Purple Haze

Ask those that know Exmoor – England’s smallest National Park – to conjure up just one image of it and you would get a number of different answers.  For some it is the wild ponies, others the rushing streams but mostly the answer would be the sea or the moorland.  On Exmoor you are never very far from either.

At this time of year the moors are, perhaps, at their very best: awash with a purple haze of heather in bloom, speckled with the yellow flowers of furze – the local dialect word for gorse.  During the cooler months, however, the heather looks very different, drab browns and greens giving no hint of the glory to come.

The heather is an important resource for animals whether it is food for the ponies, sheep or cattle that roam the open spaces or the deer.  In the past – they died out in 1969 – black grouse fed here too, the record of their existence recorded in place names such as Heath Poult Cross, heath poult being the dialect word for the grouse. For other birds that nest close to the ground the heather protects them with its cover.
Although at a glance the heather all looks the same, there are three types, quite easily distingushable when in flower.  Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) has paler flower clusters at the top of the stems; Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) is a rich crimson-purple in flower whereas the true Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is softer both in colouring and appearance.  Together, they blend to create a colour mix of shadow and light.
To keep the heather moorland in good order, controlled burning is carried out once the plants have become old and woody, an ancient method called swaling.  Only selected areas are burned, usually on a five to ten year cycle between October and early April.   
The fires are watched carefully, not just to prevent their spreading to other areas but to ensure that the rootstock is not damaged from which the new, tender shoots soon grow.  The burning of the moor is both exciting and interesting to watch for the smoke can be seen for many miles.  It is difficult to imagine when the stems are blackened and charred that life will ever return. The photograph below shows the regrowth after four years.

Exmoor has the highest cliffs in England and these are made even more dramatic by the moorland which extends to their edge, the heather even clinging to the steep sides as they tumble to the sea, caring little for the salt-laden winds that continually buffet them.  On a sunny day in August the combination of blue sea, purple heather, yellow gorse and blue sky, combined with Exmoor’s splendid views, is a sight rarely forgotten.

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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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An Ancient Breed – The Exmoor Pony

Exmoor beckons at this time of year despite the harsh moorland climate. The landscape may be drab – the bracken and heather has lost most of its colour and the predominant colours are greys and fawns with just the occasional rusts and greens. However we were lucky – the sun shone for much of the time giving us additional blues from the sky and also from the sea, for the rolling moorland tumbles steeply into the sea on its northern edge.

The tiny clifftop hamlet of Countisbury – the far distant horizon is the south coast of Wales

The origins of the Exmoor pony date back into pre-history, for they are the oldest surviving breed in Britain and have remained virtually unchanged from the earliest days. They are perfectly adapted to surviving on the moor all year and, as can be seen from the photographs, look fit and well having come through the snow and bitter weather of the coldest winter for very many years. The ponies that live in the Valley of the Rocks (photo below) are used to seeing people for it is a much visited area with easy access despite its rugged terrain. The ponies of the high moor are far more wary.

On a walk across Brendon Common there would appear to be no ponies or wildlife of any kind at all. However, ponies and red deer are common and buzzards and ravens soar and call overhead. Despite appearing to be a rolling plateau, the moor is divided by deep valleys, locally known as coombes. The little stream at its foot is Farley Water, a remote and a beautiful place. If you look carefully at the lower photo you will see the ponies – totally camouflaged. Their coats are the colours of the winter bracken, their mealy coloured muzzles (which is one of the breeds identifying features) the colour of the bleached winter grasses.

There are fewer than 500 Exmoors left and the breed is recognised as being endangered. Many of these are kept as pets and riding ponies in other parts of the country and there are probably no more than 150 of these free roaming ones left on the moor. It took quite a while to approach this group but patience was rewarded by finding the herd at rest with two lying flat out in the first sunshine of the year.

Getting too close for their comfort, they were soon up on their feet and ambling away. In a matter of moments their camouflage made the moorland look empty once again.

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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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