Footloose in Devon

My new Devon book  is now out in paperback and on Kindle…   
Here’s the blurb…411C+iYtNWL._AC_US218_
“The novelist John Bainbridge has walked in the Devon countryside for over fifty years, and is well known as a writer and broadcaster on the county.
In this miscellany of country essays, he explores many of the quiet corners of Devon, from the wild moorlands of Dartmoor and Exmoor to its spectacular coastline and peaceful pastoral landscapes.
John Bainbridge is the author of the country books The Compleat Trespasser and Wayfarer’s Dole.

“As a rambler, I’ve spent much of the past half century roaming through the Devon countryside, exploring the county’s quiet villages, winding footpaths and bridleways, lonely moorland and dramatic coast. I’ve had the privilege of leading walking groups to share what I know of this land. For much of that time I’ve also written and broadcast about Devon – in a number of books and many newspaper and magazine articles and for a local radio station. In fact, my first published work was an article about Dartmoor, written and sold when I was sixteen.

Devon has changed a great deal since I began my walks there – not altogether for the better. Ill-thought out development has blighted some of the countryside I knew. I salute those campaigners who are fighting to protect what remains. I spent nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, so I appreciate the hard work involved in saving the beauties for future generations to enjoy.

But even with all these changes there are still the quiet secret places there to discover, and what better way to seek them out than on foot? I’ve enjoyed my Devon walks, both alone and in the company of other ramblers.

I’ve written about Devon in my two earlier walking books Wayfarer’s Dole and The Compleat Trespasser, which give accounts of some of my longer walks.  But there are some shorter pieces I’ve written, many previously published as magazine articles, which didn’t fit into the themes of those titles – fugitive pieces which I thought might make a collection on their own, hence this little volume.

This is no definitive account of Devon, nor yet a walks guide, though there are snippets of history, legend and topography in the pages which follow. Footloose in Devon is rather a bedside book, a volume to be dipped into when the reader has a quiet moment.  I hope the places mentioned might inspire some rambles and expeditions into the heart of this very lovely county.”

To read more or to order just click on the link:


A Walk from Woodbury Castle

In my Devon days I often used to lead rambles from Woodbury Castle around the heathlands of East Devon – a good walk through very open country and woodland.

The commons of east Devon are excellent examples of important lowland heath, vast open spaces set above a most attractive pastoral landscape, with far vistas of the sea. This is another of my favourite short walks, a six mile circuit of Colaton Raleigh Common, nearly all of the walk on heathland tracks and wooded footpaths.

Woodbury CastleThe walk starts at the high point of Woodbury Castle, a most impressive Iron Age hill fort, an excellent viewpoint. The fort was first occupied over two thousand years ago and has often been a defensive position since. In 1549, it was held by Lord John Russell during the Prayer Book Rebellion; in the early 1800s Redcoats were billeted there to deter a possible invasion by Napoleon; and in the Second World War it was a regular patrol point for the Home Guard. A small cottage stands in the hill fort’s grounds, but most of it is open to the public, its wooded ramparts a place of great beauty.

The Common itself is wide and spacious, with sandy and stony tracks, a reminder that this was the site of a desert surrounded river during the Triassic period. It is a fine wild place. It owes its recent preservation to the many locals, and the Ramblers Association, who fought off proposals to construct two golf courses there in the 1970s. Such destruction of lowland heath would now be unthinkable.

Anyway, below is the route we took:

It starts from the south-east car park at Woodbury Castle (grid reference SY033872). The walk is 6 miles long and there is roughly 600 feet of climb, though this is very gradual and spread in easy stages throughout the walk. As always you agree to follow in my footsteps at your own risk. Watch out for mountain-bikers! The path network here is complicated for the uninitiated, so read the instructions below with care. However, Woodbury Castle is in view for much of the walk and obvious paths lead back to it.

1. Leave the car park and take the steps over the rampart of the hill fort. Descending the rampart, take the obvious path half-right across the interior. Take the left of the two gaps in the far rampart. Cross the dip and continue downhill through the trees beyond.

2. When you reach a wider track, turn right and follow. Ignore the first two turnings to the left and keep left as you enter a big wide space, then take a third track to the left, which heads downhill and is very wide. From here there are really grand views over the east Devon countryside, with High Peak above the coastline then, going inland, Mutters Moor and Fire Beacon, high above the Vale of the River Otter.

3. Follow this broad track downhill for just under a mile, ignoring any side tracks. As it reaches the foot of the open common it descends into trees and then, just by a path going off to the right (ignore), begins to ascend again. After just a few yards turn left along another track – waymarked blue for bridleway. This is a really pleasant section of the walk, with trees to your left and open common to the right.

4. After just under a half mile, the path enters the trees and zigzags downhill, leading eventually to a T-junction of tracks and a metal barrier. Turn left, cross a very pretty brook either by a ford or footbridge, and continue uphill. Ignore the first track to the right, but take the second, a hundred yards above a metal barrier crossing your track.

5. This lovely bridlepath, rich in views, runs along the edge of the common, immediately above the neighbouring fields. Keep as near to the boundary as you can for just over a mile. About half way, a green lane goes off to the right, but ignore this and stick to the bridleway. Half a mile further on from that junction the path reaches a T-junction. Turn right downhill, crossing a metal barrier. A hundred yards down the track exits on to a country lane. Turn left (signposted “Woodbury”) and follow the lane uphill, past some ramshackle buildings, for a quarter mile.

6. You come level with a house (on right). Immediately opposite, on the left hand side of the road, is a joint footpath/bridleway. Take this and go downhill to a ford and footbridge, the keep uphill through the woodland beyond. As the trees end, keep to the bridleway and it climbs uphill, veering left (ignore the nearby footpath to the right). This is by far the steepest portion of the walk, but it is only a hundred yards or so!

7. The path arrives at a wider track. Turn right and carry on uphill for a mile, ignoring tracks to the right and then left. Carry straight on through a crossroads of paths. Eventually the track levels out and reaches a junction of paths, with a spinney to the right. Here take the second track on the left. Woodbury Castle is now in sight.

8. The track rises slightly and then descends. Keep straight on at the next crossroads. Descend a little further and look for a path going off to the right, waymarked as part of the “East Devon Way”. Bear right at the next junction and then left a few yards further on, heading up the track to the main road.

9. Cross the road, taking the lane almost opposite. Carry on down for a quarter mile, ignoring the two lanes off to the right (the first goes to the Woodbury Country Club). Just as the trees end and the lane becomes enclosed between fields, look for a right of way going off to the left. Follow this uphill (there are good views across the Exe estuary to the Haldon Hills). A quarter mile on a path veers off the main track to the left. Take this. After a quarter mile it exits on the opposite side of the road to the starting point. Enjoy the walk!

A Walk in the Westmorland Dales

A fantastic karst landscape, terrific views and a Neolithic stone circle made this a wonderful morning walk from the little village of Orton. Although this ramble is in the county of Cumbria, this landscape has recently been added to the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and deservedly so.

Great Asby Scar 011

Perhaps one day we’ll get our old county boundaries restored. Politicians should never have fiddled with them in the first place!

We set out from the village of Orton, where you can park for free in the village square. Buses are, to say the least, infrequent. The village itself is a bit of a gem, a grand old church and quite a selection of ancient buildings.

The original name of the place was Sker-Overton, changed to Orton in the local dialect. I found this out quite recently when I was researching my novel Villain  – the third in the series which brings some reality back to the legend of Robin Hood. My book starts on the wild moorlands above Orton, before my villains return to Sherwood Forest.

Curiously, there are a lot of Robin Hood links in this part of Cumbria. His “grave” is high above the village. It was a visit to that a couple of years ago which inspired the start of my book. There were a lot of outlaws in these parts in medieval times, not least Adam Bell in nearby Inglewood Forest.

Great Asby Scar 004

We followed the Coast to Coast long-distance path up through Broadfell Farm up to Orton Scar and the Beacon Hill. From here there are superb views across to the Lake District in one direction and the Howgill Fells in another, the valley of the River Lune in between.

Following the wall to the top of Beacon Hill, we came to the cross built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Here you get all round views, the ones I’ve mentioned before with the addition of the long heights of the northern Pennines.

The karst landscape of limestone pavement had already begun, intensifying in its splendour as we gained height. Walking north-east, following an impressive stone wall, we came to the entrance of the Great Asby Scar National Nature Reserve.Great Asby Scar 006

Great Asby Scar is one of the best limestone pavements in Britain. There’s something almost unearthly about this landscape. I can’t even describe what it is. You need to go there and look for yourself. It’s almost as though you’ve stepped outside time.

A good path leads out of the nature reserve to a cross-ways on the far-eastern edge of Beacon Hill. A wide track leading around the Knott, one of the highest points on the walk.

As the Knott is the highest hill in the Westmorland Dales, we thought we should climb it at last. It’s a modest height, surmounted by a trig point and crossed by a stone wall. An easy ascent, but well worth it for the excellent views.

We descended a track called Knott Lane – and here’s another impressive sight. A stone circle from the Neolithic period.

The Gamelands Stone Circle is situated on what was once open moorland, but the circle was first ploughed out in 1863. A wall was constructed nearby and most of the stones have been tumbled over time, probably deliberately in the course of agricultural works. At one point there was probably a burial kist within the circle. It was certainly visible in Victorian times, but has long gone.

Great Asby Scar 018

Despite these interferences, the stone circle, one of the largest in the north, is still impressive. You can stand there and wonder about its purpose. There are many proposed solutions. It is, they say locally, not often visited.

It’s possible to return to Orton on footpaths from there, but we chose the lane back to the village, a very old road indeed.

A walk that lives in my mind as I think back, because of the strange landscape and that old stone circle.

These Westmorland Dales make an excellent addition to the National Parks Family. Away from the route of the Coast to Coast path, this is a very quiet area – you can walk all day and hardly see anyone. If you are staying in the district, Orton, Appleby and Kirkby Stephen or the villages thereabouts, are good places to find accommodation. There are buses to Appleby and Kirkby Stephen and sometimes Orton as well.

Wainwright’s Forbidden Fell

For many years The Nab, at the heart of the Martindale Deer Forest, was the Wainwright you weren’t supposed to visit, lest you disturbed the hunting preserves of the Martindale Deer Forest owners.

The Nab from Rest Dodd (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The myth was put about that it was the deer they were all keen to save from disturbance. It was never true. It was the value of the sporting estate that was at peril. Heaven forbid that the peasants should try to roam around its closely-guarded acres.

Even Wainwright urged caution; under pressure he suggested that walkers shouldn’t intrude, but then went on to include the route description in his The Far Eastern Fells book, admitting that he’d trespassed there itself, getting away with it “due to his remarked resemblance to an old stag”.

But then came the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW), which gave a right to roam across this sacred fell. And yes, there’s been not the slightest indication that the deer have been much disturbed by the visiting ramblers. In truth, the herd was never much up on The Nab itself, preferring the woodlands around the Rampsgill Beck, where walkers seldom tramped.

The Kaiser’s Bungalow (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Even early last century, the deer forest proprietors were iffy about the common herd (us) coming for a stroll in this part of the Lake District. The Earl of Lonsdale (1857-1944), who liked to bill himself as England’s premier sportsman, went positively apoplectic at the thought of any feet but his own treading this ground. In a lifetime devoted to ostentatious pleasure, a rambler or fellwalker was obviously Lonsdale’s particular bete noire.

On my bookshelves, I have a charming little volume entitled Wayside Pageant by W.L. Andrews and A.P. Macguire, which is full of the joys of exploring the English countryside. It was published in 1933.

The authors obviously thought it a good idea to invite Lord Lonsdale to write one of those nice introductions to their book, the kind which famous men contribute from time to time to enliven such works. They probably regretted the invitation. The Right Hon. The Earl of Lonsdale KG GCVO  sent them back a furious screed condemning all fellwalkers as trespassers and upstarts who vandalise and set fire to the countryside.

Martindale from The Nab (c) John Bainbridge 2018

His lordship gave ramblers the kind of write-up the early Vikings might have got from displaced locals when they first raided the vales of Lakeland.

The authors, perhaps in a spirit of ironic contempt, published his lordship’s views as they stood. Reading it today you have to chuckle. It’s a wonder Lord Lonsdale didn’t burst a blood vessel.

Not that everyone was unwelcome in the vicinity of The Nab. Just before World War One, they had Germany’s Kaiser Bill over to stay, so that he could take pot shots at the deer. The bungalow he stayed in is still there, below The Nab. You can rent it if you have pots of cash.

All this by way of introduction, for on a glowery day we walked out from Harstop and climbed Rest Dodd before taking a gentle stroll down the ridge to The Nab. We sat at the highest point and looked down at the bungalow where the Kaiser stayed. A splendid if uneventful walk. It would have been even nicer to dodge keepers and gillies, but that’s the price of progress.

The views, down Martindale towards Ullswater, are staggeringly dramatic. The Nab is certainly a hill that all ramblers should seek out and visit. It’s rather beautiful in itself too, particularly when you view its bulbous mass from the vicinity of Hallin Fell.

And nice that we’ve progressed so far that the barbed wire and “Keep Out” notices of Wainwright’s day are no longer there as a blot on the landscape. Distant memories of a darker age in the Lake District.

Walking to Castle Folds – A Romano-British Settlement

Sometimes we walk in the footsteps of people who trod the hills thousands of years ago. The other day – a blazing hot morning – we walked up from the Cumbrian village of Orton to seek out the Castle Folds Romano-British settlement – a rare defended position set out amidst the limestone pavement of Great Asby Scar, re-used as a shieling in medieval times.

Castle Folds (c) John Bainbridge 2018

It is now, thankfully, though in the county of Cumbria, in the Westmorland Dales section of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and every one who values our wild landscapes should approve of this improved level of protection.

We walked up from the village of Orton, using the bridleway to Street lane – and a joy that was in itself, with its profusion of wild flowers, including the increasingly rare ragged robin. Up then past Scarside Farm and then out on to the Great Asby National Nature Reserve.

A Wild Flower Meadow near Orton (c) John Bainbridge 2018

This extensive area of limestone pavement was looking at its best and most dramatic, with its wide views over the Eden valley to the great ramparts of the Pennines. Good easy walking too, as we made our way along the walls of Asby Winderwath Common.

Ragged Robin (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Then at last to Castle Fold. The defended settlement is set on a long knoll rising out of the surrounding limestone pavement – which undoubtedly provided the rocks for the rampart walls. When intact, it must have been a most impressive structure. There are other Romano-British settlements not far away, but Castle Folds was built purely for defence – not just against casual raiders, but perhaps some specific major threat, hence its considerable proportions.

Built not by the Roman occupiers of this land, but by the natives who existed alongside them.

Limestone Pavement (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Archaeologists believe that its once mighty walls were deliberately torn down, though in medieval times the ruins were used once again as a shieling, summer grazing for livestock.

It’s a deeply atmospheric place, and you could sit there for a long time contemplating its, perhaps bloody, history.

Castle Folds Knoll (c) John Bainbridge 2018

All through our walk the weather had been scorching hot, but as we prepared to leave Castle Folds, we felt the first hint of moisture in the air. Then a positive downpour as we retraced our footsteps into Orton. We saw no other walkers all day, though a frog greeted us as we walked down by the Orton Beck.

Castle Folds is a fascinating place – rare, archaeologically, and well worth the several miles of walk. Even as I write this I dwell on the men and women who sought shelter behind its high walls.

Who was their enemy? What was the fear that made them build such an elaborate structure? And was the medieval stockman, who dwelt there centuries later, at all superstitious about the blood that might have been spilled there?