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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Turf Cutting on Exmoor

A few weeks ago I blogged about cutting peat – or ‘turf’ as it is known on Exmoor – for burning.  It is an ancient tradition, now past.  You can read that post by clicking on the link here.

When I first visited Exmoor forty-five years ago one of the first tasks I was given was to ‘turn’ the turf, literally just turning it over and over so that the wind dried it.  In many ways it was a boring and monotonous job but it had to be done for it was the provider of heat for the farm, both water and cooking.  Being alone, high up on the moors, was never lonely for the isolation, even for a lad, was awe-inspiring.  I loved it.

Recently, I was flicking through the pages of a book that has been in our possession for as long as I can remember and came across a photograph of an Exmoor turf cutter.  I’d never noticed it before.  The book is called ‘People of all Nations’ and was written about 1920.  The photographs are wonderful and show a way of life long gone.  

click on the photo to enlarge

With the benefit of hindsight, it is a pity that I took so few photos of my early days on Exmoor.  At the time, it seemed that the unchanged life of the moors would go on for ever.  Little did I realise that I was witnessing its passing and  I feel very privileged to have been a (very tiny) part of it.  What has endured has been its influence: my arrival quite by chance on Exmoor and being taken into its heart has been a subject of discussion recently with Phil Gayle on BBC Oxford.

The caption below the photograph reads:

Cutting Turf on the Rolling Heights of Exmoor. With his primitive cutter this Devon labourer is procuring long strips of turf at the opening of the shearing season.  The turf is stacked into barns in which the sheep are herded on the eve of shearing.  They rub against it and lie on it, thus ridding their wool of much dirt and grease which would detract from the value of their fleece were it present when shearing began.

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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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Frog March

As night falls we have started hearing the sound of tapping at our garden door. It happens every year as the weather begins to warm up and the days draw out. At first we were uncertain as to what it was for there was no-one there when we looked outside. Yet, as soon as the door was closed, the gentle knocking sound would start again.

No, this is not the start of a scary story for on one occasion, leaving the door open a little longer than usual, into the house jumped a large frog, followed by several more. Now when we hear the sound we know that the frogs (and some toads) are on their march to their spawning grounds. Unfortunately this involves them crossing the little country lane just below our house and, although traffic is few and far between in the secret valley, each morning there are the squashed bodies of those that didn’t make it to the other side. The photo below may look as if it’s squashed but this one survived!

Quite why the frogs cross here is a bit of a mystery. The river is below and to one side of us as it meanders through the valley and around the house. The frogs are coming from the field up on the hillside and this isn’t a nice, moist and lush grass field that might be a bit of froggy heaven. The field they come from is plough – stony, brashy and rough. Or have they been hibernating in the old hedgerow and, if so why, when there are plenty of, what would appear to be, more attractive and comfortable places to sleep? Whatever the reason, they are off back to the river and pond and our house is in their way. If the doors are open, a constant flow of ‘hoppers’ pass through the sitting room and kitchen – or around it as we tend to keep them out. When our little cottage was built 150 years ago, was it built on an ancient pathway created by thousands of generations of frogs?

Oddly enough, on Exmoor, despite its harsh climate, the frogs spawn earlier than here in the secret valley. On a walk recently, we found this perfectly formed circular pond (perhaps an old sheep wash) on the moor and the frogs had already filled it with spawn. And in every boggy patch of the moor we found even more spawn. It rose above the water level in great mounds: perhaps it is the higher rainfall that prevents the spawn from drying out. However many frogs must there be and how many tadpoles will survive to return to breed in the future? The answer is mind boggling!

An update 27th March:

The frog march has ended as they have reached their destination. When I walk past the large pond that has been formed by a breach of the river banks, the noise of croaking is amazing. Everywhere you look there are frogs and toads amongst the submerged vegetation. In the last 36 hours spawning has commenced – we have snow showers forecast over the next few days but, hopefully, it won’t affect the spawn too much.
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Exmoor: Stoke Pero Church

“Culbone, Oare and Stoke Pero, three churches where no priest will go”, goes the local Exmoor rhyme. Three parishes so remote that, before the days of motor transport, it took for ever to reach them, over some of the roughest and open terrain England has to offer. And of all the remote parishes, Stoke Pero has to win hands down, for even by car it is a difficult place to find. The narrow lanes cross wide expanses of moorland, close to Dunkery Beacon, the highest place on Exmoor. When you arrive at Stoke Pero, there is no cosy village green scene to greet you, for the church serves a widely scattered community. The wind cuts across the open land with an icy blast and even the church seems to be hunkered down against it, squatting in a dip in the land. As you enter the porch an old sign reminds you why.


Once inside the church, the simplicity of its decoration is the first thing that strikes you. Whitewashed walls with little in the way of decoration are the backdrop for ancient, worn pews and the most beautiful barrel vaulted roof. The red of the altar cloth at the far end almost seems an intrusion of colour, a scarlet splash of paint on a plain canvas.

The doorway to the belltower is tiny – so narrow that only the slimmest can enter. Despite its size it has a degree of solidity about it. The main door to the church is the opposite – a massive piece of oak with letters and symbols scratched into its surface. To date, the meaning of these remain unknown. Any ideas, anyone?

Leaving the church, the sun is shining again and the wind has eased. Many of the Exmoor tombstones from the 19th century have verses on them. Was this the fashion of the time or a peculiarity of Exmoor custom? This particular one seemed to me to be slightly malicious – saying “I might be dead but you’ll be next” – not a great comfort to the bereaved!

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