Category Archives: Features

A selection of articles from previous editions of Exmoor Magazine.

Down Memory Lane: Do You Have A Story to Tell?

We have received some very nice feedback about the piece about Jack Woollacott, written by Sue South, which appears in the current issue of Exmoor Magazine. People have told us that they very much like the cover too, which features an old picture of Jack.

We are very grateful to Jack’s family for talking to Sue in their kitchen back in the winter – and for lending us the two lovely pictures – which we took to Minehead to have scanned.

If you have a good story about the traditional way of life or characters of Exmoor which you think might be suitable for inclusion in the magazine please get in touch with us, via email, or write to us at Exmoor Magazine, PO Box 281, Parracombe, Devon EX31 4WW. Alternatively you can call 0845 224 1203. Please do not send precious pictures in the first instance as we would prefer to deal with any photos by hand than risk them in the post, unless by prior arrangement.

Stories will need to have a good picture or more to go with them. We were lucky enough to be trusted with the two pictures of Jack, which were taken apart by the expert team at Courtyard Farming so that they could be scanned and then put back together again, with new acid-free backs and spacers to keep them in good condition. If you have old photos which you need to keep safe it’s worth having them scanned, and checking the state of your frames – for example, it’s a good idea to make sure that the photos are not touching the glass, that direct sunlight is not likely to damage them and that the backs or mounts are not damaging the pictures. If you want advice we recommend taking your old photos into Courtyard on Friday Street.

Behind the Scenes with Barnstaple Fire Brigade

From Winter Issue 2013
WORDS by Avril Stone

Members of the Red Watch crew, from left to right: Adam Jones, Stuart Kalbert, Watch manager Pete Merrilees, Scott Martin and Martin Lord. Photo by Avril Stone.
Members of the Red Watch crew, from left to right: Adam Jones, Stuart Kalbert, Watch manager Pete Merrilees, Scott Martin and Martin Lord. Photo by Avril Stone.

Today we are almost anaesthetised by screeching alarms, wailing sirens and flashing blue lights. But the sight of a red fire engine somehow still catches our attention. Where are they going? Why? What’s happened?

I’m sure we are all guilty of taking our police, fire and ambulance services for granted as they’ve been in existence throughout our lives. They have undergone some stringent reorganisation in recent years and a visit to Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Red Watch crew at Barnstaple Fire Station gave me an insight into their modern-day operation.

The earliest engines were very small and were carried by four men or put on skids and dragged to the fire. In 1829 engineer George Braithwaite built the first steam fire engine at his works in London. It was called ‘Novelty’. However, the Novelty was not received gladly by the fire brigades or the insurance companies and they destroyed this new invention – yes, actually destroyed it! (Later the Americans took on the idea and made a success of it.)

Here in Britain we advanced from manpower to horsepower, and fire engines were pulled by two or four horses. The firemen would travel on the appliance, seated on the sides or standing on the back step. This was not only uncomfortable but dangerous, as any bumps, potholes or quick turns had men flying off the engine in all directions!

In 2007 the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service was founded from the two counties’ fire services. The present service includes Plymouth and Torbay.

Over the years fire call-outs have become fewer in number, thanks to improved precautions such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems, better technology in building materials and excellent work in educating the public in fire prevention in their homes. As a result, the fire brigade has now become a service with an emphasis on training their crews in all aspects of rescue, as well as fire fighting.

Barnstaple has one of three specialist rescue teams which cover an area from Bridgwater in Somerset to Camels Head in Plymouth. There are three disciplines involved in their rescue techniques – animal, water and line – and with a grant from DEFRA this new service started three years ago. Training involves animal rescue at Bicton Agricultural College, a water-awareness course which includes white-water rescue, and a line course in rope work where crews learn how to rescue people and animals from heights such as cliffs, scaffolding, cranes and buildings.

Red Watch rescuing a pedigree beef bull at a farm near Umberleigh.  Photo by Avril Stone.
Red Watch rescuing a pedigree beef bull at a farm near Umberleigh. Photo by Avril Stone.

The fire service has been the butt of many a joke regarding the rescue of cats from trees, but now we are talking about the seriously big stuff! Being based in a rural area meant that our fire service traditionally had to improvise with ideas and equipment as each situation arose. On occasions these involved animals – often of the large, frightened and therefore extremely dangerous variety (not to mention their value). Now, with their appropriate training and specialist equipment, the service feels confident when it is called in to deal with most sporting, climbing, freak weather or work-related situations.

Red Watch manager Pete Merrilees said that call-outs to farms where cows have fallen into slurry pits and are in danger of drowning are frequent. Previously a fire crew would have tried to haul the unfortunate animal out with a rope, which was hard work and caused damage to the beast. Now they have equipment that threads a strop under its midriff, is then harnessed to lifting gear and the animal is safely removed from the slurry.

Pete pointed out that cattle and horses react in the same way when they are in life-threatening situations. They are quiet when the lifting harness is secured, but as soon as their legs touch the ground, it’s time to stand well back, as the frightened animal takes off at great speed. A vet usually attends these rescues.

Slurry pits pose a threat to the crews’ safety due to toxic gases, and the men sometimes have to wear breathing apparatus.

When it comes to training, the rescue crews are very lucky to have the assistance of Barnstaple’s Trinity Church, which allows them access to the church tower to practise rope work by lowering casualties from great heights on scaffolding inside the tower.

Dobbin, the horse manikin at Barnstaple Fire Station.  Photo by Avril Stone.
Dobbin, the horse manikin at Barnstaple Fire Station. Photo by Avril Stone.

Setting up a full-scale rescue of a horse and rider on Exmoor takes a little more organisation and of course a real horse can’t be used. This is where ‘Dobbin’, the full-sized horse manikin takes a bow. When I was introduced to him at his home in Barnstaple Fire Station he reminded me of Muffin the Mule (how many of us will remember this TV puppet from the 1950s?!) but I soon learned he was no lightweight when I tried to lift his head.

Inter-agency training  exercise involving Exmoor Search and Rescue and the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service.  This photo show a simulated horse-riding accident.  Courtesy Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service.
Inter-agency training exercise involving Exmoor Search and Rescue and the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service. This photo show a simulated horse-riding accident. Courtesy Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service.

The special rescue crews practise with Dobbin in order to gain experience in handling lifting equipment. This is where we bring in the real thing! Pete explained that most firemen have little to do with horses. It is a well-known saying that they can bite at one end, kick at the other and are uncomfortable in the middle!

Chivenor stables where owner Adele Oldham shows the fire crew how to handle the horses and how to lead them on a rein.  Photo by Avril Stone.
Chivenor stables where owner Adele Oldham shows the fire crew how to handle the horses and how to lead them on a rein. Photo by Avril Stone.

In order to help Red Watch feel more at ease with these majestic creatures the team is welcomed at Chivenor riding stables where crew members are taught by owner Adele Oldham to handle horses and lead them on a rein. None of this expertise can be gained with Dobbin!

The third rescue discipline – water – was much called upon earlier this year when we experienced the dreadful flooding. Most people can remember hearing about the woman who was swept from the vehicle she was travelling in with her husband and daughter at Umberleigh, near Barnstaple. The River Taw swept her into the raging torrent and luckily she managed to cling to a tree. The special rescue crew from Barnstaple came to her assistance in a rigid inflatable boat (RIB). Two of the crew received commendations.

Red Watch’s crew manager, Wayne Keenan, explained that when there is a major incident such as these floods all the rescue services are brought together – police, fire, ambulance, Exmoor Search and Rescue, RAF rescue helicopters, the RNLI and the Coastguard. All of the specialist rescue teams are put on stand-by and are located at strategic holding points. On the night of the Umberleigh incident Red Watch was at Junction 27 on the M5 motorway and it was the RNLI team from Wales that was operating out of Barnstaple.

There was another serious incident at Sheepwash where a four-wheel-drive vehicle had been driven through a ford and been washed away. A mother and her 13-year-old daughter had been clinging to a tree for some hours before the fire service rescued them. One of the firemen at the scene could see that neither could hold onto the tree for much longer and so, with little thought for his own safety, he went ahead and rescued them both.

Pete Merrilees said that many of these incidents occur when the
floodwater is much deeper and faster moving than the drivers expect. It’s good to know that when disasters happen, our special rescue teams can step up to the mark. They have been described as a ‘national asset’, ready to be deployed to anywhere in the country whenever they are needed.


Eating Out at The Luttrell Arms, Dunster

From Winter Issue 2013
WORDS by Adrian Tierney Jones

luttrell arms 2It’s Saturday lunchtime in the back bar of the Luttrell Arms and there’s a genial hum of conversation in the air.  At the bar, a local man lounges on a stool, his hand clasped around a glass of Guinness, while next to him a couple of ramblers, their morning’s walk done, anticipate a welcome glass of cider.  There’s no bland background music, just the murmur of satisfied drinkers and diners and the clink of glasses and cutlery.  Elsewhere in this historic, rambling building there are other rooms – all very different – which are just as convivial and lively.

As I enter the back bar (the Old Kitchen Bar) the first thing I note is a hint of wood smoke that has lasted throughout the summer, a reminder of last winter and the colder weather that will surely come within a couple of months.  A sense of the past also lingers about the bar.  The décor is traditional: swords, old muskets and antlers are scattered about on the walls, pleasingly old fashioned.  To the side of the bar there’s a massive fireplace (note the old bread oven in the wall at the back) and on a winter’s day, with logs merrily crackling away, I can think of nowhere I would like to be more, comfortable in the adjoining high-backed settle with a glass of beer to hand.

luttrell arms 3Elsewhere, the Boot Bar is at the front, and next to it there’s a comfortable parlour-like room complete with armchairs and views out onto Dunster High Street and its famous Yarn Market.  This would be an ideal place for afternoon tea and maybe a scone or two, whilst watching Dunster go about its business.

There is more: a dining room beyond the back bar plus a secluded courtyard.  However, if the weather is fine then I would suggest that you climb the steps to the secret garden at the rear of the inn.  Here there’s a view of Dunster’s fairytale castle and the town’s jumbled red roofs – this space is an airy and modern contrast to the ‘olde worlde’ feel within.  There’s a space for every mood at the Luttrell.

luttrell arms 4History has left its mark as well, which is initially emphasised by the fact that, from the front, it looks like the sort of place medieval pilgrims would stop at on their way to a holy shrine or an ancient manor that has withstood the vicissitudes of time.  It’s certainly true that there was an element of spirituality about the Luttrell when it was first built in the fifteenth century as a townhouse for the Abbot of nearby Cleeve Abbey, but the more worldly pleasures of food, drink and accommodation have been its modus operandi since the seventeenth century.  It was not always called the Luttrell either. During the English Civil War, when it was headquarters for Admiral Blake as his forces besieged the Royalist castle, it was called the Ship and would be known thus until the late-eighteenth century.

Back in the present it’s time to eat.  The bar menu is a solid and dependable selection of robust pub classics, which, given that the restaurant has a more upmarket selection of dishes, is how it should be.  There are sandwiches – Coronation chicken, tuna mayonnaise (rather good I’m told by the woman on the next table), crayfish (all £5.95) and a delicious-sounding Mediterranean-style sharing platter including Parma ham, chorizo, feta and olives (£13.95).  The mains include a homemade burger (£11.75) and a rack of ribs with a ‘secret’ BBQ sauce (£10.95).  However, I go for the homemade fishcake and chips (£9.95). It’s a great choice.  The fish and potato mix (with a few prawns) is soft and fluffy yet firm, while the outside is crisp and crunchy; this is also how I would describe the fabulous homemade chips (pubs serving oven chips is a particular bugbear).

As an accompaniment I have a pint of Sharp’s Amber Pilsner, which is dry and bittersweet with a hint of hop-induced pepperiness in the finish.  It is excellent.  Exmoor Ale and Otter Amber are also available, while the cider comes from Thatchers.  I note that every Tuesday night a curry buffet is available.  Ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible.

The Luttrell went into administration in the spring of 2012, but its new owners have remade it into a dependable and desirable place to have a drink and a bite to eat.  And, of course, if you fancy staying a night, there are 28 rooms to choose from.  Aspiring ghost-hunters are recommended to pick Room 25, which according to Chris Denham in The Local (1999), is said to be haunted!

The Luttrell Arms, Dunster; 01643 821555.

The Gathering

WORDS by Cindy Cowling
PHOTOS by Andrew Hobbs
From issue 64, autumn 2013

Ponies have foraged on Exmoor, adapting to its ever-changing, harsh climate since the last Ice Age thaw around 10,000 years ago and, it is believed, they pre-dated human inhabitants.  When humans did come, they brought change.  Initially the ponies were hunted for food.  Later they were captured and became beasts of burden, working the land as well as being ridden by men, sometimes all day hunting.  During the Second World War, the number of Exmoor ponies plummeted, with only around 26 of the 44 blood lines remaining by the end of the conflict.  The Exmoor pony became an endangered species.

Thankfully, today the pony’s value, in terms of conservation and versatility as a tough, sound riding and driving pony, has been regenerated.  Behind the idyllic scenes of Exmoor ponies roaming the moorlands, there is an army of farmers, volunteers, inspectors, rangers and charities, who are working tirelessly to secure the breed’s future.  An important part of the pony’s management, which takes place each autumn, is an event known as ‘the gathering’.  It is a task that requires great skill and knowledge – not only of the ponies, but of the moor itself. Ponies are gathered in from their moorland enclosures and herded to their owner’s farm, where they are inspected, sorted and a proportion sold.

Currently there are around 16 individually-owned Exmoor pony herds, some breeding, some non-breeding.  In 2012, I was privileged to attend the gathering of one of the largest; the Anchor herd includes around 80 animals that live on Winsford Hill.   The Anchor herd is owned by farmers David and Emma Wallace, and has been in the family for generations.

Normally the gathering begins on or around the third Saturday in October; however, in 2012, due to the wet season it was slightly later in the year.

At 9.30am, at Mounsy Hill Gate, I watched as the fog swirled around my feet.  People, horses and cars began to congregate at our meeting point. I noted an apparently trunk-less tree some yards away; its bare arms, reaching south, held clear-pearl water droplets formed from the cold damp air, which swelled and then fell, patting the bracken bed below.

gathering 01“We’re hoping the fog will lift,” David Wallace remarked cheerfully, if not convincingly, as he and his wife Emma greeted old friends and new.  David rode a fine cob, with ‘the head of a duchess and the backside of a cook’; I could have taken her home!  Three ridden Exmoor ponies from the nearby Moorland Mousie Trust joined the group to lend their support. One Exmoor pony approached, cocking a ‘toad eye’ and avoiding the puddle in its path.  “She won’t go through,” the rider told us, “She thinks it could be a bog.”

Warnings of bogs and such things might have come in useful to the lad on the trials bike, who was later ‘claimed’ (and, thankfully, unhurt except for his pride) when crossing a river.  Some half-hour passed and David gathered his helpers.  He welcomed everyone and thanked them for their assistance. Some visitors had come from afar, but all were made welcome. However, David asked that spectators did not get in front of the ponies as ‘heading them off’ once they were travelling towards the Ashwick estate, their homestead, would be very frustrating!

gathering 03With several riders gathered, they were asked to fan out as usual, so the ponies could be brought down quietly. The older mares would start to make their way in, but one or two of the more strongly willed mares should be prevented from slipping through the lines.  And, without much more ado, the riders set off into the mist.

“How long does it take?” I asked Emma Wallace. “Usually between two and three-and-a-half hours, sometimes over a couple of days,” she said, making her way towards the Land Rover in order to follow events.  I went ahead to my designated spot beside a hedge; I was told the ponies would approach this spot.  And, later that morning, they did exactly that. First, through the lifting mist, came the faintest sound of drumming.  Towards me they came, eyes bright and keen, nostrils wide checking for danger.  The ground now shook as I stood transfixed, worried I would be in their way.  But the lead mare, flanked by, possibly, a daughter, who one day may take her dam’s place in the herd, knew where she was going, even if I didn’t! Barely able to draw breath, the herd passed by, their ‘roebuck-coloured’ tummies already darkening, their coats thickening, double insulating, in preparation for the winter that lay ahead. Hard, black shiny feet now clattered on tarmac, as well-grown foals stayed close to their mothers’ sides.

Moorland Mousie Trust instructor, Linzi Green, told me, “Each owner has a different strategy for gathering their Exmoor pony herd.  When helping with the Anchor herd, some of the older mares know the routine and when they hear us coming, start to make their way home.  Others,” she added, “have a mind of their own!”  The Moorland Mousie Trust charity takes a representation of Exmoor ponies from herd owners that have asked them.  “Over the last seven years the trust has taken around 230 ponies, nearly 600 in total if you include ponies taken before we had charitable status.”  The priority is to break in ponies and find them new homes on a foster scheme which can be either temporary or permanent.  The centre is open for much of the year, enjoying visits from groups across the board from rotary to art, walkers to schools and birthday parties.  During the summer months there are escorted Exmoor pony rides and, for the less energetic, delicious tea and cakes in the rebuilt Green Room, provided by Foxes Academy students on a couple of days per week.

gathering 02After the gathering, once they are settled at Ashwick, the animals are inspected by the Exmoor Pony Society (EPS).  Formed in 1921, for almost a century the EPS has been the guardian of the breed and is dedicated to safeguarding the future of the Exmoor pony, being responsible for the Exmoor pony stud book, inspecting, registering, licensing Exmoor stallions and maintaining the breed’s genetic diversity.  In more recent years, DNA samples have been used to give a much clearer picture of bloodlines.  The EPS also encourages the breeding of pure-bred Exmoor ponies, organises shows and promotes the ponies through publicity, a website, literature and films.  The Society attends events with an exhibition unit around the UK and abroad.

All the foals are microchipped and then the breeder decides whether they also wish the eligible foals to be registered in the main section of the studbook.  If this is the case, foals are branded by one of the Society’s inspectors; the brand shows the herd and an individual number.  Branding with a hot iron is controversial, but it provides a unique visual identification mark. While the Society continues to look for viable alternatives, there is yet to be agreed a better way to instantly identify an animal – and therefore its owner – in the case of an emergency or injury, where quick decisions have to be made for the welfare of the animal.

With their foals weaned and sorted, the older Anchor herd mares, without so much as a backward glance, make their way back to the hill.  With a gestation period of around 11 months, or 340 days, some will already be carrying next year’s foal.  Younger mares and brood mares due to foal late are kept ‘in ground’ around the farm.  And the stallion is kept home.

The Wallace family likes to keep a representation of ponies for the breed show in August and the foal show in November.  Three or four colt foals are kept as prospective stallions for the future, with the remainder being either sold privately or going to the Moorland Mousie Trust, as conservation grazers or for pony trekking.

Exmoor ponies have been gathered from the moor to the fields at Ashwick since Sir Thomas Acland was warden of the Royal Forest in 1797; long may the tradition continue.  Here’s to an amazing pony, living in an amazing place, alongside amazing people.

Birth of an Exmoor Pony - Prince Benedikt

Here's a little video we found of an Exmoor Pony being born and taking its first wobbly steps.



Albert Beer Remembered

WORDS by Albert’s son, Sean Beer
From issue 64, autumn 2013

Albert started writing for the Exmoor Magazine in the summer of 1998, its third edition.  His last article was published in issue 63, a few weeks after he died.  It was very poignant to go into the dining room and see the various documents that he had used for the article laid out on the table where he had left them.  During that time he wrote 35 editions of the ‘Farming News’ and 30 other articles including the popular series, ‘Characters of Exmoor’, which amounted to 20 interviews with some of the people who make Exmoor what it is; a very special place.

In the spring of 2007 he ‘retired’ and wrote a piece on 60 years of his Exmoor experiences.   This article did describe some aspects of his life, but, looking back on it, it didn’t do that life justice; it was never going to, as Albert preferred writing about other people even though he had so many of his own stories.  One Christmas a few years ago I bought him a digital recorder hoping that he would record some of his memories.  Unfortunately it is still in the box.  He was going to write a biography to be called ‘Teddies and Greens’, because, as the son of farm workers, that’s what he mostly lived off when he was young (all home grown by his father Edwin, or ‘Ned’).  He never started it.

So I sat down and decided to list the various areas of his life.  It turned out to be a long list.  First and foremost he was a Christian family man.  Albert was born to Edwin and Margaret on 20 February 1935.  The family were members of Lovacott Chapel and Granddad ran the Sunday School as well as acting as a preacher.  His strong family upbringing and Christian faith and belief in integrity stayed with him throughout his life, though Albert was to roam far from home before returning to his beloved West Country.

Albert and a friend drinking from the source of the Exe as young boys (c. late 1940s).
Albert and a friend drinking from the source of the Exe as young boys (c. late 1940s).

At school he was a very bright young man and once told me that he deliberately misspelt words in spelling tests; sometimes it didn’t pay to show that you were clever.  That said, he passed his 11-plus and won a County Scholarship to West Buckland School (WBS).   You need to bear in mind that Albert’s parents were broad North Devonian and a great-aunt once told me that he had an accent so broad that people couldn’t understand him in Barnstaple.  The family came from generations of farm workers, smallholders and craftsmen and women.  At home, the Doctor called him Beer while he was expected to call him Sir.   To gain an understanding of this social dynamic you need to read some of Henry Williamson’s books on village life, such as The Labouring Life or Tales of a Devon Village; books that Albert loved.

‘Run the straight race’ – a young Albert crossing the line first, c. late 1950s.
‘Run the straight race’ – a young Albert crossing the line first, c. late 1950s.

This humble background was to prove a problem for some of the young gentlemen at WBS, until they discovered that actually Albert was quite a good chap and also a fine sportsman; and that was always important at WBS.  He played rugby and competed in athletics for his school, university and various clubs.  He was also a fine rifle shot who competed regularly for the WBS Veteran’s Team at Bisley and against the school.

He left school in 1953 and went to work for Jack Andrew at Umberleigh Barton, the site of the new North Devon Show Ground.  Jack was a football fan, but also appreciated sporting endeavour across the board and used to let Albert go on a Saturday afternoon to play for Barnstaple Rugby Club.  He then went on to Reading University and studied for a Degree in Agriculture and a Post Graduate Diploma in Poultry Husbandry and thence to the National Agricultural Service (NAS) where he met Vivian.  They married in 1960.  Albert’s career in the civil service took him and Viv to the USA (he won a prestigious Kellogg’s Fellowship to study at Cornell University) and all around the UK, as a teacher, lecturer and adviser.  He published many papers and was one of the world’s experts on the hatching of chicks.  Ultimately he became disillusioned with government cutbacks which seriously affected organisations such as MAFF, ADAS (for whom he worked), Liscombe and the Grassland Research Institute – all working in support of farming and food – and he took early retirement back to North Devon where a new life began.

Albert was a real country man and one of nature’s gentlemen.

Some of you may have met him through the pages of this magazine, the North Devon Journal (for whom he was a farming correspondent) or other papers and magazines, the television and radio, talking about farming, food and the countryside.  He was a real country man and one of nature’s gentlemen.  He was also a gardener, having learnt these skills at his father’s side, and could be seen exhibiting and judging at horticultural shows far and wide.

albert beer 01
Horticultural success, c.1975: Albert with his wife Viv holding a prize-winning cake and their daughter Sue holding a piece of her brother’s forge work.

Albert was an enthusiast with passion and courage.  Sometimes people found this difficult, particularly when he was campaigning for the family farm, his beloved local breeds of livestock – particularly the Closewool and Devon Cattle – or on other countryside issues such as his support for field sports.  This work paid off; the success of Devon Cattle is a testament to that.  But he was always Albert.  There is no more space for me to talk about his stories, the various events he hosted, his hospitality and the way he and Viv loved to look after people.  He was a friend and brother to many.

In 2010 Albert and Vivian raised the money to send a dairy cow to a family in Africa, in celebration of their Golden Wedding anniversary, through the charity appropriately called Send a Cow which helps families in Africa to grow enough food to eat, sell their produce and develop small businesses that last. They do this by providing livestock, seeds, training and on-going support, enabling families to leave poverty behind; we think that at times our lives are tough, but in many ways we have no idea.  In memory of Albert’s life, friends and family have donated £1,500 which will pay for two dairy cows; almost a herd!  Dad will be smiling ‘in glory’ as he called it.

Main photo: North Devon Show, 1988, and Albert with Champson Bribery 29th led by Richard Dart (then aged 15).  Mrs Ivy Kift is presenting the Trophy.  (Courtesy Marcus Bath)


Calvert Trust Exmoor, the Conquest Equestrian Centre and Foxes Academy

WORDS by Mel Roach, available to read in issue 62, spring 2013

Education and recreational opportunities are vital for anyone with learning difficulties, not only for their therapeutic benefits, but because they promote a sense of inclusion and help individuals realise their own potential in creative, exciting ways.Exmoor is blessed with a number of nationally-recognised, innovative establishments offering the learning disabled a plethora of recreational, vocational and therapeutic activities and courses.

its what you can do 02Fulfilment of personal potential lies at the heart of The Calvert Trust’s philosophy.   The Trust takes its name from Raisley Calvert, a lifelong friend of William Wordsworth, who gave the poet a bursary and rent-free cottage in the Lake District so that he might realise his potential.  Established in 1978, The Calvert Trust provides outdoor adventure and recreation in the countryside at its three residential activity centres, all situated in some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of England.  The Calvert Trust Exmoor opened in 1992 and is based at Wistlandpound, enjoying the exclusive use of Wistlandpound Reservoir for their water sports.  The residential site was once a Victorian model farm but now opens its doors to over 3,500 residential visitors a year.

An intriguing variety of activities is on offer at The Calvert Trust Exmoor

Calvert Trust Exmoor: It's What You Can Do That Counts

, where those of all ages and abilities are welcome and something can be tailored for everyone.  Day activities are available for groups and families and there are residential breaks and courses for both groups and individuals.  Friends and family are welcomed and positively encouraged – the Trust have a ‘complete integration’ policy where friends and family are concerned.   With the help of the Trust’s qualified and highly-experienced instructors, families get to do things together they simply couldn’t do otherwise.  “We see ourselves as being quite unique,” says the Trust’s Rob Lott.  Indeed, it certainly can boost a young person’s confidence when they discover an ability to climb higher or be braver on the zip wire than Mum, Dad or siblings. “It’s not just a holiday,” enthuses Rob.  “The activities can establish a new-found self confidence that is taken back into daily life; it can be quite life-changing”.

With the help of the Trust’s qualified and highly-experienced instructors, families get to do things together they simply couldn’t do otherwise.

Activities on offer include horse riding and carriage driving (The Calvert Trust is an experienced provider of all equine-based therapies), climbing, bushcraft and survival (including fire lighting) and storytelling, and watersports, including sailing.  You can gain Royal Yachting Association (RYA) or British Canoe Union qualifications at The Calvert Trust too.

The centre itself is equipped with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, licensed bar and games room, quiet spaces, a sensory room and children’s play area.  ‘In-depth’ residential courses are available, which include Making Music weeks, Able-Bodied Autism residential weeks, Horse Experience courses and carers’ breaks.   All activities, meals and accommodation are included in the tariff, with bursaries available in certain situations.   Indeed, thanks to generous support from The Dulverton Trust, the charity is able to offer young carers, aged 18 or under, a substantial discount on young carers’ breaks – an all-inclusive young carer’s break costs just £30.

For more information visit or telephone 01598 763221.

its what you can do 01The therapeutic benefits of working with horses are well documented and at the Conquest Equestrian Centre in Norton Fitzwarren, near Taunton, they specialise in equine activities for people with all kinds of disabilities.  The centre offers riding lessons, both in groups and individually, as well as an interesting mix of other riding and non-riding, equine-related therapies, which include carriage driving, sensory sessions with a stationary bareback horse, stable management and back riding for children.

Back riding involves the child sitting on the horse with the instructor seated behind them.   This therapy has been shown to be effective in encouraging emerging speech in non-verbal autistic children.  The movements of horses apparently open learning receptors in the brain and the non-facing communications from the instructor seem to make some non-verbal children more receptive to retaining information.   When a slow walk is coaxed into a swifter trotting pace, the ensuing excitement has facilitated speech in some previously completely non-verbal children.  Children with core stability issues have also responded well to back riding.

In addition to these services, The Conquest Equestrian Centre holds monthly Pony Club Badge sessions where young people under 21, who do not own a pony, may train for the Pony Club’s nationally-recognised achievement badges and riding proficiency awards, providing they are a member of the Pony Club!  There is also a Pony Club residential three-day break taken at the beginning of the summer holidays.  For suitable candidates, the centre also offers a work-based diploma equivalent to NVQ Level 1 in Horse Care.  The Conquest Equestrian Centre receives no outside funding from government or elsewhere so new volunteers and sponsors are always welcome.

For more information about about Conquest’s services and volunteering opportunities visit or telephone 01823 633614.

its what you can do 03bFor learning-disabled young people aged 16-25 looking for vocational training, Foxes Academy in Minehead is an innovative project which has been praised as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted inspectors.  Indeed, principal Sharon Bowden says that their success has been ‘phenomenal’. Situated on the Minehead seafront, Foxes is a fully-functioning hotel and restaurant open to the public, which doubles as a training establishment for people with learning difficulties who want to work in the hospitality industry, gain skills or who are simply trying to live a more independent life.   While there are several similar training establishments across the country, Foxes is the only working hotel and restaurant that provides training and education for the learning disabled simultaneously.

The Academy trains participating students to NVQ Level 1 in Hospitality, City and Guilds in Literacy, Numeracy, ICT and for the English Speaking Board assessments.  It also offers a host of other courses and therapies delivered by well-qualified staff which focus on life, social, personal and practical skills.  Learning plans are geared to the individual and reviewed regularly.  Students are generally accommodated in one of the Academy’s, high-standard, staffed residential houses and there are some flats and bedsits for those who are able to live more independently.

The combination of learning life skills in semi-independent home environments, within a supportive, practical and educational atmosphere, makes for a completely holistic education and development experience.  Sharon advises me that by July 2012, of the 2011 cohort of leavers 98% of the learners were in work. All were working either directly in the hospitality industry, or in related areas.  This year sees more innovation: a new residential provision opening at Easter, ‘Foxes Fields’ in the centre of Minehead, will provide 52-weeks-a-year residential accommodation for students aged 11-19.   This will be particularly advantageous for young people with special educational needs who are currently in care.  In addition to their learning opportunities, Foxes also provides respite breaks for young people during school holidays.

Brochures and further information for all services are available on their website or you can call 01643 708529.

Innovative organisations such as The Calvert Trust Exmoor, Conquest and Foxes recognise that for people with learning difficulties, this is just one aspect of their being.  It took us a while, as a society, to understand that helping people with learning disabilities to lead as normal a life as possible could, in fact, open doors which we asssumed were locked.   Thankfully, we now live in more enlightened times and it seems provisions for the learning disabled are steadily improving; here’s hoping these worthy projects inspire more of the same.


Chocks away! Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

WORDS by Jeff Cox, taken from issue 62, spring 2013

The summer of 1911 was swelteringly hot.  Thousands flocked daily to Minehead’s seafront, for a dip in the sea, or to enjoy the growing range of entertainments along the Esplanade… the variety shows, brass bands, the theatre, magicians and jugglers. This was Minehead at the end of its Edwardian heyday.  

But this August, a local entrepreneur and cinema proprietor, Mr E.H. Claridge, had arranged something spectacular – something the district had never seen before.  Those promenading along the Esplanade one balmy Thursday evening were unaware that they were about to witness a small, but significant, moment in local history.

It was first spotted around 7.30 in the evening, a small, black speck approaching from the east, skimming over the Quantocks; the tiny speck gradually grew larger and larger… and within four minutes the first aeroplane ever seen in West Somerset had landed on the marshes, alongside Minehead’s railway station.

Throughout that summer, the daily newspapers had excitedly followed the twists and turns of the Daily Mail’s Round Britain Air Race, as a dozen or so magnificent men took to the skies in their flimsy flying machines, racing for a winner’s purse of £10,000.

And one of those competitors had now brought his plane to West Somerset.

Mercury monoplane at Minehead 1911
Hucks’ Mercury monoplane at its hangar on the marshes, 1911.

Stepping from his plane that August evening, ripping off his leather helmet and shaking hands nonchalantly with his small welcoming party, was B.C. ‘Benny’ Hucks, a 27-year-old test pilot with The Blackburn Aeroplane Company and one of the pioneers of British aviation.

Mr Claridge – at some considerable personal expense – had arranged for Hucks to come to the town, according to a report in the West Somerset Free Press, ‘….to give demonstrations in flying and to enlighten the Minehead visitors and residents as to the wonderful possibilities of the aeroplane.’

Hucks had flown his 50hp monoplane ‘in a beeline from Burnham-on-Sea’, 25 miles down channel, flying so fast that he astonished his supporters by landing at Minehead just before a telegraph boy rushed up with a message saying that he was on his way.

Mr Claridge had built a temporary hangar on the marshes, surrounded by an enclosure that gave access to the plane only to paying spectators and which also restricted non-paying observers from seeing the crucial moments of any flight, the take-off, ‘the graceful way in which it leaves terra firma’ and the more hair-raising landings.

Those who did pay were able to examine this wondrous contraption close up; the Blackburn ‘Mercury’ – powered by a 50hp rotary Gnome engine and a twin-bladed propeller – had been completed at the Blackburn factory in Leeds only a month before.  Already it had been rebuilt once, after its wooden ash struts and cloth fuselage had been badly damaged when Hucks crash landed in a field in
Yorkshire, on trying to evade a herd of grazing cows.

For six days in Minehead, Hucks gave a series of talks and demonstration flights; thousands flocked daily to see the excitement, but most, it appears, declined to pay for the privileged view and were happy to pack the beach and the Esplanade, craning their necks for a free view of this new wonder of the age.

On one memorable flight on the Saturday evening, Hucks was heading back from the direction of Dunster when below he saw the 7.27 train pulling out of the station, putting on steam; plane and train raced for Minehead, head to head.  The Free Press reported: ‘the windows of the carriages were full of excited cheering people, the machine passing along close by them…’.  The plane won easily but it must have been a thrilling sight.

Two days later, Hucks gave a ride to quite possibly the first Minehead resident ever to fly: Hucks squeezed into his single-seater a black terrier pup that, the Free Press reported, ‘seemed quite indifferent to the great honour which many may have envied him.’

Hucks and pup landed safely on Dunster Lawns, where the annual West Somerset Polo tournament had been temporarily halted, and Hucks was invited by Mr Luttrell to take tea at the Castle.  Everyone wondered at his ‘marvellous pluck and ability, and the perfect control he appeared to have over his machine.’

At the end of the week, Hucks had planned to fly on to Watchet, but the weather was poor, so his support team dismantled the Mercury, returned it to its packing cases, and it was loaded onto the last up-train to Taunton.

A few weeks later, taking off from Weston-super-Mare, ‘Benny’ Hucks became the first aviator to complete a return flight across the Bristol Channel, flying to Cardiff and back in a 40-minute round trip.

Bleriot monoplane at Minehead 1914
An enthusiastic crowd escorted Salmet and his Bleriot monoplane along Minehead Beach, 1914.

West Somerset was not to see such excitement in the air again for another three summers.  And this time, it was not another brave Englishman but a Frenchman called Henri Salmet, who had made his name as a pilot and instructor at the Bleriot Flying School at Hendon.

In the spring of 1914, Salmet was on a tour of the West Country, sponsored  again by the Daily Mail.  At the end of April, he had had a rather ignominious accident off Penzance, when his brave attempt to land at sea, with floats attached to his plane, went badly wrong.  His luck was not to get any better when he arrived in West Somerset a week later.

It all started well enough: Salmet’s imminent arrival at Minehead, early in May, had been announced by the Town Crier, but the weather was chilly and the evening was drawing in, so it was only a small crowd, down on the seafront, that saw Salmet approach from the west.

His 90hp Bleriot monoplane apparently made a magnificent circle of the town, then came down in a terrific rush as if to land, before pulling out at the last moment. He circled the town twice more, before landing on the hard sand of the beach.

The Free Press reported that ‘the airman, standing in his seat on the aeroplane, apologised to the crowd for his late arrival, and buffeting his arms vigorously he remarked that he was cold, very cold,’ having made the first ever flight over Exmoor.

passenger on board, possibly for that ill-fated flight.
Salmet prepares to take off, passenger on board, possibly for that ill-fated flight.

While in Minehead, Salmet also flew exhibition flights and, as his plane was a twin-seater, he was able to offer a flight to the local Scoutmaster, Mr Murray Hill, in gratitude for his work in arranging the security of the plane and the hangar.

Mr Hill declared ‘his flight to have been glorious, but the wind at times was so terrific he could scarcely hold his head up against it.’

The following day, Salmet prepared to leave Minehead for Weston-super-Mare, taking with him a passenger, Mr H. van Trump of  Taunton.  They took off into a south-west breeze, banked and headed for Watchet, where a large crowd had gathered to watch them pass overhead.

Suddenly, those waiting on the harbour saw the approaching plane lose height and watched in disbelief as it dived, nose first, into the Channel.

The Free Press reported: ‘It sent up a huge column of spray and steam, obliterating all traces of the machine and its occupants and for a few seconds, it seemed as if both had completely disappeared.  A feeling of terror gripped many of those who had witnessed what seemed to be a dive to the death…’.

Within minutes, the Watchet lifeboat was at sea, its crew rowing strongly down channel chasing after the plane and its two passengers, as they were swept away by the ebb tide.  Within the hour, everyone was safely back on dry land:  Salmet and his passenger said how grateful they were, especially, as they later disclosed, because neither of them could swim.

After this excitement of pioneer pre-war aviation, the skies of West Somerset went quiet for almost two decades.  It was not until the 1930s that the district once more thrilled to the sound of powered flight.

In August 1931, thousands of excited spectators gathered on Dunster Marshes and held their breath, their bodies shaken by the shattering roar of three Avro 504 biplanes, as they swooped low in formation, flying in from Ilfracombe for the district’s first Air Pageant.

The crowds were especially keen to see the pageant’s highlight, the perilous exhibition of ‘wing walking’; one Mr Martin Hearn – Britain’s ‘premier exponent of this daring feat’ – duly clambered past the pilot and out of the cockpit, as the biplane thundered at more than 100mph over the heads of the crowd on the marshes below.

Mr Hearn ‘made his way leisurely up and back the length of the wing… and then proceeded to climb on the top of the wing and stood poised there, arms outstretched, even when the machine banked quite sharply.’

Two years later, in September 1933, there was a more serious display of air power in the district as Sir Alan Cobham, renowned for pioneering long-distance flights around the globe, brought his De Havilland Moths to Dunster, as he traversed the country, in his campaign to ‘Make skyways, Britain’s highways’.

Sir Alan hoped his ‘Flying Circus’ displays, involving a range of aircraft, would inspire the creation of municipal airports around the
country and said he hoped his pageant ‘was a step towards the realisation of an aerodrome at Minehead’.

For a year or so, the authorities took the idea seriously.  In February 1935, the old Minehead Urban District Council instructed
its planning committee to explore possible sites for a new Minehead Airport, but nothing was to come of the idea.

Within 18 months, the same council was instructing its officers to make preparations for aircraft of a more hostile nature, as the country braced itself for possible air raids, as the threat from Hitler’s Germany became ever more real.

Top photo: ‘Benny’ Hucks was later to become the first English flyer to complete the ‘loop the loop’.

For more photos see issue 62, spring 2013, available in limited numbers. Call 0845 224 1203.




The Butterfly effect: creating a butterfly-friendly garden

Garden notes, taken from issue 62, spring 2013
WORDS and PHOTOS by Paul Fonnereau, Cove Garden Nursery

There are few insects that symbolise summer quite like butterflies.  Gardeners generally welcome them as visual decorations on the flowers they nurture.  After a wet summer like that of 2012 and several severe winters, these insect gems are struggling.  However, there is something which we can do to help; as gardeners we can choose garden plants and practices that benefit butterfly species.

Peacock butterfly on Buddleia x weyeriana 'Sungold'
Peacock butterfly on Buddleia x weyeriana ‘Sungold’

When it comes to shrubs that provide for butterflies number one must be the ‘butterfly bush’ itself.  Buddleia davidii is a hardy, prolific and colourful shrub with arching stems and long, conical
inflorescences in shades of white, purple and pink.  This is the number-one choice for nectar for a large number of butterfly species.  If size is the problem then the new ‘Buzz’ series of cultivars are the ones to choose as they are considerably more compact and grow to just 90-150cm in height.  This also makes them particularly suitable for containers.  Buddleia x weyeriana is a favourite of mine and produces elongated flowers in clusters of honeycomb-yellow that tell the butterflies exactly what to expect.  This hybrid may be among the taller buddleias but it is worth the space if you have it.

Another genus favoured by butterflies is Spiraea.  Spring varieties such as S. arguta produce long racemes of pure-white flowers in April and May, providing nectar for butterflies emerging from winter hibernation.  As these flower on growth formed in the previous season they should not be trimmed back until after flowering.  The summer-flowering varieties flower on new growth formed that spring and so can be cut back hard in early spring.  This results in a compact habit and stronger flowers in the summer.  The orange and gold foliate of varieties such as S. ‘Gold Flame’, S. ‘Firelight’ and S. ‘Magic Carpet’ make them particularly appealing.  Spiraeas are tough, having come through the recent harsh winters unscathed and flowered happily this last wet summer.

Hebes are known to be attractive to butterflies but many are
not fully hardy.  As a general rule we find that the larger-leaved
varieties are less hardy and would need protecting in harsh
winters.  Relatively hardy varieties include H. pinguifolia ‘Pagei’,
H. pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’, H. topiariaH. albicans and H. recurva ‘Red Edge’.

Red Admiral on Sedum 'Herbstfreude'
Red Admiral on Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’

As well as providing nectar, shrubs also offer essential shelter for butterflies.  Hedgerows of native species create windbreaks and hibernation sites as well as provide feeding sites for some
caterpillars.  Hawthorn, blackthorn and privet are particularly useful.

The herbaceous border can be a great source of nectar and can provide a continuous supply from spring to autumn.

In spring, emerging butterflies can feast on perennials such as AubretiaAlyssumPrimula and Violas.  Perennial wallflowers are good and the variety Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ stands out due to its flowering almost non-stop from April to October.  Prolific summer-flowering plants such as ScabiousEchinopsEryngium (Sea Holly) and Achillea (Yarrow) provide nectar for butterflies to complete their breeding cycle.  Verbena bonariensis is a superb perennial and although it may not always survive our cold, wet winters it will often self seed and can be easily grown and flowered from seed collected the previous season.

When it comes to late summer and autumn, garden favourites like Asters (Michaelmas Daisy), Rudbeckia and Crocosmia have an important role to play.  Among the best perennials for butterflies and late-flowering essentials are the Ice plants, Sedum spectabile and its many cultivars.  Their fleshy leaves make them very durable if we should ever get a dry summer!  From August onwards they produce large, flat heads of tightly-packed star-shaped flowers in colours ranging from white to bright pink and red.  These offer a favourite feeding site for many insects stocking up for the long winter hibernation ahead.

Wild flowers are important not only for nectar but as feeding sites for caterpillars.  Weeds such as nettles may be a nuisance to some gardeners but serve as valuable breeding sites for Comma, Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies.  Long grass and uncultivated areas provide important areas for many species to breed and overwinter.


It is possible for gardeners to make small choices in their plant selections and cultivation techniques that greatly influence the diversity of species and ultimately the huge enjoyment we get from seeing them.


Autumn Mists

‘September… a bountiful mingling of flower and fruit, holiday-time for many insects in their final days, a lull between the toil of summer and the stringency of winter’

Autumn Mists, Exmoor magazine

A golden day in the first week of September and on the edge ofTimberscombe Common butterflies twiddle and vie above a patch of creeping thistle. A few mauve, marzipan-scented flower-tufts, scattered among the tousle of downy seed-heads, have drawn meadow-browns, commas, gatekeepers. A tortoiseshell flicks its wings in a vexed, twitchy gesture that momentarily deflects rival nectar-drinkers. At noon on the high moor simmering bee-hum, only a shade less volcanic than in August, charts where workers are busy in the heather-bells. Small white butterflies skip hither and thither above the yellow autumn hawkbit that dots the grass verge from Mudgate Cross to Sandyway. In great stands of rose bay willow herb bumble-bees purr among spires of dawn-pink flowers while lower down, ripe capsules are already splitting open, puffs of plumed seed rising silently, weightlessly on the warm thermals.

According to traditional weather lore, September dries up wells or breaks down bridges. Yet it can be one of the kindest months on the moor: a bountiful mingling of flower and fruit, holiday-time for many insects in their final days, a lull between the toil of summer and the stringency of winter.

A ladder, standing idle, leans its shadow against the barn wall, the loft chock-a-block with hay. Soon to be carried, the last cylindrical straw bales offer a handy perch for a young buzzard which scans the stubble in hope of a mouse for breakfast. When he flaps away, profitless, to another hunting ground, a rabbit in the neighbouring pasture scuds for cover, sending scores of spindleshanked craneflies rustling up from the grass. Some drift like tired thistledown along the hedgerow, one becomes entangled in an unseen web, another trails its gangling legs among brambles and stays to savour a sweetly-ripe blackberry.

Autumn Mists, Exmoor magazineA crowd of rooks heads for the stubble. In these genial days even old sobersides can display moments of madcap jollity. One bird, then another, is suddenly moved to break the flight-ranks of the plodding flock, and comes waltzing and sporting down the blue sky in headlong swoops and rushing zigzags. At day’s end, beating homeward across an apricot radiance, they will again travel in orderly procession. But as the roost slowly settles, the garrulous voices from the twilight carry an undertone of contentment that tells of full crops, families grown, cares in abeyance.

A grey dawn, mild and overcast. Around the great beech tree beside the lake a swirl of house-martins, swooping and curving out of nowhere, white rumps flashing to and fro, the morning abrimwith chirruping, buoyant notes.

At first there are only a score, some of them youngsters still being fed on the wing; but more and more arrive until the air is animated with eddying, paper-dart forms, a loquacious whirlpool, loosely shifting but never expanding beyond a certain invisible radius that holds the excited throng together. For long moments they dominate the sky, layer above layer, the highest birds only visible as dark specks below the cloud cover. Perhaps they are making sky maps, taking their bearings at the start of their great venture, southbound on pathless airs for Africa; who knows the meaning and purpose of the ancient hostings?

As they pass away over the lake the clouds thin, the water turns azure beneath them, every colour in the landscape enriched with a farewell gift of sunlight. For weeks yet there will be travelling groups: family parties of late fledglings from second and third broods, solitary stragglers flying silent and intent, glimpsed well into October. But the great, collective departures mark another station reached in the year’s natural calendar, signal of less obvious changes underway.

Dew lies thick on the churchyard grass in silvery imitation of chill frosts to come. Bells ringing for Harvest Festival flush a flock of mistle thrushes from the trees where they have been thinning the ripe crop of yew berries. Past the equinox, shadows reach farther and linger longer. There is a dankness on the air in the deep lanes when afterglow outlines the distant hills and wood-owls flute clear and low.

At month’s end a lone swallow, hastening across the border at County Gate, swerves back in pursuit of a midge, then speeds on towards the coast. Its brief, summery twitter coincides strangely with a sound epitomising autumn – the bolving of a mature stag from the shadowy woods in the valley’s depths, roused that moment to break his year-long silence.Cattle & mist Honeycombe Hill

October, arriving with a gentle shower, spangles the hawthorns with glittering droplets and hangs the red berries with pendant, pellucid doubles. Green, yellow, russet: bracken paints the hills in mingled hues as fronds age variously; among the verdant beech woods there shows a golden tint here, a copper bough there. September yearns back to summer, November faces forward to winter, but colour-changing, leaf-rustling October stands at the heart of autumn.

A gossamer morning, fields of silk refracting the first sunlight, every grass blade glistening with filmy threads – the work of the populousLinyphiinae family. Face to the breeze, small dark spiders busily exude liquid silk that the wind teases into long strands: guy-ropes upon which the young ‘linnies’ sail away, aeronauts in search of new worlds to colonise.

A wood mouse with a mouth full of hazelnut, skips for his hole in the bank as a squall of starlings descends to squabble over the last sagging clusters of elderberries. Hearing a horsebox rattling down Landacre Lane, crow, never picky, grabs another bitter sloe as he lifts from the blackthorn above the bridge. A jay, caching acorns at the foot of the hedge, startles a squirrel heading back from the field maple where he has been nipping wings off the ‘keys’ and eating the ripe nutlets. He dashes up the oak and indulges in an outburst of tutting and wheezing, conducted with artistic sweeps and flourishes of his beautiful tail. From a grove of birch trees comes the tiny pattering of countless drifting seeds and now and then a plaintive whistle, the pan-pipe note of feasting bullfinches.

Rowan, beech, sweet-chestnut… there is scarcely a tree this month that is not a wild fruit stall or free larder, offering fare to all-comers.

Two stags break from the darkness under the conifers where night still lingers. They have been shadowing the hinds moving up through Doverhay Plantation, and now leap the bank and turn in confrontation. In their fourth year, the young rivals are well matched in size and weight. For a moment they stand face to face, black silhouettes as the sky over Crawter Hill pales towards sunrise. Then an untimely van comes grinding up from Luccombe with headlights ablaze and the pair bound off, side by side, over the brow and away towards Halse Combe.

Autumn Mists, Exmoor magazineSomething is calling down by Chetsford Water. The sound rises intermittently above the cadence of the prattling stream, a strange, needy cry that might be bird or beast or squeezed rubber-toy. Then a brown head with widespread ears is moving among the rushes above the bridge – a young deer-calf, separated from its mother, perhaps in the turmoil of the rut. The calf runs up and down the fence, risking unwanted attention with its cries. But as the light grows, a deeper voice with a matching note of urgency answers from Hurdle Down. A hind jumps onto the beech-lined bank and leans over the barbed-wire strand topping the fence. The little one stretches its neck, reaching up to sniff noses. The hind hesitates, then clears the wire with a light, graceful bound. Two more deer follow. The calf rushes to nurse – more as an act of comfort and reunion than from thirst. As daylight floods the hills, the group moves off in single file: hind, calf, hind, pricket, hugging slack ground, stealing away downstream towards Nutscale.

From yellow leaf to bare, dripping twig, the year moves on in a daylong downpour that swells the rushing rivers to flood level. Queen wasps seek winter-quarters. Snails crowd into flowerpots and seal themselves against the cold. Flies die on their backs in window-corners. Instead of cricket’s song, under midnight stars there falls the zeep of redwings, the goblin chuckle of fieldfares fleeing starvation weather in Scandinavia.

Water, the shape-shifter, visits November in many guises. A sharp hail shower goes hopscotching down the stable roof. A leaf afloat on a brimming puddle is overnight framed in swirls of ice. Mist writhes spectrally among the ancient, cranky oaks ofBadgworthy.Wood. The last cattle left on the moor move through wisps of fog that seep from hollows and veil the hilltops. Rime coats furze bush and serried rush.

Straw Bales GolsoncoltAt twilight, breath charted on the freezing air, the herd of Exmoors bunch together, ears pricked towards the revving of quad and landrover. The memory of the gathering is still fresh in the ponies’ minds. But it is the Scotties that flow away across the moor, shepherded in for dipping and to be put to the ram. Above the peaceful sound of renewed cropping, a guttural‘prukprruk’ marks the passage of two ravens. The pair cross the darkening sky with the steady, rhythmical beat of long-distance travel, flying north-east into the icy wind, heading towards nightfall and the reaching shadow of winter.

From Issue 44 Autumn 2008

The Exmoor Curriculum at Dulverton Middle School

When I think back to my school days, the rare outings and residential weekends away we enjoyed imprinted more on my memory than any spell in the classroom I can think of.  I still recall finite details about a school camp on the moor some 20-odd years ago. Our teacher could name the constellations we spotted in the sky during our evening ramble. Inspired, I went straight home and learned them all. I doubt any representation in a book would have propelled me to do the same.

Despite an abundance of quality research extolling the benefits to children of outdoor and community-based learning, the Commons Schools Select Committee has reported a significant national decline in outdoor education. The situation today is that many schoolchildren are lucky to get out of the classroom just once a term. In light of this, the happenings at Dulverton Middle School for the past 11 years have been both inspiring and unusual. Here the children routinely learn out of the classroom in a variety of settings, thanks to the school’s unique ‘Exmoor Curriculum’.

Taught one afternoon a week and running alongside the National Curriculum, the Exmoor Curriculum is a programme of outdoor and environmental educational activities with a local twist. The specific emphasis is on embracing the immediate surroundings of Exmoor, its environment and community. It has been a manifest success. Ofsted gave it special praise, stating that it makes “a significant contribution to the personal development of pupils and provides opportunities for them to understand and use their immediate locality”. No other state school in the country offers a similar programme.

So how and why did this tiny middle school in West Somerset blaze such an innovative trail? Overall it has been the achievement of a number of passionate and pro-active individuals and groups, but a leading share of the credit must go to former head Steve Ford. Steve arrived at Dulverton in the late nineties and retired last year. Happily, I was put in touch with him by his long-time colleague and current Dulverton deputy head, Clive Goulty. The two both taught at Danesfield School in Williton in the 1980s, where they ran well-attended weekend camping clubs. They shared a belief that outdoor and practical experiences were indispensable to education.

Even in retirement, Steve is evidently still passionate about the Exmoor Curriculum. “What drove the idea?”, I asked him. “A number of beliefs came together,” he explained. “Children should know about where they come from and understand their environment. Also, the existing curriculum was very language and literacy based.” Steve felt that some young people had abilities in different areas which were not being catered for. He also knew that in order for children to apply knowledge to real life, it helps to give them a real-life learning experience, preferably within the surroundings of their own community, to make the lesson relevant. With Exmoor on the doorstep, it seemed that new learning opportunities were boundless. Steve was also aware that, as the smallest middle school in Somerset, Dulverton was vulnerable. “So I wanted school to be too good to miss,” he declared.

Building the  roundhouse and Allan Dyer with jubilant  pupils on its completion. Courtesy ENPASteve immediately looked to Clive to start developing the new curriculum. Another former colleague and outdoor education expert, Allan Dyer, was also enlisted. By the time the Exmoor Curriculum was being taught Allan had retired but – excited by the concept – he came out of retirement to help develop and teach on the course. The school governors, having tremendous faith in Steve, enthusiastically supported the proposals.  Exmoor National Park Authority was keen to offer its educational resources and helped establish a programme of activities. The key figure responsible for this task was the National Park

Authority’s Education Manager, Dave Gurnett. Dave was clearly eager to talk about the Exmoor Curriculum when I visited him at a sunny Exmoor House HQ in Dulverton. Dave is a former teacher turned National Park Ranger with cheerful energy and bona fide enthusiasm for outdoor education. “It was easy to find them places to go and things to do,” he told me. “We looked at where we could show them the practical implementation of conservation.” I asked him if he felt it would be within the scope of other schools to take up the lead and offer their own similar programmes.

Dave fervently believes this to be true; he commends the efforts of other Somerset schools he works with and offers succinctly: “People make things happen, you get the right combination of people and anything’s possible.”

‘Anything’s possible’ seems to be the theme. When health and safety fears meant schools up and down the country were shying away from school trips, Dulverton Middle School was busy obtaining its own Adventure Activities Licence. Now the pupils are engaged each week in a diverse range of activities encompassing conservation, water sports, first aid, community, local industry and local history. One year group even built a traditional roundhouse in the school grounds. “I took the children to an Iron-Age hillfort and they were thoroughly disappointed,” recalls Clive. “There wasn’t much there. No turrets!” he chuckled.

canoeing at Wimbleball as part of the Exmoor CurriculumHe asked them to try and imagine how the buildings might have looked and then explained how roundhouses were built, which prompted a boy to ask: “Can we build one then?” So they did. A 13ft roundhouse was erected over half a term, using locally-supplied saplings and traditional tools. That’s history, exercise, teamwork and woodcraft all rolled into one enjoyable, priceless, educational experience. No other state school in the country offers a similar programme.

By year 8, the various skills the children gain over the preceding four years are brought together and, dependent on their overall performance, they may graduate as ‘Junior Rangers’. With this accolade comes the right to wear a distinctive black Junior Ranger uniform to school. The Exmoor Society funds the ‘graduation’. The ongoing support which the school receives from the Exmoor Society cannot be underestimated.

Committed sponsors from the outset, the Society have announced in their spring newsletter that they will award £2,000 this year to help further develop the curriculum, acknowledging its role in promoting ‘important life skills and deep understanding of the Exmoor environment’.

There are more exciting times ahead too. Thanks to a grant from Exmoor National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund, year 7 and 8 pupils will have the opportunity to gain a Vocational Related Qualification (VRQ) award in Land and Environment. Intended for those aged 14 and over, VRQs are not usually offered to middle school pupils. They know it can work, having already piloted a partial VRQ award in partnership with Somerset Rural Youth Project in 2008 – all the children passed.

Junior Ranger graduation with (left to right, front) Steve Ford, Dave Gurnett,  Clive Goulty and Allan Dyer.  The timetable is set. In the late-March week when I visited, year 5 were taking cycling proficiency training, year 6 were obtaining St John’s Ambulance Lifesaver Awards, year 7 were preparing tourism guide packs of the local area and year 8 were planning and mapping their own walk from Dulverton to Brushford and back again. Clive remains a fountain of ongoing ideas. He would like to see an equestrian element introduced and perhaps more local history. Current head Jeremy Weedon is exuberant about the Exmoor Curriculum, attendance targets are being exceeded and the children really do seem to want to come to school. He is also delighted to be gaining the VRQ accreditation. Clearly the reins are in keen hands. I left Dulverton feeling optimistic for their future and hopeful that their model will inspire others. Anything’s possible… this little school could be making big things happen for some time to come.