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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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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Snowdonia: The Enchanted Forest – Death & Destruction

On our third day in Snowdonia we awoke again to brilliant sunshine.  Despite the hard frost that had turned every surface a sparkling white it did not seem especially cold for there was no wind.  A walk to the ‘enchanted’ forest beckoned, a great favourite of ours for it is a magical place with its mossy hummocks, hidden waterfalls and lichen encrusted conifers.  It is a place of total silence apart from the sound of water and ravens croaking overhead.  

There is an old track that leads to the forest  made by the miners that quarried for slate a long, long time ago before the trees were grown, for this is naturally a barren landscape of rock and bog and heather and bilberry.  The trees were planted – non-native conifers – in rows so that the forests appear from a distance as odd shaped rectangles stuck onto a landscape, rarely looking part of the natural scheme of things.  They support little in the way of wildlife either, perhaps a little shelter for some passing deer but nothing in the way of food apart for the flocks of crossbills that occasionally winter here feeding on the cones.  Yet, despite all these negatives, the enchanted forest is well, enchanting. 

Not anymore.  We reached the forest gate but, apart from a few trees clustering around the entrance as if trying to escape into the more open spaces beyond, there were just a few damaged and sad looking individuals, all their companions having been clear felled.  It was a shocking sight, looking as if a tornado had ripped through them, leaving just rows of broken stumps and, occasionally, an upturned root ball.  Sadder still, the tussocks and moss covered mounds that created the ‘Brothers Grimm’ feel had all been destroyed with them.  Instead of walking through a cool tunnel of overhanging branches we ventured along a broken landscape; there was not one section recognisable or familiar. 

Now it is quite possible that the original landscape will be restored as part of the overall long term plan, for Snowdonia is a National Park.  Or, perhaps, the forest will be replanted or allowed to regenerate from self-sown seedlings.  Having got over the initial shock of seeing the landscape looking at its worse, I hope it will be the former.  The trees really are out of place here and, for the first time (if you can see beyond the devastation) there are wide, uninterrupted views of bleak, harsh mountainside – Snowdonia as it should be.
Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to watch how nature repairs itself.  One thing is quite certain: the landscape will never look the same in my lifetime.  Perhaps it may look better?

To see more of the enchanted forest in all its former glory, click on the link here.
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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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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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