Vale is a small chunk of paradise boasting high moors, deep forests and dramatic coastlines
Martin Hesp takes in a walk around one of the most dramatic corners of the region.
The other day I thought of an idea for an exclusive new club – I'm calling it the Lost Poets Society and it's for anyone of a lyrical bent who feels vaguely adrift in life, or for people attempting to track down famous poets who have somehow disappeared.
I found myself in the latter camp, as readers of my WMN Saturday column may recall. I'd arranged to meet the well-known poet Simon Armitage at the hands-and-map sculpture that marks the beginning of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) on Minehead seafront.
Simon is marching down the SWCP to St Ives and beyond, giving readings of his work in various places as he goes, and I was meant to be walking the first ten miles with him for a feature article.
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However, holiday traffic caused me to be a bit late and although I'm told he did wait a while, it seems we somehow missed each other down there at the nicer end of Minehead Bay. Which meant I went racing all around mighty and beautiful North Hill looking for the poet I'd somehow mislaid...
I never did find him, but being a person of a certain age I was brought up on "waste-not-want-not" principles in life, so used my search to deliver this perfect, genuinely classic, walk around the western end of this wondrous coastal hill. A walk, indeed, that takes you around one of the most truly dramatic corners of the entire Westcountry, famous poet in tow or not.
Few places in Britain can boast high moors, deep forests, fertile vales and dramatic and vertiginous coastlines all bundled into one small corner. Porlock Vale – at the western end of Minehead's North Hill – can. It is a small chunk of paradise tucked under Exmoor's biggest range of hills, running down to the coast in an almost impossibly picturesque way.
It even has its very own microclimate which somewhat miraculously allows it to enjoy similar conditions to places much further south like The Lizard in South Cornwall.
To get the best out of the vale you can base a walk at the little car park in the almost unbelievably chocolate-boxy village of Bossington, a mile-and-a-half north-east of Porlock, and cross the footbridge that looks as if it has been inspired by the one at Claude Monet's lily-pond.
Walking north along the riverside, the path ascends gently towards Hurlstone Point. This dramatic headland commands the eastern tip of Porlock Bay. There's a ruined coastguard look-out that sits squat on a shelf some 200 feet above the end of the jagged point and, although reaching it takes you on a short detour, I do recommend strolling out to its airy realm. From it you can peer around the corner and see the wide expanse of Selworthy Sands.
These sands are just about inaccessible, but I did manage to reach their wide acres for a newspaper series called Secret Seasides last year. I must quickly add that was in the company of a local man who knows the place like the back of his hand – my advice to everyone else is: do not try descending to this amazing sandy shore by clambering down the cliff. The rock is friable to say the least, and you are likely to hit the beach sooner than planned.
Another way round to the sands – though I certainly do not recommend you take it – is through the Gulls' Hole. This is a magnificent cave that passes right through the end of Hurlstone Point and to get to it you must walk down the zig-zag path which you will see 500 yards back in the direction of Porlock.
The Gull's Hole is reachable by climbing over the rocks towards the point – but do not attempt it if the tide is coming in. You will be cut off and it will be a helicopter job to get you out of there – if you survive the attentions of the waves. On an ebb, though, it is safe enough, but you will need some climbing skills to reach the cavern that has daylight at either end.
Back up at the old look-out I continued around the point in an easterly direction. This took me along the scary path and introduced me to the big dark, back-sunned ravine above Selworthy Sands where I began to ascend through the screes and rocky bluffs.
I say scary because it would be a bit alarming for anyone not comfortable with heights. But you soon reach a less awesome zone – albeit some six or seven hundred feet above where you started. The section is not really dangerous – you've just got to proceed with a little care.
Eventually I rejoined the official coast path and followed this across the hill towards the famously scenic car park under Selworthy Beacon – which, by the way, is where I finally ditched my efforts to find Simon Armitage and where I also dreamed up the idea for a Lost Poet's Society.
I was inspired by the Wind and Weather Hut which has poetry carved into its stone sides. To find this I walked through the woods just south of the paved road for a few hundred yards until I reached the little folly – here's an example of the poetry you will find etched there...
"Needs no show of mountain hoary
Winding shore or deepening glen
Where the landscape in its glory
Teaches truth to wandering men."
So wrote the poet Keble. I reckon anyone with a poetic leanings would be inspired by this entire area, especially lovely Selworthy Combe. We march down its central track but halfway you might want to fork left for a stride or two until you see Lady Acland's Hut situated on a bank to your left. You can sit in this attractive chalet and look out at the graceful, delicate beauty of the birch forest which surrounds you, and perhaps think of novelists instead of poets.
I'm talking about Chekhov or Turgenev, so entirely Russian is the atmosphere of the place.
Down to even more chocolate-boxy Selworthy we go, turning right on the green to follow the footpath marked Bossington. Now it's simply a matter of following this scenic right of way which tucks in and out of the woodlands – so that you get fabulous glimpses of the vale between the trees as you walk back towards the sea.
Part of the walk takes you through the eerie but wonderful ilex woods – said to be the biggest plantation of evergreen oaks anywhere in the country. We pass picturesque Allerford nestling far below, and not long after we traverse to the rear of the big house at West Lynch – one of the most handsome homes in the region.
Next comes Bossington and the aforementioned Monet-like bridge which will take you dry shod back to the car park – where you can start penning your poems.