As is so often the case, it was quite by chance that we stopped in the hamlet of Horner. We were on our way to the north Somerset coast, discussing why the Sat-nav always feels the need to send you down the smallest of roads, when we rounded the corner and descended past the loveliest looking tearooms; Horner Tea Gardens. Passing by some beautiful cottage gardens on one side and the River Horner on the other, we stopped in the National Trust car park that sits in the middle of the hamlet.
The Horner Valley, and much of the surrounding area forms part of the Holnicote Estate that was given to the Trust back in 1944, although it was back in 1917 that the Trust first leased some of the land, including the valley of Horner from the landowning family. We have been National Trust members for many years, and although there was a time when it was perceived that their priority was the preservation of stately homes and art collections, they now own and manage a huge amount of countryside throughout the UK. Their management of this land helps ensure that it is protected, and essential native habitats are conserved whilst making much of it accessible to the public. It was one of the routes created by the National Trust that we followed as we headed out of Horner and up into the ancient woodland that covers the surrounding hills.
The pathway initially takes you behind Horner Mill where you follow the River Horner as it flows amongst the trees. Covering around 800 acres, Horner Wood is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the country and is home to one particular oak tree, named The General, that is well over 500 years old.
Many of the veteran trees in the woodland have been pollarded giving areas of dense foliage cover, and providing the perfect home to many lichens, ferns and other shade loving plants. The moss-covered mounds that cover the banks of the river give the woodland an enchanted air and you are aware that all around you there are animals that have made these woods their home. The ongoing management of the wood allows light to reach the woodland floor and encourages the growth of wildflowers that in turn support pollinating insects. The ground scrub gives shelter to hedgehogs and dormice, and looking up through the trunks of the trees you may well be lucky enough to see one or two red deer going about their business.
The route we followed was classed as moderate and although it ascended well above the valley it wasn’t a hard climb. ‘Granny’s Ride’ runs along the ledge under the trees and gives wonderful views across to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. Even in the late summer when we visited, you could see the pinkish haze of the heather that covers much of the moor. Descending back down towards Horton, we followed the path known as the ‘Cat’s Scramble’ and once again were reminded of the thriving habitat we were walking through, as squirrels jumped through the branches above our heads and Wood Warblers twittered in the afternoon sun. It was then we heard the unmistakable sound of a very busy woodpecker.
We stood for some time under the tree where the woodpecker was, listening to the sounds of its work until we saw a flash of black, white and tiniest streak of red as it flew higher into the branches away from our prying eyes. Continuing downwards we were rewarded yet again, this time by the distinctive call of a nearby buzzard. Appearing over and over again as it circled just above the top of the trees we could see clearly the extent of its wingspan and the ease with which it soared higher before disappearing over the top of the hill behind us. Crossing back over one of many small bridges that span the river throughout the valley, we had to take a moment to dip our feet in to the clear water before heading back to the Tea Gardens for a well-earned cream tea.
We'll see you down the trail