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)


Sandradb said...

I must admit that these are just gorgeous photographs! Very interesting post.

Elizabethd said...

It is indeed a beautiful area, though it's a while since I was there. Lovely photos.

Frances said...

Thank you so much for this post! You write so beautifully, and chose your photos well.

Just as you got the past the pink sheep, and started this climb, I thought ... hmmm, I think I know this place, and was completely caught up in your description.

I have never really been there, but did remember Jane's having referenced it, and had done some research myself, being so intrigued by the area's history.

Now, I am even more intrigued, and will add this to my list of places to experience, if life provides the opportunity.


Fennie said...

Beautiful photographs, Lampie. So tranquil, but also eerie. Thanks for sharing it with us. (It reminded me of those woods that feature in The French Lieutenant's Woman.)

Tattie Weasle said...

Yes wonderfully eerie and beautiful - definatley a place to visit..hopefully sans cat!

ChrisH said...

Gosh, that was interesting; very atmospheric with lovely photos.

Thank you for your kinds words on my blog.

elizabethm said...

I loved the pink sheep and the whole blog made me feel faintly uneasy somehow. I think it was the outcasts and the lepers!
Loved the photo of the adventuring cat.

Blossomcottage said...

I love Porlock I have been several times and yes I too have been past the Anchor Hotel. This is an excellent post and I enjoyed it very much, just a tad! creepy but I will now have to go and see for myself next time I am there visiting a friend of mine!
Lovely pictures.

ChrisH said...

Hi Lampie, just popped back to thank you for your comments. Interesting to read about your JM experience - the same thing happened to a friend of mine who went to see him. Such a shame.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

What a fantastic story and pictures! Very eerie...I love a tale tinged with history.

Exmoorjane said...

Oooooh, this is lovely Lampie. I'm so glad you made it. For anyone who read Walker (my ill-fated children's book) this was the initial inspiration.... Did you have tea and biscuits (serve yourself) in the little hut or has that gone?

lampworkbeader said...

Sadly there is no hut there now Jane.

Casdok said...

Wonderful post, beautiful photos - well worth a visit!

LittleBrownDog said...

Wow - what a wonderfully spooky and fascinating place, Lampie! You captured the atmosphere so well, I'm almost tempted to try and find it myself (although I don't know whether I dare...)

Lovely post.

Pondside said...

I don't know how I missed this magical post. The whispering woods, the ghosts of past inhabitants, that wonderfull photo of the church through the woods.
I love a good walk - thank you!

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Cait O'Connor said...

Fascinating tale and thanks for the introduction to pink sheep. I think my granddaughters would like those!