Recently, we took a friend on a short walking route around Dunster. She normally resides on the slopes of the Serra de Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain range, one of the best areas for walking in the country. Despite the indisputable beauty of where she lives, she was blown away by the diversity of walking she experienced in Somerset. Having lived in Portugal ourselves, and created walking holidays in north, south, central, and eastern parts of the country, we know exactly why. The Dunster walk reinforced that view as we ticked off items from her wish list – great views, Exmoor ponies, interesting things to see. But we wished she’d been in the area long enough for us to take her walking on Haddon Hill a few days later.
There’s a generous free car park at Haddon Hill. Mostly when we walk there (avoiding weekends, especially when the weather warms up), the other users are mainly dog walkers. On a chilly (-4C) January morning there were only a couple of other cars. Having spent almost two decades living and walking in far warmer climes, I relish walking in frosty weather, especially on brisk, sunny days when the light is as sharp as the point of an icicle. You can dress for cold weather; there’s only so much you can do to counter searing temperatures, shedding clothes doesn’t really help.
Haddon Hill on a crisp winter day is a delight. Despite an obvious lack of plants in bloom, the hillsides are awash with colour – forty shades of green (maybe not forty, but many), coppery ferns, golden grasses, swathes of silvery woods, the shaggy chestnut coats of Exmoor ponies, ignoring us as they mow the coarse grass. On Dunster, the ponies were on the coy side. On Haddon they don’t even bat one of their lusciously long eyelashes as we pass within a couple of feet. How our equine-loving friend would love this.
Although Haddon Hill is one of high points of Exmoor National Park, getting to the trig point at its summit (355m) requires not a lot of effort – under a kilometre and a twenty-five-metre ascent from the car park. You get a big pay-off for not a lot of input – a 360-degree view of the beguiling Somerset (and Devon) hills, a cloudless sky and hazy undulations to the south, the petrol splodge of Wimbleball Lake and an elongated roll of puffy white clouds above the ridge between us and the Bristol Channel to the north.
To Bury and Beyond
You could spin on the heels of your walking boots and toddle off back to the car park at this point, but that would be to only taste a single layer of what a walk around Haddon Hill has to offer. Our preferred route, when we want a decent leg stretch, is to drop through the forest to Bury (a hamlet far removed from the Bury we knew when we lived in Stockport), sit on the bench beside the medieval packhorse bridge over the River Haddeo, and watch drivers cross the lively ford there. After weeks of rain, nobody was brave (foolhardy) enough to attempt it.
From Bury, it’s an easy trek alongside the river to Hartford. In September, this track was littered with pheasants, honking like klaxons as they frantically scattered in all directions. By mid-January, the pheasant hunting season has taken its toll; although, hunting isn’t really the appropriate term as there are no hunting skills involved standing at the bottom of a hill waiting for petrified birds to be herded toward you. Still, we’re pleased to see plenty have managed to elude the scattered shot.
The long and the short of it
Once at Hartford, there’s another chance to shorten the route. One path leads to the dam at Wimbleball, an imposing and intimidating site as you stand close to its base realising just how steep the incline is between you and the top of the immense concrete structure. Again, we prefer to continue winding north to cross the hills to reach the car park above the lake, spotting some rare hair ice on the way. We are also rewarded with a magnificent sight, a red deer stag with an impressive set of antlers. He scouts the hillside opposite before shepherding his harem into the woods below.
There’s an opportunity for another rest at the picnic area beside Wimbleball Lake. In summer, the lake is a hive of watery activity – an army of human seals sailing, canoeing, stand-up paddling. In January, the only life is courtesy of a flock of Canada Geese and a gathering of cormorants who huddle, humphie-backit (as we say in Scotland) on a pontoon, looking like Ringwraiths on an outing. A lakeside path takes us to the monolithic dam where we linger, admiring contrasting views, before tackling the final stretch, a steep climb back up to car park level.
In 13km we get moors, expansive views, a summit, woods, wildlife, rivers, streams, fords, and a lake held back by a dam. That’s a satisfying load of ingredients for your money, if there was any money involved.
Length of route: 13km Ascent/Descent: 387m