There's gold in them thar hills

Matthew Brace tramps the tranquil lanes of mid-Devon, under threat now that prospectors have struck it rich
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The Independent Travel
They have struck gold under the rolling countryside of mid-Devon, but you wouldn't know it walking the footpaths and muddy country lanes. There are no mine shafts or winches scarring the landscape, no prospectors digging furiously and, on a misty winter's day, certainly no rainbows.

A mining company announced the strike the other week, but for obvious reasons are keeping secret the exact location of the valuable find. All the boss has revealed is that it lies somewhere in an area west of the small market town of Crediton known as the Crediton Trough. No doubt St Boniface, the patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands, who was born in Crediton, would have had a thing or two to say about it. He may possibly have preached against the evils of cupidity that were likely to follow in the wake of this discovery.

This area could not be a more convenient spot for mining one of the world's most precious metals. For a start the place is deserted. The Council for the Protection of Rural England undertook a tranquillity survey of England a few years ago and found mid-Devon to be one of only three remaining areas that had not been intruded on significantly by man-made developments such as roads, buildings and industry. You only have to get your boots on, grab an Ordnance Survey map (Landranger No 191 covers this walk) and stroll out over the hillsides to see what they mean.

Leaving the public car park in Crediton, next to the information centre on Market Street take a left, go past North Street and turn left again on to Deep Lane, heading up a steep hill past a No Entry traffic sign, towards the village of Sandford. The road skirts Creedy Park and you will know you are approaching the village when you see giant, brightly painted butterflies on the walls of the first house. Through Sandford take the road to the hamlet of Clampitt where, at Withywinds Cottage, take a left turn and follow a marked footpath up over a ridge.

This is a good place to do your own tranquillity survey. See how many roads you can spy from here, how many houses or factories, and how much man-made noise you can detect. Apart from the occasional trans-Atlantic airliner climbing to its cruising altitude, there are just the sounds of nature - a whistling wind and the lowing of cattle.

The path leads to Bawdenhayes Farm and along a track to a side road. Go right here. Farmers have taken to flailing the famous high Devon hedges, which does not do a lot for the wildlife that live in them but provides wonderful views for the walker. The panorama is breathtaking. The landscape rolls south to Dartmoor, the hills of which may just be visible in the far distance on a clear, frosty day. Even in the depths of winter the hedgerows are alive with birdsong and the chatter of small mammals. This area is, after all, on the Tarka Trail, a route through mid-Devon following in the pawprints of Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson's magical literary creation.

The lane passes Reedsdown Signpost which has mysteriously and inconveniently lost its direction arms. At the next junction (I use the term lightly as it is only infrequent tractors that drive these back roads), is a squat stone structure that could once possibly have been a water trough for cattle being herded along the lanes. Here go left and follow a public footpath sign down a green lane to West Sandford. Green lanes (non-metalled tracks) are rare these days, confined mainly to parts of ancient, protected routes like the Ridgeway Path across the Marlborough Downs. At the road, turn left into the village, past its lemon-yellow cottages and right at the red phonebox, heading up hill to two young oaks on the right. Bear left down a knee-testing slope.

Go left at the bottom and right at a footpath sign past Aller Barton farm up a hill (not so steep this time). The path kinks at the top. This is one of the highest points of the walk (about 450ft-500ft) and a good place to watch for buzzards flying above the fields looking for prey, or swooping between perches in oak trees. Also keep an eye open for strange people in fields with drill-like objects and pockets bulging with gold nuggets.

Follow the footpath signs across a side road and then across the A377 and past Hollacombe Farm. You will reach a side road - go left down a steep, slippery hill, past a collapsed barn and up through a canyon that looks more at home in the Wild West than the west of England. Engineers made a narrow cutting through a hill to allow this road to pass, leaving 50ft-high walls of red earth and overhanging foliage.

The road leads back into Crediton, where the talk in the teashops and pubs is of gold. Everyone has a theory for where it has been found. "Up in the hills around Shobrooke," said a group of builders over a pint in the Exchange pub. The women lunching on tuna sandwiches in Worth's restaurant knew better. "Sandford," they said and they were willing to put money on it. "All around Sandford ... sure of it." Had I walked over fields of gold?

8 The Crediton circular walk is roughly eight miles. It is very muddy and reasonably steep in places. Great Western Trains (0345 484950 - 24 hours) serve Exeter daily from London and Taunton. Local bus and rail services serve Crediton five miles away. For more information call the Devon tourist information centre on 01392 437581 (office hours only).