It was the appearance of the Rottweiler that first suggested it was not going to be my day. I had decided not to wait for a late breakfast as I wanted to be on the move, so I said that I would let myself out. I was creeping quietly downstairs when the beast emerged on the top landing. I beat it to the porch and had the inner door firmly shut before it got there. It might have been friendly; but at six in the morning I had no intention of finding out.
I glanced up at the sky as I emerged from the pub. It was a cold clear dawn, brisk walking weather. Passing through the silent village I followed the footpath south. At the edge of a sloping field I stopped and looked back. I could see the church and the rooftops of the first houses, and far beyond them bright in the morning air the long brown slopes of Exmoor. I paused to take a photo, then turned and hurried on.
I was struck several times during the walk by the number of sheep I encountered. I had thought of Devon as dairy country, since it is so well known for cream; and though I saw stately herds of cattle, they seemed to be far outnumbered by the flocks of sheep grazing those rich pastures. And not just on the moors: from Witheridge to Morchard Bishop the air was loud with the plaintive cry of lambs, and the ewes' lament. It was fine country, and a fine morning to be up and about. The footpath passed through crooked fields, down shady hedgerows where yellow primroses grew, past damp copses dark with bluebells, through farmsteads and hamlets with queer-sounding names: Wonham and Washford Pyne, and Black Dog. I reached Morchard Bishop at ten, as the church bells rang out over the sunlit meadows. It was Sunday morning so the peal may not have been intended for me, but I might have been forgiven for thinking so. Morchard is a very pleasant village. At least a dozen people stopped to smile and wish me a good morning; and by the time I had reached the end of the street I was starting to feel like royalty on walkabout. It did not seem far-fetched in such a friendly place to suppose that the good citizens had hastened to toll a welcome to an approaching stranger!
I sat on a bench by the war memorial, eating sandwiches and resisting the temptation to wave graciously to passers-by. I was tired, and both my feet were aching, particularly the right one where a blister was starting to develop across the base of the toes. I kept to the lanes for a couple of miles in order to give it a rest, but by the time I reached Morchard Road it was if anything worse. I stripped off the sock and was shocked at what I saw. Whether it was the sudden release from the constricting shoe or the effect of thirty miles of hard walking I don't know; but the whole foot was badly swollen. The sole was a mess, and so sore that I could hardly stand on it.
I don't know what the proper treatment is for blisters, but all I could think of was to burst the thing; an unpleasant process, and not particularly helpful. It felt a great deal more painful afterwards. My walking shoes were still wet from the crossing of Exmoor; so I plastered it as best I could and put on some thin socks and a pair of light training shoes. This meant that I would have to stay on the roads, but from the map it looked as though I could remain more or less on course by following the lane through Down St. Mary. A signpost pointed to Bow, but where Bow was in relation to the Two Moors Way I had no way of knowing. Although it was mentioned in the text, the map extract in the guide book did not extend far enough to show it. I picked up my pack and hobbled off up the lane. It felt as though I was treading on broken glass. The one faint consolation was this brief sentence on page 89: Bow has shops and a pub.
I pushed open the door of the Kings Arms, and immediately wondered what sort of a place I had strayed into. It looked rough! A couple of young guys with shaven heads glanced up from the pool table as I entered. Over by the bar, two long-haired chaps in black leather jackets sat talking to the barman. The landlady, a large buxom woman with a fine collection of tattoos and a nose ring, asked me what I wanted. What do you go for, a pint of lager or a hasty exit?
I chose the beer, and ended up staying for four. That pub was the one of the friendliest, most welcoming places I found on the Two Moors Way. It was impossible to sit by the bar and remain a stranger for long. Everyone talked to each other and to me. A menagerie of cats and kids emerged from the corners, adding to the general confusion. Impossible, too, to feel sorry for yourself. My blistered feet were forgotten. I stayed far longer than I had intended, and it was only the realization that if I did not make a move soon I might not be capable of walking at all that finally induced me to leave my stool and head for the door.
I bought a map at a garage further down the road, and it was then that I realized how far I had strayed off course. I had hoped to reach Chagford that night, but as I hobbled down the street it was obvious that I was in no state to walk there. In the White Hart I inquired about buses, or a taxi. They kindly let me use the phone behind the bar, but there was no transport available. Then someone said "What about Ginger? You give Ginger a call - he'll take you". It sounded improbable, but it worked. Half an hour later a vintage Volkswagen Passat pulled up outside.
Ginger turned out to be an old ex-soldier, though with his bushy white beard he looked more nautical than anything. He told me he did a bit of part-time taxi-ing in those parts, mainly collecting drinking parties from country pubs. I had been warned that he was the slowest taxi driver in Devon, but as we had already agreed a very reasonable price for the trip and I was in no hurry, that did not bother me in the slightest. He was a great guy to talk to, and one of the nicest characters I met. I was sorry when the journey came to an end.
He dropped me at the start of the footpath that runs beneath Castle Drogo. The Teign here flows through a steep-sided gorge, thickly wooded; with outcrops of white stone that reminded me somehow of the landscape of Provence. I climbed up to Hunter's Tor and looked back. Away through the mouth of the gorge I could see the sinister shape of Dartmoor. Black clouds were rolling down from the high tors, threatening rain. It did not seem wise to linger where I was, so I headed back down the path and made for Chagford.
In the woods near the river I surprised two fallow deer. With a rattle of hooves they scrambled off along the track. I had not been walking long when the sky darkened and the storm stuck. Lightening flickered out over the moor. Branches bent beneath the first fury of the wind; the smooth surface of the river was scarred and broken; to my left the hills grew grey as a torrent of rain came down. I limped along as best I could, the hood of my jacket pulled over my face. After a couple of miles I came to a bridge where a narrow lane crossed the stream. The tarmac shone like jet in the flaring light of passing cars; sheets of water washed down, flooding the ditches. As I reached the main square of the village I took temporary refuge in a shop doorway and pulled out my list of places to stay. The Ring O' Bells was close by, so I squelched in there. They were full, which was not what I wanted to hear on such an afternoon, but the kind landlady phoned the Bullers Arms further down the street. Thankfully there was a bed free. She came to the door and pointed me in the right direction.
I was met at the pub by a couple of friendly girls. They showed me through to the yard, where the outbuildings have been converted into some very comfortable rooms. Why the place is not mentioned in the official list of the Two Moors Way Association I do not know. Both food and accommodation were excellent, and they like walkers - even those that have been out in the rain for hours! I talked to the Australian landlord next morning, and in the course of conversation he told me that the English Tourist Board demand a fat fee to list a pub or hotel. Tourist Board recommendations, it would seem, are not based on the needs of tourists, but on which establishments have the means to pay. I hope that the Association has not sold its soul in similar fashion. I must say that I liked the Bullers Arms very much. It is a down-to-earth place where muddy trampers are made very welcome.
How I got mixed up in the Chagford football team's celebration of victory over their bitter rivals is somewhat hard to explain, especially as I don't remember much about it myself. I have a dim recollection of talking to some complete strangers about something or other, and much singing. Beyond that, memory draws a prudent veil over the events of the evening. Perhaps it is just as well!