar as the crowds and cars, pictured, prove. As soon as the hunt moves off across the moor the crowds get left behind and, with the hunt hidden deep in the coombe, the moor seems deserted once again.
More on Exmoor to follow…..

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