The Boy from London

I am a hills person.  I love walking – or even better – cross-country skiing in the mountains. I can also admire the huge skies and vistas of flat country.  However, it is with hills that I have always strongly identified with.  So, when I’m asked “where was home for you?” it isn’t the county of Buckinghamshire, or even the village I was brought up in that I respond with, it is the hills and the Chiltern Hills in particular.

A country lane in the Chiltern Hills winds its way through dense woodland

As a child, I lived on the very edge of the village and not being schooled locally and with no children of my own age nearby anyway, I learnt to spend many hours on my own during the lengthy holidays. Although our house was close to the River Thames I found fishing of limited interest preferring always to be out walking or cycling.  As I grew older I travelled further afield exploring the lanes, fields and woodlands, learning all the time about the ways of nature.  Back in the fifties and early sixties people seemed to have more time to answer inquisitive children about these things or, perhaps, it was just that in those days people were more connected with the natural world so were able to answer their questions.  Whatever the reason, I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about country ways than I ever did with schoolwork.  A consequence of this is, when asked the question, “where are you from?” I respond without hesitation (and with a certain degree of pride), “I’m a Chilterns man.”

A childhood spent exploring the fields and woodlands that surrounded home

It was not until I reached the ripe old age of 49 that I moved away from the Chilterns to start a new life in the Cotswolds.  Although as the crow flies, the Cotswolds are not many miles away (I can even see the distant Chilterns from the top of my lane) they are very different in character, the former being chalk and flint country, the latter limestone.  But it wasn’t the exchange of deep, wooded valleys with few, if any, streams for a landscape of far-reaching views, fast-running brooks and drystone walls that I noticed most of all, it was the language.  When I moved to this then unfashionable part of the Cotswolds twenty years ago it was still a forgotten corner of the world where, even if the local dialect had mostly died out, the twang of local accent hadn’t.  It reminded me of, for it is related to, the south-western tongue spoken by many of my country cousins and also by my friends further west still.   So, when I gave my usual response to the question, I was rather peeved to hear it acknowledged by the words, “so you come from London way, then.” 

A Chilterns cottage built using the local flint
Cotswold cottages look very different and are made with local limestone

Now, I hasten to say, that there is nothing wrong about being referred to as a Londoner.  It’s just that our capital city is as much a foreign land to me as it would be to an overseas visitor.  Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but somehow, I just don’t relate to city life despite my mother being born and raised in London’s West End.  She had come to the Chilterns as an evacuee from WW2 through her war work and there met my father, a local boy – but that’s another story.  Suffice to say, that I am a child of two halves – I have country family and I have city family much in the same way as I am a child of two cultures and two religions.  Despite my relating to country ways and to complicate matters further, (although I should be used to it by now), it is to my mother’s culture and religion that I feel a closer affinity to.  It still grates, ‘though, when I’m thought of as a townie.

City girl sophistication meets country gent: my parents soon after marriage

As I mentioned earlier, school life didn’t hold much appeal and so I persuaded my parents that I should leave aged sixteen.  As soon as I could, I took myself off on my bicycle to holiday in Devon.  Leaving Exeter with tent, camping gas stove and billy cans loosely tied to the crossbar I clanked and clattered my way along the lanes of Dartmoor.   At the end of each day I would pitch my tent wherever I could and reflect with delight upon all the new experiences that had come my way.  Getting hopelessly lost, I ended up at Westward Ho!, a small seaside town on on the north Devon coast.  From there I travelled east finding the hills becoming ever steeper and the villages further and further apart.  One day, I ended up on a remote farm on Exmoor where I decided I would spend two days to recuperate before heading for home.  It didn’t happen. 

The 16 year old hits the road!
Remote hill farm, Brendon Barton where I intended to stay for only two days

Looking back, I can’t imagine what my poor parents were thinking for there were no mobile phones or credit card statements for them to track my progress or whereabouts.  I would telephone them occasionally or send a postcard always being deliberately vague as to where I was staying.  In the meantime, I remained at the farm working – at first for food then, as I became more established and with the tent discarded, for a bedroom and beer money.  By the time my parents turned up at the door several months later (after some shrewd detective work) I had settled into my new life and rapidly adopting the ways of the hard but exhilarating Exmoor life.  Dragged back home to “get a proper job” I never completely left Exmoor behind.  Every spare moment was spent on the farm and, as regular readers of my blog will know, I still spend as much time on Exmoor as possible.  Being a National Park, the landscape and buildings of Exmoor haven’t changed very much over the 50+ years since I turned up on Lorna and Dick French’s doorstep although they have, as have most of the others I knew in those early days, since died.  To my dismay, there is one other thing that hasn’t changed at all: when I respond proudly to the inevitable question with “I’m a Chilterns man”, their response remains the same: “So up-country then?  London?”  Over the years, the ‘boy from London’ has become ‘the man from London.’    And I’m sorry, Londoners, Mum and cousins – I don’t like the label!

Dick & Lorna French who welcomed me into their lives and in the process changed mine
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Conceived on Exmoor?

There used to be a standing joke between my mother and I that I must have been conceived on Exmoor as it has such a magnetic hold on me.  My parents had honeymooned there, staying at Ye Olde Cottage Inne at Barbrook in the mid-1940s – the fact that I was born in the early 50s and had an older sibling we conveniently overlooked.

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Wedding Day

When I first came across Exmoor, in the summer of ‘68, I thought I had stumbled into a paradise, if not unknown to others, certainly unknown to members of my family.   “Stumbled” is an accurate description. My intention had been to cycle further west into Cornwall before returning south to Exeter for the train journey home.  Poor map reading skills took me instead to the North Devon Coast at Westward Ho!.   During my final term at school we had studied the novel Lorna Doone and now seeing Doone Valley, Exmoor marked on the map it seemed logical to visit despite it being way off to the east.

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Badgworthy Water, Doone Valley

Brought up in the Chiltern Hills, I was used to a hidden landscape of narrow lanes, high beech hedges and dense and extensive beech woodlands.  Rarely, was there an unbroken view of far-distant places and, almost as rarely, large expanses of sky and cloud.  Cycling across Exmoor with its open, rolling landscape ablaze with heather and gorse and views across the sea to the Welsh coast was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Sometimes the lanes would pass between high banked hedgerows or descend into well-wooded coombes reminding me of home.  I came across a farm where I pitched my tent intending to stay two days before leaving for Exeter.

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A Chiltern lane winds its way through dense woodland

 

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The open views of Exmoor

Helping on the farm, two days turned into weeks and then into months by which time I had moved into the farmhouse and embraced Exmoor life.  I occasionally telephoned my parents, or sent a postcard, always being evasive about where I was staying and only telling them I was working on a farm and being well cared for.  With the benefit of maturity, I sometimes wonder how they coped with their sixteen-year old son, on his first lone holiday, disappearing for so long in an era of no mobile phones or credit cards for them to track my progress.  They only succeeded in finding me after I foolishly reversed the telephone call charge and soon after arrived on the doorstep to drag me away, kicking and screaming.  It was time to get “a proper job” but Exmoor and the farm had completely changed my outlook on life as well as the direction it would ultimately take.  After twenty years of “a proper job” I finally escaped to agricultural college and a life of outdoor work.

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Brendon Barton 1968

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At agricultural college 1994

I had been surprised and a little disappointed when I first discovered my parents also knew Exmoor.  Despite not having been conceived there, my attachment to Exmoor has never waivered and more than fifty years later I regularly return.  Upon entering the moor the same emotion of discovery, as if seeing it for the first time, remains.  Many of the old friends that I made in those early years and their unique way of life that I was privileged to be part of, albeit in a small way, have gone but the landscape remains remarkably unchanged.  The heather and gorse are still a carpet of purple and gold, the sea (at least, on a fine, sunny day) still blue.

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Countisbury Common, where the moor falls into the sea

Very recently, through researching my family history, I have found that an earlier cousin, at a similar age to myself, had also discovered Exmoor.  He too had never settled in school and life on Exmoor changed him.  He also chose to write about his time on the moor, something else we have in common. Although I was surprised to learn of his life and his book, this time I am delighted!

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PostscriptJust a few years before she died at the age of 93, I spent a few days on Exmoor with my mother and took her to revisit the honeymoon hotel.  Long widowed, the day must have been a mix of emotions.

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At Ye Olde Cottage Inne, renamed The Bridge Inn

 

 

 

The Year in Review: January – June 2016

As always the year has flown by to leave us with much uncertainty and sadness in the world.  Fortunately, life in the secret valley continues pretty much the same – it is easy to find relief from everyday stresses when surrounded by unspoilt countryside.  Rarely does a day pass when I don’t count my blessings for having had a rural upbringing and the opportunity to continue to live and work in such beautiful surroundings.frost-4-copyright

However, I am no hermit and I enjoy visiting other places – even cities!  One city I loved when I visited it some years ago was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and I began the blogging year with a post about the Skansen open air museum.  Skansen was the first tomove and preserve traditional, threatened buildings; it was founded as early as 1873.  As well as buildings it also houses a zoo, concentrating on breeding native wildlife for reintroduction schemes including the European Bison which had become extinct in the wild.  To see more of the buildings click on the link here.8  Sweden. Skansen   copyright13 Sweden.  Skansen   copyright

Exmoor is a second home to me and features regularly on my blog.  In March, with some misgivings – for why would I want to share such a magical place – I took readers on my favourite walk, one that wouldn’t be found in any guide book.  The walk encompasses all that is best on Exmoor: open heather moorland, deep wooded combes, rushing streams and traditional pubs.  It also passed the door of the hill farm where I turned up as a lad looking for work after leaving school.  I was taken in and cared for – and made to work hard – and, well read the story by clicking on the link here.Above Brendon Barton (2)   copyrightLil @ Brendon Barton 1968   copyright

April saw me back on the Continent (as we Brits call Europe).  This time in the south of France visiting the ancient town of Lombez.  It is far from the tourist routes and we discovered it quite by chance.  With its ancient, timbered buildings and wonderful, brick built cathedral it deserved a longer visit than we were able to give it.  An excuse for a return trip, perhaps?  In the meantime, you can visit it by clicking on this link here.Lombez (22)   copyrightLombez (4)   copyright

If April saw us travelling slowly through France, May saw us travel at an even slower pace – by longboat on the Oxford Canal.  Passing through traditional buttercup meadows – we were miles from the city of Oxford – and in glorious sunshine it was the perfect way to relax as well as to see the wildlife that seemed oblivious to our passing.    Click on the link here to see more.016   copyright076   copyright

Our native butterflies struggle to thrive but I have been fortunate in living in places where they prosper reasonably well.  As a gardener, (both my hobby and my profession), I probably see more than most and in June I wrote about the species that visit gardens.  See how many you can identify  in your own garden by clicking on the link here and don’t forget to record them with your local conservation trusts or online.Comma Butterfly (2)   copyright

2017 may well prove to be a year that none of us forget too easily.  Travel abroad or in the countryside – and the British countryside is second to none – always helps to refresh the spirits.  I have numerous plans for the year ahead and hope that you will be joining me month by month.  In the meantime, the review of the second half of this year will follow shortly and don’t forget that images of the Cotswolds and other places I visit are updated regularly on my Facebook page and on Flickr.  You can also find me on Twitter @johnshortlandwra typical Cotswold scene   copyright

 

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.