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Down the Doone Valley

Fact and fiction intertwine in this moorland valley walk which visits the tiny church celebrated in R D Blackmore's classic novel.

Distance 8.7 miles (14.1km)

Minimum time 4hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 1,250ft (380m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Some steep ascents and descents, pathless open moor, 1 stile

Landscape Bleak, grassy moor, then a charming enclosed valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor

Start/finish SS 820464

Dog friendliness Well-controlled - livestock throughout, horse riders in Doone Valley

Parking Car park (free) at Robbers Bridge

Public toilets None on route; toilets at County Gate on A39

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Cross Robber's Bridge and follow the road to Oareford. Turn left on the bridleway signed 'Larkbarrow'. After a mile (1.6km), at a gate on to open moor with only a faint track continuing ahead, bear left. Follow a fence, continuing over the moorland crest to the corner of the large field.

2 Go through a gate on the left, then a narrow gate on the right on to rougher moorland. Take a green path ahead for 140yds (128m). Here bear slightly right on a smaller path to go through a shallow col or gap. Now a much wider path arrives from the right. Bear left to a gate in a bank marking the edge of an Exmoor Park Access Area.

3 The path ahead leads down, with a bank on its left, to a signpost. Turn right ('Doone Valley') on a clear path that gradually climbs to a gate in the Access Area bank - it runs down to a footbridge over Badgworthy Water.

4 Turn right, downstream. After a plank footbridge a gate leads into the hummocks of the lost medieval village. Go straight up to a wide path and turn right. Continue down the valley to a large footbridge leading across to Cloud Farm.

5 Pass to the left of Cloud Farm, on to a track that passes through a farm shed, then climbs out of the valley. Where it ends, follow the lower side of a field to the edge of a little wooded combe. Turn right for 70yds (64m) to a gate on the left. A track passes above the combe and turns down beyond it. Where the track bends right, keep straight downhill through waymarked gates, to turn left on the valley road below beside Oare church.

6 Turn right, signposted 'Porlock', and follow the road for 130yds (118m) to cross Oare Water. Turn right along the riverside to cross a small stream (there's no footbridge, although one is marked on the OS map). A few paces further on, turn up left to a small, abandoned house and then turn right between gorse bushes. A grass path leads straight up a sharp spur. It continues beside a fence to a stile; keep ahead, across heather, to a plantation.

7 Turn right along a track, and at the plantation's corner keep ahead on a smaller track ('Oareford'). This bends left near a field corner; here keep ahead on a path towards some tall trees. Pass to the right of these trees, which mark ancient field edges, to a small gate. A path leads steeply down to a footbridge into Oareford. Turn left to return to your car.

It's not often that a place invented in a story gets mapped in black print by the Ordnance Survey. But the area of Exmoor where Somerset and Devon meet is marked on the Outdoor Leisure map as 'Doone Country'; and the paths leading towards Badgworthy Water are all signposted 'Doone Valley'.

Near the foot of the valley is a monument to the man responsible, Richard Dodderidge Blackmore (1825-1900), 'whose novel Lorna Doone extols to all the world the joys of Exmoor'. Badgworthy Water is not really Doone Valley. There's no point in trying to work out which window of Oare church is the one Carver pointed his carbine through to shoot Lorna on her wedding day - Carver never existed, so didn't need a window.

In some strange way Blackmore's Exmoor is more real and romantic than the flat Exmoor of fact. The angle at the top of the Badgworthy (grid ref SS 795434) really is Doone Gate, defended with a barrier and a tunnel - here Jan Ridd and Jeremy Stickles made their disastrous assault in Chapter 54. Walking down the valley, we mentally move the medieval village into the main valley, and place the small house of the sinister Counsellor Doone across the stream itself. At the same time we must raise the valley walls higher, and add rocks and crags to the slopes of heather, hawthorn and gorse that we see in the real world.

As for the enclosed and dangerous waterslide that Jan Ridd clambers up to meet his Lorna, that won't be found at all, unless it's in the side valley of Lank Combe. Exmoor has bogs, but none of them is the Wizard's Slough, deep enough to swallow up the mighty Carver Doone. And there are no gold mines. It's at Oare church that romance and reality come together, for the building is virtually as it is in Blackmore's book, and one John Ridd was churchwarden there no longer ago than 1925.

The Doones of Badgworthy existed in local legend before Lorna Doone, certainly as a story to scare naughty children, and possibly in fact. Lawless men did take refuge on Exmoor in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion. However, they could scarcely have plundered the countryside and murdered its inhabitants for a full century without ever appearing in the law court records of the time.

What to look for

The outlines of the former Badgworthy village are clearly visible above the foot of Hoccombe Combe. The buildings are the two-room long house, with cattle on one side and people on the other. The last inhabitant, a shepherd, is said to have died in a blizzard with his little granddaughter around the year 1800.

Where to eat and drink

There are convenient tea rooms at Cloud Farm, near the end of the route, and just above where the waterslide in Chapter 7 of Lorna Doone would be (if it existed).

While you're there

Oare church needed no added romance from R D Blackmore, even if he did have to put in an extra window. In 800 years of extensions, decorations and repairs, nothing ugly has found its way into this tiny church. The eye travels happily from the Norman font to the buzzard lectern, carved as recently as 1999. Among many small treasures, I particularly like the cherubic memorials of 1772 and 1791.

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