On the trail of Exmoor's red deer in the woodlands under Dunkery Beacon.
Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 1,000ft (300m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Broad paths, with some stonier ones, steep in places, no stiles
Landscape Dense woodland in steep-sided stream valleys
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor
Start/finish SS 898455
Dog friendliness Off lead, but be aware of deer and horse-riders
Parking National Trust car park (free) at Horner
Public toilets At car park
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1 Leave the National Trust car park in Horner village past the toilets and turn right to the track leading into Horner Wood. This crosses a bridge and passes a field before rejoining Horner Water. You can take a footpath alongside the stream instead of the track, they lead to the same place. Ignore the first footbridge, and continue along the obvious track to where a sign, 'Dunkery Beacon', points off to the left towards a second footbridge.
2 Ignore this footbridge as well (unless you're on Walk 9). Keep on the track for another 100yds (91m), then fork left on a path alongside West Water. This rejoins the track, and after another ½ mile (800m) a bridleway sign points back to the right. Here look down to the left for a footbridge. For me this was a thrilling balancing act on two girders - but the rebuilding of the bridge (swept away in floods in 2001) has now been completed.
3 Cross on to a path that slants up to the right. After 200yds (183m) turn left into a smaller path that turns uphill alongside Prickslade Combe. The path reaches the combe's little stream at a cross-path, with the wood top visible above. Here turn left, across the stream, on a path contouring through the top of the wood. It emerges into the open and arrives at a tree with a bench and a fine view over the top of the woodlands to Porlock Bay.
4 Continue ahead on a grassy track, with the car park of Webber's Post clearly visible ahead. Alas, the deep valley of the East Water lies between you and your destination. So, turn down left on a clear path back into birchwoods. This zig-zags down to meet a larger track in the valley bottom.
5 Turn downstream, crossing a footbridge over the East Water, beside a ford. After about 60yds (55m) bear right on to an ascending path. At the top of the steep section turn right on a small sunken path that climbs gently to Webber's Post car park.
6 Walk to the left, round the car park, to a path marked 'Permitted Bridleway' to Horner. (Do not take the pink-surfaced, easy-access path immediately to the right.) After 80yds (73m) bear left on to a wider footpath. Keep ahead down a wide, gentle spur, with the deep valley of the Horner Water on your left. As the spur steepens, the footpath meets a crossing track signposted 'Windsor Path'.
7 Turn right for perhaps 30 paces, then take a descending path signposted 'Horner'. Narrow at first, this widens and finally meets a wide, horse-mangled track with wooden steps; turn left down this into Horner.
Horner takes its name from the Saxon 'hwrnwr', a wonderfully expressive word meaning snorer, that here describes the rumble of the stream in its enclosed valley. Above the treetops, Webber's Post is a splendid viewpoint out across the Bristol Channel. What Mr Webber stood there to view, though, was the hunting of red deer.
The herd on Exmoor numbers several thousand. Although this is small compared to those in the Scottish Highlands, the Exmoor stag himself is the UK's biggest wild deer. This is simply because his life is slightly easier - farmed deer are larger again. On Exmoor, as in the rest of Northern Europe outside Scotland, the deer remains a forest animal. Exmoor's mix of impenetrable woodland with areas of open grazing, even with all its houses, farms and fields, remains good deer country.
The calf is born dappled for camouflage under the trees, and lies in shelter during the day while the hind feeds. If you do come across a deer calf, leave it alone - it hasn't been abandoned. During the summer the stags and hinds run in separate herds. In the Scottish Highlands deer graze on high ground during the day to escape from midges, and descend to the forest at night; on Exmoor the main annoying pest is the human, so the deer graze the moor at dawn and dusk, and spend the day in the trees.
In September and October comes the spectacular rut, when stags roar defiance at each other, and, if that fails, do battle with antlers for mating privileges. During this time they eat only occasionally, fight a lot and mate as often as possible. The stag with a mighty roar and a hard head can gather a harem of a dozen hinds. Your best chance of seeing one is very early or very late in the day - or else in the forest. I have had a bramble patch beside my path suddenly start bouncing around like an angry saucepan of milk, until, after ten seconds, a half-grown calf burst out of the middle of it and ran away. You may well smell the deer, even though it probably smelled you first and has already gone quietly away. Look closely, too, at the small brown cows two fields away - they may well be deer. I've seen grazing deer from a train window just five minutes out of Taunton Station, though they were the smaller roe.
While deer are thriving, it's the Exmoor stag hunters that are in danger of extinction. Just one pack of the traditional staghounds remains. Following pressure from its own members, the National Trust has banned hunting from its land, and the national government is set to ban it altogether when it finds the parliamentary time.
Dunster Castle has everything - battlements and gardens, a wooded hill setting with an ancient village below, a working water mill, the national collection of strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) and even a somewhat implausible King Arthur legend - he helped St Carantoc tame the local dragon.
Multiple tree trunks growing from a single point show where the woodland has formerly been coppiced. Every ten years the new shoots would be cut back to the original stump. This method of harvesting a woodland is more productive than clear-felling and replanting, whether what you're after is oak bark for the tanning industry or just firewood. Coppicing has also allowed the original woodland plants to survive through the centuries.
Delightful Horner village has not one but two excellent tea shops, each with an outdoor seating area and ice creams. Those who would prefer beer or, of course, a glass of cider should head for the fleshpots of Porlock.