Exmoor: Simonsbath to the Source of the River Exe - 6 miles (circular) - OS Explorer OL9
No visible paths at some points. Boggy in places.
Who wouldn't want to see the source of the Exe? The bonus is it's a great walk too. But do carry an O/S map and compass or, better still, download them to your phone for the added benefit of GPS (make sure you download an offline version before you set off). For this walk it’s essential. Without it you'll get lost on exposed moorland. Not recommended.
Start at Ashcombe car park (on the right as you enter Simonsbath on the B3223 from the east). It’s clearly signposted and, as car parks go, pretty. On two levels, presuming you start on the first, take the track to the next but cut off left before you reach it to enter Ashcombe Wood, following the footpath sign to Prayway Head.
An airy wood, it was brought to life this spring day by the sudden appearance of deer bounding alongside a stream below us. They really do bound.
After about a third of a mile, watch out for a gate through the fence to your right with a yellow way-marker, also signposted Prayway Head (keep your eyes peeled for the gate because the sign is partly hidden by a tree).
Leaving the wood you’re now on grass covered hills, climbing to the high moor, boggy in parts. Regular way-marker posts keep you on track. Here more deer appeared, took one look at us and scarpered.
After half a mile, several gates, some little bridges and lots of squelching, you come to a metal farm gate. Follow the The Prayway Head sign left back to the B3223.
The ground you’ll notice is getting scrubbier. This is the high moor. At the road, turn right and cross to a layby a few yards ahead. There, a signpost directs you to Exe Head. Take the right of two choices if you want a totally circular route, or plough straight ahead if you’re impatient to see the source of the Exe. We took the latter. Watch out for a signposted gate through the hedge on your right. Now, with the hedge to your left, hug it to the next signpost with a three way choice. Take Exe Head and your bearings. It’s easy to get lost from now on and you need to find your way back here to take the Simonsbath track to your car.
Exe head, the source of the Exe, is two thirds of a mile ahead with no hedges to follow and the only sign of a path for most of the way was my downloaded 0/S map. A fence and path do eventually appear and, keeping the fence to your right, the path soon widens to a track with a footpath sign and gate through the fence. The source of the Exe is the puddle just before this (maybe more than a puddle after rain).
Look behind the altar to see the dribble that is the source of the Exe, and the source of the thunder I sometimes hear from my home in Exeter after heavy rainfall. Hard to believe it's the beginnings of the river that irrigates the best farmland in Devon (Exe Valley) and has carried ships since before the Romans' invaded. This piddle has made has made thousands rich and lots more a living.
After taking in this small wonder, backtrack to the path to Simonsbath (if you chose the upper path, head east along the lower one to reach it). About thirty deer appeared at this point but too far for a picture. A few larks kept us closer company. Once at the three-way footpath sign, follow it and the blue marked posts downhill, to Simonsbath, walking, as you pass a sheep's pen into another field, to the right of a depression.
Nearing the bottom I got pssst at by a young woman behind a hedge with two dogs. Realising it wasn’t my craggy good looks (they left a decade after my hair and not a postcard since) I took my beanie off to hear what she was saying.
She pointed beyond the hedge. On the crest of a hill against a clear blue sky, stag, a herd of them, looking alert and magnificent in the late afternoon sun.
So were her dogs: a lurcher and whippet dressed for the occasion with painted nails. Her mum's doing. That’s a first for me, and another reason I love walking the Westcountry. There’s always something unpredictable.
Heading on down, you'll come across a lovely run of trees alongside water. Soon after, the path/track emerges at an old lichen covered bridge. Keep right here (straight ahead) to the road.
Cross the road to a footpath sign to Simonsbath Sawmill. Although the path initially goes the wrong way (west) it soon turns east to follow a leat and the River Barle back to to Simonsbath, emerging on a lane. Turn left then right to stroll through this quiet village back to the car park on the far side.
So much wildlife - not forgetting the dogs with their painted nails - we kicked ourselves for not spotting a discarded antler. The lady with the dogs had sharper eyes. Passing by in her car, she stopped to show us. Quite a trophy from a dog walk.
This is a not only a beautiful walk, if you’re driving from Exeter it’s along the prettiest of country roads and, if you're as lucky as we were, you'll spot a hare.