Battle with the elements on Somerset's coast
Walk Of The Month: Exmoor - The colours of nature are fading into winter on Exmoor. Wrap up warm and strike out to enjoy the raw beauty
Sunday 13 November 2011
Pick a clear autumnal day for this walk if you can.
The west Somerset coast looks beautiful at this time of year; the exposed ridges and plunging cliffs make up the edge of a huge plateau that marches inland, cut and scarred with deep, steep-sided valleys known as combes. The colour is glorious: leaves, golden, red and brown, hang on grimly, waiting for the Atlantic storm that will leave everything stark and broomstick-like until spring.
The ferocity of the elements around here is at odds with the cosy village communities west of Minehead. Setting off from Allerford, passing the recently opened forge and the still vibrant post office, I'd crossed a packhorse bridge, admired some evergreen oaks with their distinctive toothed leaves – and mature chestnut trees – and made my way up to Selworthy, a village owned by the National Trust.
The village is part of the Trust's wider Holnicote estate, which spreads for 5,000 hectares east and south of Porlock. It comprises seven stone-rendered houses, distinctively lime-washed in yellow ochre – an ancient tradesman's trick that helps the sun drain moisture off the walls, and which gives the impression that they have been parcelled up in crumpled wrapping paper. They have many charming features, such as wooden lintels, unusually high chimneys – to whisk any sparks from the fire inside away from the thatched roofs – and bulbous walls that house a sizeable traditional oven for baking bread.
Selworthy Woods, above the church with its 14th-century wagon roofs, features oak, sycamore, sweet chestnut and silver birch, where you may hear the embattled green woodpecker drilling away. I was also struck by the depth of green, even in late autumn. This, though, is not down to the trees but to the lichens that thrive on them. Everything seems mantled in lichens, which are a real feature of many of Exmoor's combes and woodlands. A sign of good air quality, they flourish in mild Atlantic winds that drift into the moor.
The woods are something of a curiosity. While they may look ancient, they were actually planted after 1815 by Thomas Dyke Acland, the estate owner, with a block being seeded to commemorate the birth of each of his eight children – you wonder which came first, the plan to plant a very large wood or to have a very large family. The Aclands were an interesting clan. They were pretty enlightened landowners and reformers for their era, building the houses of Selworthy for their estate workers, before handing over the land to the Trust in 1944.
The woodland leads up to Selworthy Beacon, the modest summit on top of an area of rare western maritime heath. Although you are a mere 310 metres above sea level, the soaring, swooping nature of Exmoor's landscape – it's also unusual to see the sea from moorland in the UK – gives the impression of being much higher. Skylarks lurch upwards from the gorse and bell heather and the views on a fine day are really quite special. To the south-west is Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. Steep wooded valleys with little villages tucked away in their folds emerge abruptly on the plateau. To the west, a row of headlands line up for inspection, a flat shoreline huddled tightly against their base, where west Somerset merges into north Devon. With binoculars, you may pick out red deer on the contours below the beacon. The sky was clear, but I've also been here when a wonderful low sea mist has flooded the valley below. It's magical: the mist is far below, low enough that you can see right across the Bristol Channel to South Wales; it even lends an improbable serene beauty to the chimney stacks of the steelworks at Port Talbot, making them look like the emerald city from The Wizard of Oz.
I picked up the coastal path, dropping steeply down Hurlstone Combe to Bossington's magnificent pebble beach, the centre of a wonderful amphitheatre of cliffs. I picked my way across here slowly, before settling down, or perching, on the uncomfortable stones. A storm in 1996 breached the shingle ridge here and conventional wisdom suggested reinforcing the beach. Instead, the Trust argued that, in the context of inexorable rising sea level and climate change, it made more sense to let the area go, and let the sea have its way. A large spring tide in 2008 did the trick, surging inland and lapping up against the limekilns. The result is a saltmarsh, a valuable habitat that attracts little egrets, lapwings and oystercatchers.
The path inland wound back towards Allerford, passing the picturesque hamlet of Bossington. My visit ended in twilight, with a clear sky above. There's no village lighting and the stars quickly emerged, framed by the huge semi-circular silhouette of the hills. The temperature dropped, too.
Exmoor may look cosy but it's a raw, elemental place at heart.
Distance: Eight miles.
Time: Three hours.
Map: Exmoor Outdoor Leisure 9.
Start at Allerford, follow contour paths up to Selworthy church and signpostsn to Selworthy Beacon. Head for Bossington Hill and drop down via the coast path and Hurlstone Point to Bossington Beach. Walk along the beach to cross the River Aller and return to Allerford via Bossington.
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