WALKS: Hitting heights of Exmoor with wings like eagles
Martin Hesp takes in a route that cleaves a deep valley where Exmoor's hills divide.
The best walking routes should offer choice... That is what I was told by a group of hiking enthusiasts the other day after we had been discussing the rather obvious, but often overlooked, fact that walkers come in many different shapes, sizes and abilities.
Here is a three-mile walk which offers an ideal example of choice as it waltzes around the roof of western Exmoor, because you can add to it a couple of easy-to-follow extensions.
We are in the parish of Trentishoe, perched high above the ludicrously steep sides of Heddon's Mouth Cleave.
This is the deep valley where Exmoor's hills suddenly divide halfway between Lynmouth and Combe Martin. Cleave is the name and cleave is the word. Stand high on the western rim of Exmoor's rift valley and you get the impression that God used an axe when he created this great gulch.
This column has been close to the spot before. A while ago Classic Walks featured the eastern approach to the valley from Woody Bay.
This time we are starting high on the western side. Trentishoe is the name of a hamlet tucked way up on the great shoulder that is the western jaw of the Cleave's mouth, and basically we are going to walk around this lofty ridge.
But, as I have indicated, there are options. Last week I was on a hiking holiday in the Mediterranean with a group of walkers whose ability to amble, clamber and climb varied hugely. After discovering I was a walks writer, the group asked if I provided options when describing hikes and regular readers will know that I sometimes do...
This is a case in point – on this walk we have the option of staying more or less on the same high contour all the way, which makes for an easy amble – or plunging down into the ravine which will mean we have to climb all the way back up again.
Whichever route we want to follow, we start at a place where the eastern moors of Holdstone Down give way to walled fields. From here we set off along the coast path to a place called North Cleave Gut, which I am told contains the highest cliffs in England – even higher than those at Countisbury, which are generally regarded as the country's tallest.
Everything beneath us is impenetrable and dangerous – the domain of the peregrine falcon and not the hiker. At a place marked on the map as East Cleave, which is no more than a sea-facing indentation in the hill, our high path now rounds the great shoulder to head south.
Here comes the first of our choices – we can take the lower coast path proper to enter the great ravine of the Cleave, or follow the field walls around to the hamlet of Trentishoe on what is actually the Tarka Trail.
The lower path is more dramatic – we are treated to amazing views of the scree slopes on both sides of the valley that spill their shale towards the river far below. Look south and the ravine cuts right into the heart of the moors. Look north and there, far below, is the rocky mouth of the valley being smashed by a raging sea.
If we have followed this lower path to enjoy the best of the views, we come to our second choice of the day. Halfway around the shoulder of hill we can either turn right up a steep track which rejoins the Tarka Trail 250 feet above, or turn sharp left and descend all the way to the bottom of the Cleave.
The beauty of the latter is that we can walk upstream to partake of refreshment at the excellent Hunter's Inn. I did this recently and recalled Henry Williamson's description of the place in his story The Old Stag.
"The wind screamed around Hunter's Inn... The sea was less than a mile away. The river flowed beneath the towering cleave, tameless and unclimbable, its sides grey and smooth with loose flakes of shale.
"All things in the cleave were hidden as the hounds of the storm bayed across the sky... Fed by a hundred torrents, the river rose many feet."
After visiting the inn that we can follow footpaths up Trentishoe Coombe, which is a western tributary valley to the main Cleave – passing Black Cleave and Heale Brake to cross the stream and join a path called Ladies Miles which (if we turn right) will take us right up over mighty Trentishoe Down back to the place where we began the hike. This option is for the fitter, more energetic, walker.
Our other, easier, choice left us up on the hill heading for downtown Trentishoe which consists of a nothing but farm and a famous old church.
St Peter stands tucked in its hollow – all austere and modest – as honest a house of worship as you're ever likely to find in Christendom.
You get the feeling that the old folk who knelt here in this wild spot down through the centuries would have been more than earnest in their prayers than perhaps the high and mighty who wafted incense in urban cathedrals.
Earnest – but not, perhaps, honest – at least as far as the Customs men were concerned. In 1827 a Trentishoe farmer called Jim Hoyle was caught with no fewer than £1,180 worth of brandy hidden under his stable floors.
Customs and Excise confiscated the 262 tubs of booze, but something within me is glad to report that lucky Jim escaped through a back window.
Spend a few moments in the churchyard and try to spot the gravestone which marks the final resting place of David (Dick) Turpin. No highwayman this, but the church organist who passed away in 1979.
From here we can climb easily away from the hamlet by following Trentishoe Lane back to where we began...
Don't worry about walking along a proper road – this is one of those peaceful three-cars-per-hour routes which makes the most gentle of ascents to Holdstone Down.
All three routes start and end in the same place, but for those who like the idea of choice you have a two-and-a-half mile dawdle that is fairly level, or the three-mile option with the slight extension which includes one steep climb.
Then there is a six-mile full-on route that will see you descending and climbing over 1,000 feet, but does boast a refreshment stop at the pub.
Basic Hike: Short route – from Holdstone Down around western slopes of Heddon’s Mouth Cleave to Trentishoe. Mid route – basically the same with an extension around the lower contours of Heddon Cleave. Tougher route descends to bottom of Cleave, passes Hunter’s Inn before following Trentishoe Coombe upstream.
Recommended Map: Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure 9.
Distance and Going: Short – 2½ miles easy going; mid – 3 miles, one sharp climb; longest – 6 miles, one long descent and one long climb.