LEJOG11: Barnstaple to Exford (Westermill Farm)

Today was the biggie-a 20 mile walk through the wilds of Exmoor. I was slightly apprehensive because I was potentially going to have to do more map reading and the walk could potentially could be very tough. I didn’t know for definite because all I had were the directions from the robo-rambler walking Nazi, and I don’t trust him to tell me whether a day is going to be difficult or not.

The day started on pleasant country lanes. I got involved in a rural traffic jam due to a temporary traffic light that had been set up because of road works. I waited patiently in line behind a row of cars as another set of cars went through the lights and passed us by. I felt almost automotive.

The route continued through a bit of woodland, where I scared a horse apparently because it didn’t recognize me as a person due to my walking poles. This was scarier than it sounds because I had to pass the horse on a narrow lane and every time I got closer it started to rear up. Despite the rider’s smiling face and insistence that everything would be OK I was slightly worried that I’d get kicked in the face by it’s mighty hoofs.

The walk was becoming more of an effort as the roads were quite steep and it was quite an effort to get up them. the lovely sunny weather didnt help much either, and pretty soon I was getting a chance to really test out my new ultralite merino wool t-shirt. In terms of odour it was brilliant. By the end of the day it was ready to be worn again in polite society, and opposite of my synthetic t-shirt which became a WMD after only a morning’s perspiration. However where it fell down was in the wicking stakes. Dark patches started to form around the chest and hip straps that tightly held my rucksac to my body. The best was on my belly where an entire torso’s worth of sweat ran down my chest and collected just above the hip strap. This created a Rorschaud-style ink-blot centered directly around my gut that could have easily been used for psychological testing.

As I entered Exmoor national park the landscape became noticeably older looking. Field boundaries became mounds of stone and earth covered in moss with trees growing on top. The trees were still bare and had been bent back by the wind, making them all look like creepy witches hands grasping at passersby. At one point I descended a steep hillside through a tunnel hollowed out of yellow-flowered gorse bushes to find a stream in a wild wood. It was all very LOTR, I kept expecting to turn a corner and find a shining gandalf looming down on me from ontop of a large rock.

In the afternoon I crossed both the county boundary (movimg from devon to somerset) and the moors. There was a noticeable change in tone, and I suddenly felt alot more isolated and alone. There were no sheep, no cows, no neat field boundaries nor fertile looking green grass. Just the yellow of clumps of dried grass stretched out across the surrounding hills. Something inside me welled up, an emotional reflext to the rawness and unprocessed nature of the environment, the core of my DNA stirring in recognition of the primeval nature of the landscape.

Crossing the moors I found a pond hidden away, an intense dark blue against the washed out colours of the moor and sky. Small ripples spread out across it from a single corner from which direction the wind was blowing. In this pocket of wilderness I could believe that an essence or spirit lived in this water, such was it’s contrast with it’s suroundings, and was waiting for unsuspecting wanders such as me to stroll down to it’s edge before luring us in with seductive whispers of life within it’s cool embrace.

For some reason I didn’t take many photos of the moor, I think because they’re not very photogenic. However, as you can probable tell, I was – bit entranced by their romantic side, until I got to the boggy part that is. I missed a turning and ended up taking the wetter path, which resulted in each foot becoming imersed in soggy bog. Water got into my shoe and soaked my socks. Brilliant.

It was a long day and I was expecting to get to the Campsite‎ just pass seven pm after 10+ hours of walking. However, just as I was on the final lap I managed to get slightly lost. I took a path on a moor which I expected to lead me to a road down to my campsite. My bloody guide book told me that the path was obivious and easy to follow. It wasn’t and isn’t. I got closer and closer to a fence beyond which I prayed was a road, despite a growing amount of evidence (such as a compete lack of cars) that it wasn’t. I’d hoped that maybe the road was another field away. What I saw when I got to the fence was a unpleasant shock-a steep sided valley with a river at the bottom. Not even a hint of a road anywhere in sight. Bugger.

It was way to late to retrace my steps to the point at which i went wrong and then start again; I had to improvise. I consulted my map and decided that if I followed this stream along and round for a bit I would eventually meet my campsite. However there didn’t appear to be any official foothpaths along this route. So I had to scramble down the valley and start working my way along by the stream. I figured that if a landowner saw me they’d just have to take pity on such a wretched example of a Londoner out of his depth. At one point I crossed a barbed wire fence, but didn’t really know whether I was going out of or into land that I really shouldn’t be in. It wasn’t the type of experience I wanted to be having at 7pm when I was exhausted and liable to emotional over-reactions.

On the plus side the valleys were beautiful in the sunset, with the longer shadows and dusky light making everything more atmospheric. They were small but steep, giving them the exaggerated appearance of hills on the set of a stop-motion children’s programme such as Postman Pat or Wallace and Grommit. Individual cows stood out against their exponentially curved sides. I took a higher route around a corner to follow the stream, and after a while caught sight of a few tents in nicely mown fields next to the river down below me. I didn’t want to believe this was my site until I’d got to the front door, and so proceeded on another ten minutes back down into valley, getting increasingly more relieved as I passed toilet blocks and drinking water taps.

The couple who ran the campsite‎ were lovely, they let me stay free of charge because I was doing the walk for charity and helped me out with a few bits and bobs to make my dinner and breakfast tastier. It’s always nice to arrive at a friendly welcoming place after a day of solo walking because you’re feeling a bit fragile-the complete opposite of Wadebridge for example. I had another slightly less successfully experiment involving uncle bens express rice, spicey peperrami, chopped mushrooms and a couple of eggs. It made me realize that i shouldn’t be too ambitious with my meals due to the billy can shape of my pot. A ‘Pasta and Sauce’ with tinned veg will be my next goal.

After a few calls to taxi firms to arrange for a pick up the next day, I was off to bed. Not even enough time ti write the blog, which i why ive got behind over the past couple of days. Bizarrely I seem to have less time to myself at the moment than I did when I was in London. Partly this is due to me getting use to the whole camping routinue-a lot of time is wasted in me faffing around with the tent and washing my pants. However it’s also due to some quite high daily mileage that I hope to relax on very soon.

My sleep was only slightly affected by some disturbing far away animal noises which I subsequently learned were the sound of a night hunt being led by a group using a French hunting horn. From where I was it sounded like hell had opened up and i could hear the wailing of the damned souls. Normally this would have kept me up in paranoia (ie being scared) for ages. However, even this couldn’t stop me now falling sleep as I was well and truly knackered.

PS having big probs with phone a mo so posts might be delayed-please keep checking and I hope to have prob sorted by end of week. Cheers!

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