I write about the great outdoors of Somerset, Dorset and Devon on my doorstep - and further afield - celebrating the stunning landscapes and unique places through words and images. I am always out and about with my notebook and camera.
Head for the hills and get high on history – discovering hill forts just off the beaten track in the Westcountry.
The main routes into the Westcountry pull visitors back and forth through the unspoilt landscapes of West Dorset, South Somerset and East Devon, but treating yourself to an easy detour will make your journey as exciting as your destination. To take a deep breath of fresh air, to stretch cramped legs, to stand on top of the world and to ground oneself in a sense of ancient history, are all welcome contributions to any traveller’s tale.
You can’t miss noticing the rings of Maiden Castle, as the A35 bypasses Dorchester, nor Cadbury Castle as it takes pride of place in the landscape just off the A303 near Yeovil, but our lovely countryside holds some hidden treasures close to its chest too. Here are three for inspiration.
Eggardon Hill, outside Bridport, is just moments off the A35 at Askerswell. Better still, you can peel off the main road at Winterbourne Abbas and follow the old Roman road – a wonderfully appropriate route to set the scene for an adventure back in time. This stunning iron age hill fort holds high court just before the hillside plunges down towards Bridport. There are wide open views across the Marshwood Vale, a gentle scoop of land on the Dorset and East Devon border, and to the Jurassic Coast. Standing at the top, the rings fall away in dramatic tiers below you and on a clear day the views are simply breath-taking. The greatest gift here is a panorama that leads your eye as far as the South Devon coast. Parking is easy and the little crisscross of lanes deliver you effortlessly to the very top of the hill.
Castle Neroche is just a few miles west of Ilminster. A short detour from the A303 offers an easy and welcome break from the trudge of one of the single carriageway sections that takes its flow of travellers up and over the Blackdown Hills. You get two castles for one here with clues tracing the remains of a Norman castle on the site of an Iron Age one. The moment you step out of your car you will feel the wonderful stillness of this deeply wooded site. There is a large car park, never full, and within seconds you will find yourself amongst the tall trees and breathing in the scent of the forest. There is a sense of Narnia here too, in the air and underfoot, especially when there is snow. Every now and then the trees draw back and offer up a view far across the Somerset Levels, encircled on the distant horizon by the Quantock Hills and the Mendips.
Woodbury Castle is an iron age fort in East Devon, between Ottery St Mary and Budleigh Salterton, on the coast. This amazing place is a bit more of a detour from the A30 as it rushes you south to join the M5, or north to join the A303, but it’s a very straightforward one and the setting, overlooking the very start of the Jurassic Coast, is definitely worth it. The first revelation is that the road actually follows one of the rings of the fort. Perhaps a long-gone drover’s track evolved over time into what is now a surprising route through this ancient site. It is therefore not out of place that the car park is right there too. Majestic beech and oak trees have populated the fort but the layout is still so clear and the sense of history so real. Beyond the fort itself, the landscape is extraordinary, opening up into a savannah of sloping natural grassland interspersed with solitary trees and areas of woodland. Beyond that, the sea sparkles timelessly, quite literally, as it always has done.
Heading North in Devon. Appledore and Instow.
This is a bit of a 'Tale of Two Cities' - well, two villages actually, Appledore and Instow, on the North Devon coast, separated by the most stunning stretch of water. The next few months are uncertain but these beautiful places are not going away.
Time to make a UK adventure wish list? Definitely.
These welcoming coastal communities, and many others like them, will certainly endure. They have in the past and they will in the future. They have their own unique maritime histories, fishing and ship-building, and are tied together by the ebb and flow of the tidal waters and the ebb and flow of their residents and visitors.
Appledore and Instow face each other in a friendly stand-off across the estuary of the rivers Taw and Torridge in North Devon, harbouring their different characters.
A seasonal ferry takes passengers back and forth between the two, weaving past the yachts at anchor as they curve smoothly around their buoys with the direction of the tide. Every now and again one of them is freed from its berth to slide silently out to sea. It’s a peaceful and atmospheric sight that speaks of breathing in sea air, of saltiness, of a maritime past and now of pastimes and holidays – whether you are a sailor or not.
Appledore has the tight pull of the tide against its historic quay whilst Instow has the gentler journey of shallow water along its beautiful sandy beach. The special thing about this endless beach is that it is dog-friendly all year round and whatever the level of the tide there is always plenty of sand and space for everyone to enjoy. As the tide retreats far out, a splash of seawater pools appear which are fantastic for children to play in. At the far end, the backdrop of soft dunes are a wonderful natural playground and even though the wind releases sand onto the coastal road no-one seems to mind. It’s the seaside after all!
Whilst Instow has the beach, Appledore has the lion’s share of artisan shops, galleries, pubs – with a reputation for live music in normal times - and places to eat tucked away in its narrow streets and along the Quay. The jewel in the crown for Appledore is its internationally acclaimed annual book festival – this year the UK’s first ever drive-in book festival was the talk of the town. Its very own first edition!
From this side of the estuary, you can pick up the coastal path all the way to Westward Ho! You can follow the headland around the Northam Burrows nature reserve and along Pebble Ridge, which absolutely lives up to its name, with a high bank of huge rounded pebbles, two miles long, tossed effortlessly there by countless seas over countless years. There are just as many miles of sand as well, even at high tide, making this uncrowded Blue Flag beach ideal for kite surfing, board surfing and kite flying.
Back on the Instow side, you can follow the Tarka Trail, which actually covers 180 miles in a circular route through North Devon and Exmoor (the latter is definitely not for the faint-hearted!). Where the trail runs alongside the River Torridge towards Instow it is considerately level for cyclists and walkers, offering up clues to a very different past along its banks and across the water to the historic shipbuilding yards.
Further afield but set in the sights of both villages, fringing the far side of this estuary panorama, Braunton Burrows is one of the largest sand dune systems in the UK. It is roughly the size of 1000 football pitches and is at the heart of North Devon’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
There is so much more, but perhaps you would like to explore for yourselves. Appledore and Instow could not be better bases to start from. Time to add them to your travel wish-list.