Walk: Exploring the Exmoor countryside below Dunkery Beacon
PUBLISHED: 17:02 12 August 2019
Walk some old ways in the shadow of Dunkery Beacon, with Simone Stanbrook-Byrne
At more than 1,700ft above sea level, Dunkery Beacon, with its mighty cairn, is the highest point of Exmoor (and Somerset). It can be a wild and windy place, though the views are magnificent.
Our walks have climbed to its summit in the past; this one explores a gentler part of Exmoor below Dunkery, but the cairn can be seen from points along the way.
Although not as elevated, this walk still has superb views and the coast of South Wales can be seen on a clear day. It follows some historic paths in the heart of the Exmoor National Park.
If you wish to add in a trip to the Beacon after the walk, then it is a two mile drive to Dunkery Gate, north west of Wheddon Cross, from whence paths lead up to the summit.
1. From the car park behind the Rest and Be Thankful, look for the bridleway gate in the corner adjacent to the building that houses the toilets. Go through, entering a recreation field, and turn right, walking towards a cream-coloured bungalow beside the right-hand hedge. Approaching the end of the field aim to the left of the bungalow and pass through the blue-marked bridleway gate, entering a yard area.
Turn left for a few metres, then go right through another blue-blobbed gate where a fingerpost indicates the bridleway towards Luckwell Bridge. This track, although pleasingly shady in summer, can be muddy after wet weather.
The track descends; keep going, enjoying occasional gateway views and ignoring any paths to right or left.
2. Almost ½ mile after joining the track it emerges through a gate into a field. Follow the left-hand boundary towards the River Quarme less than 100m away and cross via the footbridge.
Beyond the bridge keep ahead for a few metres then turn right around the fence corner, walking through the field with the fence on your right. A big solitary boulder rises up to the left. Near the end of the field you will need to swerve left round blackthorn trees to find the blue-blobbed gate tucked in the corner. Beyond the gate follow the tree-lined track, river to the right, and stay with this bridleway for just over 300m.
Gradually it moves away from the river and starts to rise, passing a blue-marked post. A cream-coloured house is visible down to the right.
3. About 20m beyond the post the path reaches a three-fingered waymarker. Here go sharp left, back on yourself and uphill, heading towards Thorne on a yellow-marked footpath (it will be one of the shortest miles you ever walk - the distance to Thorne is well under a mile!). Follow the direction of the finger, climbing steeply up to the fence-line to find a gate at the top of the slope. Go through the gate and walk straight across the middle of the field, climbing to begin with. When you reach the high point pause to admire the views; the tip of Dunkery Beacon's cairn is visible above the heights of the open moorland behind you.
Pass the end of a line of trees on your right and keep on towards the fingerpost in the fence below. Continue straight on from here towards a visible gate; the buildings of Thorne Farm may be seen to the left. Go through the gate, noting the remarkable old ash tree on the left. Years ago it was pollarded, a way of encouraging new growth above the reach of browsing animals. It is now completely hollow, but lives stoutly on. A hollow tree can survive well, thriving on minerals from the decaying wood, and a hollow trunk is more flexible in high winds - I hope this tree proves all that and is still there when you pass! It deserves a bit of respect.
From the tree head down the field, following the left-hand fence, hopping over a small stream, then climbing to a stile out of the field. (This is a slight variation from the OS map.)
Turn left on the quiet, leafy lane, following it for 500m. It crosses Bushel Bridge and climbs to reach the A396 at Hare Path Cross - look out for traffic as you approach the main road.
4. When you reach the main road go straight across and join the track opposite, shown as a restricted byway to Summerway Cross. This is almost a mile of steady climbing up an ancient way known as Hare Path. Harepaths, or herepaths, were Saxon military roads, 'here' meaning 'armed host'. They formed a network across England, established by King Alfred to enable soldiers to get about quickly to repel Vikings. This old way is thought to be part of one that crossed Exmoor from Bristol.
Stay with the track until it reaches the B3224 at Summerway Cross. Turn right along the road, using the verge to keep away from traffic.
5. Within 100m, cross over with care and go left down the drive to Little Brendon Hill Farm and Pitleigh Kennels and Cattery. In 150m, by the entrance to Little Brendon Hill Farm, is a low fingerpost.
Go left here on the bridleway to Wheddon Cross. You are now following a quill logo that denotes the Coleridge Way, a long-distance footpath that celebrates the poet who lived hereabouts for a time.
Keep ahead on the path beyond the kennels, following the hedged grassy path; on a clear day the coast of Wales can be seen far to the right. At the end of the track go through a gate on the left, then turn immediately right, still in the same direction as before but now in a field with the hedge to your right.
At the end of the field go through a blue-blobbed gate and continue; note the way the hedge to the right has, in the past, been traditionally laid, creating a thick natural boundary. Dunkery Beacon keeps watch up to the left. The gorse is dense beside the path: "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out if season," the old adage says - gorse is never out of bloom!
Beyond the field keep going in the same direction. The church at Cutcombe beckons from the valley; Wheddon Cross is in the parish of Cutcombe.
6. The bridleway crosses a surfaced track. Keep ahead beyond this, looking out for ancient farm implements beside the track. Keep going as it descends but exercise caution - the exposed bedrock can be treacherously slippery.
The track leads to the lane at Cutcombe Cross. Turn left; this is Popery Lane. When you reach the school go left along the road, soon passing the chunky war memorial. Rejoin the A396 and you are back in Wheddon Cross.
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne & James Clancy are authors of A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Somerset.
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al.
Good to know
Map: OS Explorer OL9 Exmoor 1:25 000
Directions to start: Wheddon Cross is on the A396, 10 miles south of Minehead
Start point & parking: Car park behind The Rest and Be Thankful Inn. Post code TA24 7DR. Grid ref SS923387
Distance: 4miles / 6.5km
Public Transport: Occasional buses pass through Wheddon Cross, see travelinesw.com
Terrain: Tracks and field paths, short section on road. Can be muddy and very slippery in places
Exertion: Moderate-strenuous: there are some very sustained ascents, though not steep. The descents can be slippery
Dog friendly: A little road walking. Animals grazing
Refreshment & comfort stops: Wheddon Cross is a welcoming spot with good facilities. There is an excellent inn, The Rest and Be Thankful, TA24 7DR (01643 841222) and well-refurbed public toilets are situated in the car park