Finding Blue John

Recently I spent a long weekend in the Peak District – not really long enough to explore properly despite it being Britain’s smallest national park.  However, there was time to explore the small town of Bakewell, home of the famous and very tasty Bakewell Tart as well as a drive through the Chatsworth Estate.  The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire had to be ignored on this occasion but lunch at their farm shop was well worth breaking the journey for. For photographs and a description of these places see my earlier post by clicking on the link The Peak District’s Soft Centre.  Finally reaching the area known as the High Peak (despite the name there are no mountains in the Peak District) a roadside sign pointing in the direction of Blue John led through glorious countryside.

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Chatsworth House

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View from the Blue John mine

Blue John is a fluorite semi-precious mineral that in its raw state appears quite dull.  After drying, preparing and polishing it takes on a number of colours ranging from purplish-blue through to yellow.  Despite numerous tests and analyses the origins of the colour has not been discovered.  Blue John is also a rare stone for although similar minerals have been found elsewhere in the world there are only two known places where its unique quality can be found – and those are both in the same hillside in the Peak District.

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Blue John in its raw state

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    Blue John after processing – the bowl is in the Castleton (Peak District) Visitor Centre.         Copyright: Pasicles via Wikipedia

Visiting the Blue John mine is not for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath for that matter: there are two hundred and fifty steps to descend and then, of course, you have to climb back up them to reach the surface once more.  Don’t complain, ‘though, or you may have to descend by rope as the early miners once did.  Fortunately, I only looked down it to see the visitors below.

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The descent into the mine

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The alternative way into the mine – being lowered by rope!

Inside the mine there are low tunnels to pass through contrasting with vast caverns with roof heights of 200 feet or more, either created by ancient rivers or by the miners themselves.  Each cavern has its own unique characteristic although it is difficult to catch it on camera.  The one below is named Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room, a huge circular space formed by a whirlpool and so named after the dinner Lord M gave his miners there.  The thought of the cooks and food being lowered deep into the mine gives a new angle to the term ‘outdoor catering’!

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Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room

The Waterfall Cavern is colourful with the stalactite formations along one side appearing to be frozen water.  Elsewhere there are numerous fossils where marine animals have been ‘captured’ for posterity.

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‘The Frozen Waterfall’

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Fossils embedded into the mine walls

Throughout the mine the colours and texture of the rock formations are extraordinary and constantly changing.  In one cavern it is easy to ‘see’ the rocky and meandering bed of the prehistoric river that formed it, the difference being that it is way, way above one’s head.  In another, a giant, triangular rock has fallen to balance on its point.

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The overhead ‘riverbed’

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Huge and precariously balanced

The tours, which are led by miners, for Blue John is still mined here during the winter months, last about an hour.  At the end of the tour all there is left is to climb the two hundred and fifty steps back to the surface…

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The long climb back to the surface

 

For further details of the history of the Blue John Mine and visiting hours visit their website here.

To give overseas visitors a better idea of its location, the Peak District National Park is approx. 3.5 hours by car, north from London; by public transport allow 6-7 hours.  There are plenty of hotels, traditional pubs and self-catering cottages available for overnight stays.

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The Peak District’s Soft Centre

Ask people what they associate with the Peak District and you will receive many different answers: Chatsworth House and the Devonshire’s, Bakewell Tart, grouse moors, rock climbing and caving.  The UK’s first designated national park is all of these things and more.

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Chatsworth House

A whistle-stop tour last weekend of the Peak District didn’t allow a thorough exploration of all its diverse scenery.  A drive through Chatsworth’s historic parkland and a visit to their farm shop gave a glimpse of the famous cascade in the gardens but that and the house interior will have to wait for another occasion.  If ‘farm shop’ conjures up a vision of a limited choice of vegetables covered in mud at a wayside shack, think again.  Chatsworth’s huge selection is impeccably presented along with breads, cheeses and meat in the former Shire Horse stallion stable block, now beautifully converted.

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Quality is key at Chatsworth Farm Shop

The town of Bakewell is renowned for Bakewell Tart or to be more accurate, as I now know it should be called, Bakewell Pudding.  Forget the oversweet, thickly iced versions available nationwide, the traditional version is packed full of almonds, the shortest of sweet pastry and not much else.  The queues of people waiting to purchase them stands testament to their quality and flavour.

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Prepare to join a queue!

Only moments away from the busy town centre is the River Wye (one of several in the UK with that name), a place of calm and surrounded by historic, stone buildings.  On Sunday morning, Remembrance Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of the Great War, brought silence to the town.  As elsewhere throughout the country, the focus at 11 o’clock was the war memorial with the traditional wreath laying ceremonies of scarlet poppies.

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The old mill at Bakewell is available for holiday lets

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WW1 memorial to the fallen men of Bakewell

As already hinted, the Peak District has broad expanses of heather moorland as well as limestone crags and outcrops.  This weekend’s exploration of the Peaks revealed the softer side of the national park; its gentler views were bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine highlighting the last of the autumn colours.

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Peaceful grazing with a view!

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Lengthening shadows as the autumn sun sets

Another visit to the Peaks is planned, next time exploring on foot the passes of the High Peaks, the Chatsworth estate and the village of Eyam, where in 1665 the villagers chose to isolate themselves during an outbreak of bubonic plague.   Of the three hundred villagers, only eighty survived but their self-sacrifice prevented the disease spreading to the neighbouring population.

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Isolated cottages are scattered throughout the national park

Although time was short, a visit to the Blue John Mines couldn’t be ignored.  The story of this rare semi-precious stone and the descent into the caves via two hundred and fifty steps will come next.  If you suffer from claustrophobia or struggle with steps this isn’t the place for you – it’s a long (and sometimes low and narrow), old climb back to the top!

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The descent into the mine

Visiting Canyon de Chelley

For most people living outside the United States – and perhaps a large number of Americans too – the word ‘canyon’ sums up the deep and stunningly beautiful chasms of the Grand Canyon.  Certainly, for me, so familiar with those dramatic images from my earliest schooldays, television documentaries and travel journals, I had never considered that there might be any others.  Or that they could be very different in character.  Then I visited the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘dee shay’).

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The Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the north-east of the state of Arizona and fully within the Navajo Nation.  Today about forty Navajo families live there.

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Unique amongst the National Parks, the Canyon de Chelly is privately owned by the Navajo Nations Trust and is jointly managed by them and the National Parks Service.  This arrangement was agreed after many years of negotiation in 1931.

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Strict controls on entry are enforced to preserve the floor of the canyon with most parts  accessible only when accompanied by a Navajo guide.  One trail, the White House Ruin Trail, is an exception and it is the one that I explored, now a number of years ago, hence the rather poor quality of the images.

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Long before the Navajo came to the canyon it was occupied first by the Anasazi and then the Hopi peoples making the canyons one of the longest continuous inhabited places on the continent.  These early peoples built their homes not just along the valley floor but also in niches hundreds of feet up in the sheer rock face, reached by toeholds in the rock.  The ruins are now preserved.

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Sadly, I had very little time to explore the canyon but for my visit the weather was perfect, warm and sunny.  On the drive leaving Arizona, we were caught in a duststorm – another new experience for an Englishman used to the benign British climate where extreme weather of any kind is virtually unknown.

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For further information:
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

History of the Canyon de Chelly

Visiting Canyon de Chelly

A Hidden Exmoor Walk

I have misgivings about sharing this walk for it is a favourite of mine: in the 48 years that I have known it I have rarely met anyone other than those that work the land here. Do I want to encourage others to discover its beauty? I’m not sure.

This circular walk begins with the open expanses of Brendon Common but follows more sheltered winding lanes before descending through beech woodland to Rockford and the East Lyn River. A steep climb past Brendon church returns you to the moor. How long does it take? There’s no easy answer to this – allow two hours although experience tells me there are so many distractions along the way, including the Rockford Inn, that it can take much, much longer. Whether you want a quick sprint or a leisurely amble good supportive footwear is essential as is the ability to climb hefty hills.

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Brendon Common

 

There is plentiful parking at Scobhill Gate, the cattle grid on the B3223 that denotes the westernmost boundary of Brendon Common. From here walks radiate across the 2000 acres of heather moorland but our route takes us over the cattle grid into farmed country and turns right by the hairpin bends at Brendon Manor Stables.

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Scobhill Gate

 

After a few hundred yards the road, which is flanked by hedges of hazel, ash, furze, bramble and bilberry (known locally as wurts), meets Gratton Lane. This is very much ‘home’ territory for me, for it is here at Brendon Barton that I arrived as a lad to work and play in 1968. Opposite the farm there are fine views of Brendon church and in the far distance Countisbury Common and the sea.

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Brendon Barton 1968

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Walking along Gratton Lane is lovely at any time of the year but is at its best in spring when the beech hedges are bursting into leaf and primroses and bluebells nestle at their feet. These banks are an ancient method of providing shelter, as well as a barrier to livestock, from the fierce gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic. The banks stand about five feet in height, lined with stone with the beech planted above.

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Gratton Lane

 

Just as the lane starts to descend it enters woodland and it is here – just past the warning sign denoting the ford that crosses the road – that a footpath is taken to the left. The path follows a pretty stream as it tumbles over rocks down to join the East Lyn River. It is here that the unwary walker can also take a tumble as the path crosses outcrops of rock that become quite slippery when damp. This stream has everything a larger one would have – cascades, waterslides, ferns growing from niches – but all in miniature. Despite its diminutive size it once powered a sawmill.Waterfalls (2)   copyright.jpg

The mill has long been a ruin and is now fenced for safety but the rusting ironwork is still visible. Just beyond the old building the path joins the road. Turn left and follow the lane to the hamlet of Rockford. You are now walking in the Brendon valley with its beechwoods clinging to the steep hills high above, home to a number of rare rowan trees (Sorbus) unique to the area.  The East Lyn River is a major river; when water levels are low it is difficult to imagine its ferocity when in spate. In 1952 it destroyed bridges, houses and lives as it passed through the valley culminating in the flood disaster at Lynmouth where thirty-four people lost their lives and over one hundred houses were destroyed. The Rockford Inn is a good place to stop for a beer; they also serve cream teas. Just make sure that you put the cream on the scone before the jam in the Exmoor tradition! It is possible to extend the walk to Watersmeet (where there is a National Trust tearoom) by crossing the river.

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The Old Mill nr Rockford

 

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East Lyn River

 

Once past Rockford the road starts to climb until it reaches Brendon church. The hill is a killer – it’s not called Church Steep for nothing! The church which nestles into the hill and looks out across the combes looks as if it has been there for centuries. In reality, it was moved stone by stone from nearby Cheriton in 1738. It is simply decorated inside but has some attractive stained glass. Brendon Barton, passed earlier, can be seen from the steps of the church. Follow the lane back to the farm; from there retrace the original route back to Scobhill Gate.

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Brendon Barton, view from the church

 

Happy walking!

 

Exmoor is a National Park in the southwest of England and straddles the counties of Devon and Somerset. Apart from miles of wonderful moorland walks, it also has the highest sea cliffs in England, pretty villages and spectacular wildlife including the majestic Red Deer. Native Exmoor ponies roam the open moor. Now a rare breed they remain virtually unchanged from pre-history.

 

In the Footsteps of the Danes

In 858AD Hubba the Dane invaded England to be defeated by the Saxons at the Battle of Arx Cynuit. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Asser, biographer of King Alfred the Great, the site of the battle it is thought took place at Countisbury, a tiny clifftop community on Exmoor. Whether true or fanciful, a walk to Wind Hill hillfort* is well worth the effort. It is a place where it is possible to experience all the elements that Exmoor offers in one glorious 360 degree panoramic view.

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All the best English country walks should start and end at a pub and there are plenty of options to choose on this one. Mine started from the Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury which is as welcoming now as it was when I first crossed its threshold fifty years earlier.

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Turning left from the pub, walk down the road for a few yards before entering a gate to National Trust land, also on the left and the starting point of several extensive walks. Our destination is a short walk and is the high point close to the road. The path to the fort is well defined and grass covered; it merges with a field access track that leads gently uphill to its entrance. The second photograph below is taken from the fort: the pub is the white building.Wind Hill (9) copyrightWind Hill (5) copyright

The fort is a rare example of a promontory fort where the natural landscape has been adapted to create the defences. The coastal cliffs which form its northern defence are the highest in England rising to over 300 metres, to the west and south the East Lyn River has cut a deep gorge. Where necessary double ramparts were built to defend the weaker areas: at the entrance they still rise, after two thousand years or more, to an impressive thirteen metres.

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Although it is possible to make Wind Hill part of a longer walk I prefer not to do this. It is rare to meet anyone else here and to be able to explore the 85 acre site in splendid isolation gives a real feel of the place. Just spend time enjoying the silence,  lying down with your back propped against the ramparts listening to the wind and sheep calling.  As mentioned earlier, the views from the fort are magnificent: heather moorland, ancient woodland, hills, villages, sea, cliffs, the distant coast of Wales as well as wild creatures, ranging from the iconic red deer to seabirds and butterflies.

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* also known as Countisbury Castle

 

 

Links:

Historic England

The Megalithic Portal

Exmoor National Park

The Blue Ball Inn

A Celtic Church on Exmoor

Exford lays claim to the title of ‘Capital of Exmoor’ owing to its central location (one assumes) in Exmoor National Park. It certainly has more facilities than most others of similar size – a village green, a post office, two shops and a garage, although the days when it sold petrol pumped by hand have long passed.Exford - St Mary Magdalene   copyright

The church of St Mary Magdalene pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and, unlike much of England, originates from the Celtic tradition brought from Wales or possibly Ireland. Centuries ago, much of Exmoor’s trade and travel links were by sea, the Welsh coast being only a few miles across the Bristol Channel; journeys overland were fraught with difficulty and danger.

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During the twelfth century mass was said by monks from Neath Abbey, giving another Welsh connection. As a Celtic church it was dedicated to St Salvyn although at an unknown later date it was rededicated to St Mary Magdalene. The east window depicts St Salvyn with St George and St Francis.

St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window

St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window

Despite its ancient origins the earliest part of the church still standing – the tower – only dates from the mid-1400s. It has a fine set of bells. The south aisle was built around 1532.

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The exquisitely carved rood screen dates from the fifteenth century and has a rather remarkable recent history. Discarded when the church of St Audries at nearby Watchet was rebuilt, it was rediscovered in the early 1900s in pieces in an old hay barn. It was beautifully restored and placed in Exford.

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Close to the entrance gate of the churchyard stands the memorial to Amos Cann, a young man who froze to death walking home one night in the extreme winter of 1891. His body was found some three weeks later.

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A Walk Across Dartmoor – part 2

A riverside path heading north from the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, leads into the heart of the moor.  The bridge dates back at least to the fourteenth century and some of the slabs weigh over eight tons.  The ‘modern’ bridge in the background was built as recently as 1780.

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At the point where the river turns abruptly westwards are the remains of a beehive hut.  These were used mostly for storage and, compared to many of Dartmoor’s archaeological features which date back millennia, are also of more recent origin and date from the 1500’s.  They ‘disappear’ into the moorland  features but are clearly visible once you know where to look.

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Walking further onto the moor and leaving the river behind are the low grey shapes of the Grey Wethers double stone circle.  Sitting close to Sittaford Tor, they are so named for their resemblance to sheep, ‘wether’ being the Old English name for a castrated male sheep.  A tale, often repeated, is of a traveller stopping off at the remote Warren House Inn (where this walk started and will end) who complained of the poor quality sheep in the district.  After a drink or two, he was led to the circles and in the mist mistook the stones for sheep and bought them, only to discover later that he had been fooled.

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The two circles of Grey Wethers appear to the eye as one shaped as a figure of eight but an aerial view shows them to be quite separate to one another, sitting side by side.  The circles are of similar size and lie on a north-south axis although whether this is of relevance is unknown.  Numerous theories abound: perhaps the meeting place of two separate groups of people, or possibly they represent life and death. When excavations took place in 1909 a thick layer of ash was found to cover their centres but, again, the purpose of this is unknown.

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From Grey Wethers the walk back to the Warren House Inn skirted the edge of Fernworthy Forest.  Hidden behind the trees is Fernworthy reservoir, created by damming the South Teign River.  When water levels are low the remains of an old farm can be seen, as can the remains of a small clapper bridge, drowned reminders of life on the moor in times past.

the remote Warren House Inn

the remote Warren House Inn

A Walk Over Dartmoor – part 1

All the best walks start and end at a pub and a popular place to aim for is the Warren House Inn.  Located in the heart of Dartmoor, a national park in the county of Devon in England’s West Country, it has been a stopping point for thirsty travellers since the mid eighteenth century.  The fire, according to tradition, has never been allowed to go out – probably out of necessity for the inn is isolated and exposed on a high windswept plateau.

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Two miles to the south-west of the inn is the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, first mentioned in 1380 and reached by a track opposite the pub.  It passes the remains of habitation for Dartmoor once had a tin mining community and these are just some of the signs of this now vanished industry throughout the moor.  The mining is thought to have predated the Romans, flourished during medieval times and also the nineteenth century before finally ending in the mid-1900s.

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Spring comes late to this harsh environment: the few trees grow slowly and stunted.  When the moor flowers many different species of butterflies can be seen.

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

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Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary Butterfly

As with many parts of Britain where rock lies close to the surface, drystone walls are a feature.  Unlike the soft limestone walls of the Cotswolds which use small pieces of thin, flat stone, Dartmoor’s are granite and some of the stones massive.  It is hard to conceive how they were built but the huge slabs foreshadow those that are to be found at Postbridge.

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Crossing the East Dart River, the clapper bridge at Postbridge is perhaps the best known of all of these bridges in England although there are more than two hundred on Dartmoor alone.  Thought to have been built to allow carts to carry tin off the moor, the bridge is over four metres long and two metres wide.  Some of the stones weigh more than eight tons.  The village consists of a few houses, a pub and a post office and is a favouriteplace to stop  for a traditional Devon cream tea.

The clapper bridge with the 'new' bridge behind built in 1780

The clapper bridge with the ‘new’ bridge behind built in 1780

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A riverside path heading north from the village leads into the heart of the moor towards the next stopping point, the prehistoric Grey Wethers stone circle, featured in part two of this blog.

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On the Edge of the Precipice

Snowdonia, the third of Britain’s national parks to be designated (and the first in Wales) is a popular holiday destination despite it being the wettest place in the UK.  Mt. Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak after which the park is named, is challenging to climb although thousands ascend by the easy route – using the narrow guage railway.

Far to the south and away from the crowds the scenery is still dramatic giving great opportunities for hill walking.  It is possible to walk all day with only ravens, buzzards and red kites for company.

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The Precipice Path near the small town of Dolgellau is a relatively short and easy circular walk that offers spectacular views in all directions.  It is a good introduction to walking in the hills for it is well signposted and, more often than not, there are other walkers nearby.  If, like me, you prefer to walk in splendid isolation then that is still possible by starting early or late in the day and avoiding weekends.

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The path leading up to the precipice winds its way gently alongside woodland before climbing more steeply for a few hundred yards.  It is rocky and uneven and, as with any hill walking, strong shoes or boots should always be worn.  During the winter, this part of the path is often icy.

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As the path turns towards the west spectacular views of the river, the Afon Mawddach appear, set in a deep glacial valley that leads out to sea.  The path now narrows and with a sharp drop to one side – although it is quite safe small children need to be supervised and those that suffer from a fear of heights will find this stretch challenging.

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For those not worried by height the bird’s eye view of Dol-y-clochydd is fascinating especially if you are lucky enough to see the sheep being herded by the farmer and his dogs.

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At the halfway point, a bench marks the end of the precipice and from here there are vews of the village of Llanelltyd and of the river flowing into the sea.Precipice Walk (10)   copyright

The path now turns back on itself in a wide arc before descending to the edge of Llyn Cynwch, a small reservoir with views of the mountains and crystal clear water giving superb reflections.  The path follows the edge of the lake until it returns to the starting point of the walk.  Novice walkers should allow at least two hours for completion.

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The Precipice Path lies within the nine hundred year old Nannau Estate and, although not a public right of way, the estate has opened it to the public since 1890.  It is a working estate and there may be sheep or other livestock roaming freely so it is necessary to keep dogs strictly under control. Precipice Walk (18)   copyright

Visiting The Exmoor Society

Devotees of Exmoor, a National Park in Britain’s West Country, who want to learn more of its past and wildlife will find a friendly welcome at the Exmoor Society’s new headquarters.  Closely associated with Dulverton since its inception in 1958, it has recently moved to its new location within the town centre.Exmoor Society HQ (13)   copyright

A pictorial map filling the whole of one wall draws your attention as you enter the building, beautifully illustrated with iconic Exmoor animals and birds: Red Deer, Exmoor Ponies and Buzzards to name a few.

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Leading from the map is a room where visitors are able to look at old copies of the Exmoor Review, published annually and other archive material.  A timeline charting the period from the 1950s to the present day stretches along a wall lined with seats and work tables and makes fascinating reading in its own right.  Exmoor Society HQ (4)   copyright

The library’ shelves are stacked with books, many rare and out of print and covering every aspect of Exmoor life.  These are a great resource not just for the serious student of Exmoor but also for those that just want to dip into the pages of one that catches the eye.  Some titles, where there are several copies, are for sale.Exmoor Society HQ (12)   copyright

With over fifty years of collected material, the Exmoor Society has a wealth of information some of which, in the past, has not been readily available to see.  In 2014 funding was acquired for an Outreach Archivist, Dr Helen Blackman, to catalogue and resolve these issues.  Her progress can be followed on Twitter @ExSocArchivist.

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One of the greatest bequests to the society was all of the papers, drawings and paintings of Hope Bourne who became world famous for self-sufficient living in a caravan in a remote part of the moor.  Much of the material is in a fragile state but reproductions commissioned now show the beauty of her work.  The society has recently published a book showing some of her paintings, many for the very first time entitled Eloquence in Art and this can be purchased either at Dulverton or online.Exmoor Society HQ (14)   copyright

The Exmoor Society aims to reach everyone with an interest in Exmoor, including the landowners and people that live and work on the moor.  It takes its message to numerous shows and exhibitions and also leads walks throughout the year.Exford Show 2014 (9)   copyright

To find out more about the Exmoor Society drop into Dulverton or take a look at its website by clicking the link here.