We certainly don’t need an excuse to head out on an adventure. If we’ve got a spare half day (few and far between recently) we’re almost certainly out on the trail, rucksack on, packed lunch stowed and energetic border collie on point as we venture out. A predisposition to Wanderlust was in fact one of the driving motivations in the choice to rescue said canine companion; there’s nothing better than a four-legged friend when your roaming distant moors, tors and coastal shores. With limited free time at our disposal, our main dilemma is narrowing down the choice of destination when in glorious South Devon we’re overwhelmed with opportunities to get off the beaten track.
My university days saw my bookshelves mainly overburdened with heavily annotated copies of Beckett and minutely printed copies of Shakespeare anthologies (the latter were significantly less well-thumbed). Today, having been liberated from the chore of reading for study the balance is slowly turning towards catalogues picked up from visited exhibitions and, when I’m lucky enough to have a spare penny, picture-laden biographies of some of our guest artists. In reality, I’ve never thrown out a book in my life, so the eclectic mix simply expands outwards from Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith until it abruptly collides with George Orwell and Grayson Perry.
However, there is one preserved shelf committed to pages that serve a very specific purpose, and it’s where I turn when faced with the dilemma of where to point the compass. At its more practical end can be found enough luminescent orange OS Maps to wallpaper our small studio apartment with; being sacred texts in our household though, this would of course never be a fate they suffered. These then meander through a series of walking guides, micro-adventure handbooks and must-see wildlife beauty spots in various shapes and sizes. This section fluctuates from the more instructional, with pages of statistics, directional details and topographic tips to inform the most ignorant of expedition, through to the comparatively obscene, whose leaves are stripped of the cover of words and instead filled with scenes so stunning, aspects so awe-inspiring, expanses so epic that they should undoubtedly come with a parental guidance notice. But enough about my bookshelves…
Sometimes, a destination is determined with more purpose and this was the case recently when we headed out to North Devon. At Artizan we were excited to be welcoming Gill Jones and Jenny Smy, two artists who hailed from the opposite edge of Devon to our English Riviera Gallery. Their exhibition, entitled Natural Affinity, celebrates the pairs passion for the natural world, with scenes inspired from the coast to the countryside captured in acrylics, watercolour and collagraph. On receiving their breath-taking collection of works for the exhibition at the end of February, the temptation to visit the landscapes that inspired the pieces was overwhelming.
A quick exploration of “the shelf” with a focus targeted at North Devon soon disclosed a ripe destination in the form of the National Trust’s Heddon Valley. Affixed in the West Exmoor Coast, this steep-walled wooded valley draws together such a diversity of landscapes, with moorland meeting woodland only to then become the boundary between beach and soaring sea cliff. This would undoubtedly be worth the cross-county circumnavigation.
Arriving in mid-morning at the National Trust car park and information centre, the landscape was immediately breath-taking. By this point we’d already been following the trail of the River Heddon for a good 20 minutes through deep woodland, but our base camp was situated at a point where the valley dramatically opened into a picturesque clearing. Birds chirped, the narrowing river babbled serenely, the trees whispered peacefully. Or at least perhaps they would have done had we not chosen a day when the whole of the South West was being battered by gale force winds. Instead the scene that met us was far more dramatic and just as beautiful, despite all sound being overwhelmed by the rush of wind through the valley.
As we fought to open car doors, a nearby bird box strained at the branch it hung from, near horizontal in the adverse conditions. Towering trees clung to the sheer hillside no less fiercely so that the whole scene appeared almost to be leaning up river away from the mouth of the valley. After strenuous minutes fighting wind whipped layers on, we power walked to the map outside the National Trust information centre to determine available routes and were quickly received by a volunteer warden who advised keeping clear of some of the clifftop routes given the conditions.
Duty-bound by our dependence on mobile devices, we quickly snapped some photos of the map and headed off down river towards the sea. As we got undercover of the trees again, we were periodically rewarded with let-ups in the weather, and the surrounding woodland would become completely still. These peaceful moments would give us cause to pause, their serenity so stark in opposition to the roar and agitation we were more regularly experiencing.
They were few and far between and always short-lived, being all but forgotten once we exited the woodland path into a short cliff descent to Heddon’s Mouth Beach. Defined by large smooth rocks, the beach descends steeply from the mouth of the river so that it is all but lost before it reaches the sea, dispersed rapidly to bubble beneath. An old lime kiln overlooks bit sits well beneath the towering moor of the Western side of the valley and the looming cliff that opposes it to the East.
We ventured East up the cliff and quickly decided to beat a path on a sheep track away from the narrow cliff trail, ascending uphill to a wider track a safer distance from the bluff. Now at the summit of the Eastern side of the valley, the views were astonishing; uninterrupted rolling waves cascaded against the shoreline whilst the opposing face to ours stood high across the depression. In our immediate surroundings, nature was inclined towards moorland with sturdy meadows of yellow gorse dominating. We ventured a little further away from home and were rewarded with signs to a fort viewing point which allowed us to ascend a little further into a clearer plateau which had once clearly been taking advantage of for its commanding vantage point.
Significantly windswept and Wanderlust abated, we aligned our steps for the car park taking in a different and equally stunning route as we descended which also benefitted from a greater degree of shelter. A brief stop outside the information centre to consume a neglected packed lunch and our visit to North Devon was concluded. The inspiration for our walk, the artwork from Gill Jones and Jenny Smy, would await us back at the Gallery and had not disappointed us in its representation of these magnificent landscapes.
Naturally, we finished our day by buying yet another walking guide for the shelf…
Natural Affinity closes on March 23rd. For more details on the exhibition visit art-hub.co.uk/mar19