He was still unconscious when we were put down in Simonsbath, a soggy place where the sun rarely seems to call. There had been half an inch of rain during the night, and it was still in the air as we walked up past the Exmoor Forest Inn. The path up Ashcombe appeared on the map to sprout from the Exmoor National Park car park, but we hiked up and down it twice before we discovered the signpost, cunningly concealed behind some trees, at the edge of the second level. This car park features one of the several grisly National Park information or study centres on the moor which, boarded up and locked up, are rotting quietly away until they will be no more than a heap of stones of doubtful origin, like Larkbarrow Farm or the Wheal Eliza.
Looking south from above Ashcombe
The path climbed round the edge of Ashcombe Plantation before it set off across open grassland towards the ridge between Prayway Head and Warren Farm. There we passed through a gate to put ourselves on the edge of the open moor before turning right, but even so we failed to follow the path intended. Long distance paths like the Macmillan Way are often more a theoretical conception in the mind of their creators than a signposted reality on the ground, and so we missed the tricky left and right turns across the moor – a CIA global positioning system might have helped - which would have taken us over the romantically named Ravens Nest. We had kept the field boundary close on our right, often a shrewd tactic on the moor, and found ourselves ankle deep in sheep dung. We managed to negotiate one flooded gateway with some impressive acrobatics over rails and fencing, but only found ourselves back in the mire. These antics were watched impassively by several hundred muttons, the biggest flock I have ever seen in a single enclosure.
By the time we reached the end of their enclosure, we were peering down into the Exe valley just above Warren Farm. There was no perceptible path and, after keeping to the top of the combe for a while, we lost patience and plunged downwards through the soaking bracken. The path proper was soon revealed to us by a sighting of a sedentary group of teenagers, prostrated by the gradient and by their massive burdens which would have tested the hardiest of sherpas, catching their breath and drinking coke. It was no easier going down than going up, as the way was bare rock slick with rain. Somehow we slithered downwards and fell out into the lane, soaked from the knee downwards, just above a handsome bridge over the river. The writer SH Burton in his seminal “Exmoor” rhapsodises over this valley and Warren Farm. On a grey, mizzling morning, it was difficult to catch his mood as we hiked up the hard road under the farmhouse, built by John Knight in the mid nineteenth century as part of his grand plan to make his Exmoor possessions a going concern. The paintwork was looking a little sorry for itself and it looked a damp old refuge.
High above it towers the famous stand of trees, visible for miles from all parts of the moor and a welcome landmark for staghunters on the Forest when the mist comes down. Soon we were out on the moor again heading for Larkbarrow Corner, and our troubles were just beginning. The track is ragged, dirty, and wet and, however hard you try to bypass it, you have to keep returning to it. The sweep of the open moorland would be breathtaking, if you didn’t have to keep looking at your feet to see what slough of despond they were sinking into next. It makes for slow going and the best way of crossing it is on horseback.
The moor near Larkbarrow Corner
Eventually, however, we reached the road at Larkbarrow Corner, and turned left towards Exford. It’s quite a walk into Exford from the north wherever you are on the moor, and there are surprisingly few paths leading southwards. We had had our fill of wilderness and swung along the road, ignoring the bridleway, which is churned up on a regular basis by the hunt, past the charming house and gardens at Wellshead, and into Exford by way of Edgcott.
The entrance to the bar of the Crown faces the green. The room wasn’t as large as I had expected, and it was crowded with couples and families enjoying a Bank Holiday Sunday lunch. Locals stood two deep at the bar at the far end but courteously parted like the Red Sea as we approached, our tongues lolling like elderly labradors. There was a choice of Exmoor Ale and St Austell’s lemony bitter, Proper Job. We started with the former and followed up with the latter but, if they failed to hit the usual spot satisfactorily, it probably was because the beer was served a tad cold. There was an excellent stag’s head on the wall, complete with a full description of its hunting in 1930 and an excellent photograph of Ernest Bawden’s hounds, as well as good hunting caricatures on the walls. Sunday lunch, of course, was the order of the day, but there was the usual run of lunchtime snacks with prices only just above the average despite it being a hotel. The children were well-behaved, the tables were quickly cleared of empty plates, but it was a hotel bar for all that. If you want a drink in Exford, however, it’s a hotel or nothing.
We had had enough of muck and moorland for one day, and fled homewards along the lanes, ignoring the cross country routes via Courts Farm or Chibbets Ford.