Saturday 20th June 2015
I’ve just spent the weekend camping down in Exmoor. There will be more on the camp site and the other things I got up to in future posts. Here, I’d like to focus on the Exmoor Perambulation – my main reason to head south over the weekend.
As far as long-distance walking challenges go, this one is around about average, at thirty-one miles for the full course. However, the route follows the historic boundary of Exmoor National Forest – which dates back over seven-hundred years from today… As you can imagine; the landscape has changed dramatically since then, with trees having been torn down to make way for farming, agriculture and the odd road.
Leading up to this event, that was my most intimidating factor; knowing that this route was often going to lead us away from known footpaths and waymarks; across private land, following nothing more than a compass bearing.
There’s also the fact that I barely know Exmoor as it exists today.
View back down the road from the start point at Pinkery, about 7.20am.
Our start point was the Pinkery Centre (Pinkery Farm on the OS maps), just east of Challacombe. Registration opens between 7.00 and 7.30. After getting up at 5.30 and the time it takes to get fed and ready from your own tent, I arrived about 7.10, by which time, there were already a number of cars parked up. Although, I had expected more.
When you hand in your registration form (which most be downloaded, printed off and completed in advance), you’re given the option to walk either the full of half-distance and you can either start from the moment you receive your number or you can join the mass start at 7.30… Not knowing the area and very aware of the fog surrounding us, I decided to wait until then, so that I could at least walk with others and not get lost alone.
As it happened, there was just four of us to depart at that time. Sadly, there was no marshal to give us an official start or heading. A number of other walkers had already set off without hesitation and that at least provided us with the momentum to make a confident start. Neither one of us had completed the full-distance before and so, we decided to walk together.
Between us, I think we had three OS maps (two of which, mine included, already had the route plotted out) and we each had a set of instructions that we’d printed out a couple of days earlier.
This walk began heading north, before turning left across the southern edge of Pinkery Pond. This initial route is quite clearly marked as a right of way on the maps and yet, I realised so early on, that I’d have made a wrong turn, if not for the opinions of others.
Passing the dam, we continued on to Woodbarrow Gate and then north to Saddle Gate, where our first Exmoor Park Ranger of the day was waiting to greet us and see that we were on the right track.
It was at this point that we learned 140 people had registered for the event (they normally accept up to 250) but only about 70 had actually registered at the start point on the day. An exceedingly low turnout which may explain the lack of any ‘mass start’. My number was 65 and we very quickly realised that, much to our surprise, we were very close to the back of the line, with a good twenty-nine miles still to go!
It’s a shame there wasn’t a larger turnout. Perhaps the weather conditions were to blame. This wasn’t quite as wet as the Mendip Challenge weeks earlier but we were zipping in and out of our waterproof coats every half-hour or so. I saw some photos on the event’s website from 2014 – a huge gathering of ramblers setting off at 7.30… Ahead of blue skies and sunshine though, I might add.
I spent most of my time walking with the two guys you see in the photos above, who were well-seasoned walking living not too far south of here in North Devon.
After a few ups and downs, the mist began to clear and, although not allowing us to see the coast to the north, we could at least finally appreciate some of the surrounding landscape.
By this point, I think we’d already completely a slightly treacherous northwards stretch along which the ground beneath us felt like a wet sponge – thankfully though, not one of us sank any deeper than our ankles. I guess the clue is in the name (Exmoor) but it’s not the kind of feature I would’ve expected to see much of. Yet, I’ve always imagined Dartmoor is covered with it…
It looks like we first crossed over the stream above, which runs from Ruckham Combe, before a steep climb up Thorn Hill. Immediately after that, we dropped down to cross Warcombe Water before another unforgiving ascent.
Deer sighting from the top of Thorn Hill.
Looking back to Thorn Hill, we could see another pair of walkers following our footsteps. They were making good ground and soon caught up with us.
This was where it seemed as though we made our first mistake – and, it was lead by my initial guidance, as we looked for a gap between two gates (one of which, I assumed, was missing).
We followed a compass bearing that got us to the wrong place; it just seemed like we’d walked through a gap one pair of gates too soon and should’ve crossed a slightly different path.
Crossing over another watercourse at the bottom of this valley, one of our team recognised the Hoar Oak Tree a little further up the next hill, having previously walked the Two Moors Way. We knew we were where we needed to be and that the next checkpoint was getting closer.
As we reached Brendon Two Gates, beside a cattle grid on the B3223, we were faced with a tough choice to make (after the refreshment of very welcome orange squash). We’d been walking for almost three hours and yet, we’d only covered five miles. At this rate, we’d be walking all night and sadly, one of us was walking considerably slower than the other three. Behind her, a pair of sweepers were also closing in. We had to make a difficult but understandable goodbye as our foursome become a trio. Suddenly, the pressure was on to increase the pace on what had been an overly social affair so far.
Crossing the road, the walk levelled out for a while as we continued east to cross Hoccombe Hill. To the north, I could see what I now realise was a memorial stone in the distance. It was along here that I really began to feel anxious about our current pace, even though we were one body less. So, I marched on solo and rather confidently.
On the descent of Badgworthy Hill, I overtook the two white-capped walkers (who passed us at the previous checkpoint) before crossing Badgworthy Water via a footbridge. From here, I could see fellow event walkers climbing up the next hill.
At the top of this hill, we had to leave the plantation (Clannacombe Plantation) on a bearing across the deer park that was both challenging under foot and far removed from any regular rights of way. I overtook three women before reaching the next gate and on to South Common (sorry, I do enjoy overtaking people).
This was where I went a bit wrong.
I was looking for a gate that was on the other side of the field but my compass bearing seemed to lead me on a contour of the hill I’d just climbed… Eventually, it lead me to a gate. Beyond, I realised I was walking north (when I should’ve been heading east). I think I was heading towards Oldhay Combe when I should’ve been descending the south side of Black Hill.
I must’ve lost half an hour in all. There was a part of me determined to march on in the wrong direction; willing to believe that it would somehow marry up with the destination I was heading away from. Eventually, I turned back and retracted my steps to a point where I was confident I could regain my bearings – only to realise the two sweepers with the women we’d left behind, several miles ago, were closing in on my position!
All that energy to accelerate ahead of the rest. That hard work was no longer accounted for. One more mistake like that and I could’ve been in trouble!
Chalk Water – this got my ankles and new trousers wet!
I had to cross a wider stream, known as Chalk Water, before a long old climb up alongside a stone wall to the next checkpoint at Black Barrow.
At this checkpoint, volunteers were as friendly and welcoming as ever. But one of the Exmoor Mountain Rescue team members (they didn’t appear to smile much) was very quick to question the way I’d walked to get here. I feared they might attempt to disqualify me for wandering off the path, so I simply told him (truthfully) that I crossed the water and walked up alongside the wall… There was no mention of my northward wander. As another team member was equipped with a pair of binoculars, I wondered whether she might’ve seen me.
After Black Barrow, the next checkpoint was less than two-miles away at Alderman’s Barrow and a track, although lumpy and uncomfortable, leads you straight to the refreshment of more water. But I was already frustrated with myself and, with the back-tracking earlier, I’d aggravated the front of my right heel.
Passing the south-western corner of the Holnicote Estate was a surprise to me.
Leaving this checkpoint – the last before the midway point in the walk – I was hugely relieved to be following a road; not to mention, one that was heading slightly downhill. I was about 13.15 and I wanted to stop for lunch… But I was also wary that I would have to leave the next checkpoint by 14.30 if I wanted to be able to complete the walk and that was still four-miles away… I grabbed a sandwich, chocolate bar and banana from my bag and ate as I walked.
Ahead, I could see familiar bodies and I soon came to a rendezvous with everyone I had overtaken earlier!
This was just south-west of Larkbarrow Corner. It seems as though we’d all become a bit unstuck by the written instructions, while the OS map appeared to show that we should have been climbing a barbed wire fence to continue ahead…
We eventually found our way and, altogether, continued almost along a ridge before descending in to Orchard Bottom.
It was on the way down that I spotted the inevitable, over to our left:
Westermill Farm, where I had decided up to camp for two nights!
Above, you can just see the end of the fourth and final field, which was also perhaps the busiest, as it’s the only place where camp fires are allowed. As you’ll see in a future post soon; I was in field No.2 so, it wasn’t quite as bad as being able to see my own tent! Any thoughts of an early exit at this point were irrelevant, considering that my car was still many miles west of here at Pinkery.
We made our way across the River Exe, our boots being cleaned in the process, before an absolutely horrific climb up a wall of mud and grass!
Looking back from halfway up the toughest climb of the entire half-circuit.
This hill did ease towards its summit but I was glad to have my walking pole at hand.
My map suggests it was once the site of a quarry.
Just around the bend and a small team of volunteers were waiting for us, along with the same Exmoor Ranger we’d met very early on at Saddle Gate. The mist and fog had also begun to return by this point. We weren’t quite at the Picked Stones Lane checkpoint, although it was only five-minutes further. But we were clearly informed, as I had suspected, that we would not be allowed to continue any further. It was getting close to 15.00. We were apparently an hour beyond the cut-off point.
Two other guys were quite disappointed by this, as we had already walked sixteen miles with the intention of going all the way. I’d set out with the same mindset long before arriving at this weekend. But, with my ankle in discomfort and hearing that the second half would involve nine-miles of road walking, not to mention a finish time of 22.00-23.00 at our current pace; I decided that I had achieved enough. In fact, I’d already to begun to accept a half-distance finish from the moment I went off course as I knew it would be unlikely for me to have reached Picked Stones Lane in time.
A little orange squash goes a long way and the minibus was ready and waiting to take the last of us back to Pinkery for our certificates and badges.
Those two older guys who I walked with decided to press on and attempt to finish the walk unofficially and without the consent of any marshal. The ranger reminded them of precisely what was ahead but ultimately, he couldn’t say enough to convince them to change their minds (and yet the coach driver told us he could talk for England). I admire their determination. I also wish I could know how they got on.
Back at Pinkery, the fog had returned.
My mind’s already thinking about next year’s a event – an earlier start is definitely on the cards, if only to finish the half-distance perambulation in a more respectable time for myself, personally. Nine-miles of road walking offers no appeal to me – I’m not that much of a completionist! At least, not without more strenuous training.
Having completed the thirty-mile Mendip Challenge twice now, I’d never expected the Exmoor Perambulation to be so intense. I’ve recently had thoughts about doing the Black Mountain Challenge in September but, if I do, I’ll certainly stick to twenty-miles, in fear of repeating the same mistakes as on Saturday.
I’ve enjoyed being a part of the event and I’ve gained confidence for doing the same again in 2016. I only hope that the weather improves and that more people take part next year. Another big surprise was to notice that, at thirty-years-old, I was probably one of the youngest participants, where I’ve seen teenagers on other long-distance walks.
Apparently, the first few to complete the full-circuit did so in a lightning speed of around eight-hours – huge congratulations to them!!
Thanks for reading.