The Two Moors Way - a West Country Slice
How can a route like this, the Two Moors Way, not appeal to the long distance walker? Just take a look at the map. Commencing in a city that launched explorers, pilgrims and buccaneers into history, this walk maintains a direct course, encompassing two coastlines, two moors and an ancient heartland of rolling green hills. It is nothing less than a transect across terrain, culture and time, a slice of the West Country.
Ivybridge - Scorriton - Widecome - Chagford
The first day begins not on foot but by bus. How can this be? Yet to miss Plymouth would be to skip the services and heritage of a city where monuments to the Famed and the Fabled abound.
Our landlady at the Sea Breezes sends us off with a sumptuous breakfast on the short walk across Plymouth Hoe to the bus stop. The effigies of the Cornish giants, Gog and Magog, were once cut into this green. And are you walking on the very turf where, in 1588, Sir Francis Drake finished his game of bowls before facing the might of the Spanish Armada? Monuments to heroes both ancient and modern stand guard, then the bus carves through the traffic towards the official start of the Two Moors Way, in the South Hams town of Ivybridge. The weather holds good and the first few steps spark a frisson of excitement …102 miles to go.
This southern coast is no stranger to the military fallout of failed European diplomacy, and reminders of its cost are ever present. The 116th Infantry Regiment was billeted in and around Ivybridge in the run up to the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Originally part of the American Stonewall Brigade of the Confederate Virginian Army, this unit was amongst the first ashore on ‘D’ Day, 1944. With desperate determination – 96% causalities to A Company within ten minutes of landing on Omaha Beach – the Regiment continued to fight with distinction until meeting up with Soviet forces on the River Elbe, some eleven months later.
The vista backwards, towards Plymouth and the sea, is difficult to capture on a compact camera wielded by an amateur photographer. This view is from what is more accurately named Ugborough Moor and to look into the Erme Valley is to look back in time upon an archaeological landscape. Here can be found burial sites, stone rows and settlements that date back to the Neolithic Period and the hills are topped by cairns linked to little-understood rituals. A more modern relic of the past, the remains of a tramway, forms the stoney pathway beneath your feet and which once ferried workers to the clay workings at Red Lake.
Beneath Huntingdon Warren, the clapper bridge in the marshy valley of the Avon River, at this point referred to as Bishop’s Mead, is a useful landmark in an area otherwise devoid of an obvious path. A solid sense of direction or, better still, a compass helps to find the circular settlement on Hickaton Hill and the wooden bridge across the bubbling River Mardle, before joining the farm track to The Barn at Scorriton and a good night’s rest.
Life is in no hurry here and it is a pleasure to enjoy its pace.
The village of Holne boasts a church, an inn and a village hall and, as the walker strolls past hedgerow flowers, one wonders if it needs anything else.
The wild atmosphere of the Moor mellows to an arable amble and the River Dart is encountered at the 15th Century, granite New Bridge, a favourite playground for kayakers.
On rounding the wide bend in the waters, a sharp climb leads back up to the rock formation of Aish Tor and views across the Dart Valley.
Skirting the high ground around the valley, the route follows a rough track of similar appearance but of very different origin than that of the previous day. Whereas the Red Lake tramway was built for workers at the clay pit, this path is Dr Blackall’s Drive.
Master of Spitchwick Manor and once Sheriff of Exeter, Thomas Blackall had the track constructed so that he could share his love of the Dart Valley with his guests from the comfort of his carriage. Bel Tor marks the end of the Drive and a rainbow points to Widecome-in-the-Moor, tucked beneath the distant Dunstone Down.
The village’s Church of St Pancras, also known as “The Cathedral of the Moors”, did not always enjoy such heavenly light. The Devil is said to have visited during the Great Thunderstorm of 1638 when a bolt of lightning struck the building, killing four and injuring sixty of the congregation, as well as causing extensive damage.
The grandeur of the 14th Century Church’s granite construction and its late Gothic, “Perpendicular” style, was enhanced over the following two centuries by contributions from the local tin mining trade. Amongst the decorated roof bosses of its ceiling appear the tinner’s emblem, a circle of three hares, locally named the “Tinner’s Rabbits”. The day ends as should any bracing day in the outdoors, with local food – simple, fresh and plentiful!
At the Rugglestone Inn, they know how to fill hungry walkers.
The last day of Dartmoor today, and it begins with a climb back up to Dunstone Down, leading to Hamel Down beyond.
Following these rounded ridges does not require precise navigation but, in order to sort the sheep tracks from the footpaths, common sense must prevail when faced with indistinct options. Maintain a clear concept of the shape of the terrain, identify the next cairn or tor and, when you do pass a readily identifiable landmark, don’t be too proud to return to it if necessary.
The blue sky is driven to the North East by a string of rainy, sleety squalls and, from Hamel Down Tor, Grimspound appears through the drizzle. As the rain intensifies, this Bronze Age circular settlement lives up to its name, however considered opinion regards this site as a pastoral rather than a military relic.
Above Grimspound, Hookney Tor offers some shelter from the elements and the route turns West to meet the B3212 at the twisted and weathered Bennet’s Cross. If the conditions become too raw at this point, shelter and a taxi pick up point await at the Warren House Inn, less than a kilometre along the road to the South West. However, the lot of the Pathfinder is winter walking in preparation for the Spring customers. Across Chagford Common, a drenching of snow and sleet was served up straight from the fridge, yet the light changed again before leaving Dartmoor for the last time. The cosy town of Chagford welcomes the walker, small enough to be personal, big enough to boast a range of services. With the Ring O’ Bells at its centre to provide hot meals, warm beds and great drying facilities, Chagford could tempt a walker to put down roots.
Chagford - Coleford - Morchard Road - Knowstone - Withypool Under the charter enacted by Edward l in 1305, Chagford and three other Devon towns were granted the status of “Coinage Town”, centres of administration and collection of tin and coins, mined and minted in the county. Under the Stannary Charter, the tin mining trade was granted wide-ranging licence to appoint its own representatives, establish its own legislature and even manage its own prison. The “Tinners” enjoyed the legal right to seek minerals anywhere other than tilled fields, and, in the manner of the energy industry of today, generated enormous wealth for the Crown and Duchy of Cornwall. Devon’s Stannary privileges were merged with Cornwall’s and eventually abolished in the late 1800’s. Having known wealth through wool and tin, Chagford still prospers as an attractive place to live and thriving local centre for the arts. The Two Moors Way is rejoined on the banks of the Teign and enters the National Trust estate of Castle Drogo, the last castle to be built in England.
At the modern suspension bridge, the walker is directed uphill to the Hunter’s Path that runs beneath the castle walls, within easy reach of an excellent coffee shop. The path traces the high route above the river, with lovely views over the gorge as the castle itself languishes under wraps during its renovation.
The terrain turns to the predominant character of the Devonshire Heartlands – lush, rolling, arable land which is frequently scored by energetic streams and rivers. This is the land of the neat cottage and green dell, interlinked by quiet country lanes.
Despite the less exposed terrain, the walker will still have worked up an appetite and be ready for a very comfortable stay at the New Inn, Coleford.
What a brilliant start to the day yet, despite the sunshine, cold fingers were slow to scribble the first notes. Having endured the most prolonged and stormy winter for centuries, it was wonderful to observe the irrepressible ebullience of the region. Daffodils, snowdrops and catkins, leading the way to Spring.
The fertility of the Heartlands derives from its red earth. Its fields, its livestock and its buildings all reflect the colour to some extent. Throughout the South West, “cob”, a mixture of straw, clay subsoil, sand and water, is still in use as a building material today – although the traditional method of trampling the ingredients by oxen has been supplanted by the ubiquitous mechanical digger. Outbuildings that have fallen into disrepair demonstrate its use well. Stop for a moment, scratch its surface and wonder at such a mellow, low impact and efficient method of constructing human habitation.
This friendly, attractive region has always welcomed the visitor but developing long distance hikes takes time and planning a walk such as this occasionally meets difficulty with the availability of accommodation. Today the walker only has to manage six miles. There are options, perhaps to dally over a picnic, or walk to the pretty village of Down St Mary – or may be just settle in early at the Devonshire Dumpling Inn. Our landlady greets us just before the pub closes for the afternoon and we are parked in front of the fire with tea and biscuits, alone in the lounge with notes to write and the prospect of a hearty evening meal in the forefront of our minds. This will do nicely! It’s payback time. Only six miles yesterday? Well, it’s sixteen today and the weather forecast is poor. A road side display of snowdrops does its best to lift our spirits…
…but the sky darkens and we are forced to push on regardless. Virtually the last storm of the winter subjects us to a sustained whiplash of wind and driving rain. Morchard Bishop and then Witheridge, six hundred feet above sea level and its name aptly derived from the old english word meaning “weather ridge”, pass by with little comment. Knowstone Outer Moor is water logged and we take the disused tarmac road to avoid the Inner Moor until the hamlet of Knowstone itself. Two layers of rain jackets each, over trousers and gaiters all penetrated to the skin, ah, but what a reception! Our hostess at Rosemary Cottage whisked away our wet gear, seated us in front of the log burning stove with a warming drink and then, the Pièce de Résistance – a super meal cooked on her own Aga and eaten in the comfort of her country kitchen. Oh, how the memory of a day can be turned around!
The last day of the Heartlands starts well enough, but it is not long before trouble creeps in from the West.
Nevertheless easy walking makes for good time and the Yeo Valley is traversed in the dry to West Anstey. This is a classic moor side community – St Petrock’s Church dominates the Vicarage, Church Town Farm and a cluster of cottages. In 1881 the village had a school and its own postman but now modern agriculture is the mainstay. Climbing towards the edge of West Anstey Common, a memorial to Joe Turner stands beside the path. Joe, a well-known Devon Rambler, is widely recognised as being instrumental in establishing the Two Moors Way. A matching stone, both hewn from one river-washed granite boulder by sculptor Peter Randall-Page, is laid near Drewsteignton some thirty miles away, orientated in a mirror image of its twin. This is the edge of the Exmoor National Park, although the route soon descends into farmland before it crosses the Somerset county boundary at the stone bridge over Dane’s Brook. The undulating terrain demands some effort but the red earth is left behind in Devon and a damp wooded path leads to the River Barle and the astonishing Tarr Steps.
The longest clapper bridge in Britain spreads fifty-five metres and sports seventeen spans, each individual top stone weighing between one and two tons. In a sobering testament to the power of the river, this scheduled monument has been substantially washed away several times in recent years, the last being 2012, but was restored to its original condition using a catalogue of individual slabs. Further along the beautiful but wild Barle Valley, more evidence of the power of the flood water – no, it’s not an unfinished cable crossing but a safety net to catch storm debris, fallen trees in the main, and prevent damage down stream. Not for the first time, the conditions become challenging towards the end of the day. Constant drizzle filters through the trees, big drops of rain catch the camera flash and streams flood the riverside path. What is now the Barle Valley Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest was once coppiced to produce charcoal for the local iron smelting industry. The convoluted valley is internationally significant for its mosses, lichen and liverworts and the wooded slopes support a variety of wildlife from deer to dormice with otter feeding in the clean, fast flowing waters. Suddenly, the rain relents, the river slows and the valley reveals its true beauty.
Withypool - Simonsbath - Lynmouth The Church of St Andrews, stands at the centre of Withypool, a community mentioned in the Doomsday Book as being tended by three foresters, Dodo, Almer and Godric. Some three hundred years later, Geoffrey Chaucer, better known for his Canterbery Tales, was appointed deputy forester to the Royal Forest of North Petherton in June 1391 and the village fell under his administration. Some nine years later, Chaucer returned to London where he died of unknown causes in October 1400. Tramping across Withypool Common evokes a sense of tranquil isolation sweeter than on Dartmoor and the views back to the Barle River and the five arched Landacre Bridge are excellent. The Exmoor pony is the oldest native breed in Britain and, despite its wild and free-ranging life style, it is subject to close monitoring from the Exmoor Pony Society which inspects and licenses stallions, registers foals and generally promotes the breed.
Of course, it is absolutely understood by Pathfinders that semi-feral animals should not be fed by visitors. However on stopping to check the map, it is discovered that these friendly beasts are very willing to amble over and offer a little local knowledge.
The sharp cone of Cow Castle is an Iron Age hill fort and scheduled ancient monument. The Way skirts around the base of the site, yet the walker would be well rewarded with fine views should the grassy path over the summit be followed. At this point, the River Barle is less than ten miles from its source and it snakes through the low hills, hiding our destination until the last minute –
– the Simonsbath House Hotel, and its excellent collection of whiskies!
The frosted view of the upper Barle Valley tempts the walker to rush breakfast and set out. An immediate climb to the Moor clears the lungs and warms the legs and walkers attract the close attention of red deer as heads, eyes and ears track passing humans.
At an isolated gate in a fence line, the sign post declares its position as “Exe Head”, the source of the eponymous river. Yet rather than flow five miles to the North and the Bristol Channel, it spurns this course for a southerly direction, conjoining with the Barle, flowing through the county town of Exeter and outflowing into the Exe Estuary. The route becomes a gentle roller coaster along the valley of Hoar Oak Water before it climbs to Cheriton Ridge, a smooth lozenge of elevated terrain leading to the edge of the National Park.
The trail runs downhill to rejoin Hoar Oak Water and enters the National Trust Estate of Watersmeet, however the path harbours one last surprise for weary legs. On the approach to the last tor of the route, Oxen Tor, the path first plunges on a series of zigzags into the gorge, then immediately climbs again – but the effort is worth it.
The views pan up and down the arboreal flanks of the East Lyn River’s steep valley, then past Foreland Head and across the Bristol Channel. The still sea is marked with faint wind lanes and, through the haze of salt air, can be seen the smudged line of the Welsh Coast.
Then the descent to Lynmouth kicks in, past pretty houses and friendly residents.
The proprietress of the Lynn Valley Hotel plies us with tea and Anzac biscuits then quickly settles us into the pristine facilities.
102 miles and still smiling.