This is the antithesis of the walk from Withypool to Dulverton, found elsewhere on this site. Then we had walked to Tarr Steps along the Barle valley before taking to the heights of the Ashway road to Marsh Bridge. This time we kept above the river past Hawkridge until we joined the Barle where it meets the Danesbrook at Castle Bridge. If you are a dedicated valley walker, you would be best advised to walk to Tarr Steps along the valley before crossing the river and climbing up to Hawkridge via the track to Parsonage Farm. You can’t keep with the river all the way from Withypool to Dulverton, but this would allow you to do so as much as possible.
We took the road out of Withypool which passes the village hall on the left. It’s a stiff climb, but it soon levels out before arriving at the cattle grid at Greystone Gate. The view to the left was of Winsford Hill, darkening in a piercing north easterly wind.
If you fancy climbing Withypool Hill and finding the Stone Circle, as many walkers do, take the sheep path on the right almost opposite to the cattle grid and lane which leads down to Batsom Farm. When you reach the top of the Hill, to find the Circle, take the path which runs almost due south. Don’t expect an Exmoor Stonehenge or Avebury. If you blink, you’ll miss the stones lying flat in the heather.
We kept on the road from Greystone Gate until over the bridge at Westwater Farm and then turned left through a gate into the bridle way. The next gate on the track is straight ahead of you, from which we took the path which winds up through ragged gorse and thorn trees. The sun broke through as we climbed, rewarding us with a splendid view back to Withypool Hill.
The track led straight on through several fields before turning sharp right, as it meets a path coming up from Tarr Steps. A couple of gates takes you into the buildings of Parsonage Farm, and then the farm lane leads you down and then up to a point where various paths diverge at the foot of the road coming down from Tarr Post. We went straight on through the gate to take the path to Hawkridge, which provided views over towards Ashway Farm as we approached the village.
We walked down into the village, past the workshop of Tom Lock, who makes all sorts of wondrous artefacts from antlers, to the little church, which still holds weekly services. Ernest Bawden, the legendary huntsman of the Devon & Somerset Staghounds, is buried in the churchyard. Despite its tiny size, Hawkridge also boasts a splendidly appointed village hall.
Leaving the church on our right, we took the track which leads straight on and out on to Hawkridge Ridge. To begin with the track is sheltered by banks and beech hedges but, when it opens out, there is a grand view towards Zeals Farm with Anstey Common towering above it.
A little further on, the vista of the Barle valley opens before you.
The track descends into old woodland, and now both the Barle on your left and the Danesbrook on your right are within hearing. The two rivers meet at Castle Bridge.
After crossing the bridge, the broad path stays with the river, past New Invention House, until Marsh Bridge.
We could have continued to Dulverton as we had done previously, by following the riverside path which begins at Kennel Farm. For the sake of change, we crossed the Dulverton-Winsford Hill road and took the bridle way up through the woods. A stiff climb takes you up to the top of Looseall Wood where we turned right. A good path between banks then takes you into Dulverton where you emerge by the side of the church.
We turned left up the hill to find the Rock House Inn. The “Rock’s” position on the fringe of Dulverton makes it a very different pub to the “Bridge” or “Woods”. Where the “Bridge” looks towards visitors, and “Woods” is Exmoor chic, the “Rock” is the town pub, with a darts board, a pool table, and looped background music. It’s none the worse for any of that, even the music as they had the 60’s CD in the machine. It has the best selection of real beers in town, expertly kept. This lunchtime there were four on tap; Cotleigh’s Barn Owl, Avocet from the Exeter Brewery, Taunton’s Phoenix, and Sharp’s Doom Bar. My wife immediately plumped for the Barn Owl, an old favourite but, in the interests of research, I started on the Avocet. I never shall prefer the fashionable light golden beers to a traditional bitter, but Avocet was a refreshing and pleasant pint after a walk in the sun. It weighed in at 3.9%, which gave it the call above the Phoenix’s 3.6%. I wasn’t driving, after all. No-one present was much interested in eating, but the Rock has a full menu, and chalked up for lunch you could have an imaginative choice of toasted sandwiches, including roast pork and stuffing, and beef and onion, all at £2.95, or a jalfrezi curry with rice or chips – that’s what I call a choice – at £4.95. The beer wasn’t dear for this part of the world, either. Barn Owl was £2.60 and the Avocet £2.20.
The Rock is the HQ of the annual Bolving Contest. The “bolving” of a red deer stag during the autumn rut is the roaring which he makes to keep other stags away from his girls. The competition, which started in the Rock as a private bet between two locals, involves the competitors in gathering at dusk near Marsh Bridge and bellowing in turn to induce nearby stags to answer them back. The best bolver gets a shield. It’s a kind of Exmoor version of karaoke. We didn’t realise at the time that in the pub that morning were such bolving notables as judge Chinner Kingdom and previous winner Elvis Afanasenko. My thanks to Elvis for recommending the Avocet, and to Chinner for remembering who sang the ghastly “Pushbike Song” which swam to the surface on the loop – Mungo Jerry, God rot them. There was no bolving in the pub that morning, although I did win the easiest £10 in my life – from my wife who bet that “Yellow River” was trilled originally by Credence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty would have turned in his grave, if he wasn’t still alive and playing. Before you rush to Google, this bit of bubblegum singalong tosh was performed by Christie.
The bus whisked us away from the car park by the river at bang-on 3.30 pm. Let us hope that the service does not fall victim to public expenditure cuts in 2010.