Exmoor Diary - the complete saga!

I know I’m breaking all the rules, but guess what, I don’t care!

There’s been a few days without any contribution to the Blogathon and that’s because I’ve popped away on a mini break.

So instead of short bursts of waffle, brace yourselves for a multi-word blast of…Exmoor

Coming away at this time of year isn’t without risk. The Great British weather places anyone venturing away in the laps of the Gods. But isn’t that what puts the Great into Britain?

I’m on familiar territory. I first came to Exmoor 30 years ago and I’ve been a regular visitor for the past dozen or so years. My first few visits were big adventures - I stayed in a hotel at Tiverton, a large town and a great place for a base. But it soon became clear that by staying in a town I was having to retreat each day from the isolation of the moor.

Eventually I migrated to Exton, a small huddle of houses that cling to the side of a hill. The only noise at night was from the local wildlife. But sometimes it was too quiet, I would often find myself the only guest. When the owners retired I took the opportunity to find a new base and since then I’ve been a regular at Exford.

The village sells itself on being in the centre of Exmoor. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it’s certainly the perfect place for exploration. Even if I chose to leave my car parked up for the duration, there’s so many walks to enjoy on the doorstep that I could easily spend a week here without retracing my steps.

On the day I left for this particular break, my quarterly Exmoor magazine arrived - perfect timing. Flicking through it this morning, I was pleased to spot an advert for Porlock’s modest, but perfectly formed The Big Cheese - a click on that link takes you to my past thoughts on this tasty but tiresome shop.

Exmoor’s full of creative folk, an advert for an English Tutor reveals their address to be Leap Cottage, Frog Street - doesn’t that conjure up some lovely images? I must hop past and see if the home lives up to my expectations.

Because I’ve stayed in Exford many times, the hotel know me and I know them. As soon as I entered my room I turned all the heating off and opened the windows. There’s no chance of a guest getting a chill here - you’re more likely to expire through heat exhaustion.

November is a month of change. Autumnal leaves have begun to be shaken from their branches and as you drive along the narrow lanes they dart up, electrified with excitement - or so it seems. In reality they’re sucked up by the moving vehicles and soon become grey mulch as tyres pulverise them into oblivion. But let’s suspend the realism, just for the duration of my visit.

I spent my first full day mooching around a couple of churches, searching for my latest victim. No, I’m not a grave robber - I find the headstones fascinating and am always hoping to find the subject of another article. I found a few interesting inscriptions at Winsford and some more at Dulverton.

My Exmoor magazine had reminded me that the Tantivy, Dulverton’s long-established shop-that-sells-everything had opened a café. I thought this would be a great opportunity to sample their wares - and spend a penny. Exmoor has spent the past couple of years replacing its toilets with hi-tech ones that cost 20p a go. I don’t object to paying - so long as they provide the basics. But today I was looking for a free pee.

The shop had been extended and the café area was to the rear. I ordered my coffee and took a seat in a corner. The small food prep area was manned by two young, but efficient assistants. They were doing a brisk trade - even mid-week on a gloomy November morning there are visitors and locals in need of refreshment. And what of the toilet, I hear you shout? Spotless, but not without peril. It was one of those large loos that are suitable for patrons of all shapes and sizes and that means the loo being a long way from the door, a door that opens towards the main seating area.

I don’t know about you, but I always feel a little vulnerable when the door is such a distance from the hand. I imagine the lock not being secure, of another user pulling it open and my derriere taking centre stage in front of an attentive audience. God knows what they’d expect for my encore.

On my final full day I planned to drag myself up to Dunkery Beacon - the highest point here. The walk starts from the hotel and covers a good few miles. I’ve marched there before, eight miles before lunch is always an excellent way to walk off my breakfast.

How remiss! I haven’t shared any of the culinary delights of my stay. As well as never freezing here, you’re also never going to starve. But breakfasts are my favourite meal. At home I survive on a slice of toast, fruit juice and a gallon of coffee. Here? Well here I indulge in fresh fruit, juice and then a cooked breakfast. It’s served buffet style which means I can treat my belly to a drool inducing feast. Bacon, egg, tomato and mushrooms - all cooked to perfection and topped off with toast and real butter - yes, none of that healthy olive oil spread here!

Now back to the walk. The day was grey, not something I often say about Exmoor. There’s little point in climbing a summit if you can’t enjoy the view, so I took a diversion. Worry not - the first part of the climb is the steepest, so I still worked those thighs good and hard.

As I tripped along my eye was caught by the number of toadstools that poked through the grasses and reeds. I know nothing about these things. If my friend - I’ll call her Sheila, as that’s her name - if my friend Sheila was here, she’d probably know a thing or two about them. Sheila’s a mushroom scrumper, so she’d at least know which were good, bad or ugly. To be honest, most looked on the bad side. I don’t know why but it only occurred to take some snaps after I’d spotted at least six different varieties. There must have been a dozen or so out there - all shapes and sizes.

Heavy rain over the past week or so had left the ground sticky and slippery - a paradox of physics. Climbing down was not without risk, though more to my pride than my posterior. But I made it, even catching my final toadstool on the main road that heads down into the village.

The weather was unusually mild, yet I was the only person brave enough to eat lunch outside by the river. So what that it was raining? Actually it was more of a fine spit - I’d sat out in worse. There’s something special about beating the elements to enjoy lunch by the river - and that’s possibly what others thought as I sat there - that I was ‘special’.

The mildness of the weather was confirmed by the barman, let out for a cigarette break. “This time last year” he told me “we were under snow. It was fine in the morning, but by the afternoon I was shovelling it away”. Yes, the Great British weather!

And as great as my hotel is, it’s not without its little nuances. Take the TV for instance. A few years ago they installed digital sets - meaning the range of channels was increased and included radio too. In the mornings I’m a radio gal. Breakfast TV holds no allure. Imagine my disappointment when I found my set wasn’t firing on all cylinders.

Although I’m fairly disinterested in the news - politics seems to have little point - I do like a few minutes burst before I decide if I should venture out from beneath the duvet. So what does the TV offer to this vacationing virgin? Well, very little. Kate Garraway (known for her exploits on Strictly Come Dancing) drooled over a kid from a new film. The poor lad was young enough to be her grandson (sorry Kate, but he was). There’s something a little icky about that, especially at 8 in the morning.

BBC faired even worse. Some presenter, she must have a name but I really don’t think that’s why God created Google, seemed to have a nervous tick and kept flicking her long hair over her shoulders.

On Saturday morning the biggest news story seemed to be that four of the BBC news girls had taken part in a dance routine the previous night. I pulled up the duvet, the four minute siren must surely be sounding somewhere in the world.

I’m certain it serves a purpose, Breakfast TV, I just can’t think what it can be. You wait thirty minutes for the headlines, only to find they’ve been flicked over a shoulder with a shimmy to the left.

Fortunately my nose is a good indicator of the weather - if it gets wet, it’s raining. Watching a weather girl attempt to ice skate whilst reading an autocue was mildly entertaining, until I realised she wasn’t going to fall over. Why tease us?

Next time I’ll stick to the cartoons - Channel 4 know their target audience.

I'm saving those toadstools - not literally, just the photos - for a small competition. Perhaps some of you will be able to name them?

It seems my Exmoor post was a little premature. My final evening proved to be one of the most entertaining of my short stay.

Let me rewind the tape.

This time of year Saturday evenings are dominated - at least in my home - by Strictly Come Dancing. I had considered setting my recorder, but what if it failed? Perhaps I could just watch the results show on Sunday? No, that wouldn’t work. Although I’d be home in time I’d arranged an evening out. No, there was no choice. Dinner had to be delayed.

As the final results were in I nipped downstairs. Vince and Co were waiting. “Have you been watching Strictly?” he asked. I shan’t attempt his French accent. There was no point in denying it, guilty as charged. Ten minutes later and the manager threw the same question my way. It seems my punctuality in the past was noted and tonight’s absence was also matched against the Radio Times.

I dived into the menu. There was only one option that suited today’s theme - Mushroom Soup. I hoped the chef hadn’t wandered around Prescott and that his mushrooms would definitely be on the ‘good’ side.

My delicious meal was accompanied by the finest of entertainments. The previous evening a party of eleven, plus an unruly Jack Russell had dominated the restaurant. It was obvious most were friends, but it seemed there were a few newbies in their ranks too. They were late starters that night and my Strictly delay meant we were destined for a collision this evening.

I relish eating in a restaurant alone. I know some people can’t face it, and I don’t judge them. Usually I take along a book for company. It’s more for the comfort of the other diners than me. I’m very happy to be engrossed in their conversations and have become adept at turning the pages regularly, giving the impression that I’m reading, not listening.

This visit my book of choice is the non-fiction Marley and Me - from which the hit movie is based. It’s an excellent account of man’s best friend and has all the elements of a page turner - humour, pathos and dog vomit.

As I reached my main course and the chapter where Marley disgraces himself on Dog Beach (I won’t spoil your dinner), the party of ten arrived. There was no explanation as to where Messrs Eleven and Russell were, but as their friends weren’t worried, I didn’t let it ruin my evening.

How to describe this group? Seven men and three women. The women were, I assumed, partners of three of the men. The remaining men seemed to have wives - but weren’t with them.

So what happens when you mix men of a certain age with alcohol? Jokes about Lamb Shanks and Cockney rhyming slang seemed to get them through the ordering stage. One of the group reminded me of John Culshaw, the TV impersonator - no, he doesn’t impersonate televisions, he appears on them. I couldn’t decide if his hair was dyed, eventually I thought not. His frequent visits to the loo provoked a few comments, most mentioned lamb shanks.

Jokes about lesbians, vicars, socialists and dead dogs then followed. This was good material. I’d finished my meal, but couldn’t tear myself away. After all, Strictly was the best of Saturday night viewing and I’d seen that. No, I wasn’t missing this so I ordered more wine. “Would you like to move somewhere quieter?” asked the waiter. Not on your life! My only regret was that I didn’t have a notepad. Never mind, I turned the pages of my book at regular intervals - I hoped my memory would serve me well.

When I spotted that I was the only other diner in the restaurant I decided it looked a tad obvious what I was up to. As I left I was showered with apologies. One even mentioned that I might be a writer. Little did he know that within minutes our encounter would be on the World Wide Web - lamb shanks and all!

The Gang of Ten had their number reduced further at breakfast. A handwritten note was passed around, explaining an early departure. I sensed a few sore heads and over-exercised livers were bearing the brunt of a night of bawdiness.

By the time their conversation turned to Lamp Shanks, the restaurant was full. Of course I’d heard it all before, but in the cold light of day, without the buffer of alcohol it all sounded incredibly crude. Other diners looked relieved they hadn’t had to sit through it all over dinner.

Some of the Nine looked towards me and I smiled. It was a smile that hid the truth - that I’d recordered their indiscretions and had already shared them on the World Wide Web.

As I mopped up the final drops of my runny egg, I wondered how I could announce my revenge. Leaving, I walked past their table to be told, “We’re off today so you don’t need to put up with us any more.” My retort - “Too late - I’m off too!"

I’d missed my chance.

As I manoeuvred my luggage down the narrow stairs, luck shone bright overhead. The front door opened and one of the Nine held it for me. I grinned and thanked him, then went for the jugular. “I’ve immortalised you all in my blog - Lamb Shanks and all!”

My attack was perfectly timed. I swept past, leaving a nervous laugh behind me.

What would be their reaction, I wondered. In their panic would they worry they’d revealed their names - they had, but I didn’t use them.

What words would they use to try and find the blog? Lamb Shanks and Exmoor might find it, nothing more than that.

I’d like to think they now regretted their performances, that their crude jokes went a step too far. Never again will they consider a quiet, book-reading woman in a corner to be harmless. Lamb Shankers, the lot of them!


As threatened, here's my collection of toadstools. Any ideas what they are?