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Walk the West Country to lose the Christmas excesses

By West Country Life  |  Posted: December 24, 2013

Enjoy views from St Michael's on  Glastonbury Tor or pay a visit to Culbone Church, two of Martin Hesp's recommended walks in the West Country – though of course we are spoilt for choice, with thousands more on our doorsteps

Enjoy views from St Michael's on Glastonbury Tor or pay a visit to Culbone Church, two of Martin Hesp's recommended walks in the West Country – though of course we are spoilt for choice, with thousands more on our doorsteps

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Christmas has come and almost gone, and most of us are a few pounds heavier.

And this is why we should be thinking about walking off those festive pounds and ounces.

So here are a few hikes which, for me anyway, add an authentic blend of landscape tinsel and scenic wrapping paper to the occasion – partly because they pay heed to it as a religious festival and so many of them visit scenic locations that enjoy a link with the man whose birthday we have been celebrating.

Culbone Circular

For me deep, dark, silent and sepulchral Culbone, on Exmoor's lonely wooded coast, is the most Christmassy place of them all – but only because I was walking in the steep coombe one December and heard a chorus of Once in Royal David's City piping up through the trees.

In a twinkling of lantern light, in a wisp flurrying snow: I was delivered my very own living, breathing, singing, freezing Christmas scene. I would say that no place in the country could evoke such hallowed sensations of the season of the year – not only because it is remote and lonely, beautiful and arcane – but also because you can not get there by car.

The place remains innocent of the dreaded combustion engine in particular and the modern world in general. Well, almost. Some of the congregation had driven down the near-vertical private track in their four-wheel-drives – but the option is not open to the general public.

You must walk, and the route from Porlock Weir is the basis for this hike. It is tempting to bide a while at the weir, where Turkey Island sits on a hump of shingle just across the footbridge from the Harbour Master's office.

We turn west and follow the footpath behind the harbour that runs up across the fields to the hamlet of Worthy. It is in the woods above this place that a fabulous fantasy-style mansion once stood with minarets and cloisters and a clutter of other architectural features which made it the most alluring of places, even in the days when it lay in forlorn ruins.

The old place was demolished years ago and, sadly, they have even blocked up the little follies and tunnels here and there in the steep woods. You will see one on the main path to Culbone, looking like a miniature castle bridging the almost subterranean route. It was a Lady Lovelace who had this built and she even imported a team of Swiss mountaineers to lay a network of carriageways throughout her vertical demesne.

Lady Lovelace eventually departed for the sunny side of the hill but you can still see vestiges of her dreamscape in place-names such as Apple Dumpling Point and Cherry Tree Steep.

The path used to be a long, gradual climb from here to Culbone, but over the past 20 years, landslides have dissected the hill so that now there's a bit of zig-zagging.

All at once, the track turns away from the coast and within a few yards there is Culbone, hanging high above the grey rocks and the grey sea in its enchanting glen. I was fortunate all those years ago to arrive as a service was about to start in the tiny church.

I slipped around to the lepers' window and for a moment could imagine those unfortunate souls huddled together for warmth more than 200 Christmases ago, gleaning what hope and salvation they could from the sacred business within.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing wafted through the gap and I wondered how many angels looked over the wretched members of this long-dead colony, so ostracised because of their disease that they were banned from ever crossing the Culbone stream to Porlock.

There are worse jails, I thought, as I climbed the woods towards Ash Farm so that I could traverse the lane to Yearnor Mill Bridge, and from there descend in Worthy Coombe to where the path hits the back-end of Porlock Weir.

Other West Country hikes

If I had to choose another church in which to give praise for all that is holy, I would select St Michael de Rupe perched high on the crags of Brentor, a few miles west of Mary Tavy. It is, after all, closer to Heaven than most and certainly it offers worshippers a fantastic view of God's handiwork.

Park at the base of the Tamar borderland's most spectacular hill or you can go on a longer walk from the charming little village of North Brentor.

There's another St Michael's perched high at the top of Glastonbury's celebrated tor and from it you can enjoy vast, sweeping views of the Somerset Levels – much of which will be flooded at this time of year. There is a good way-marked walk from the centre of town which, by the way, is an excellent place in which to buy quirky presents.

A third St Michael's sits splendidly aloft in the west – this time on top of an island. St Michael's Mount may not offer the longest of walks but it does afford the best in maritime views. Make sure the tide is out.

If you are feeling really fit, you can step out on the entire pilgrim's route (known as St Michael's Way) which will take you from the island right across the narrow spine of westerly Cornwall and introduce you to the north coast at Lelant. It is about a dozen miles in length and you will pass the location of many a fascinating Cornish legend on the way. Talk of giants and evil imps called spriggans will add to the Christmas cheer.

How about a stroll up Dunkery Beacon from Somerset's highest village, Wheddon Cross? It was Alice King, a blind authoress who lived in the village, who recorded the old Exmoor custom of going to the barnyard at midnight on Christmas Eve to watch the animals making their humble abeyance to God. Whether you believe this or not, Dunkery Beacon offers some of the finest walking in the region.

All too Christian and holy? Then why not repair to any of the following: The Warren Inn on Dartmoor is southern England's highest pub and it is surrounded by more than a hundred potential hikes. The Royal Oak Inn at Withypool in the heart of Exmoor offers much the same. And the Tinner's Arms, at Zennor, will introduce you to a plethora of peregrinations in the moors of West Penwith.

So, there you have it. Unless you have been attacked by flu or some other ailment, there is no excuse not to go out walking this Christmas, and the fresh air will help blow away all those lurgies that you might have picked up at parties.

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