Stage 5: Porlock to Brendon
Monday, October 8, 2018
On the day between the last walk and this one, I took a day off the Coleridge Way to explore the area around Porlock.
In the morning I walked over to Porlock Weir (picture 1), an ancient harbour village nestled under steep, wooded hillsides near the western end of Porlock Bay. The thatched village pub, the Ship Inn, is often referred to as the "Bottom Ship" to distinguish it from Porlock's "Top Ship", where I was staying on this visit.
The stone quay at Porlock Weir was once used by local salmon and herring fishermen and by traders bringing limestone across the Bristol Channel from South Wales to feed the local lime-kilns and returning with cargoes of timber and ore. In common with most of Exmoor's coastal settlements, the residents of Porlock Weir were also heavily involved in smuggling in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the little harbour saw its fair share of illicit goods such as tea, sugar, tobacco and brandy. These days, the harbour is used by small leisure craft, though occasionally they are kept in (or out) when wild weather causes movement in the shingle ridge that fringes Porlock Bay and the channel through the ridge connecting the harbour to the sea gets filled with many tonnes of stones.
From Porlock Weir, I followed a stretch of the South West Coast Path along the shingle beach (picture 2) and then around the inland side of Porlock Marsh. The marsh was once farmland, but in 1996 the sea breached the shingle bank and turned the low-lying fields behind it into a saltmarsh that stretches halfway around the bay. On the inland fringe of the marsh, an abandoned stable block and the gnarled trunks of trees that couldn't survive the regular flooding by salt water show how this environment has changed in just a couple of decades (picture 3).
On the far side of the marsh, the Coast Path enters the Holnicote Estate and crosses fields to the village of Bossington. The lane through the village leads to a picturesque ford over Horner Water, a little river that I had encountered briefly on the previous stage of the Coleridge Way.
Bossington is the starting point for an interesting circular walk around the northern part of the Holnicote Estate. Many of the houses and cottages in Bossington and its neighbouring villages are coloured mustard yellow to signify their ownership by the estate.
From the ford, a footpath climbs up to Hurlstone Point, where the ruin of an old coastguard lookout tower stands atop the high promontory. Another stretch of the Coast Path then crosses Bossington Hill, where I encountered a lone Exmoor pony, too busy grazing to admire the view across Porlock Bay (picture 5). Sadly, Exmoor ponies are an endangered species, with fewer than one thousand remaining worldwide.
A little further on, I left the Coast Path to climb the rest of the way up to the cairn on the 308-metre summit of Selworthy Beacon, which has a fine view across the valley to Dunkery Hill (picture 6), the reverse of the view I had enjoyed the previous afternoon.
A few minutes walk east from Selworthy Beacon, a short stretch of tarmac leads to a path heading down into the densely-wooded Selworthy Combe, making a long sylvan descent past the Bury Castle hillfort to the village of Selworthy. The Church of All Saints, visible for much of the previous afternoon's walk, stands on the hillside at the eastern end of the village (picture 7). The tower dates from the 1300s, while the rest of the Grade I listed building was built in the 1400s.
A lane leads through Selworthy, then a farm track weaves through fields to the neighbouring village of Allerford, where I crossed the famous packhorse bridge over the River Aller (picture 8). After a visit to Allerford's West Somerset Rural Life Museum, which is housed in a thatched former Victorian school building, I followed woodland paths along the foot of Bossington Hill and back to the ford at Bossington to complete the circular walk.
A leisurely signposted stroll across fields and along a quiet residential lane took me back to Porlock's High Street and thence to the Top Ship and a delicious Sunday dinner.
It was an overcast and breezy Monday morning when I set off from the Ship Inn (picture 9) for my penultimate walk on the Coleridge Way.
Outside the pub, the road forks. The main A39 climbing south-westward up the steep Porlock Hill, while the Way follows the quieter New Road, which climbs more gently westward out of the village.
After 250 metres, the Coleridge Way peels off to the right on a narrow driveway. Gaps in the hedge give views across fields and over Porlock Marsh, where the breach in the shingle bank and the extent of the flooding it caused are easier to observe than at ground level on the marsh (picture 10).
After passing behind Park House, the driveway becomes a bridleway running along the lower edge of woods and crossing a series of shallow combes (picture 11), passing above the village of West Porlock before finally turning down Hawknest Combe to reach a quiet lane in front of the lonely Porlockford Community Hall (picture 12).
A Coleridge Way signpost points along the lane, which climbs gently into Worthy Wood, an ancient woodland covering the steep hillside behind Porlock Weir. When the tarmac ends abruptly (picture 13), the lane continues to meander through the wood as a broad bridleway, still climbing gradually. After a while the bridleway turns left to climb more steeply up to the top edge of the wood, where a right turn takes the Way onto a track shared with National Cycle Network route 51, curving around the contour of the hillside to cross the ancient Yearnor Mill Bridge (picture 14) and join the Worthy Toll Road.
A short distance to the left along the toll road, the Way turns right around a hairpin bend and begins to climb the narrow Yearnor Mill Lane, emerging from the wood and gaining ever more stunning views over Porlock Bay and the Bristol Channel (picture 15) until the lane begins to descend into Culbone Combe (picture 16).
Nestled in the combe to the right of the lane is Ash Farm (picture 17). In the summer of 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was visiting Ash Farm (or possibly the neighbouring Parsonage Farm) and began feverishly writing his poem Kubla Khan after waking from an opium-inspired dream. When he got around to publishing the poem in 1816, Coleridge wrote that after scribbling down fifty-four lines, his concentration was broken by a "person on business from Porlock" who caused the poet to be "detained an hour". The interruption caused Coleridge to forget the remainder of his vision, and so the poem was to remain unfinished. The veracity of Coleridge's excuse for his unfinished work and the possible identity of the mysterious visitor have been the subject of endless debate among scholars, but regardless of the truth, the phrase "a person from Porlock" entered the vernacular as a term for a person who disrupts another's creative flow.
Beyond Ash Farm, the lane turns right to pass through the middle of Parsonage Farm then left again to follow the contour of the hillside above the wooded Withy Combe (picture 18) and onward to a junction of tracks where the Way meets the South West Coast Path.
I left the Coleridge Way here to make a diversion of about two kilometres, following the Coast Path most of the way down Withy Combe to the isolated hamlet of Culbone and its ancient church (picture 19). I had been here once before, when I walked the last day of the South West Coast Path, but I had been walking around 35 kilometres that day and hadn't had time to linger.
With space to seat around thirty parishioners, the diminutive church, dedicated to the famous Welsh saint Beuno, apparently pronounced 'Bay-no', is said to be the smallest parish church in England, measuring a little under eleven metres long and seven metres wide. The church is well over 900 years old, having been mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and may be older still. It has been significantly altered over the centuries, however, including the addition of the small spire around 1810. Both the church and the cross in front of it are listed buildings.
A bench overlooking the churchyard gave me a good place to pause for a while and enjoy the tranquillity while I ate my packed lunch and read the fifty-four lines of Kubla Khan from my little book of Coleridge's poems. When a large group of Coast Path walkers arrived twenty minutes later, I took my cue to move on and followed the Coast Path back up Withy Combe (picture 20), where the species of whitebeam trees that grow on the steep slopes are unique to the woods around Culbone.
Rejoining the Coleridge Way, I followed Yearnor Mill Lane around two sides of Silcombe Farm (picture 21). When the tarmac ends, the lane continues as an enclosed track running between fields to descend into Holmer's Combe (picture 22). A short climb is followed by another descent into Twitchin Combe and then a another climb through a tunnel of vegetation (picture 23) to reach a wooden gate by a lane at Broomstreet Farm.
The Way turns left on the lane, heading inland and climbing steadily for a kilometre to reach the A39. Across the road, the Way crosses a stile and goes straight across a field belonging to the Lilycombe Estate to find a track heading to the right along the edge of North Common toward a small copse (picture 24).
The Way follows the wire fence along the left edge of the copse, crossing another stile at the far end and bearing slightly right across gorse-covered ground to a gate at the top of a path running down the left side of Deddy Combe (picture 25).
Halfway down the combe, the little hamlet of Oare comes into view over to the left (picture 26). The path then descends more steeply down to the bottom of the combe and meets the bubbling little stream of Oare Water, which is followed up to a single-arch stone bridge carrying the narrow New Road over Oare Water (picture 27). New Road and the bridge were both new in the 18th century.
The Coleridge Way ignores the bridge and turns to other way along New Road, but first I went for a short diversion over the bridge to Oare. The hamlet consists primarily of a manor house, a rectory, and the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (picture 28). Parts of the church are of similar age to Culbone Church, but the majority of the present structure was built in the 15th century.
Inside the church is a memorial to R.D. Blackmore, whose 1869 novel Lorna Doone, about a band of 17th century highwaymen, was set in and around Oare, earning this part of Exmoor the nickname "Doone Country". The author's grandfather was rector of the church for 33 years, and in the story Lorna Doone is shot through one of the church's windows on her wedding day by a jilted suitor.
Back across the bridge, New Road bends to the left and the Coleridge Way soon leaves it through a gate on the left to follow a path beside Oare Water towards Oaremead Farm (picture 29). Beyond the next gate, the path bears away from the water to skirt around the right side of the farm through a series of small wire-fenced pastures, eventually reaching a fingerpost that points along the far end of the farm to a wooden footbridge over Oare Water (picture 30).
For a second time, the Coleridge Way eschews the bridge and continues along the right bank of Oare Water, but first I crossed over for another little side-trip. This time I walked through another Parsonage Farm and down Hookway Hill to a ford and 17th century packhorse bridge crossing Badgworthy Water at the hamlet of Malmsmead (picture 31). The valley of Badgworthy Water is also known as the Doone Valley thanks to its association with the novel.
Badgworthy Water forms part of the county border of Somerset and Devon. Malmsmead is on the Devon side, so I duly crossed over the bridge and parked myself at the Lorna Doone Inn for a late lunch.
Returning to the Coleridge Way (and temporarily to Somerset) after lunch, I walked alongside Oare Water, which soon merges with Badgworthy Water to form the East Lyn River (picture 33). Steep slopes begin to rise on both sides as the river flows into Ashton Cleave and the Way soon reaches a gate to the left of a tall hedge by the farmhouse of Glebe Farm, joining a narrow footpath that squeezes between the river and a series of small paddocks.
At the end of the path, a gate takes the Way across the county border into Devon, running along the edge of one last paddock, through a wooden kissing gate and around a left-hand bend in the river. The path soon leaves the riverbank, angling up the steep, wooded side of Ashton Cleave (picture 34).
The fairly strenuous climb emerges from the trees to reach a three-way fingerpost about halfway up the slope. Here I took one final diversion from the Coleridge Way, turning sharp right to follow a signposted path that climbs to the top edge of the slope and then follows it for almost a kilometre across the face of Cosgate Hill to reach County Gate, a viewpoint and rest-stop beside the A39. The gate, now long gone, marked the point where the original turnpike road crossed from Somerset to Devon.
Halfway along the path to County Gate there is an excellent view back along Ashton Cleave and over Glebe, Parsonage and Oaremead Farms (picture 35), while the carpark at County Gate has an equally good view ahead down the Brendon Valley (picture 36).
After backtracking across Cosgate Hill to rejoin the Coleridge Way, I followed the path down into a combe to cross a footbridge over a tiny stream that flows down the combe to join the East Lyn River. After skirting the lower edge of a rough pasture to reach a gate, some rickety wooden steps descend to the beginning of a well-trodden path along the heathery side of the Brendon Valley, high above the river.
Before long, the village of Brendon, my destination for the day, came into view further down the valley (picture 37). It's almost all downhill from here, as the path descends gently for most of the way before a sharper descent down a field and a flight of steps cut into the hillside take the Way down to a lane at Hall Farm.
Turning left along the lane, which then bends right, the Coleridge Way reaches a T-junction in front of a stone house adorned with an old cartwheel (picture 38). I departed from the Way here, turning left to cross a long stone bridge over the East Lyn River to reach a little green in the middle of the village (picture 39). My overnight stop at the Staghunters Inn (picture 40) stands opposite the river about 300 metres along the lane to the right.
All up I had walked 22.3 kilometres for the day, but with my numerous diversions I had only covered 16.4 kilometres of the Coleridge Way.