Sunday, March 10, 2013

I feel I shouldn't let the Bath Lit Fest (1st-10th March) pass without an approving mention ~ the programme looked marvellous ~  but this year I missed every one of the 179 events by spending the entire week on holiday in Exmoor.

This random timing turned out to be just before the 'walking season' officially started, so we found uncrowded towns as well as empty paths through woodland and moorland, all recreating the tranquil atmosphere the Romantic poets must have enjoyed, and a queue-less welcome in preemptive teashops everywhere. No heather yet, but glorious gorse and banks of snowdrops, and sumptuous sunshine most days.
Our base was an amazing converted Hunting Lodge in Porlock Weir ~ here's our morning view ~  from where we set off daily clutching Jarrold Guide to boldly go where so many have gone before... crags and dells, twisty bits and vistas, iron-age sites and 19th century follies, heaths and forests, beaches and waterfalls, over hills and dales, through bush and briar and sometimes quite a bit of mire, like Oberon's elfin minions we did wander everywhere.

We began with a coastal walk to the old fort at Bossington, then followed the steps of Coleridge past Culbone and Ash Farm where the poet wrote of sinuous rills and forests ancient as the hills, and a deep romantic chasm:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted 
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover...
He was famously interrupted by before completing the fragment, and Kubla Khan met with a mixed reception on publication, with Coleridge's wife lamenting his folly in admitting to an opium habit and Charles Lamb commenting that while the poet's recitation was enchanting, "there is an observation 'never tell thy dreams' and I am afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that won't bear daylight." Critics continue to argue over the literary merit, but the mysterious Person from Porlock has entered the our culture as a reference for elusive inspiration and writers' block.

Another long walk took us into Lynemouth and a detour up the funicular railway to Lynton where we strayed into Villa Spaldi, a bizarre art nouveau house with Italian gardens built in 1870 by Sir Thomas Hewitt. A lovely river path with sombre undertones in the story of the 'terrible flood' of 1952 when the Lyn broke its banks and torrents of water and rocks gushed down to destroy hamlets and shatter the town. The local paper recorded "Superlatives are too puny to describe the calamity, which has befallen Lynmouth and Barbrook. Deaths on a wartime scale, destruction worse than in the heaviest blitz, hundreds of residents and visitors personally ruined and destitute - the story stuns the human mind".

Perhaps the most glorious views were on the long walk to Selworthy across clifftops and through woods,  where we found an unexpected monument erected by his son in 1878 to the memory of Sir Thomas Dyke Akland "who, during more than fifty years, took Sunday walks up this combe with his CHILDREN and GRANDCHILDREN training them in the love of NATURE and of CHRISTIAN POETRY." 
Among shorter walks we visited Dunster where the castle loomed through atmospheric mist, and Valley of the Rocks where goats were thick as ticks and I broke my camera (luckily the best camera shop in Exmoor happens to be in Porlock, so thanks Jack for the replacement and the tutorials, plus a fabulous wildlife picture to take home).  We met ponies, listened to birdsong and night owls, were followed by a flock of sheep, and encountered a butterfly conservation project in the bracken checking out the habitat for High Brown Fritillary, a rare species which has apparently declined by 90% in the last 40 years...

And Porlock itself is a sweet little place, deserving of a better accolade than Robert Southey managed in his rather gauche ode moaning about the rain and concluding making my sonnet by the alehouse fire, while Idleness and Solitude inspire / dull rhymes to pass the duller hours away.  Our tea-shop survey, conducted at the conclusion of most of the walks, was very pleasant though no clear winner emerged. Both our eating-out evenings were a 5-star success but Hathaways in Dunster was beaten to the podium by Sashes in Minehead, where convivial ambiance and superb food combined in an event that was more intimate theatre than merely supper.
I'll end with another medley of images: Culbone, tiniest functioning church in England with a legendary past that inspired the opening lines of Blake's Jerusalem, various woodland stretches, and the biggest complete double rainbow I ever saw, resting in the sea at Lynemouth bay.

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