Inaccessible beaches hide the secrets of Exmoor's past
This is not a single secret seaside, more of a 12-mile long string of inaccessible beaches etched upon the baseline of England's most dramatic coast.
There are hardy, skilful souls who have traversed Exmoor's entire eastern shoreline between Porlock Weir and Lynmouth – but to do it you need good local knowledge, climbing expertise and equipment. Plenty of outdoor types might have the two latter requirements, but only a few on the planet have the former – which explains why only some 30 individuals have ever completed the arduous adventure.
I'm not one of them. But I have, over the years, dipped down-down-down from Exmoor's lofty 1,200ft coastal ridge to explore just-about-accessible beaches along the boulder-strewn littoral.
The last time I did so it was in search of the sepulchral Graves of The Forty Doones.
Buy a complete pair of glasses from our £35.00 range or above and get a 2nd pair 1/2 price. This offer gives you 2 fantastic pairs of glasses from as little as £55.00 (distance and reading)
Contact: 01326 313997
Valid until: Sunday, June 30 2013
The past haunts us long and loud – you only have to glance at the nightly television schedules to see a plethora of programmes designed to satisfy the great human need to look backwards. If we're not digging something up with Time Team, we're poring over long dead bodies with Meet the Ancestors, or more genteelly, perhaps, examining endless objects on the Antiques Roadshow.
Years ago my father was stricken with a bout of yester-year disease which manifests itself in an insatiable need to dig up, or at least examine, some obscure bit of history. I caught the same bug not long ago when I became obsessed by the mysterious tombs in Exmoor's secret seaside zone.
My father's parting advice when I left for my adventure was: "And while you're about it, see if you can locate the mysterious Guildhall nearby. You won't learn much by finding these strange places, but if you look up the records on Exmoor's wild wooded coast, you can find out quite a bit."
The Graves of the Forty Doones would take me close to some of the region's most secret seasides – but would the humps of the steel hillside above the cliffs really be the final resting place of the untameable Scottish tribe which, history says, were booted out of Caledonia for their wicked ways – only to end their days in exile on Exmoor?
RD Blackmoor based his famous novel Lorna Doone on this wild and terrible family. So it was a fanciful enough start to my first one-man archaeological investigation. To make things worse, my excellent modern Exmoor Outdoor Leisure map made no mention of either bandits' graves or Guildhalls – or anything else that might lead to a clue.
Happily, a 50-year-old map contained the goods... The Guildhall, just below Sugarloaf Hill and above Yenworthy Wood. The name Yenworthy rang a bell and I looked in a cuttings file and found an old photo of the "Doone Long Gun". In the picture it's being held by Farmer Pile who, some 40 years ago, lived at Yenworthy and for some reason kept this weapon.
Blackmoor had the Doones being shot at by just such a gun at a farm whose description fits Yenworthy exactly. In the story no one is at home save for an old grandmother and, upon hearing that the Doones are on their way to rob her, she loads the long barrel with gunpowder, nails, tacks and anything else she can find.
As the marauders arrive, so she shoots, causing them to retreat in "great discomfiture". She had every right to fire upon them – the last time they'd come a-calling they'd thrown the baby on the fire.
With such discomfiting thoughts, I dropped down over the hill into the steep coastal woods. And when I say dropped, you can see that's no exaggeration.
Everything is on the perpendicular around here, and if you were unfortunate enough to stumble upon the Guildhall from the south, you certainly would drop. There's a sheer 60 foot cliff face on one side of this rocky ravine.
But what an eerie place the Guildhall is. There can be no geological reason for this dripping, mossy chasm, but oddly there are no records of there ever having been a quarry in such a remote location. And why that strange name? Alas, no one knows and, try as I might, I've been unable to come up with any answers.
So further down the steep coastal hillside I went in search of the famous graves. I'll be honest and tell you that I did manage to visit them once before – I stumbled across them by accident when I was researching one of the very first hikes I wrote for this newspaper 13 years ago. Back then I had an old-fashioned film camera with me and conditions were dark – so my intention the other day was to get some better quality photographs of the strange humps in the vertical woods.
Alas, it was not to be. The footpath I was following is cordoned off with a warning about landslides. And, as it was chucking it down with rain just after we'd had a week of very icy weather (just the right conditions for more landslips), I decided to retreat and make my way down a more substantial track to the beach at Embelle Bay.
I can tell you this much, though – even though the Graves of the Forty Doones are now half submerged in undergrowth, they are substantial cairns which must have taken a good deal of building. There must be more than a ton of stones in each – so the people who put the 40 monuments there surely had a good reason to go about their task.
Do they mark the graves of Viking marauders, or are they really the final resting place of that unholy Scottish clan? Once again, on one knows.
I can, though, tell you a charming story about the track the takes us down to the seashore. It was one passed on to my father by a correspondent who called himself "Afghan". Many years ago he was the postman for this lonely region of Exmoor and used to walk these remote cliff-top paths to deliver letters to the scattered farms and cottages.
He recalled that there was one particularly sporting old gent who would come down from London twice a year to stretch his legs and enjoy the views.
On his winter trip he'd normally be alone and it was his custom to hide a few bottles of beer away in the thick undergrowth on the way down to Embelle Bay. Later, walking with friends on a hot summer's day, he'd climb to the top of the steep path and say something like, "Gosh, what I wouldn't do for a cool bottle of beer..."
As his companions groaned and told him not to mention such delights, he'd reach into the bank and produce his winter's stash of cooling booze.
Which is what I call true style. The same sort of panache perhaps as that of a local squire who, during the late 1800s, had a team of specialist Swiss-mountain footpath engineers brought over to lay many of the myriad paths through these vertiginous coastal woods. As a couple of these paths drive straight through the Doone graves, you can deduce that the piles of stones must at least be older than the days when the Swiss shoved them aside.
Once you are down on the boulder beach, you can see how this perpendicular Exmoor coast really has become landslide country. I am certain that, when I was a boy exploring along here with my father, there weren't a fraction of the massive landslips which you can see now.
This is a coast where oaks and ash seem in a hurry to reach the world of lobster and bladderwrack. Soon it might be too late for the likes of even the best funded team of TV archaeologists to discover the truth behind those mysterious graves...