A Tour of the Secret Valley

Ask people – both here at home or abroad – how they imagine Great Britain to be, the answer is often the same: an overcrowded island. We do, of course, have our fair share of big cities, motorways and densely populated housing estates but it often comes as a surprise just how much unspoilt, open countryside remains. A few of us are lucky enough to live in it.

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The M40 motorway where it enters Oxfordshire

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Less than two hours drive from the centre of London, the secret valley, seems more like a million miles away rather than just the eighty odd miles that, in reality, it is. Tucked down an unclassified side road and not shown on a number of maps, only those ‘in the know’ tend to visit it. Time for a quick tour.

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The Secret Valley

The approach to the secret valley gives little hint of what’s to come. Lined with crab apple trees, the lane gently descends between a fold in the hills where, on the steepest banks, wild thyme, orchids and other wild flowers grow.

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A bend in the road conceals the valley’s crowning glory: the most perfect, easily jumpable river (as can be seen in the header image of this blog page). Twisting and turning as it passes through meadows, in its shallows watercress grows where both trout and crayfish hide. By its banks willow pollards, now elderly and bent, wear garlands of wild roses; they grow from the tree crowns courtesy of seed dropped by birds generations ago.

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The lane, crossing the river, passes our tiny stone cottage and climbs towards the village – a cluster of nine houses, a farm and little else. Our home sits alone, down by the river bank, with just one other as companion. Here, the lane – barely wide enough for a combine harvester to pass – once was busy with drovers taking their cattle and sheep to the markets in Oxford.

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These days the drove road enters and leaves the secret valley by a different route, only its mid-section by our house is still in use. The ‘old road’, as it is known, can still be walked – its path clearly defined by the wild flowers and hedgerows that line it.

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The river, too, has chosen a different route according to the earliest maps. Downstream from our house, it flows past wooded banks to widen into a small lake before passing through fields, these days marshy where the watermill’s sluice gates have decayed with age.

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Further downstream still, where the sheep cannot graze, swathes of scented, moisture loving plants such as wild valerian – looking very different from the one grown in our gardens – provide nectar for insets and a hiding place for deer.

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a forest of Valerian & Meadowsweet

On the higher ground of the secret valley, the fields are cultivated with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Even here, in the favoured places, wild flowers and birds of many types can be found: the diminutive hay rattle, a relic from the old farming days to ravens, buzzards and red kites, all now common again after centuries of persecution.

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Red Kite

Sounds idyllic? You’re quite right – it is!

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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.

 

Don’t Be Put Off By Its Name…

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.

Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.

Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick – an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here

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