Experience quintessential Exmoor among the barrows and tumuli of its Bronze-Age farmers.
Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 700ft (210m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Narrow moorland paths following fences and some tracks, 4 stiles
Landscape Bleak, grassy moorland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor
Start/finish SS 728401
Dog friendliness Be aware of possible livestock, ponies and deer on open moorland
Parking Unmarked roadside pull-off on B3358 on Chains Hill
Public toilets None on route; nearest in Simonsbath car park
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1 At the Simonsbath end of the pull-off is a gate with a bridleway sign for Chains Barrow. Go up the right-hand edges of two fields, then head 35yds (32m) left, to a gate. The way across the following rough moorland is marked by occasional yellow-topped posts. Go gently uphill, parallel with a hedge away on the left. The marked way bends slightly right, up the crest of a wide moorland spur. At the top is a bank with a gateway.
2 A signpost indicates a sketchy path out over the moor to Chains Barrow. Return to the gateway and follow the fenced bank. It leads across the moor top to Pinkery Pond; this is crossed on its dam.
3 Follow the fence as it continues uphill to a corner of access land. Maintain your direction across moorland for 350yds (320m) to join a high bank, and follow this to the left, to Wood Barrow.
4 The gate ahead leads into Devonshire. Beyond, Wood Barrow is one of many put to more conventional use, originally by the Saxons, as markers of the Devon boundary. In front of Woodbarrow Gate turn left on a signed bridleway track, with a high bank on its right. This leads off the moor. Bear left around a sheep-pen made of disused metal crash barriers. A gate leads on to the B3358.
5 Cross into a track signposted 'Mole's Chamber'. This climbs for ¼ mile (400m) to a signpost. Here you must bear left across featureless moorland for 550yds (503m). A field corner soon comes into sight: on the right is high banking with a fence in front, and on the left is lower banking with a fence on top; between these two is the destination gate. Go straight downhill to a stream, with a peaty track starting beyond it. Follow this up and then bending right, to reach the end of a tarred road.
6 Turn left, away from the road. A faint old track runs down across a stream to a narrow gate with a blue paint-spot. An improving path runs down to the right of the stream, gradually slanting up to a gate. Here join a larger track, but immediately after the gate keep ahead as the larger track bends right. A faint green track runs parallel with the river down on the left, to reach a signposted gate. Turn left on a tarred track, to join the B3358. Turn left to the parking pull-off.
Chains Barrow is the highest point on the waterlogged Exmoor plateau of purple moor grass and deer sedge. Other walks hereabouts are Exmoor more or less; this one is Exmoor pure and simple. It has views out to the sea and to the sheltered lands below. It's a walk for a sunny day with skylarks, or for a chill one in autumn. In cloud and rain, with the bog at full squelch, you absorb a lot of atmosphere (and quite a bit of the rain), though this may not be everyone's idea of fun.
In about 2000 bc the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Stone Age came to an end on Exmoor. In the Bronze Age that followed we find traces of agriculture, with crops, such as barley, and livestock (mostly cattle and sheep). We also find the round barrows, for example, Chains Barrow and Longstone Barrow, scattered across the moorland summits. Elsewhere in Somerset the standing stones are of the Bronze Age - charred wood accidentally buried under the stones can be carbon-dated. More doubtfully, Tarr Steps in the south of Exmoor are also credited to the Bronze-Age people.
It used to be thought that the change from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age came about by conquest: better swords and axes allowed the new people to kill or enslave the old. Today, tree pollen preserved in peat bogs can be dated very accurately, and shows that the clearance of the moors for farming was a gradual process. The scratch-plough was perhaps more important than the sword: experts believe that it was the idea of sitting still and starting a farm that conquered, rather than a particular tribe. The climate was warmer and drier in those days, and the moorland was grass rather than peat. Large areas will have been hedged and banked for pasture: on Dartmoor, 25,000 acres (10,000ha) of Bronze Age-enclosures have been mapped out.
The shepherds belonged to a wider social unit than the family or farmstead. At least some of the people in charge had enough importance to build up collections of 50 or 60 axe heads, implying that the Bronze Age farmers weren't entirely peaceful people. Someone else had enough spare time to build the long barrows and raise the standing stones, and there were jewellers working in jadeite and bronze.
It isn't known why the people of the Bronze Age chose to build their barrows here on the bleakest of hilltops. Perhaps they were scared of the spirits of the dead and wanted to keep them out of the way, or perhaps a really large, conspicuous barrow would intimidate the people on the next hill.
The Exmoor Steam Railway runs steam trains along a mile (1.6km) of narrow gauge track above Bratton Fleming. It's England's highest narrow gauge railway, with wide views over the valley of the Devon Yeo.
From Wood Barrow, at the top of this walk, the land to the west is an access area under the Country Stewardship Scheme. Here, skilled map readers can go adventuring across the moor in search of Longstone Barrow, and the Long Stone itself, a standing stone 9ft (3m) high, raised during the Bronze Age.
The Exmoor Forest Hotel at Simonsbath serves good food and Exmoor Ale (brewed in Wiveliscombe, PWalk 16), but no lunches in winter. Dogs are welcome. The bar is decorated with bits of dead animals. Indeed, this is your best chance of sighting a badger: there's a stuffed one climbing the wall above the fireplace.