Opportunity to explore corner of Devon with a man who knows it well
Martin Hesp extols the virtues of a hike around the parish of Knowstone.
Walking with another person in a place that is very special to them is a fascinating and at times moving thing to do – so much so that I wrote an entire newspaper column about the concept last week.
In it I mentioned my meander around the Devon parish of Knowstone in the company of regular WMN contributor David Hill – and it was a hike so lovely and scenic, interesting in so many ways – I've decided to include it here.
Readers of the Morning News Country page will know David often writes about the childhood he enjoyed in Knowstone's wide, empty and remote acres – and it is wonderful to be able to report that they are still wide and empty now, even though the realigned route of the North Devon link road cut through the upper parts of the parish's moorland areas in the 1980s.
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Motorists who bomb along that busy artery today have no idea just how close they are to an authentic corner of Britain's rural idyll as they pass the demesne of Great Comfort Farm just beyond Hare's Down.
Knowstone is tucked away unseen north of the big road on a shelf in a valley where it hovers, historically and prettily, over the Crooked Oak stream.
Wonderful names... And this is one of the many pleasing things about walking with someone who has an intimate knowledge of a locale – you are treated to names, memories, anecdotes and explanations that you could never glean from a mere map...
However, maps are extremely useful in their own way – and here's a case in point. Many readers of this page would prefer a longer hike than the one which David took me on. My colleague Philip Bowern, who is head of content at the WMN, and I were there on a journalistic mission so didn't have time to devote an entire day to walking in the area – but if I did I would extend today's hike in the following way...
Selecting the same starting point (the tiny car park opposite the Masons Arms in the heart of Knowstone) I'd head due north down the footpath which descends into the delightful valley cut by the Crooked Oak river (we'll be back in this valley later, but at a point further upstream). The path swings left under Luckett Farm to follow the river down to Wadham Bridge, where I'd turn left to climb a quarter of a mile up the steep lane to turn left again in order to reach a footpath on the right. This heads directly down over a spur of hill and passes through Shapcott Wood to rejoin the stream at a fording point under Harpson Wood.
I am told that the track which runs up through this woodland to Beaple's Wood has a degree of public access, even though it's privately owned. The tracks are wide and well kept and they reach a lane that does have public right-of-way status that will take you directly east back to Knowlestone – which lies on the other side of a stream atop steepish East Hill.
Now we can join the original walk which David took us on, by turning right up the road that exits the village at a point where you will see an old village pump. David told me: "There are two village pumps the first was in the old school yard. The school closed in the late 1940s.The other pump is just before the old Methodist chapel, now a private house.
"These were used until the mid 1960s when the mains came through. Village pump water was then considered unfit for human consumption – what a coincidence!"
We're now on the route of the Two Moors Way and we ascend Tracey's Hill to reach Knowstone Moor where the North Devon link road was opened in 1988.
"It cut in half Knowstone and Haresdown Moors," said David, explaining that the highest point up here reaches a not inconsiderable 850 feet. "Before the link road came through the moors were the haunt of curlew, skylark, linnet and yellow hammer – and the sunflower and cotton grass to name but two."
Now we turned left to walk five quick minutes along the slightly busier road to Holymoor Cross where we turned left.
"Across the fields there's Roachill, from the old local name, Racham," said David. "In the 1950s the Wild Indians' wooden hut was at Roachill."
Wild Indians, I asked?
"That's what we called the Women's Institute around here – and I remember that they put on old silent movies for us children once a year over there in the hut. Actually, the WI were responsible for bringing electricity into the parish in 1963," David added.
We continued our walk down the Holymoor lane and in doing so enjoyed immense views across to the heights of southern Exmoor and the distant Jubilee Inn: "It's a landmark because of its green roof and was once owned by the sister of the actor Terry Thomas," said David. "It lies next to what was once the main road to Barnstaple before the link road came along. That's the old A361 – the longest three-digit A-road in the country – an anorak fact for you."
So much for the wider view of the countryside – in the field directly to the left of the lane David pointed to a place which he said was: "The old mow plot, or mawey. It would once have been in Long Halls field which belonged to Eastacott where the ricks would have been built from the corn harvested from fields across the road."
Now we entered the hamlet of East Knowstone where Eastacott Farm has a very special place in David's heart: "That's my Farmhouse Tree, which features in my WMN country notebooks and articles," he explained of the place where he was born-and-bred.
In a hole in a barn wall just opposite we noticed a collection of animal traps rusting under cobwebs – and David reckoned the contraptions had been sitting there untouched for more than half a century – a fact which I feel is worth mentioning because there can't be many people in this country who could return somewhere after 50 years and see objects languishing in the exact same place where they'd been all those decades before.
Halfway through the hamlet we turned right down a footpath which runs along the side wall of the old farm at Middlecott. This public right-of-way took us down into the truly delightful valley of the Crooked Oak stream – an agrarian landscape that was made extra delightful for us thanks to the fact that it was groaning under a pale flush of magnificent mushrooms. Classic field mushrooms which, when fried in a little butter, were as good as any fungi feast in the world.
A wooden footbridge took across the strangely named stream in to fields belonging to Owlaborough Farm, an old Devon long house which we passed a few minutes later, but not before we'd stopped to admire its original roundhouse where horses would have driven the barn machinery.
Just after the ancient farm, the quiet lane recrosses the river and climbs back up to Knowstone central – an ascent which allowed us to complete what David described as: "A good walk to work up an appetite which is amply satisfied in the Masons."
We duly refuelled at the public house, which is a great deal posher today than it perhaps was in the distant days when David was banned from entering its snug and homely bars by the edicts of strict Methodism that once held such powerful sway in these lonely hills.