Picture this: Tarr Steps…

Tarr Steps is one of the many ancient scheduled monuments that we’re fortunate to have in this part of the country and it’s a great place for a walk with your camera.

Midway between Dulverton, popular destination for hikers and tourists alike, and the picturesque village of Withypool, Tarr Steps, nestled in the Barle River Valley, isn’t hard to find and is definitely worth a visit.

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Parking in the very reasonably priced car park, it’s an easy stroll down the public footpath that crosses a sheep field (dogs on leads here please) to reach the bottom of the valley.

If you reach the bottom and feel the need to fortify yourself for the walk ahead, why not stop at the Tarr Farm Inn for a drink first; the beautiful 16th century stone building offers great views from the beer garden, down to the even more ancient stonework below.

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From the perspective of this high elevation you don’t get much more than the impression of a solidly built pontoon bridge, but descending to the river bank the impressive scale of the engineering can be fully appreciated.

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The date of the Clapper Bridge (from the old Latin word claperius, meaning “pile of stones”) is uncertain, but best estimates put it somewhere around 1000BC.

[Although Exmoor legend has it that it was built by the Devil as part of a bet. He threatened to vaporise anyone attempting to cross the bridge until, faced down by a local hard man preacher, he acquiesced and allowed safe passage across the river on the condition that he retained sunbathing rights on the stones]

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Tarr Steps bridge is 180ft (55m) long and is constructed from 17 main slabs, all of which weigh upwards of a ton and the largest, 8ft long × 5ft wide, tips the scales at two tons.
The many smaller stones that make up the piers of the bridge are intricately fitted together without any form of cement or mortar and also incorporated are the unique, raked “buttress” stones, angled in such a way as to deflect debris washed down the river in heavy rains.

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Despite this feature the Great Flood of 1952 (the night Lynmouth was devastated by flooding) demolished the bridge, leading to the stones now having been numbered for easy reassembly by conservation workers.

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In fact since 1952 there has been a web of anchored cables further upstream, designed to catch fallen branches before they reach the bridge..

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..which worked fine until 2012, when the extreme weather brought so much uprooted timber down the river that it ripped out the cables, carrying them downstream to do even more damage and once again providing patient heritage experts with the world’s heaviest jigsaw.

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The Barle River Valley itself is a SSSI, (site of special scientific interest) and has been designated a National Nature Reserve, with easy walks along the river bank through woods of oak, beech, ash and hazel trees.

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The reserve is also recognised as an internationally significant site for fungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens and it isn’t difficult to see why.

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This peaceful river valley has been used by man for hundreds, possibly thousands of years for hunting, fishing, charcoal burning as part of the iron smelting industry, and now of course walking, canoeing and just enjoying the ancient beauty of the woods.

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Picture this: In the misty morning…

First posted February 2015

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There are many beauty spots in North Devon that I’ve visited again and again to take photos, but it occurred to me today that I’ve taken more pictures in one place than almost any other.
Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, one place.

About eighteen months ago I posted a photo-blog based around my journey to work, along the A361 North Devon Link Road from Barnstaple to South Molton, on the edge of Exmoor National Park.
Since then I’ve taken dozens of photos of the sunsets, sunrises, landscapes and trees on and around the twisty, undulating ribbon of tarmac that winds through the wooded and field-checkered countryside.
Happily, they have proved very popular, both here on the blog and on Facebook, (where I have recently set up my very own public photography group to showcase any and all types of photographic art) but most of these shots are captured whilst making a hurried stop at the side of the road or a quick detour on the way home in the evening.
So today, having awoken at the unreasonable hour of 7.30, I took a traffic-free trip into the misty, frost-sparkly morning and went exploring.

Here’s one of two tunes I’ve picked to soundtrack my journey:

My first stop found me on the hills above the A361, looking down from the road to West Buckland

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…from whence I made my way towards Exmoor and my main objective for the morning’s adventure, the viaduct that spans the spectacular Castle Hill Estate at Filleigh.

I travel over the viaduct nearly every day and yet, apart from the time I had a job driving a large van, I’ve never been able to take advantage of the views afforded by its lofty elevation.

Until today, that is.

I parked in a lay-by just uphill from where the viaduct spans the steep-sided valley and walked back along the hedgerow, finally reaching the point where I could look over the parapet, onto the misty landscape below and across the treetops of the wooded hills that stretch off into the hazy distance.

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But I wasn’t satisfied with that.
What I wanted to do was to get some shots from under the viaduct itself.
Which brings me to the second tune with which to accompany this photographic odyssey:

Clambering over the crash barrier and down through the tangled undergrowth, I eventually came to a farm track that led me under the towering stone supports, into the dappled pine forest and fields that border the road.

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I climbed back up the steep slope of the valley to the road, sounds of traffic just beginning to disturb the peace of morning, heading home with the usual feeling of privilege I get when I’ve had a chance to witness the world as only the early bird sees it.

Picture this: Watersmeet/Valley of the Rocks

First posted September 2013

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The picturesque North Devon coastal towns of Lynton and Lynmouth, and especially the rugged landscape of Valley of the Rocks, offer some great photo opportunities, as does Watersmeet, which has the same “Little Switzerland” feel to it.

imageAfter talking a shady walk down into the gorge from the roadside car park, you encounter the old Victorian hunting lodge that now houses a tearoom…

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.. and just across the river, the entrance to a cave which was apparently once the home of a hermit.

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From there, take a stroll upstream on the East Lyn River, one of the rivers that meet here, giving the gorge it’s name.

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Although some parts are still rapidly flowing, foaming white water, a long dry spell can expose the very bones of the gorge, the granite river bed, in all it’s dramatic, time-worn glory.

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Further on, evidence of one of the area’s long-vanished industries still stands testament to the skill of Victorian engineers. Two giant lime kilns, now overgrown, lend a brooding atmosphere to the dappled woods.

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Retracing the path, return to the old hunting lodge, cross the bridge over Hoak Oak Water and make your way downstream on the wider, combined river.

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Looking back at the lodge from downstream.

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Walking down the river from the lodge is an easy, reasonably level stroll and before long you came to an impressive slate-faced bridge that allows walkers to cross to the opposite bank making for an undemanding looped route back to the tearooms, just in case anyone requires an extra cream tea to fortify them for the climb back out of the gorge.

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The view from the bridge, looking upstream.

Valley of the Rocks.

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I took a slightly different path on this occasion, staying on the inland side of the rock formations instead of following the coast path.
This was fortunate because the famous Lynton goats were all over the place. Some were good enough to put on a display of horn butting and territorial disputes for me, although sadly I was too slow to get close enough to film them.

These two even managed a circus style balancing act for the assembled tourists.
(Ok, maybe not)

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Picture this: Tapeley Park…

First posted January 2013

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Tapeley Park house and gardens is a unique and fascinating place, on the road between Barnstaple and Bideford.

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Tapeley Park house, seen from the Italian terrace garden.

The estate has been in the same family since the 1700’s, and is now owned by local anti-corporate campaigner and political activist, Hector Christie, who runs it on a sustainable basis, and he is proud of his Green credentials, supplying the local community – as well as the estate cafe – with organic vegetables, and using recycled materials wherever possible.

The house has it’s own claim to fame – the fact that it has an important collection of William Morris furniture – ironically preserved over the years, due to the house being unheated and mainly closed up for years, as revealed on a C4 documentary.

But it has always been the grounds – which include a Victorian kitchen garden and experimental permaculture garden – that make us go back time and again.

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The lake is a beautiful place for a picnic.

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Many exotic plants grow in the mild, sheltered climate.

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Neatly trimmed arbours lead you on…

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…to surprises around each corner.

There are animals too. Apart from the wildlife scurrying in the undergrowth, the estate keeps rare breed pigs, sheep, and highland cattle.

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Three little pigs.

The hard landscaping has been lovingly restored, most notably on the steps leading down to the Italian terrace garden…

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…and yet, there are still echoes of the past, lending a eerie calm to quiet, reflective corners.

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There is even a labyrinth, made from the stone shards of an exploded obelisk, victim of a 1931 lightning strike.

A fascinating and, in some indefinable way, enchanted place, it’s somewhere to return to again and again, always discovering something new.

If you’re ever down this way, why not go and see for yourself, you never know what you might find…

The Night Garden…

Having spent a few weeks getting our new garden looking nice, I finally got round to putting the candle holders out last night and decided to try some long exposure shots when it got dark.

A few carefully placed solar lights added some extra illumination and, with a little digital fiddling the results really are rather lovely.

Picture this: Autumn colours at Arlington Court…

First published in October 2014.

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This weekend I’ve once again been playing host to my old friend Ho, who has been taking a well earned break from a frantic work schedule to join me for a spot of relaxation in the beautiful autumnal Devon countryside.
This time we decided to take a stroll around the extensive grounds of Arlington Court, ancestral home of the Chichester family for over 500 years.

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The house itself is an imposing stone built mansion, surrounded by rolling lawns, lakes, and woodlands, criss-crossed with pathways that lead you to various viewpoints overlooking not only the gloriously varied vistas of the estate but also the picturesque church of St James (not owned by the Trust, but adjacent to the house) which just happened to be staging a flower festival at the time of our visit.

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We began our tour on the front lawn of the house, heading down to the ornamental lake, stocked with lazily cruising carp and topped with a proliferation of water lilies, pausing on the way to admire the splendor of an ancient oak tree that has stood on the site since well before the house or grounds existed.
The tree is preserved primarily for the scientifically important and internationally recognised variety of lichen, moss and fungi that festoon its gnarled and twisted trunk.

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The church is just visible through the trees that overlook the lake, providing a focal point for visitors, an invitation to investigate the hidden beauty of the peaceful sanctuary as you make your way round the estate.

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But before we headed into the cool vaulted space of the flower-strewn chapel we made our way down the shady path amongst the trees to discover what the woods had to offer.

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Before too long we came upon a small camp in a clearing, complete with a traditional clay oven beneath the billowing folds of a parachute canopy, along with rustic huts constructed from sticks salvaged from the woodland floor.

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The woods have the quiet atmosphere of a primeval forest, rotting trees left where they fell, allowing the verdant moss to take hold and making perfect burrows for small animals and insects, creating shapes that look for all the world like the backbones of long-dead dinosaurs or mythical dragons.

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Occasionally a gate or stile will allow a view across the cattle grazing fields of the deer park, to the densely wooded slopes of the valley, the trees starting to display the muted tones of autumn foliage.

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We retraced the path back to the lake and made for the tower of the church, immediately seeing signs of the floral attraction within…
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…already catching the scent of the expertly designed bouquets before we even entered the light and airy space of St James’s, the vibrant colours of hundreds of flowers perfectly complimenting the stained glass windows and ornamental carvings on the walls.
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Our final two stops were at the formal and walled kitchen gardens, the latter of which provides fresh produce for the house and its cafe.
There was even an imperious peacock to welcome us to his domain, although he didn’t seem keen on me taking his picture and I required several stealthy attempts to capture him in all his iridescent glory.
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There is even an “insect hotel” high-rise apartment block for bees and other pollinators…
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…and there is always something intriguing around the next corner or through the next inviting door.
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…and of course the Chichester family symbol, a heron grappling with an eel, is in evidence everywhere.
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All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable visit to a place that I’m sure I’ll visit again and again, because there is always something new to discover.

Arlington Court house and gardens are open until the end of October, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys relaxing amidst spectacular scenery, basking in the more genteel atmosphere of days gone by and leaving the stresses and strains of modern life behind for a few hours.

Picture this: Webbers Wood, Arlington Court…

Located on the edge of Exmoor not far from Barnstaple, the sprawling estate has been owned by the Chichester family for over 500 years, although the house has only stood in the grounds since 1823.

Instead of entering the National Trust-run property at the main entrance near the house, however, we enter the back way via the gate that leads into the working forestry land on the lower end of the estate, the gateposts topped with the Chichester family emblem, a heron brandishing an eel…

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…along the track that gives a great view over the Yeo river valley to the hills opposite – also owned by Arlington – where I have often spotted the resident herd of deer.
No deer today, but a noticeable change in the trees as autumn colours begin to show themselves.

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All along the winding track there is evidence of forestry conservation in progress.

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The most vivid autumn colours are provided by the rows of bright orange beech trees, especially when seen against the verdant green of the ferns and pines.

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A giant chestnut and ancient oak trees add different shades to the landscape.

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And on a smaller scale, the variety of alien looking fungus growing on fallen trunks and tree stumps is extraordinary, new forms and textures everywhere you look.

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But the most obvious change in the landscape today was the level of the river and the intensity of the waterfalls that criss-cross the trail, the recent rainfall having turned some of these gently trickling streams into foaming torrents that rush down the steep sides of the valley through the woods.

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The low stone bridge at the weir is almost overwhelmed by the height of the water, the arches (which I have walked through in the past) filled almost to the top…

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.. and the sparsely wooded plain on the riverbank has the look of a primordial forest.

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One of the newly expanded waterfalls which runs under the track after flowing down the rocky slope…

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… had become so impressive that I climbed the slope above the track and filmed my walk back downstream.
(You may wish to lower the volume before playing the clip)

The age of this woodland is evident wherever you look, the rugged rocky skeleton sometimes visible just beneath the surface…

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.. and some strange organic shapes too.

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If you would like to visit Arlington Court and see what else this beautiful estate has to offer, then go to THIS LINK.