Will the peat bogs of craggy Exmoor ever reveal their ancient treasures?
Martin Hesp explores an area of moorland that is rich in history and hiking opportunities.
For peat’s sake… There, someone bet me that I couldn’t start a newspaper article with that phrase – but I do have good reason to use it because the other day I went to central Exmoor to write about a special event aimed at highlighting the national park’s peat-lands.
For centuries we hated bogs and did everything in our power to avoid them or drain them, but increasingly mankind is falling in love with squelchy wet places, as the event – called Past in the Peat – set out to prove.
The special exhibition was staged as part of the Festival of British Archaeology and its aim was to show not only the environmental importance of healthy peat bogs, but also the wealth of history such places can contain and protect.
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Basically, peat is anaerobic, which means it effectively seals anything within it from oxygen – which in turn inhibits the normal processes of decay. Exciting finds have been discovered in peat, including wooden track-ways built across the Somerset Levels by the first farmers in the 4th millennium BC.
Now experts believe the peat bogs of Exmoor, which was well populated in Bronze Age times, probably have their own treasures.
So that’s the precursor to this walk – the event was staged on one of the few beautiful days we’ve had this summer and Simonsbath is a settlement that may be poor in terms of services or even population, but it is rich in hiking opportunities.
Go there on a sunlit summer day and you’ll see this zone of peat bogs at its very best. The River Barle curves down from the high, bleak, featureless plain known as The Chains and for a short while makes for itself a comely, sylvan, valley as it avoids Devon – preferring instead to remain within West Somerset until meeting its mighty running mate, the Exe, south of Dulverton.
At Simonsbath it enjoys a luxuriant meander through trees which were planted two centuries ago in a bid to create a shelter zone.
But once clear of the village, the river becomes a true moorland waterway.
It is in the general direction of this riverine gulch that I walked, because the stretch between Simonsbath and the dramatic knoll known as Cow Castle is as wildly scenic as anywhere in the region.
It is a clean-cut landscape broken only by the curves of the hills as the stoop elegantly toward the stream.
It also a mournful one. At least it is if you are haunted by the gruesome tale of Anna Maria Burgess who was murdered by her father hereabouts 147 years ago. More of her and her wicked parent later, first we must find the beginning of this hike.
In a bid to make this a circular route, I took the high road and returned by the low road. Both roads, or paths, begin and end at the same place – in Birchcleave, the beautiful hangar of beeches (not birches) that looms above Simonsbath directly to the east.
Instead of taking the main river path, I followed the signpost to Pickedstones. The path climbs out through the hangar and soon we find ourselves in the airy fields north of the Barle, and proceed in a south easterly direction, following the river valley via its neighbouring ridge, passing the farm at Winstitchen to mount the big shoulder of hill that divides the Barle with its tributary, the small and secretive White Water.
As the spur falls away to allow for the meeting of the two waterways, I veered south descending the contours at the diagonal so that I could make directly for Cow Castle – said by many to be the most beautiful and interesting of all Exmoor’s hill-forts.
So fantastically situated is the location, that it’s little wonder that early man made use of it as a defensive site. You can still see the ramparts, but it is the unexpected steepness of the knoll that gives it an air of impregnability.
Now we walk upstream by turning right and following the riverside path back towards Simonsbath, and just before we come to Flexbarrow we find ourselves looking at the stark ruins of the Wheal Eliza. 160 years ago this mine would have looked very different – test diggings had shown the ground contained copper and manganese as well as iron – and, despite the remote location, money was invested to extract the stuff.
For a decade this lonely corner was a hive of industry as miners sunk a 300-foot shaft and installed a large water wheel to run the pumps. For a while it even looked as though the area would become an Exmoor version of the Klondike – 60 per cent metallic ore was found and the local landowner, Frederic Knight, was persuaded to start work on a ludicrously ambitious trans-moorland railway that would take the material to the sea at Porlock Weir.
It all ended in tears. The mining partnership broke up with mutual recriminations all round.
The Wheal Eliza may have died a premature death but, as I mentioned before, it has its own gruesome footnote. It was in one of the shafts that the body of little Anna Burgess was found months after her awful father had done her to death. The entire tragedy was recorded by the remarkable Rev William Thornton who was Simonsbath’s first curate. Indeed, without Thornton’s tireless efforts as self-appointed police officer and detective, it is likely that William Burgess would have ever been brought to justice.
Self-appointed, by the way, because in those days the nearest high ranking police officer was located some 35 miles away the other side of Taunton.
Anyway, the intriguing and harrowing story deserves fuller mention than we have time for here. Suffice to say, the father was hanged, but not before he told the curate why he killed his daughter: “The child was in the way, sir – in my way and in everybody else’s way – and I thought she’d be better out of the way.”
A stony-hearted mitigation if ever there was one. And one you can mull upon as you make your way back along this most beautiful of river valleys to the warmth and comfort of the inn at Simonsbath.
Basic hike: Simonsbath to Cow Castle via paths along ridge to the north of the Barle – returning along the riverside.
Recommended map: Ordnance Survey Explorer OL9.
Distance and going: Four miles, fairly easy going.