A Coast to Coast Walk in Devon
By Everett Potter
Day One: Delicious Death and Agatha Christie
When the phrase “Delicious Death” is mentioned by one of the docents at Greenway (above), Agatha Christie’s summer home in Devon, it has nothing to do with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot solving a murder. Here in the sprawling mansion that’s now run by the National Trust, it refers to a desert of chocolate cake and Devonshire clotted cream, the latter as thick as wallpaper paste but considerably tastier. And eating this cardiologist’s nightmare in Christie’s kitchen, replete with a massive royal blue Aga stove, seems like a suitably English way to begin a classic English walk: seven days from the south coast of Devon to the north coast, crossing into Somerset on the Bristol Channel.
We meet in Dartmouth, which lies on the banks of the River Dart on the south coast of England (and the south coast of Devon), and has one of the most dramatic seaside locations of any town in England: a wide river filled with moored sailboats, a town with half timbered and stone buildings, a backdrop of woods and steep hills topped with deep green fields dotted with sheep.
A green and pleasant land indeed. And the perfect place to begin a walk with The Wayfarers, an English company that pretty much owns the concept of the English walking holiday. Here’s the short version: seven days of walking, seven different country inns, extraordinary landscapes, good conversation and 12 to 14 miles a day of hills, footpaths, rights of way and open fields.
Those miles are the only way you can justify a serving of “Delicious Death.”
Today would be easy: a walk down the quays of Dartmouth from the Dart Marina Hotel to the center of town – where Sir Walter Raleigh lived, where pirates once ruled the roost, where Britain has its Royal Naval College – and we would board a ferry, sail upriver for a pleasant half hour or so and then disembark at the footpath to Christie’s magnificent Georgian era home, which has a fine view of the river below.
It is filled with overstuffed chairs and the collections of a lifetime, from silver (she was fond of fish servers), Meissen porcelain and marquetry boxes. The rooms are large, high ceilinged and comfortable, with nicely worn oriental carpets and curiosities like a Tang Dynasty camel that her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan, gave her. It’s like being inside a game of Clue – you know that Colonel Mustard did it with the candlestick (there are plenty in evidence) , but was it the library or the dining room?
This is followed by a two hour leg limbering walk back to Dartmouth. We’ve ben warned by our friendly walk leader, Muff Dudgeon, that this walk is “somewhat more difficult than the classic Coast to Coast across the Lake District and Yorkshire.”
Time – and feet – will tell tomorrow.
DAY TWO: Green Lanes and Leech Wells
Here’s what you need to know about our first full day of walking: 10.4 miles. That’s the distance (10.44 miles to be exact) that one our dozen Wayfarers recorded on his GPS today. A goodly distance indeed, from Dartmouth to Totnes.
What that GPS doesn’t tell you is that much of it was uphill, on narrow “green lanes” that have been in use for hundreds of years. Oak trees overhang these rocky, sometime muddy footpaths, thick hedges filled with wild blackberries and Hart’s Tongue ferns rise up on either side, and the steady plodding of 26 feet echo softly. The views were the reward – sweeping vistas to the edge of distant Dartmoor, intimate views of cottage gardens, sheep making sure that their field was well-manicured. It is England in technicolor green, at least when the sun is shining, which it did intermittently today.
This is not the kind of holiday that anyone in a hurry would choose. That’s completely missing the point, in fact. It’s about slowing down and looking at 250 year old farmhouses and the ruins of an Augustinian abbey. Watching a kingfisher make a beeline down a river. And crossing that same river on stepping stones that appear to have done their job for a century or more. It ‘s catching your breath in the peaceful village of Cornworthy for refreshments – Elderflower water, anyone – under an oak tree, nicely laid out by walk manager Jamie Daniell. And later, a riverside lunch at The Maltsters Arm, a rambling old pub once owned by the late beloved (and often besotted) TV chef Keith Floyd.
At day’s end we arrived in Totnes, one of those New Age English towns that’s long been a haven for those seeking alternative culture. They even have gone so far as to print their own currency, the better to keep the spending local. Let’s put it this way: if you walk down a narrow lane called Leechwell Street in town and you come to shallow pool where, in Tudor times, the ill would lie in the shallow water with leeches. The leech cure was not in evidence today but various piles of fruit and flowers – offering to a leech god? – were plain to see. It’s a quirky, relaxed town with a well-preserved Elizabethan house in its midst that is now the town museum.
We’re staying at The Royal Seven Stars, an eccentric architectural pastiche that’s comfortable and cozy in the heart of town, dining on fresh hake and crab, drinking a remarkably good white wine made locally by the Sharpham vineyard. After a tiring day of what Jamie refers to as “inlinations,” it serves us considerably better than any leech cure.
Tom Greeves, center, plotting the way on Dartmoor.
Day Three: The Hound of the Baskervilles Meets the Pixies
Dartmoor did not disappoint. The moody moor, covered with gorse and fernlike bracken, was overhung with a thick mist yesterday, like the film set for The Hound of the Baskervilles (which was set here by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Missing only a baying hound, that mist was not quite impenetrable but certainly disorienting. People do get lost out there. People like us.
A typical Dartmoor hamlet.
After a blissful morning of walking along the thickly wooded banks of the Dart – who knew Dartmoor contained such heavy forest, the stones covered in deep green moss– we had a stellar first hand example of why Dartmoor, England’s largest national park, is not to be trifled with.
We met up at the Old Inn in Widecombe in the moor with Tom Greeves, a local archaeologist and historian who describes himself as a “cultural environmentalist.” The bearded, towering and eloquent Tom took us deep into Dartmoor after a pub lunch. It was steep climbing after a morning of steep climbing. Our destination was Hound Tor, a large outcropping of stacked boulders below which sat the remains of a one of the best examples of a medieval village ever found in England.
We walked on slippery, undulating grass fields – evidence of 16th or 17th century plowing, explained Tom –and then plunged into the should-high bracken, weaving our way along a steep slope. We walked and we walked as the mist grew thicker and droplets hung from our eyelids. They do “wet” rather well in England.
A rather wet day on Dartmoor at Hound Tor.
We crashed through the bracken for what seemed like a long time. When we finally emerged onto a boulder strewn field, Tom threw up his hands.
We missed it,” he said. “I’ve been here scores of times and we missed it. It was the pixies!”
Pixies seemed like the most plausible explanation, and for his penance, Tom wore his hat inside out to appease them. Well, he is a local expert. And half a mile of steep walking later, we found the foundations peeking out of the bracken. Tom, whose interest in the residents of Dartmoor extends into the current day, explained the architecture and the lifestyle of the people who had built them more than 700 years earlier.
We adjourned to Mill End, a very comfortable country house hotel, for the night, where the discussion of pixies and moor walking faded as a dozen weary Wayfarers made their way to bed, the steep stairs the last of the day’s 10.7 miles that seemed more up than down.
Bunny Johnston in the Lutyens gardem of Castle Drago.
Day Four: Castles and Cobb
Standing in the vast drawing room of Castle Drago, Bunny Johnston threw her arms out and said “Oh gosh, it is a bit of a house and garden, isn’t it?”
Bunny, who gives fresh meaning to the term “exuberant,” grew up in Castle Drago, the last true castle built in England, thanks to the merchant fortunes of her great grandfather. Finished in 1930, the castle was designed by Lutyens and is as baronial an any that a family might want: dozens of comfortable rooms, thick stone walls, arches and leaded windows. It is the world of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” And from Bunny’s perspective, growing up here was lot of fun.
Pointing to a large oil portrait of a great uncle lost in the Great War, she said, “My brother shoved a champagne cork through it.”
It was one of many reminders that as a child in a great house, the Chippendale chairs, Venetian chandeliers and painted chests (“Oh gosh, I don’t know, it’s Chinese, I guess”) were merely the backdrop for fun and games.
The baronial library, replete with a billiard table, was “a jolly good party room” and the famous arched hallway, with massive pieces of granite and polished wooden floors, was where Bunny and her friends “shot things up and down the hall and set up table tennis.”
That led us to the Lutyens designed garden, still in flower this time of year. It’s rare enough to tour a great home, rarer by far to see it through the eyes of someone who was privileged to grow up there.
But Bunny was but one character yesterday, on a walk that began in rain and ended in pure sunshine 9.8 miles later. There were the cobb ladies, Jackie Abey and Jill Smallcombe, who have brought back the dying art of making cobb, the earth material akin to adobe that most venerable Devon houses are made of.
At night at the The New Inn at Coleford, there was dinner, drinks and the songs of Bill Murray, who runs the Dartmoor Folk Festival. Bill joined us for dinner and than sang and played the concertina for an hour or more, accompanied by friends on squeeze box and guitar. True country songs with enough verses to tell a long tale indeed, like “Widdecombe Fair.”
Speaking of characters, throughout this walk, we’ve had the gentle, expert guidance of Muff Dudgeon, a woman steeped in the history, plant life and customs of the county. In the slow, rambling pace of country walk, she shares a wealth of knowledge and helps us negotiate the seemingly endless variety of animal gates that have to be spend and closed – the price one pays for having right of way in this country.
Punctuating various times of day is the high spirited and humorous Jamie Daniell, a retired Army colonel whose dry wit and welcome van – “Lemon Barley water, anyone” – keep us going.
Today promises to be “rather long,” says Muff. This is not a woman who exaggerates, so the boots will be laced tight this morning.
Day Five: Exmoor
Today the walking – “flattish,” to use a term that was in vogue all day – wasn’t bad at all. That was shorthand for “not too many hills.” We moved into the gentle countryside that leads into Exmoor, and then into Exmoor itself for just over 11 miles. A clear day, but a day of boots squelching through mud, a day spent partly along the banks of the River Barle, where we wondered how to describe the sound of rushing water that changed all the time. We’re still wondering.
We encountered a mustachioed fisherman of a certain vintage, fly box open, Hardy’s vest on, straight out of a British comedy, who was perturbed by the presence of a dozen strangers wondering what he was fishing for. Not to mention his barking Labrador, who earned entreaties of “What are you on about! Be quiet, please!”
We met a local lady and her dog.
Then a couple out for a quiet stroll.
It was a reminder of how few people we’ve seen on this walk. Very few indeed. It seems that part of the magic of a Wayfarers trip is to move you pretty seamlessly from pastoral river bank to yet another village straight out a Masterpiece Theatre series. A place where the flower boxes are overhung with fuschia and tuberous begonias, where the pub has been in business for 400 years, where there are 1960 Morris Minors used without irony on the narrow roads, where the Land Rovers are mud spattered and have a spaniel or a pair of Jack Russells in the back seat. The churches, with square bell towers, date back a millennium, and their interiors are a pastiche to accommodate the beliefs of the times.
Back into the woods, where the tree are covered with thick moss. Over a stile – a primitive ladder to cross an immovable wall or gate – and then into a field for close encounters with a herd of cows. Acres and acres of grass neatly walled off by hedgerows. We walk on “green lanes” that have been “roads” since medieval times.
And then the highlight – the sight of a stag and six female red deer on Exmoor. This stag had a magnificence that American deer species do not have – with his broad chest, high stance and bowed antler, it looked as if it should be on a coat of arms. If King Arthur had been cued to ride over the hill with his knights, I would not have been surprised.
A very good dinner tonight of fresh Dover sole and local lamb at The Royal Oak — once owned by Maxwell Knight, the spymaster who inspired “M,” James Bond’s boss in the Ian Fleming novels — festooned with hunting prints and offering Exmoor Ale.
Raining softly now, keeping everything green. More of the same promised in the morning — as is a long walk — but then “brighter later.” Or “bryter later” as the late English folksinger Nick Drake would have it.
English optimism at its best.
Power walkers Justine and Katy.
Day Six: Wettish
It rained – sometimes sideways, sometimes straight down, and the day was a lexicon of sounds that your boots make when stepping in and out of mud: squish, splodge, splash and then a rarer expletive when the water crested the top and trickled down your sock. Jamie took one look at us at lunch, in our soggy state, and remarked that “ Exmoor gets about two meters of rain every year.”
About seven feet. I think about half of that fell today.
I could stop there, because there was a lot of this kind of walking today.
But then I would miss telling you about our sighting of five Exmoor ponies – “Rarer than the Giant Panda,” declared Muff – just 160 of them in existence in the wild. They looked ghostly in the thick fog and pelting rain on the moor of Exmoor.
I’d miss telling you about excellent pub lunch at the Royal Oak Inn. Vegetable soup was the order of the day but I prefered a Ploughman’s: slices of country ham, a chunk of cheddar, warm, fresh bread and enough salad to make you think you’ve gotten a serving of greens.
And I’d miss the walk itself: the landscape was fascinating. The rivers were rising and fast moving, the patchwork green fields lined with hedgerows, the uphills a bit more slippery because of the mud. But truthfully, you revert to your eight year old self.
What could be better than playing in the mud, knowing that at walk’s end, you’d arrive at a 17th century coaching inn, The Crown Hotel (above) in Exford. A place with a cozy bar, festooned with fox hunting prints (the sport is banned but so-called drag hunting goes on), and the kid of higgeldy piggeldy rooms that have stairs to your bathroom, leading to the day’s ultimate reward: an English bathtub. Long enough and deep enough for a (near) six footer to soak and snooze and recall day’s worth of sightings: 300 year old oak trees and 500 year old ash trees: sheep, more sheep, and then a few more; wooden gates and stiles that led from overgrown path to grassy field.
When I finally woke up in my bathtub, the sun was shining through the window. It may have set on the British Empire, but in this corner of Exmoor, it’s still on the job.
Day Seven: Boot Dipping
And so it concludes, in bright sunshine, warm breezes, a brisk uphill walk past hundreds of squawking pheasants and a sighting of the Bristol Channel and the coast of Wales. Nine more miles today, over wet moorland and under pale blue skies, down to Porlock, a determinedly picturesque village that could well be the setting for a Margaret Drabble novel (she lives nearby) or perhaps an Evelyn Waugh satire (he lived nearby). Or maybe a remembrance of “In Xanadu, did Kubla Kahn, a stately pleasure dome decreed.”
Yes, Coleridge lived nearby as well, and was famously interrupted by a visitor from Porlock — Thomas De Quincy speculated that it may have Dr. P. Aaron Potter (no known relation), the poet’s physician, who famously supplied the poet with laudanum — while writing these verses and never finished the poem, the muses having fled.
Coleridge loved to walk and so do we, so there was a renewed spryness in everyone’s steps this morning, as we ambled past blackberry filled hedges, open fields and down to a pub lunch in Porlock.
That was followed by a shortish walk down to the stony beach. Muff stripped off her shoes and socks with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl and gamely raced into the surf, her version of the “boot dipping” that signifies a walk’s end. We left our boots on but baptized them in the surf nonetheless, as the rocks clacked in the gentle waves .
The finish was a cream tea at Kitnor’s Tea Room & Gardens, a last chance for a bit of gentility in a flower bedecked setting. Tonight it’s drinks and dinner at the Crown Hotel, where the shooting set are already converging in the pub after a day of bagging pheasant on the moors.
Tomorrow, we’ll scatter like a flock of pheasants, to London, and then the US. The boots have been dipped, the intake of clotted cream has ceased, and the 68 mile walk is over. After a week of living somewhere in 1920’s England, it’s time to return to the 21st century.
For more info, contact The Wayfarers.