Where Waters Meet

With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions.  Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust.   Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.

There are numerous paths that can be taken from here and most link up to create walks of varying lengths.  They hug the valley bottom or rise steeply to the tops of the surrounding hills so it is possible for almost anyone, regardless of their ability to have an enjoyable outing.  It should be remembered that even in dry weather the paths can be quite rugged so good, solid footwear is always recommended.  A stout stick or walking poles won’t go amiss, especially if you choose the hillier paths.
 Apart from the noise and excitement of the rivers, the other awe-inspiring feature of Watersmeet is its woodland which clings to the steep, three hundred foot sides of the valley.  These are some of the best examples of ‘hanging’ woods in the country and are relics of the ancient woodland that once covered lowland Britain.  Mostly the trees are sessile oak although there are some fine specimens of beech in the better soil of the valley bottom.  There are also a number of Whitebeam species that can only be found here or in neighbouring woodlands making them of national importance.
As soon as you start walking, any crowds are soon left behind and you have the splendour of the place to yourself.  Following the East Lyn River upstream the remains of a nineteenth century lime kiln can be explored.  Lime was brought by sea from Wales to be burned before spreading onto the fields to counteract the land’s extreme acidity.  Fuel for the kilns was provided by the woodland which was coppiced and some of this timber was also sent back to Wales to be used in the iron foundries.
 Wildlife abounds; there are dippers and herons by the water’s edge, and red deer, badgers and otters can all be seen by the fortunate few.  On quieter stretches of the river the calls of raven and buzzard can be heard overhead.
After an hour or so, the tiny hamlet of Rockford appears, consisting of just a few cottages and an inn – another great excuse for a stop.  From here you can trace your route back to Watersmeet or continue along the river to the village of Brendon to make a longer, circular walk.
Watersmeet is open to the public all year round and every season has its special moments.  In the spring, the valley is lush and green; in summer the sunlight filters through the canopy to play on the water’s surface; in autumn there are the changing colours and in winter, the extraordinary beauty of the gnarled trees adorned with grey lichens come to the fore.  It needs to be visited more than just once!
 

For more information take a look at these websites:
National Trust
The Rockford Inn
Exmoor National Park

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At Last! Signs of Spring!

The secret valley is at last bursting into life, albeit rather late. Or perhaps, this is how the season should be as we have had such mild winters the past few years. Whichever, the last few days have been warm and sunny, although the wind has been on the keen side at times. The result is greenery beginning to appear in the hedgerows and on the trees and what a welcome sight it is. Today I decided to walk along the ‘old’ road, a drover’s route that was the original way to enter the secret valley before the present road was created, probably in the late 18th century. This route is now a wide grassy path – a subject of a post to come shortly.
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The photo above shows how advanced the Spindle bushes are compared to some of the other hedgerow shrubs. The hawthorn beyond it is still quite dormant yet, some years, they can start to leaf up during February. Hawthorn seems especially prone to variation as some of them elsewhere in the secret valley are quite green with new leaves.
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The Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana, below (which never reaches tree like proportions) also looks lifeless from a distance. However, that is because its leaves and flower buds are greyish when first opening, being covered in felt like hairs , botanically referred to as tomentosum. The photograph beneath the Wayfarer is not of the same plant but the opening buds of the Whitebeam, Sorbus aria. They are not related: Viburnums belong to the honeysuckle family and Sorbus to roses. The Whitebeam makes a fine tree and although it is native, it is often planted in gardens.

It will be sometime before the Ash trees open their leaves but their black nobbly buds, that look so hard and devoid of life, quite suddenly have burst into little pom-pom flowers. All they need now is a group of cheerleaders to use them in their routine: it would certainly aid pollination!
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Why should this group of Cherry Plum be in full flower when other trees are not in leaf? I have no idea but am just grateful to be able to enjoy some of the first blossoms of the year. I’ve had to wait a long time to see this, this year.

The wild flowers also show both signs of the winter and also spring life. Cow Parsley or ‘Keck’, as it is known locally around here, is sending up its young leaves which clearly show the reason for the ‘parsley’ in its name. Where ‘Keck’ originates from, I have no idea, for I have not come across that name when I lived in the Chiltern Hills just 50 miles away. Local plant names can be very confusing and make an interesting study in itself. Despite its lushness, Cow Parsley is poisonous. Later, in the summer, it will send up tall spikes of flat, white flowerheads made up of dozens of tiny stars. These dessicate to remain standing through the winter and, surprisingly, there are still a few that have survived the snow. They have a special beauty when the sun catches their metallic, bronzed skeletons.

Cowslips, Bluebells and the Hedge Mustard (which in the Chilterns, we called Jack-by-the-hedge) are all showing signs of things to come. The cowslips show their flower buds and, normally, bluebells would be doing so too. In the bottom photograph, the Jack-by-the-hedge has leaves reminiscent of the garden plant, Honesty. These leaves have quite a mild garlic smell when crushed and make a good addition to spring salads when they are young and tender. The little spikes of six to eight small leaves in whorls are the dreaded Goosegrass (or Cleavers, depending where you live). Before long, these will have scrambled five or more feet over every plant in the hedgerow and the garden, their leaves and bobbly, pinhead seeds sticking to every bit of clothing – the gardener’s curse.


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