Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Exmoor day 1 - heather, tunnel, waterfall & bog monster

First light on the landscape of Exmoor National Park

I took another visit to one of my favourite places a couple of weeks ago, namely Exmoor National Park on the northern coast of Devon, for a few days of photography.

I was camping so had my fingers crossed for decent weather, as it turns out my crossed fingers don’t hold much sway with the weather gods, it seems they were intent on chucking down a good amount of the wet stuff, despite my humble orison.

But on the plus side, changeable conditions do favour the courageously valiant photographer, assuming courageously valiant means willing to get a bit damp, and I was. As it happens, between the rain showers there were patches of warm sunshine to light up the landscape, along with some superb cloud formations, so not all bad.

On the first morning I was up for sunrise without delay, I wanted to get over to a little lane I happened to know that curves and meanders over the moorland, and to a spot where it traverses a trickling brook, for what I hoped would be a bucolic view into the park.

I arrived in time for the emerging pre-dawn light to illuminate the horizon with a soft tangerine glow. The cirrocumulus clouds high above were in a perfect position to catch the developing colour, so it looked like I was in for a grand display as tiny hints of magenta began to appear on their flanks.

Unfortunately no one told them what I was up to down below, and they utterly failed to ripen into the colourful pageant of chromatic splendour I was expecting them to, which was a shame. Of course I let them know I wasn’t angry with them, just, disappointed.

Early morning sunlight in the National Park of Exmoor
The warm glow of dawn light makes getting up early worth the effort.

I hung around for the sun to make an appearance, which it duly did, and as it lit up the verdant carpet of thick grass in front of me with a subtle orange tone, I had the pastoral scene I was after. 

Morning sunlight into the camera in beautiful Exmoor
With the orange tones receding it doesn't take long for the sun to get up to full strength.

Once I had returned to the campsite and had some breakfast, I took a drive to a lane that is exceptionally well named, The Tunnel. Pulling over into a mud filled widening along the side of the road, I got a few shots looking along this striking passageway.

A tree tunnel covers a country lane in Exmoor National Park
One of the best times of the year to see it, with it's green summer cloak.

The wet, steel grey concourse, dappled with morning sunlight, a sparkling, emerald canopy, arching above it, with leafy branches from each side intertwining into a single structure, it really was a well named road. 

A tunnel of green trees surround a winding country lane in Exmoor
Apart from a few cyclists, the road was bereft of traffic.

I carried on to Winsford hill to have a look at the Punchbowl, another spot I am rather fond of, and one I would be returning to for sunrise one morning, should the weather allow it. I spent a bit of time wandering around, getting a few snaps of the heather and the weather beaten trees on this windswept piece of moorland. 

Fluffy clouds drift over patchwork fields in Exmoor's Punchbowl
Looking into the Punchbowl.

A small track leads into beautiful countryside on Exmoor's moorland
A small track leads into the colourful landscape.

Colourful landscape of green and purple in Exmoor National Park
The greens and purples of Exmoor in summer.

After a while the clouds started to gather apace, the atmosphere started to become defiantly gloomy, and it wasn’t long before it was teeming down. I took this opportunity to head to the coast and find somewhere for a spot of lunch.

Once that had been taken care of, and now that the clouds were starting to clear, I made my way up to the coast road between Porlock and Lynmouth, to get a look at the heather that can grow in abundance.

Exmoor National Park moorland with trees and heather
The clouds soon began to cluster above me.

Thankfully, this year the heather was better than it had been for a long time, according some of the locals I had spoken to, and it was a symphony of purple up there, certainly the best I’ve ever seen it. Once I had got a few pictures of the landscape, which was a marvel of magenta, and dived back into the car before another deluge cascaded down, it was time for a drive over to Simonsbath for a bit of a stroll.

Bright purple heather and the sweep of Porlock Bay in Exmoor National Park
The sweeping curve of Porlock Bay to the left of the picture, and some of that vibrant heather.
To see a larger version simply click on the image.

I had noticed previously that there was a footpath near the public toilets in the village that I hadn’t seen before, and if there is one guarantee that a footpath is worth exploring, it’s the proximity it has to public toilets. 

So with the rain now at bay, I set off to see what I could find. To begin with, the thick, muddy track took me through woodland, and it became obvious it wasn’t a path that was used very much, as fallen and overhanging tree parts hampered the way, and the track would alternate between mud and rivulet for stretches. 

After a while though the close vegetation opened up into a spacious, green dell, with moss covered trees and the sound of a waterfall. I navigated over the boggy ground towards it, and found a lovely little rapid surrounded by ferns.

I set up my camera gear and took a few shots, taking the opportunity to shed some of my outer layers and cool off a bit. It was still quite overcast, and not overly balmy, but the exertion of walking through mud with all my gear had warmed me up no end.

Beautiful cascade of of water in this vibrant woodland scene in Exmoor
A perfect little woodland waterfall.

Once that was done, I returned to the trail, and where it met a sty which carried it out onto open moorland, I spied a sign to Prayway Head, which was a good, er, sign, as at least that meant it was going somewhere. Plus for it to be named, meant there was likely something there worth seeing, and it was only two and half miles distant, which I liked.

So following the impression through the grass I headed upwards, and upwards, and upwards, it turns out it was two and a half miles upwards, which I didn’t like so much. After passing through several fields and along raised stone walkways, over numerous gushing streamlets I reached an area that could only be described as swampy. Filled with waist high bracken, the ground was the epitome of uneven, navigating over the deep holes via unsteady and untested bunchy knots of grasses, while keeping distant from the myriad of runnels that crisscrossed the field was an exercise in concentration.

Once I had successfully steered myself to the other side, via the use of intermittently placed direction posts, I carried on into the next field where the sign confidently told me Prayway Head was a mere quarter of a mile away.

This field was very much in use, it was filled with a plentitude of sheep and cows, there were a lot of sheep and cows. Trudging through the rough grass I had every sheep on the run, as they skittishly dashed away from my progress, as sheep are wont to do. The cows on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish, so to speak. Even though they may find the idea of a human approaching them somewhat unsettling, they are too stupid to move out of the way.

As I headed towards a crowd of around 40 cows, who very slowly got up and stood there staring at me, I could see they were starting to get a bit jumpy, curiosity compelling them to see what I was all about, but at the same time not wanting to get too close, in that strange way cows operate. 

Some of them were beginning to get a bit lively, which is fine, when you can see what they’re up to, but when they start mucking about behind you, it puts me a little bit on edge. I know cows don’t attack, that would be ridiculous, they are, as I’ve mentioned too stupid for that, but they are very large, and when they start jostling about all around your person, it does inspire thoughts that McDonalds might be an underappreciated force for good in society. 

Once I had cleared the cow pile, I carried on to a gate on the far edge of the field, this was where the trail ended. This was Prayway Head, except that it wasn’t. It was just a gate that led out onto a road and nothing, they had given a name to nothing. To say I was confused would be exactly correct, because I was. 

I walked up the road a little bit to see if there was any other signs, there weren’t, I walked the other way up the road, to find no signs, and in the end had to concede that I had come to the end of a slightly gruelling walk to find nothing.

Simonsbath woodland and a lovely little waterfall in Exmoor National Park
Another shot of the waterfall, it was the only thing I took a picture of on the whole walk.

I didn’t particularly fancy going back the way I had come, that marshland was a pain, but I recognised the road I was stood next to as the one that headed back down to Simonsbath. It was a route I had driven many times, and it was not one to walk along. Flanked as it was with high hedges, no footpath and cars absolutely belting it down there, I didn’t really have a choice.

So with a sigh I headed back into the field, the cows being no less of a nuisance, and after scattering the sheep yet again, I started back down the way I had come under the now drizzling rain. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any of the way markers among the tall grasses so I had to guess my way back through the marshy tundra.

This did not go quite as well as I’d hoped, as I kept finding myself on impassable ground, having to turn back and find another way, only for that to become a small lagoon or sloppy quagmire. Thankfully on one of my inexpert stragglings I spotted a marker post. All I needed to do was traverse a small patch of water and I was back on track.

This simply meant leaping onto an intermediary clump of grass and then springing, gazelle like, onto the far side. So with a coltish bound, I vaulted onto the earthy stepping stone which immediately gave under my weight and sent my foot to the bottom of the swampy pond and had me thigh deep in filthy water. But thanks to my momentum and the weight of the camera bag on my back, and of course those pesky laws of motion, I was swung violently forward and landed face first in the mud, my knapsack smacking me in the back of the head for good measure.

Oh how I laughed as I clambered out of the slime, but on the plus side, the drizzly rain that had started 10 minutes before now turned into a much heavier and deliberate proposition. What a day to be alive I said to no one.

Even if I had wanted to say it to someone, it wouldn’t have been possible as I hadn’t seen a single soul on the whole, dismal journey. So at least I had that in my favour. All that was left to do was trudge back in the now pouring rain and change into a clean set of clothes I had in the car. When I left I was the only one in the car park so that wouldn’t be a problem.

45 minutes later I emerged from the woodland to find the place now teeming with cars, and all these cars it seemed, were full of people, just sat there, waiting for the rain to stop I suppose. And as one they fell silent in whatever pursuit they were doing to strive off the tedium, and watched me as I walked across to my car, dripping wet and covered in mud. 

Any thoughts I had of quickly slipping into some fresh clothes disappeared there and then, especially as a minivan was now parked right next to me, and sat in the window, directly overlooking my car, were a mother and young daughter, again, staring in undisguised distaste at the monster from the black lagoon I had become.

After removing what I layers I could modestly get away with, and lining the seat with a rag tag selection of plastic bags in an effort to keep the worst of the foul smelling mud off the fabric, I had no choice but to drive off with as much dignity as I could muster.

I managed to find a relatively secluded layby to perform my changeroo, and because of the weather, the windows soon got thoroughly steamed up, so those who walked past couldn’t see the disgrace I had become anyway. Once I had finished, and feeling a lot better, I drove off towards Lynton with my car looking and smelling like a back alley laundry. 

Sunset clouds over the Exmoor National Park coastline at Valley of Rocks
It looked like the colours were about to disappear.

My final stop of the day was to be Valley of Rocks, a place I have visited and photographed many times but never tire of. If awards were handed out to places for their atmospheric magnificence, then Valley of Rocks would have a brace of them.

By the time I got there the sun was well on its way towards the base of the vista, so I scooted round to the coast path to set up shop and kept my fingers crossed my day might at least end on a positive note. There was a soupy band of cloud on the horizon which didn’t bode well, often it signifies that once the sun dips below it then all hope of a colourful sky are lost.

Coast path at Valley of Rocks under colourful sunset clouds in Exmoor
But to my delight they didn't, and put quite a show, albeit a short one.
Thankfully that was not going to be the case here, once the sun had tucked itself away, the billowy clouds above began to take on a very pleasing pink blush to them. It didn’t last long, all of a few minutes, but they were a beautiful few minutes nonetheless and I’m pleased to say my day did turn out well in the end. 

Exmoor National Park coastline at the Valley of Rocks with huge clouds at sunset
Colour fades from the giant clouds. It wouldn't be long before rain returned.

All that was left to do was to jump back into my stinkmobile and rattle off back to the campsite for some grub.

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