Across the Levels to Exmoor

Yesterday, I woke, as always, around 5.30am.  It’s a habit I can’t seem to shake, even though I no longer work full time.  The early hours have always been my favourite time of day, even on dark winter mornings.  Something about the peace and quiet gradually fading, giving way to rising light and the noise of nature, or the city, depending on where I am.  Anyway, there was I, as usual, listening to Farming Today, soemwhat incongruously in my inner city home.  The programme centred on an interview with a Somerset farming family, taking place while they were in the process of desperately evacuatiing all their stock from their flooded farm on the Somerset Levels. The stress and misery in their voices were clear.

It started me thinking of a trip I made to Exmoor a couple of years ago…a good friend, competent cyclist, good track rider, who had never tried cyclecamping wanted to give it a go.  We eventually decided on Exmoor.  Our plan was to take the train to Salisbury, ride to the Somerset levels, camp somewhere there and then head to Exmoor for a couple of days.  Riding through that particular slice of English countryside, you get to experience a fair diversity of terrain, in quite a small area.  Country lanes, long river valleys, farmland, marsh, high moor.  Hills and flatlands. A good choice for my friend, not  native of these islands, and keen to see more of them.

We took a train to Salisbury, intending to head down to Exmoor, via the Somerset Levels, planning to camp somewhere in Devon, ride round Exmoor for a couple of days and then head to Exeter for a train home.
Saturday 2nd June

somerset levels

View of the Levels from our campsite at Wedmore

The first day was lovely.  A sunny glide down the Wylye Valley, then a few minor ups into Somerset a quick stop to pick up supplies then a swift charge across the flat land (although my Roberts doesn’t really do swift) to our campsite which was up a hill on the edge of the Levels, from whence we could view Glastonbury Tor.   We decided to avoid this hill by means of a fairly friendly track which approached the site from the other less steep side.  The track became a mile and a half of deep ruts and flinty rocks, a bit of a challenge with a full load but completely doable and added further variety to our day, with views of a heron
and a Marsh Harrier. A fine end to a good 65 miles or so, although my mate, a great hill climber, had to do a lot of waiting for me on the ups.

tor view

Glastonbury Tor in the distance

Then, a little setback.  The aged Trangia burner I have used for many years perfectly well, seemed to be clogged up and took ages to heat water, couldn’t manage to boil it and cook our spaghetti properly.  The result was a rather gungy splurge of pasta and vegetables, which I struggled to consume, although Handbag finished off the dish with something close to relish, but not quite.
We were both tired and took to our tents not long after sundown.

The next day, up early, I decided to wash out the burner, thinking it may be clogged with soot, after my windy camping week on  Skye at Easter.   Meths burns pretty clean, except when it’s windy.   This process did improve the burner’s performance, although it was still slower than usual.  I was probably overfilling it a little…Trangia burners don’t like being full to the brim.  Proper coffee (I once again recommend the GS Outdoors Java Press) and scrambled eggs.  Then off to Exmoor, via Watchet, Blue Anchor and Dunster.
Another beautiful day, although we were both suffering from serious hayfever, despite being dosed with plenty of anti histamine.  In much of this part of the country the roads are lined with high hedges. The hedgerows are full of beautiful wild flowers, in full bloom during late May and June.  The drawbacks are the hay fever and the fact that, if you are short, as are both Handbag and I, you can’t see the view.  I also found it quite claustrophobic, totally different from the wide, open skies, hills and fields crisscrossed with drystone walls of somewhere like the Dales.  It was like riding through a beautiful maze for miles.
As we approached the coast we took the A road from Kilve for a bit- narrow, bendy and full of people racing each other in their fast cars on this beautiful, sunny day. We were glad to head off down to Watchet
and Blue Anchor.  A brief glimpse of open sea and sky for a few miles and then we left the coast and went through Dunster.  Here the skies darkened and the sun disappeared, and as we headed up towards the middle of Exmoor, the rain began.  And it was heavy.  Visiblity was very poor and we decided to abandon our plan to follow the little roads around North Exmoor, then back down over Dunkery Hill on our way to the campsite, and just go straight there along the A and B road to Exford and thence up to camp.  It wasn’t much shorter, but a lot less climbing and so would be quicker.  A few miles outside of Exford, in driving wind and rain, my mate spied a B and B.   She paused at the driveway, looking at me wistfully, blinking big, sad (and very wet) Spaniel eyes.  I said I was going to carry on as it was less than 10 miles now and I would pick her up tomorrow if she wanted to stay in the B and B.  Bravely, she gritted her teeth and said she would carry on. too.
We finally climbed the hill out of Exford, completely wet through, and squelched our way to the reception where the extremely kind farmer’s wife/hostess/shopkeeper rang around to find a B and b for my friend, whose quiet desperation would only be relieved by instant hot wter and lots of bubbles.  She couldn’t quite believe I planned now to pitch my tent in a waterlogged field with the rain still thundering down.  I couldn’t see the point of not doing so, having lugged the kit all the way here from London.   So she rode back down the hill to the village and a room in the local pub. I pitched my little tent in the pouring rain. Much to the admiration of other campers two of which supplied me with hot coffee and sandwiches next to their open fire, under a big tarpaulin.

Far fewer backpacker type people here than in the Dales or Scotland. Mostly car campers with children and whacking big small house type tents.  The twelve year old daughter of one family staying in one of these,  could not quite believe I could produce a tent and cooker from inside my panniers.  I believe she suspected I was Mary Poppins on wheels.


View of Porlock

I sat under the tarpaulin with the two women who had offered me coffee…there is something reassuring about watching the rain pour down all around you, while you sit by a wood fire, sipping hot chocolate and whisky till late.

I had arranged to meet my friend, the next day, about 10am in Exford outside the White Horse Inn where she had spent the night.  Amazingly, it  was a lovely day, no trace of the wild wind and torrential rain of the day before.  She was instantly reassured as we began our circuit of Exmoor, that the area was indeed very beautiful.  It had been hard to see anything yesterday through the wild sheets of rain that side swept and head butted us according to the twists and turns of the road.  Now the views were wide and sweeping and the ride over the wild moorland and down to Porlock brought forth several “This is amazing” type comments.  It was indeed.
me on exmoor
A guy on a road bike joined us for a few minutes, and warned us not to attempt the ford at the bottom of the descent on the way to Porlock. It may look temptingly shallow, he said,  but the bottom is an uneven collection of paving bricks and stones and almost certain to upend you.  He spoke with feeling and possibly with first hand experience. Wild moorland gave way to woodland on the descent and from there we decided to head  to Porlock Weir for lunch and a relax in the sun by the sea. We were very tempted to make this a long 80 maybe 90 miler and time the end of the ride for sunset, as we could be heading down westwards from the highpoint of  Exmoor, Dunkery Hill at that time if we planned it right.   However,  the forecast was for rain later and by 2pm the clouds were visible.  So we decided to climb back out from Porlock Weir and then head back to the campsite across the moor still making a terrific trip of maybe 40 miles or so around and across Exmoor.  Handbag was even heard to proclaim as we topped out over Exmoor and looked back down at Porlock and the blue-grey sea and cliffs beyond “Now that WAS a hill.”  We had developed quite a good system over the weekend of her whizzing up the hills leaving me way behind as her strong track trained legs powered her up even the steepest of gradients with seemingly effortless grace, followed by me catching up and, if possible, overtaking on the descents  with the minimum possible use of brakes and absolutely no grace whatsoever. This system nearly ended in disaster on our last descent before the campsite as, relishing the fairly dry conditions, I failed to employ the brakes at all before a rather spectacular hairpin and ended up clattering straight ahead, off the road onto a rough, seriously rutted farm track, scattering chickens, a few sheep, and a surprised sheep dog.


Some small creatures we met

A few young piglets, watched, remarkably, unruffled by my undignified, noisy entrance. Luckily, the gradient of the track eventually changed upwards enough to slow me down, enabling me to stop and retrace my path back to the route and call out a warning to my mate, who had just appeared above the bend.

exmoor road

Road back over Exmoor

Back  at the site, Handbag pitched her tent further away from the river as the clement weather had brought out the midges, and I repitched mine too.  We cooked a good pasta meal this time- proper homemade ragu, and Handbag proved to be a skilled spaghetti cook and server.  I suggested a trip to the pub, which meant a short 2 miles down the hill, but Handbag declined.  But after a short while sitting and chatting, the midges drove us inside our tents. Then the rain did indeed make its presence felt once more.  Once again, it began powering down,  our little lightweight tents shaking with its force..luckliy we had restaked all the pegs firmly.  We both slept well, somehow lulled to sleep by a violent  lullaby of enormous raindrops with a chorus of thunder and lightning.

The final day of our trip dawned.  I had planned a 45 mile journey up and over Exmoor and through the Devon countryside to Exeter where we were to catch our train home.  The morning was cloudy but, amazingly, unnoticed by us, at some point in the night, the storm had passed, so we broke camp, almost daring to hope for another beautiful day.  Then the rain started.  The Satmap Active 10 GPS I use had gone a little crazy yesterday (no doubt driven mad by the wind and rain to which I have subjected it over the last couple of years) and we now had to use proper maps.  Which was fine, as I am used to that, but not fine because I had forgotten the map cover so it had to sit in my bar bag, keeping dry and we had to take it out briefly and memorise each stage of our route and remember the villages we needed to pass.   As a result, we ended up climbing two hills out of Exford instead of one. (And they are hills, with a capital H, I promise you).  And the rain was just getting heavier and heavier.  More climbing to get us over Exmoor.  We could see and hear nothing, apart from the thick rainfilled mists,  very occasional car headlights looming out of the clouds and passing us in a cloud of wet, and the wind which swept up from the south west, where we were heading.   My friend was clad in full waterproofs,  bottoms courtesy of our mutual friend, Jurek. and I think she owes him a lifelong  debt of gratitude.  But I expect a bottle of SB will suffice.

I was dry from the waist up, but had consigned my aged waterproof trousers to the bin after my Easter trip to Skye, finally conceding that, after 15 years, they weren’t really waterproof anymore.  I had not yet replaced them.  Hence the wild descent into Dulverton left me saturated as I had forgotten to zip up my jacket as we began the ride down.   I waited quite a while for Handbag at the bottom and was just on my way back up to check she was OK when she coasted into town.  We arrived in Dulverton wet, windswept and wondering if another 30 miles or so of this through lovely countryside we couldn’t actually see, was worth it.  Over hot chocolate and coffee we considered our options- main road straight to Exeter seemed to be the best bet.  Then the lovely locals, like shining angels, came to our rescue.  Firstly, the two women behind the counter who minded not a bit my dripping over everything in the shop, and gladly opened up maps to show me that Tiverton Parkway was a shade nearer with frequent trains to Exeter.  Then, the owner of the lovely Tantivy café and shop in Dulverton spotted us too- and photocopied the relevant pages of the OS map I didn’t have for this unexpected detour and gave us excellent directions so that we could avoid riding all the way down 6 miles of dual carriageway to the station.  He knew exactly what we were going through as he had ridden LEJOG last year in a fortnight.  Thank you sir, and your lovely staff and your lovely hot chocolate.
So, we gave up the idea of riding through Devon villages, over Devon hills and feasting on strawberry clotted cream teas under blue Devon skies and headed out once more into the wind and rain again, under dark skies, so dark we needed lights, along the Exe river road and thence to Tiverton Parkway.  We squelched onto the platform and then the train.  Twelve minutes later, we were in Exeter St David’s, where I changed clothes completely in the Ladies, including my lower undergarments.  God bless Ortliebs.  We finally sank back into London bound train seats on a dry and warm South West train heading for Waterloo.
At Clapham Junction, it looked cloudy but dry so my mate decided not to take the train to Forest Hill after all and ride with me on the back road route.  Within 5 minutes, it was pouring with rain again and I think she may have been contemplating murder as we rode across Clapham Common.
We parted after a cup of hot tea at my house.  After she returned the tent, sleeping bag and rollmat I had lent her, she headed off on the final wet mile of her journey.  I am not sure that she will be asking to borrow my spare kit ever again.

Now, a couple of years later, listening to that early morning Farming Today, I realised how trivial our minimal drenching was back then, compared to what some of those folk who live in that beautiful part of the word are experiencing today.

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