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Wild Exmoor

WASTE of great extent, wild, desolate, and silent - this is Exmoor. Attempts have been made to reclaim the wild and the forest, but in vain. The moor defies the efforts of man; the peat and the heather still rule over it, and its natural grandeur and ruggedness remain. The part called the forest also seems quite as irreclaimable. Many years ago, some person tried to build a splendid house here, but it stands now empty and deserted, a vacant dwelling soon to fall to decay.

But there is a little oasis in this wild moorland; it is Simonsbath, a place with some green plantations near it and a few cottages in this wild but beautiful tract. It is situated on the bright little river Barle, and is surrounded by some fine old trees originally planted to shelter a rough inn that once stood there.

It takes its name from a deep crystal pool, just above the village, in which it is said that an outlaw named Simon used to bathe. The seat of F. Knight, Esq., M.P., the owner of Exmoor, is here also.

Three rivers rise near Simonsbath - the Barle, the Exe, and Badgworthy Water. The last is most beautiful; a walk from it brings us to Badgworthy Wood, a romantic spot where rocks rise over the varied and lovely ferns and brushwood, and deep glens are overshadowed with trees. It is delightful to be roving here and listening to the song of the birds, and the soft frou-frou of the leaves, while the gorgeous colours of the wild flowers and ferns charm the eye. At the upper end of the wood is a little streamlet over which there is a rustic bridge. This stream, which slides over a long rocky fall, is called the Water Slide, and is the spot where John Ridd, in Mr. Blackmore's celebrated story, climbed to meet Lorna Doone. The banks are rich in ferns, and the whole scene lovely. Following the path by the hillside up the valley, we reach the Doone Glen, immortalised in the same work. It is a valley, in the centre of which a high mound of earth rises, and divides it in two; it was here that those remarkable outlaws, the Doones, dwelt; but a few stones half-buried and in the ground are all that now remain of their houses. They were (apart from fiction) a band of outlaws and robbers, who were supposed to have come from the North in the time of the Commonwealth, and to have settled in this wild spot. The times were too disturbed and troubled for the Government to be able to remove or exterminate them, and the people of the neighbourhood, who paid them blackmail, were terribly afraid of them. They consequently grew bolder and more savage year by year, till they robbed a farmhouse at Exford, and finding only a little child in it, they tossed her up and caught her on their swords, killing her for mere sport. A maid-servant, who, in fear of her life, had abandoned her charge and hidden herself in an oven, heard them say to the child,-

"If they ask who murdered thee,
Say 'twas the Doones of Badgeree."
Doone Valley

This monstrous crime roused the farmers; they gathered together every man they could get, and proceeded in a body against the Doones' Glen.

After a severe fight they succeeded in destroying and taking prisoners the whole band; those that survived were tried and executed, and thus Exmoor was cleared from its bandits for ever.

From these picturesque scenes we turn to one that is their exact opposite, and yet worthy of the same epithet. We are at Heddon's Mouth, which has been so admirably described by Mr. Blackmore that we shall give our readers his graphic sketch of it.

"A narrow, winding, rocky ravine where slabs, and tors, and boulder stones seem pasturing on the velvet grass, or looking into the bright trout stream which leaps down a flight of steps without a tree to shade its flash and boom. This narrow but glad dingle, as it nears the sea, bursts suddenly back into a desert gorge cleaving the heights that front the Bristol Channel. The mountain sides from right to left, straight as if struck by a rule, steeply converge like a high pitched roof turned upside down; so steep, indeed, that it is hard to climb them. Along the deep bottom gleams a silver cord, where the cramped stream chafes its way, bedded and banked in stone, without a blade of green. From top to bottom of this huge ravine there is little growth, no rocks, no cliff's, no place to stay the foot, but all a barren, hard, grey stretch of shingle, slates, and gliding stones, as if the ballast of ten million fleets had been shot in two enormous piles and were always on the slip. Looking at it we forget that there is such a thing as life : the desolation is not painful because it is so grand.

"The brief noon glare of the sun on the drifts where the storms have channelled it; the great desert shade stealing back to its lair in the early afternoon; the solemn step of evening stooping to her misty cloak below, I know not which of these is the most impressive and mournful. There is no sound here of tide, or bird, or beast; all is silence, except the moan of the melancholy winds."

There is thus a mingling of savage scenery with beauty on Exmoor. The heather that purples the hill-sides and the dancing streams are always lovely. There are great numbers of birds on the moors. Stone chats, wheatears, and water-ousels or dippers are seen here early in the year, and the blackcock is plentiful in the Doone Valley.

Herds of ponies run wild on Exmoor, and sometimes, but rarely, we see in the Radgworthy Valley the wild red deer. There are still herds of them here, but they are now carefully preserved by Mr. Knight.

After passing the Doone Valley the scenery softens and becomes more and more lovely, but it wants the wild grandeur of the moors, till passing Brendon village we come to Watersmeet, a most picturesque spot - the scene, in Whyte Melville's "Katerfelto," of the fierce struggle between Parson Gale and John Garnet. About this place there is also an historical story. When the unhappy Monmouth had been defeated at Sedgemoor, many of his followers sought refuge in the hills and wild wastes north of Devon. Amongst these fugitives was a Major Wade, who hid himself in a rocky cave close to Illford Bridge, in the valley of the East Lynn. Here a compassionate peasant woman brought him food. She lived at Bridge Hill. Had her charity been discovered by the remorseless Colonel Kirke or his agents, she would undoubtedly have been hanged for it.

The clergyman of Brendon, a Mr. Powell, with a cruelty disgraceful to his profession-or it may be acting under royal orders-collected a party of Plymouth fishermen and scoured the woods in search of the hidden rebels, several of whom were found and shot. Major Wade was taken, brought to a farm called Farley, and shot in the farm-yard, by a sailor. The supposed dead body was left in the yard; the farmer had it carried into the house, and found that life was not extinct. Wade's wound was dressed, he was kindly tended, recovered, and escaped to Bristol. When a general pardon was proclaimed, he came forth from his concealment and rewarded with a small annuity the poor woman who had saved his life.

From Watersmeet, following a path through the woods, by many a deep pool and lovely waterfall, we reach Woodside Cottage, and at last Lynmouth, where the rivers unite and glide with the same murmuring voce to the sea.

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Picturesque England
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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004