I have always been an independent hiker and backpacker (except in Grizzly country) so when I felt a deep inner need to do an organised hiking and camping weekend it had me questioning myself a bit, or maybe a lot…I don’t do organised group trips. However, this one was different; it wasn’t just any group hike, it was one organized by one of the strongest and most inspirational women I know…Abbie Barnes.
So with the car packed and fueled up I hit the road early Friday afternoon with the dogs, feeling excited and apprehensive, and mentally cursing the frustrating traffic that I was encountering. I had left early to avoid this kind of mayhem although I’m sure rush hour would have been ten times worse.
A quick stop at a lovely pub in an itty bitty town after three hours of driving gave me the chance to Google for a campsite that wasn’t extortionate on price for a tent. Ashe Farm near Taunton fit the bill at £6 a night and was quite a pleasant place to stay, even with the loud music that was thankfully turned off at the 10pm cut-off.
An early morning start (didn’t sleep great) had me at the trail head parking lot in Withypool at 8am (a little bit early for the 10am scheduled meet time) so I sat and read for while, waiting for the others to arrive and slowly they trickled in. Abbie was the last to arrive and I was weirdly nervous and shy to meet this amazing lady I had been so inspired by…and I’m not a shy or nervous person around people; while she talked with a couple of the hikers she already knew I sat quietly with the dogs.
The dogs were the best ice breaker as Abbie loves dogs and knew of mine from this blog, and I soon felt a little more at ease, although still strangely nervous.
We were all ready to go and were soon climbing up out of Withypool to the high point of the day which provided spectacular views all around. Everyone was super friendly and we all talked as we climbed through scrubby moorland, and the cameras were out often.
We passed an ancient stone circle that was barely visible and had, sadly, recently been vandalized. There is very little of this kind of ancient history on Exmoor left to see; Exmoor, unlike Dartmoor, is only 14% moorland and many of the ancient histories have been plowed under with farming being a predominant feature of the landscape.
With the stone circle behind us we followed roads and tracks and ended up on the Coast to Coast Two Moors Way, a 100+ mile route from Wembury on the south coast of Devon to Lynmouth on the north coast and looking out over the Bristol Channe towards Wales. We followed this for some time, remaining up high and often passing through sheep fields which were torture for the dogs as I had to keep them leashed for a lot of the time and they just wanted to work.
We descended as we started to hear the sound of water and reached the highlight of the walk. Tarr Steps is an old trapper bridge and according to local legend, the bridge was built by the devil as a place to lay out and take in some rays, but he was eventually run off by a local parson.
We stopped for lunch and were amused by some very brave Chaffinches who wanted to share our food and actually took it out of the hand of one of the other walkers.
Soon we were back walking and were following the banks of the River Barle on a quiet and peaceful stroll back to Withypool.
It was during this time, and at various other times during the day, that Abbie had I discovered just how much we had in common and talking with her was like having a conversation with an old friend. Whether it was backpacking gear, long trails, Vikings or dragons, dogs or other things…we both had the same kind of passion for it. I was beginning to understand why God had made the urge to do this trip so strong in me.
Back at the cars we all headed out for the 40 minute drive to the campsite…a very pretty location alongside the river at Cloud Farm. Sadly there were a lot of people and big tents but we managed to find a spot to fit all our tiny tents together, plus the cars. It was a great communal feel and it was fun to be camping with so many like-minded people.
Everyone made tea or coffee (except me) as Abbie got fuel ready for the campfire, and we all settled in to some easy and laughable conversation.
A quick and quiet walk along the river built up an appetite for dinner. As Abbie got the campfire going we all cooked dinner and everyone learned the very American magic of “pink bunnies” to make smoke move…they’ll all remember me for that one for eternity.
A kid screaming close by, and the bright sky kept us all up talking late into the evening but by 10pm we were all retiring to the cozy confines of our tents and sleeping bags.
What a rough night. The child that had been screaming at 10pm last night woke us all at 4am, and again at 5. I was thankful for the ear plugs I had graciously been given but they can only do so much to protect against the well-used vocal chords of an upset 2 year old. I was up at 6:30am, again with the child-alarm going off and I crawled out of my tent into the damp cold of the morning. A heavy dew soaked everything and as soon as I was dressed warmly I started on wiping the tent down to dry.
Everyone else started to stir and made coffee and breakfast as we began to dry out tents pack camp away. We were ready to go around 9am but a flat tire on one of the cars had us a little delayed in leaving, as did the detour a couple of us took when we missed the turn…that’s what I get for following others! It was a pretty detour though and didn’t add on too much time and we were on the trail by 10am.
Another national trail (the South West Coastal Path) marked the start of this hike as we climbed and descended through the longest stretch of old coastal woodland in the UK. We passed an old spring that looked more like a shrine to the ancient gods and felt like it belonged in Middle Earth…a common theme througout the 13 miles of the day.
While the first few miles were buried within the trees we were occasionally blessed with gaps in the trees. The views over the Bristol Channel were beautiful and clear, and the cliffs and beaches below them almost defied description with their edge-of-two-worlds charm. The blooming purple heather added another dimension to the already-stunning vistas and just gave one sense of peace and tranquility.
I was setting a moderate pace as we rose and fell along the trail, pausing to give others time to catch up. Slowing ones own pace down to not get too far ahead is definitely something I had to be constantly thinking about as I felt my feet speeding up every so often. My former guiding habits as a wrangler kicked in as I constantly turned to make sure we were all still together…a habit I will likely never lose. Of course it is tough to hike and look behind at the same time and I was constantly living up to my well-known clumsiness as I tripped on every rock and shadow. Abbie brought up the rear and no man was left behind.
The only thing to marr the enjoyment of the trail were the sheep ticks…I have never seen so many ticks before. Dog ticks I can just about deal with as they are often easy to remove but these little things were almost impossible to grab a hold of and remove. I was really glad I had been treating the dogs since April, and had given them a boost before this trip. I was constantly seeing ticks crawling on them and pausing to remove them quickly. We still had to stop once to remove more than two dozen ticks that had already taken a bite.
Once out of the cool damp woodland the amount of ticks dropped rapidly and there were few to be seen as we crested the hill and looked along the coastline to Lynton and Lynmouth…and what a sight that was. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather and the turquoise sea below us looked very Mediterranean while mottled with deeper shades of grey-blue beneath the clouds.
A long steep downhill path took us into Lynmouth, a quaint seaside town full of old-world charm and picturesque store fronts and stone cottages. We visited the flood memorial museum that detailed the historical events of the fatal flood of 1952.
A quick stop in the national park center was made as everyone but me and Abbie munched on homemade Cornish pasties and then we headed to an old pub for a proper Devonshire cream tea…and it was amazing.
A nap felt like it was needed but we were pressed for time and we were soon back on the trail, following the Lyn River to Watersmeet where the east and west Lyn rivers meet…surprisingly. We passed the site of the old ginger beer production site that had been washed away in the flood and I felt a calm sense of serentiy beneath the old, gnarled trees that were dressed in the green garb of moss and lichen. Rock overhangs made me want to build a home in some places as the feeling of Middle Earth was strong and the place felt quite magical. It was definitely my favorite stretch of the trail.
While there were still ticks there weren’t as many as along the wide track as there had been along the narrow coastal path…or maybe the dogs just didn’t brush against the vegetation as much. It was also through here that I had my injury for the trip…never had a trip that didn’t involve something. At least this time it was only a slip and an ungraceful landing on my butt with a grazed knee…and another pair of hiking pants ruined by a hole in the knee. That made me more mad than the fall and the bruised knee.
After a few miles we stopped at a bend in the river, and the dogs got to play in the water for a while, chasing unobtainable sticks and cooling off while having fun. Everyone got the chance to see Kye doing her “dunking her head to remove big rocks from the water” thing…it got a few laughs and many comments.
After taking a quick pee break as others got back on the trail I hung back a little. I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed with being with the group (lovely people though they were). The lack of alone space and time that I am so used to while I’m hiking…and why I get out in the first place…was starting to get to me a little. Time alone in nature is my balm.
Abbie hung back to make sure she hadn’t lost me, as responsible group leaders do, and it was during this time as we hiked alone that I had the most amazing and important conversation I have had in my adult life with anyone…ever. I now knew exactly why God had put this intense need to do this organized trip in my head and laid it so heavily over my heart that it was almost suffocating.
Sadly our time to talk was too short and we soon arrived at Brendon where we had to leave one of our party behind who was struggling with the length of the hike. (Abbie headed back to pick him up in the car when we were done, we didn’t just abandon him).
The last mile or so out of Brendon was a steady uphill climb in the intense sun. We were all suddenly missing the shade of the trees. Someone had also cut back the gorse that lined the trail on one side but the cuttings had been left and made walking for the dogs very difficult and painful. Twice I had to carry a dog, with Abbie helping with the other…definitely much appreciated. Of course both dogs were wet from the river still but damp clothes were actually a blessing on that long, hot climb back to the car.
While I was hot and tired I wasn’t really ready for the weekend to be over. A last conversation was had by the group and then we all bid our farewells to each other. I watched everyone depart one by one to their homes in other places, far removed from the peace of Exmoor.
The next morning felt good after a solid night of sleep, albeit with some strange dreams and I headed into Lynmouth to check out the little town some more…and to eat a one of those amazing pasties that had smelled so good on Sunday. I had no plans and I was just going to enjoy some alone time away from work and people and spending some quality time with the dogs. After the amount of ticks I had decided against doing another hike despite my original plans.
Despite a slightly unorthodox approach to hiking and camping for me I had an absolutely amazing time, met some fabulous people and made some amazing memories. I’m really glad I listened to my heart and did this trip and I can highly recommend booking a weekend or day hike with Abbie, especially if you not confident to go alone or you are just getting into hiking.
If you don’t know who Abbie Barnes is, follow the links below to check out her Spend More Time in the Wild videos on YouTube and the website…I hope you find her as inpirational as I do.