A short walk up the wooded riverside and on to the grassy moorland.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 45min
Ascent/gradient 350ft (100m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Narrow riverside path, field paths and open moor, 15 stiles
Landscape Small moorland valley
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor
Start/finish SS 844354
Dog friendliness Appropriate control over fields, riverside and moorland
Parking Small car park (free, busy on summer weekends) just across river from Withypool village
Public toilets In village centre, opposite shop
1 A small gate marked 'Picnic Place' leads out of the car park to the River Barle. Turn left, following the river bank upstream. Withycombe, with its wooded brook, lies below long grass slopes and the bare moorland plateau. The walk makes its way up the River Barle for about 1½ miles (2.4km), gradually working up through fields away from the stream. At the edge of moorland it turns back to return along the top of the enclosed lands.
2 The waymarked path crosses stiles and footbridges, then passes through a gate into a short, hedged way. After a stile it follows the left edge of a long field, below Waterhouse Farm, to a double stile. Now bear slightly left to a stile with a hedged track going uphill beyond. This track will be our return route. At the track foot turn right to a stile. Cross a field next to a railed fence on the right, with a narrow strip of wild meadowsweet along the river bank beyond. At the corner cross a stone footbridge to a wooden one, and continue on the riverbank. Ignore two kissing gates on the left, but cross a stile ahead into an open field.
3 At the end of this field turn uphill at a signpost on a boggy path with a hedge on the right, to a gateway. Here another sign points towards Brightworthy Farm. Pass through gates immediately to the right of the buildings, into a fenced-off path around a field edge. A bridge on the left leads to steps down into a earth track. Turn right and, as the track fades out, pass a concrete shed to follow the bottom edges of two fields. The moorland is one field above, and the river now about two fields below. The trench of a little-used trackway descends gently to a gate leading on to the open moor.
4 From here you could extend your walk to the medieval Landacre Bridge, visible ½ mile (800m) ahead - a suitable spot for your picnic (assuming you have remembered to put it in your rucksack). Otherwise turn left, following a sign for Withypool Common. A faint, rutted path follows the hedge that forms the upper boundary of the enclosed ground. The way slants uphill, then bends left and levels off.
5 The path gets clearer, and follows the hedge bank just below. It crosses a tarred driveway running down into the fields. Soon afterwards you encounter the steep-sided stream valley of Knighton Combe. The path slants down to the right, crosses the stream at a shallow ford, and disappears.
6 Head downstream for about 100yds (91m) between rowans, then slant up the combe side to rejoin the field-top hedge. The path is now clear, running towards the road that runs down into Withypool. About 220yds (201m) before the road turn down left to a gate in a corner of the hedge. A lane runs downhill to a stile. Cross this and the stile ahead to rejoin the outward route. Turn right to a double stile and continue downstream to Withypool Bridge.
The upper Barle Valley is the heart of Exmoor: not dramatic combes and the sudden seaside, but a gentle and rather melancholy landscape.
The bare moorland plateau is characterised by a quiet that may be disturbed by the occasional whinny of a pony. Ponies have been on Exmoor for longer than people: they are the closest there is to the original wild horse of Europe. A hundred years ago they came close to extinction. For the Exmoor ponies you see these days we have to thank Sir Thomas Dyke Ackland, the landowner who leased Winsford Hill to the National Trust.
Today there are only about 1,000 ponies in the world. The 150 on Exmoor are in 11 herds, two of them in the care of the National Park Authority.
You are most likely to see ponies at quiet times of the day. They live wild on the moors year-round. Evolution has given them a thick weatherproof coat, tough hooves, and a raised ridge around the eye (the so-called 'toad eye') to cast off rain, as well as enough speed and endurance to escape from the sabre-tooth tiger that once hunted them. But every Exmoor pony belongs to someone and every autumn they are gathered, inspected for disease and branded.
The characteristic Exmoor field boundary is the hedge bank planted with beeches. Some of these may go back to the Iron Age or even earlier. They should be cut back and laid - the saplings are interwoven to make a formidable barrier. More often they have been left to grow out; the resulting profusion of beech leaves is particularly splendid in autumn.
A couple of miles (3.2km) upstream is Landacre Bridge - you could include it in your walk, or drive there afterwards. Its medieval stonework has proved strong enough for today's traffic. There are picnic spots alongside the River Barle.
The Royal Oak has an 'Exmoor staghound' sort of atmosphere - authentic, but not necessarily attractive to today's visitor. Alternative food supplies are at the small shop, which is also a local information centre.