Walks in Devon: Discover the Lorna Doone legend in Exmoor
PUBLISHED: 11:51 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:57 16 January 2018
An Exmoor winter walk with Simone Stanbrook-Byrne which strays (briefly) into Somerset and passes some haunts of the legendary Doone Clan
Part of Exmoor’s heritage is the wild and romantic Lorna Doone legend, an intriguing weave of fact and fiction that blends together in RD Blackmore’s enduring novel. Tradition tells of an outlawed Doone clan settling on Exmoor after leaving Scotland in the 17th century, but the Lorna Doone of the story is fictitious. Or is she...? In the novel she was rescued by the Ridd family and they were definitely real.
Let your imagination wander with you as you pass through some of the country across which the Doones marauded...their wintry ghosts may just be mingling with the wild red deer that watch you from the moorland’s secret places.
This glorious walk has been a favourite of ours for many years. It rubs away the winter rust and works off some of the seasonal excesses. Relish it.
1)Leave the car park in Brendon and turn left along the lane, soon passing The Staghunters Inn on your right – something to look forward to later.
Stroll through the village to Leeford Green Cross in about 400m. Turn left, crossing the road bridge over the East Lyn River. At the end of the bridge the walk goes right (but you may first wish to go left for a few metres to see the historic packhorse bridge).
Follow the lane, signposted for Porlock. About 200m from the bridge, and after a left bend near Hall Farm, take a clear footpath going right towards County Gate and Malmsmead, your half-way point 2½ miles away. This post also bears a quill emblem, denoting the 51-mile path that commemorates poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was associated with this area.
2) Climb the steps off the lane, through the kissing gate, then continue up more steps. At the top keep straight ahead towards an oak tree 50m away, beneath which a clear trodden path passes. When we last passed, this tree was supporting a fabulous array of fungus. The path climbs to a yellow-arrowed post about 150m from the gate. Here go sharp right, still uphill. You reach a yellow-marked gate, continue beyond this on the path, valley down to the right.
The path continues clearly, passing another gateway beyond which you can enjoy far-reaching views across and along the valley. Trees hereabouts are often upholstered in lichen, a sign of clean air, and you may spot feeding parties of long-tailed tits. Exmoor ponies roam freely, they are well-suited to moorland winters. Here and there yellow blobs on fence posts reassure that you’re on the right path.
The path starts to descend, passing an occasional gate and eventually arriving at a stepped kissing gate with ENP carved into it (Exmoor National Park). Continue beyond it for 150m to another gate onto a footbridge. At the end of the bridge turn left as indicated; the path soon bends right uphill to reach a three-way fingerpost. Go right here towards County Gate reaching a small yellow-marked gate a short distance away.
3) A three-way fingerpost beyond the gate offers a right-hand, downhill option towards Malmsmead and Oare. Take this. Enticing Ashton Cleave is ahead of you.
The path drops steadily down and enters trees as you approach the river. At a two-way fingerpost keep on for Malmsmead, ¾ mile away. The path is now beside the river – look out for dippers, dapper little birds that were once the emblem of the Devon Wildlife Trust.
The river bends right; pass through a yellow-marked gate to walk through the field with the river still on your right – you are now doing a short stretch in Somerset as the river here is the county boundary. On the far side of the field go through another gate and continue as before, this line eventually bringing you to a house on the left, 400m after the bend in the river.
Keep ahead after the house, ignoring its private footbridge and passing through a gate beyond the house, river still to the right. Here we saw a trio of goosander, one male and two females. You reach a confluence of rivers: Oare Water and Badgworthy Water that run into the East Lyn River.
Keep going; it is now Oare Water to the right. You soon reach a footbridge with blue bridleway markers. Cross here and follow the path beyond to climb up past Parsonage Farm. Go through a gate and follow the fenced path to meet the lane.
4) Turn right along the lane and follow it for 250m to Malmsmead, passing the ‘Stone Circle Field’ on the right. This is a recent installation, the rocks having been placed by JCB a few years ago.
In Malmsmead another humpbacked packhorse bridge crosses Badgworthy Water (referred to as ‘Bagworthy’ in Lorna Doone). This attractive bridge is Grade ll listed and dates back to the 17th century. Such bridges were built along old trade routes to allow packhorses with their laden panniers to cross rivers more easily, the parapets usually being quite low in order not to impede the packs.
Sometimes such bridges have recesses built into them where walkers can stand to avoid passing traffic, the bridges often being quite narrow. Many packhorse bridges have been replaced by modern constructions more equal to the task of 21st century vehicles, although sometimes original bridges have been widened in order to cope.
Cross the bridge, or negotiate the adjacent ford if it’s not too swollen and you’re feeling brave. You are now back in Devon. If you’re not diverting into the Lorna Doone Inn walk along the lane passing the gift shop on your right, and follow the road as it goes right towards Brendon, Lynton and Lynmouth.
Almost immediately on the left, behind the shop and adjacent to a corrugated iron barn, a fingerpost directs along a bridleway towards Southern Wood. Take this, climbing steadily to a blue waymarked gate in 250m. Some of this woodland has been recently felled, but they seemed to just be removing conifers, so hopefully there will still be plenty left.
5) The track drops to meet the lane. Go left on this for about 20m to another bridleway going left again up into the trees, this is signed for Brendon Common. (Those preferring the easy option can stay on the lane all the way back to Brendon, but there are better views from the bridleway.) Climb breathily on the rising track for about 350m, admiring the fern- and moss-softened gnarly bits of the woodland.
The path emerges from the trees at a three-way fingerpost in front of a gate. Don’t go through the gate but turn right on the bridleway towards Brendon, sloping woodland to the right and a lovely view ahead. Bend right with the main path in about 150m to go under trees, winding down through the woodland. The path re-emerges from the trees to give a wonderful view over the valley of the East Lyn River down on the right, and beyond it the countryside you traversed earlier in the walk.
The track passes through a bridleway gate and drops to the lane. Turn left and follow the road for just over half a mile back to Brendon and the warm and friendly welcome of the inn.
The walk in brief:
Start point: Brendon Village Hall car park (with honesty box) opposite Millslade House. Nearby postcode: EX35 6PS. Grid ref: SS765481
Directions to start: Brendon is just inland from the North Devon coast and can be accessed off the A39 east of Lynmouth
Parking: see start point above
Toilets: In car parks at both Brendon and Malmsmead
Map: OS Outdoor Leisure 9, Exmoor 1:25 000
Terrain: Field, moorland, riverside and woodland paths; some lanes. Expect mud
Distance: 5 miles/8km
Dog friendliness: Good but take a lead as there will be ponies and sheep grazing. The inns are dog-friendly
Exertion: Moderate to strenuous – there are some lung-stretching ascents
Refreshments: The Staghunters Inn, Brendon, EX35 6PS, 01598 741222; Lorna Doone Inn, Malmsmead, EX35 6NU, 01598 741450. Over Christmas ring ahead to check opening times