A filthy barren ground – at least,
that’s what the writer Daniel Defoe called it 300 years ago.
He was talking about Exmoor in general, but it’s generally
thought he was, in particular, referring to the land around lonesome
Simonsbath on the Somerset-Devon border.
Simonsbath is sometimes said to be the most remote village in
the Westcountry, and there seems to be no reason to quibble with
Basic hike: Simonsbath to Cow Castle via paths
along ridge to the north of the Barle – returning along the
Distance and going: four miles, fairly easy going.
Daniel Defoe must have reached Simonsbath on one of Exmoor’s
less salubrious days – which wouldn’t have been difficult,
seeing the area has second highest rainfall in England.
But go on a sunlit day and you’ll see this borderland at
its very best. The River Barle curves down from the high, bleak,
featureless plain known as The Chains and for a short while makes
for itself a comely, sylvan, valley as it avoids Devon - preferring
instead to remain within West Somerset until meeting its mighty
running mate, the Exe, south of Dulverton.
Note that all maps on this site are only indicative.
You should never set out without the correct OS map.
At Simonsbath it enjoys a luxuriant meander through
trees which were planted two centuries ago in a bid to create a
shelter zone. But once clear of the village, the river becomes a
true moorland waterway – a strip of blue that forever reflects
the curious Ocean-borne light that illuminates these westerly reaches
of the plateau.
It is in the general direction this glorious riverine gulch that
this hike meanders. The stretch between Simonsbath and the dramatic
knoll known as Cow Castle is as wildly scenic as anywhere in the
region. It is a clean cut landscape broken only by the curves of
the hills as the stoop elegantly toward the stream.
It also a mournful one. At leas it is if you are haunted by the
gruesome tale of Anna Maria Burgess who was murdered by her father
hereabouts 147 years ago. More of her and her wicked parent later,
first we must find the beginning of this hike.
In a bid to make this a circular route, I took
the high road and returned by the low road. Both roads, or paths,
begin and end at the same place – in Birchcleave, the beautiful
hangar of beeches (not birches) that looms above Simonsbath directly
to the east.
Instead of taking the main river path, I followed the signpost
to Pickedstones. The path climbs out through the hangar and soon
we find ourselves in the airy fields north of the Barle, and proceed
in a south easterly direction, following the river valley via its
neighbouring ridge, passing the farm at Winstitchen to mount the
big shoulder of hill that divides the Barle with its tributary,
the small and secretive White Water.
As the spur falls away to allow for the meeting of the two waterways,
I veered south descending the contours at the diagonal so that I
could make directly for the extraordinary Cow Castle – said
by many to be the most beautiful and interesting of all Exmoor’s
So extraordinary and fantastically situated is the location, that
it’s little wonder that early man made use of it as a defensive
site. You can still see the ramparts, but it is the unexpected steepness
of the knoll that gives it an air of impregnability.
White Water would probably, long ago, have veered
to the north of the knoll in order to join the Barle – then,
after countless centuries of gnawing away at the softer shillets
to the east, it must have eventually broken through to the south
after eroding its way past the little sister hill known as the Calf.
Such isolated knolls are not a common feature on Exmoor, though
you might be forgiven for thinking so on this walk as we will be
passing a carbon copy a mile upstream.
For that is our route now: we turn right and follow the riverside
path back towards Simonsbath, and just before we come to Flexbarrow
(as the other knoll is known) we find ourselves looking at the stark
old ruins of the Wheal Eliza. A century and a half ago this mine
would have looked very different – test diggings had shown
the ground contained copper and manganese as well as iron –
and, despite the remote location, money was invested to extract
For a decade this lonely corner was a hive of industry as miners
sunk a 300 foot shaft and installed a large water wheel to run the
pumps. For a while it even looked as though the area would become
an Exmoor version of the Klondike - 60 percent metallic ore was
found and the local landowner, Frederic Knight, was persuaded to
start work on a ludicrously ambitious trans-moorland railway that
would take the material to the sea at Porlock Weir.
It all ended in tears. The mining partnership broke up with mutual
recriminations all round, and central Exmoor was saved from the
indignity of having it bowels torn asunder by a mining rush.
The Wheal Eliza may have died a premature death
but, as I mentioned before, it has its own gruesome footnote. It
was in one of the shafts that the body of little Anna Maria Burgess
was found months after her truly awful father had done her to death.
The entire tragedy was recorded by the remarkable Rev William Thornton
who was Simonsbath’s first curate. Indeed, without Thornton’s
tireless efforts as self-appointed police officer and detective,
it is likely that William Burgess would have ever been brought to
Self appointed, by the way, because in those days the nearest
high ranking police officer was located some 35 miles away the other
side of Taunton.
Anyway, the intriguing and harrowing story of Anna Maria deserves
fuller mention than we have time for here. Suffice to say, the father
was hanged, but not before he told the curate why he killed his
daughter: “The child was in the way, sir - in my way and in
everybody else’s way - and I thought she’d be better
out of the way.”
A stony-hearted mitigation if ever there was one. And one you
can mull upon as you make your way back along this most beautiful
of river valleys to the warmth and comfort of the inn at Simonsbath.