Here are a few more photos from that memorable holiday on Exmoor. (See posting below)
IF you choose to spend a week on Exmoor in the autumn you have to take all your wet weather gear. As an expert at rainy holidays, the first things I packed were wellies, mac, sou’wester and new waterproof trousers. To my surprise and delight, however, I didn’t use any of them.
We had an utterly unexpected seven days of wall-to-wall sunshine and sparkling blue skies when we went last autumn. Staying in a little stone cottage in Lorna Doone country, we walked and walked each day, and loved every minute. Short-sleeved shirts were the order of the day, and Tilly the terrier couldn’t believe her luck: all those walks with her favourite humans, pubs where she was welcome, and interesting smells to sniff in all kinds of new places.
As well as exploring the moors, we visited places like Lynton, Lynmouth, Porlock and Dulverton. We discovered a long-established coffee roasting company in Porlock, as well as a fascinating museum. A steep 30-minute walk up through the woods to Culbone tested even Tilly’s enthusiasm as we stopped for breath every few yards, but the effort was worth it when we finally reached the little church at the top.
Having read and loved a book called Moorland Mousie when I was a child, I had looked forward to visiting the Exmoor Pony Centre at Ashwick for many years. It didn’t disappoint. Friendly ponies are cared for by staff dedicated to helping ensure the long-term survival of this rare native pony breed. I adopted a pony, of course, and her name is Abi.
Exmoor ponies, with their distinctive mealy muzzles, have evolved to survive the harshest conditions that the moors can throw at them. At the end of every summer they grow an ultra-thick winter coat which protects them from wind, rain and blizzards.
When we weren’t following footpaths across steep hillsides covered in dense gorse and heather, we explored river valleys including the River Oare where it was lovely to see a grey wagtail hard at work catching flies. There were plenty of tough sheep and deer on the moors, as well as mewing buzzards circling high in the sky.
We passed through chocolate box-pretty villages with thatched cottages and the last of the season’s flowers in gardens and tubs everywhere. Dulverton, on the pretty River Barle, merited two visits and we found there was nothing dull about it at all. With its pretty town hall, restaurants and cafés, it caters for most people’s everyday needs, not just those of the average tourist. There was an excellent independent bookshop, hardware and charity shops, and so on.
On the coast at Lynmouth, it was inspiring to read a display panel close to the harbour and learn about the heroic efforts of the community’s lifeboat men who, one night in January 1899, struggled overland for 15 hours with their lifeboat, the 10-ton Louisa, in dreadful conditions, to rescue the crew of a three-masted ship that was in danger of being driven onto the shore east of the town.
A gale prevented Louisa being launched at Lynmouth, so the coxswain’s plan was to push, pull and tow Louisa with men and horses so that she could be launched at Porlock Weir. This journey entailed tackling hills which continue to be a challenge even to motorised vehicles nowadays. The plan worked, the ship was saved and all 18 hands on board the ship were rescued.
The Happy Moonraker’s readers may have heard of the terrible flood at Lynmouth in August 1952. Following days of storms and torrential rain on the moors, a wall of water and boulders crashed down the hillside, taking the lives of 34 people and destroying more than 100 buildings in the little town. There is a marker on a cottage wall showing how high the water came.
By chance we visited Lynton on the day of the annual Lyn food festival. Held in the Grade II listed town hall, it was a great way to taste good food, buy things to take away, and find out about some of the local specialities.
Would the holiday have been as good if it had rained every day? I would have gone to more museums and spent less time out of doors. Of course Tilly would have had fewer long walks so she would be bound to say that she loved her sunny Exmoor holiday as much as I did.
Tilly was not a member of the household when I went on a tall ship sailing holiday in the Caribbean. Actually, not a lot of it was holiday, as you’ll see.
JUST say two words – pipe-cot – and I’m likely to run away screaming.
In case you don’t know, a pipe-cot is a type of bunk or hammock on a ship and consists of a piece of canvas slung between two scaffold poles.
It was my bed for the ten days and nights I spent on the square-rigged Stavros S Niarchos, one of the Tall Ships Youth Trust’s training ships.
My pipe-cot was neither easy to get into nor out of, but its shape ensured that I wasn’t thrown out of it when the going got seriously rough.
As a member of the voyage crew on a trip that started and ended at Bridgetown, Barbados, I had already gleaned from the literature that it wouldn’t be like any ordinary holiday on a cruise liner.
From the moment we arrived on board and were shown our cabins (designed for up to eight people, but mercifully there were only three in ours), this was certainly a trip with a difference.
We spent the first hour or so forming a human chain to load the ship with stores from a truck parked on the quayside.
Someone was heard to mutter: “That truck couldn’t be much further away if it tried.”
From frozen chickens to boxes of ginger biscuits, cartons of fruit juice and frozen joints of beef, it all had to be brought on board and stowed.
Once that task was completed, we were supplied with waterproof jackets and harnesses, divided into one of three watches – there were eight of us in White Watch – and I was rapidly reduced to a jabbering idiot, unable to remember where I was meant to be and when, forgetting who was who, and incapable of remembering more than one knot.
I completely funked climbing up to the yards, but others shot up, as to the manner born.
I had no problems with scrubbing, cleaning, disinfecting heads (lavatories) and showers but it wasn’t much fun when you had already been on watch from midnight until 4am and had had about three hours’ sleep.
Putting the psychological games to one side, with watch leaders adopting the “good cop, bad cop” persona on the odd occasion, arriving at each of the islands we visited was wonderful.
On going ashore it was always tempting to drop to my knees and kiss the ground.
The real problems became overwhelming when we headed out 140 miles into the Atlantic so that Stavros could approach Bridgetown under sail.
She effectively demonstrated rock ’n’ roll, with disastrous effects on me and on about a dozen others.
As you suffer 36 hours feeling like death in your pipe-cot and longing for the agony to be over, you have to remind yourself that, by suffering, you are also doing a little good.
A proportion of the money you have paid to be bullied, trained, teased, cajoled and exhausted goes towards enabling disadvantaged young people aged between 16 and 25 to have the same experience.
Would they thank me?
I think most probably would, as long as they didn’t suffer from seasickness and didn’t mind doing as they were told.
The whole experience is designed to be character-building, to help people of any age to forge new friendships, to work as a team, to endure physical and mental tests.
It was all that, and more.
What can be better than approaching Caribbean islands from the sea, exploring tropical forests on foot with a local guide, watching humming birds, swimming at the foot of a waterfall, eating grapefruit straight from the tree, seeing exotic flowers in their natural habitat?
Our route took us to Bequia, one of the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines, to St Lucia, Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) and to Terre de Haut, one of the French Isles des Saintes, near Guadeloupe.
We swam in sapphire blue sea from the side of the ship but I have to confess that I had to be hauled back on board in a canvas sling pulled by two strong males because I didn’t fancy my chances at grabbing the rope ladder.
There were dolphins, flying fish and, on Bequia, a small reserve where we saw the work done by a local enthusiast in conserving the endangered population of hawksbill turtles.
There was the surreal sight of metre-long, grey iguanas fighting on scrub land at the edge of the town on Terre de Haut.
And I wasn’t bitten by any mosquitoes during the whole trip.
It’s not the sort of holiday where you can expect to sit about on deck with a book when you are not on watch because you are more than likely to be detailed to help the boatswain with some routine task like chipping off old paint or polishing the ship’s bell.
Or it could be your turn on mess duty, handing out bowls of porridge (very popular, even in temperatures of 30 degrees), plates laden with full English breakfasts, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and so on.
Food was wholesome, generous and traditional and the atmosphere in the galley was always cheerful, no matter what disaster had befallen the soup as Stavros swung and lurched.
The permanent crew, augmented by the volunteer crew of people with suitable experience and skill to supervise us, were heroic.
How they kept patience with such a motley band of paying “guests” was indeed admirable.
Sadly I was not the only one who proved that pressure bands, anti-seasickness pills of various kinds, staying in the open air in the middle of the ship, and eating ginger are completely useless.
Cries of “two six heave” as we hauled on ropes took on a new meaning once I had my head over the vomit pot.
However, for every two people who said “never again”, there were another dozen who couldn’t wait to book their next voyage on Stavros.
Beaches of fine silver sand, the 18th century Shirley fort on Dominica, trees laden with bananas, drinks with new friends and the star-spangled night sky remain highlights of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
No, I wouldn’t do it again (ever) but I’m glad I did it once.
They say there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing. Sadly, every item of waterproof clothing was tested to its limit when my sister and I decided to go on a walking pilgrimage. If the sun did show itself for a few minutes, it was a bonus and the reason for a modest cheer. There’s nothing quite like a Cornish landscape, but when it is so misty and damp, or the rain is horizontal and there is a gale blowing, you just concentrate on not slipping in the mud as you clamber over one more stile.
Not that I’m complaining. We loved every minute of our expedition, even if I did spend two days walking with a wet foot. My ten-year-old walking boots chose day two on which to give up. The rubber welt on the left boot came away from the upper so that was that. Even the old trick of putting my foot inside a plastic bag before putting on the boot made no difference. Never mind. We have amazing memories of the whole enterprise. We’ve succeeded in almost forgetting a couple of uncomfortable beds, a slightly less-than warm welcome at the final bed & breakfast and one or two unintended temporary diversions from the route.
Among the many highlights were spotting wild strawberries in a hedgerow. There they were, like jewels nestling among the leaves, just waiting to be eaten. There were countless beautiful flowers – wild foxgloves standing like sentinels beside the path, honeysuckle, red campion, bramble flowers – along with flitting wrens, robins, finches, mewing buzzards. Even a butterfly or two appeared in time with the occasional flash of sunshine.
The reason for undertaking the 30-mile walk was to mark what would have been our late father’s 100th birthday. We chose to walk the Saints Way, between Padstow on the north coast, across the centre of Cornwall to Fowey on the south coast, and we planned it so we would arrive at our destination on Father’s Day.
We wanted to walk in Cornwall because we’d spent part of our childhood there, and Fowey had to be on the itinerary because our father had known the pretty little port with its beautiful harbour from boyhood. The Saints Way has become well known nowadays as the likely route taken by pilgrims making their way from Ireland to the Continent. However, we met few others on the way, which we felt was a good thing.
Never having done anything like this together before, we discovered that we still enjoyed each other’s company and liked our silences as much as the chatting, whether we were discussing the map we were meant to be following, or setting the world to rights.
It is important to stress at this point that we were not trying to do the impossible and carry heavy packs on our backs: we weren’t. Neither were we camping. We stayed at pre-booked b&bs each night, and our bags were taken to the next one after we’d set off each morning.
In spite of wet gear, a few doubts about the right way to go (which I have to admit had nothing to do with the excellent instructions with which we had been provided) and having to decide where to eat each evening, the most tricky decision every morning turned out to be what to bring with us in our light daypacks and what to leave behind to be delivered for us to find at the next b&b
You really would think that two grown women who’d brought up families and travelled the world could decide, on the basis of maps, weather forecasts and practical experience, how many spare pairs of socks, sticking plasters, which reading material, extra jerseys, waterproofs and so on to bring. By the second morning we realised that the post-breakfast “bag faffing” as we called it was beginning to spoil what should have been a smooth departure.
Once we’d got going we just had to exist for six or eight hours with what we had with us. Had there been an emergency we were armed with all the right telephone numbers. Happily, there were no serious problems. As we headed across hillsides, down into valleys, through soggy woods, up Helman Tor, and down into farmyards and hamlets, we came across wonderful road signs with names like St Wenn, Withiel Goose and Retire; we browsed in ancient churches, studied gravestones and were mesmerised by the sight of wind turbines in action.
We felt that Dad might have been quite proud of us, his girls, a couple of oldies now, proving that a bit of rain and wind needn’t divert us from our pilgrimage. Needless to say, I have invested in a new pair of walking boots and we are looking forward to the next trip.