Monday, 17 November 2008

A Tale of Pink Sheep and the Dispossessed

Should you ever visit the seaside village of Porlock Weir in Somerset, leave time for a very special walk. Don’t be put off by the steps leading up from the back of the Anchor Hotel, or the wafting smells of ducted fat and dustbins, a climb of a few feet takes you onto the edge of a sloping meadow dotted with surprisingly pink sheep.

A short stroll and you meet the toll road to Worthy, but don’t be tempted along that way, to the right is a little gate where walkers, free of charge , may gain access to the darkly brooding Yearnor woods.

Dark secrets cling to those wooded slopes and linger in the shadowy coombs, so it is just as well the leafy canopy also shelters Culbone Church, reputedly the smallest parish church in England. It nestles far into woods that were once home to the desperate and the dispossessed. A place of murky secrets where even the church leaflet tells of a chaplin, who in 1280 was indicted for clobbering a certain Albert of Esshe over the head with a hatchet, killing him.

The way is steep and treacherous and, despite the early morning sunshine, surprisingly gloomy as it winds through mysterious tunnels and whispering woods. It is the sort of place where wary walkers, if they tread lightly, look over their shoulders, ‘Just in case...’

As the path climbs upwards, precipitous slopes drop down to a hidden sea that can be heard but seldom glimpsed, though seabirds cry overhead. Occasionally the way is barred by a landslide and, as the detours point up even steeper slopes, the ghosts of the blocked paths twine secretively in the opposite direction with dark hints of fallen rocks and rotting trees, or something a little more more sinister.

These woods were once home to outcasts, those who had so offended society, or the church, that they were banished to a life clinging to these shelterless and inhospitable slopes. Once the homeless rebels had died out their place was taken by a colony of lepers, abandoned without hope or help. Apparently the last one died in 1622. No wonder the woods whisper and sigh to walkers as they pass.

Eventually, nearing the summit of the woodland climb, the leafy canopy opens to reveal Culbone Church. No road leads to this church but the path creeps alongside the church wall. As we opened the gate, two cats eyed us suspiciously from the base of the churchyard cross before slinking off into the long grass. Once inside, the church feels quaint, and cold and very holy, with that not quite Christian feel so common in many ancient places of worship. As we lingered in the nave, absorbing the atmosphere, marvelling at the 13th century chancel and Norman font, the door rattled. Thinking another visitor struggled to enter, my companion opened the door and in slid one of the cats.

The next fifteen minutes were spent trying to catch the animal as, obviously no respecter of holy places, it scrambled cheerfully over areas where we were not prepared to trespass. At last, after much scrabbling under pews and keeping curses to a respectful minimum, the cat was cornered, caught and carried outside.

It was mid-day and the mood broken; any whispering in the woods banished as a huge party of ramblers announced their arrival long before they could be seen. We left the churchyard to its secrets and walked back the way we had come and lunch in Porlock Weir.

(With lots of thanks to Exmoorjane, who told me about this special place)