Wednesday, 16 November 2016

An Exmoor mystery: the wishing trees of Tarr Steps

If you've walked from Tarr Steps along the banks of the Barle river, you will no doubt have spotted a number of tree trunks with coins hammered into them. You might even have added a coin or two yourself.
Seen from a distance, you could almost imagine the trees to be scaly dinosaurs. I guessed that they must be 'wishing trees', but nobody I asked could confirm that, or tell me anything else about them.

One of Exmoor's wishing trees
 Then the other week I spotted a blog post by Elke Koessling-Winzer at Exmoor4All .

She says:  'For centuries and across cultures, people have attributed trees with special powers. In some countries, trees are covered in red ribbons or notes, and throughout the UK, coins play a special role.  One of the money trees can be found near Tarr Steps on Exmoor.
The wishing tree is studded with coins, hammered in by villagers and tourists with the help of stones. People used to believe that sticking a coin into a wishing tree would pass an illness to the tree – and onto the person who pulled the coin out again.  The custom goes back to the beginning of the 18th century; one of them, an oak wish tree in the Scottish Highlands, gained fame when Queen Victoria visited it in 1877.

So far we have been unable to find out how old the wishing tree is at Tarr Steps...'

Some of the coins do look as if they've been there for a very long time. If anybody knows more about this rather intriguing mystery, please tell.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Fun and games at an Exmoor village fête

Scarecrows guarding the signpost (photo by Debi Jones)
Every village on Exmoor does something to celebrate summer, the season of fairs and festivals. On the first Saturday in August – this weekend, in fact - is the Wheddon Cross and Cutcombe fête and dog show, which takes place on the village playing fields just a short walk from Exmoor House.
A 'Mrs Mopp' scarecrow takes a break (photo by Debi Jones)
In the good old English tradition, a fête wouldn't be a fête without at least some of the following: china smashing, splat the rat, barbeque, tombola, Pimm's tent, fortune-telling and stalls selling books, plants and bric à brac. Most, if not all, of these are generally here, often with a few extra surprises too. Buy a ticket for the grand draw and you could win any of a wonderful array of prizes – one of which is dinner for two at Exmoor House.

We really enjoy looking at all the competition entries: there is always some fab baking (Frank won the best-in-show cup one year; the judges loved his goat's cheese flan), as well as great photos, very inventive crafts and of course luscious home-grown produce. Sometimes the competitions include a prize for the best scarecrow. No scarecrows this year, but I couldn't resist including a couple of pictures of some from a year or so ago.

Afternoon teas (not to be missed) are served at the village hall. After prizes have been presented, the fruit, vegetables, cakes – and so on – from the competitions are auctioned to raise money for village good causes. The auctioneer from the sheep and cattle market down the road does the honours and the pace is fast and furious. Snooze and you lose, as they say. Bidding is often fiercest, and prices highest, when it's time for the whortleberries to be sold (you may know these by one of their other names: bilberries, whinberries, blaeberries...).

If you're in the area, do come along and join in. You'll be made very welcome.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Exmoor's variety, part 2: Plantlife

Because Exmoor has such a range of terrains (more in a later blog!) it has a big range of plantlife too. I'm going to concentrate here on some of my favourites, and haven't included trees because I'm also going to focus on them another time.
Daffodils in Stowey Wood near Wheddon Cross
Early in the year the snowdrops in Snowdrop Valley - where else? - show that the land is starting to wake up after winter. Slightly later signs of spring are daffodils, primroses, alexanders, wild garlic, bluebells. 
Gorse, with its sunny flowers and coconutty scent, can be in bloom at any time of year ('whenever kissing's in season' as the old saying goes) but is often at its best in late spring. Exmoor ponies love to nibble the flowers and stems.
Heather on Dunkery Hill
Summer brings out the bell heather and ling on the high moors, which are home to luscious whortleberries as well; also known as bilberries, if you're a northerner like me. And, following on from the foxgloves, rosebay willowherb is everywhere. On riverbanks I love to see meadowsweet, also – an invasive import, but so pretty – monbretia.
Gorse in bloom by the Porlock toll road
By the coast you'll see, at various times of the year, sea purslane, wild fennel, teasels, evening primroses, mallows...
And I'll just briefly mention marsh plants, grasses and sedges, ferns, lichens – the latter a telltale sign of Exmoor's unpolluted air – and fungi including brightly coloured waxcaps.

All in all, Exmoor is a botanist's paradise!

Friday, 26 February 2016

Teacakes at Wheddon Cross

Johnny Kingdom and David Parker visited our February pop-up tearoom the other year, and tried one of our most popular menu items: our home-made teacakes.
They had just visited Snowdrop Valley, while filming the TV series Johnny Kingdom's Wild Exmoor. The book of the same name, by David Parker and with reflections on Exmoor from Johnny Kingdom, was published in 2015 by Halsgrove.
On page 49, David says of our tearoom: '...the food, all home-baked... is fantastic. I'm partial to a toasted teacake in the morning, Frank's home-made ones put the bought variety into some sort of perspective'.
For an affectionate and individual perspective on Exmoor through the seasons, take a look at the book. You will also find our special teacakes recipe in there, but here it is now for you.
Ingredients (makes approximately 12 teacakes)
200g mixed dried fruit
1kg strong white flour
1 tsp salt
100g butter
100g sugar
500 ml milk
5g yeast
1 tsp sweet mixed spices

Rub the butter and flour together in a large mixing bowl until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Warm the milk to blood temperature and add the yeast, then add the milk and yeast, as well as the mixed spice, sugar and salt, to the flour and butter mix. Stir it all together and knead, then add the mixed fruit and work it into the dough. Cover the bowl lightly with clingfilm, set it in a warm place and allow the dough to rise for about an hour or until it has doubled in size. Then divide into 150g pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Put these on a baking tray which you have greased and lined with baking parchment or silicon sheet. Let the doughballs rise for approximately another hour, then bake at 200C for fifteen to twenty minutes.
Enjoy the teacakes the traditional way: toasted, with plenty of butter. Or for something different and also rather delicious, try them untoasted, with clotted cream and jam.
If you'd rather have teacakes made for you, then do come and visit!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Snowdrops, steam trains and snacks

Combining a ride on a steam train with a visit to Exmoor’s beautiful Snowdrop Valley sounds like just the  ticket! This year’s Snowdrops and Steam days out on the West Somerset Railway are on February 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th.
The steam trains depart from Bishops Lydeard at 10.25 or Minehead at 10.15. You get off at Williton Station to join the special coach service to Wheddon Cross, arriving there around midday. To get to the valley itself, you can either walk (allow about 1 ½ to 2 hours; the paths are steep and can be very muddy) or travel on the snowdrop bus.

Your coach back to Williton leaves Wheddon Cross about 15.00, to catch the 16.45 trains to Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Visit WSR for more information, prices and booking details (as I write this, some of the Snowdrops and Steam dates are selling very fast).

While you’re in Wheddon Cross, do call in to Exmoor House for some hot soup, home-made teacakes, a cream tea or a ploughman’s lunch…

And to see just why Snowdrop Valley is so special, take a look at these photos

On the Wheddon Cross village website you’ll find details of various walks to Snowdrop Valley; here are some examples.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Snowdrop Valley 2016 and our pop-up tea room

The official dates for Exmoor’s famous Snowdrop Valley this year are 30th January to 28th February. During this time the road to the valley is closed, but you can walk down to see the snowdrops via various routes from Wheddon Cross (the public footpaths are of course open all year round and it is always a nice walk, though you need to be reasonably fit as the way is steep). 

The snowdrops on 24th January - photo by Michael Edwards
 If you don’t want to walk, a park and ride bus service runs between Wheddon Cross and Snowdrop valley each day from 6th to 21st February. For more details, including the bus timetable, walking route maps, the Snowdrop Valley brochure and information about special arrangements for people who have disabilities, visit the  
Wheddon Cross village website

At Exmoor House guest house we are opening our annual pop-up tea room from 30th January until 28th February inclusive. Opening hours are generally from 11am until 3pm, although if we don’t have many dinners to do for our staying guests (our bed and breakfast breaks with dinner are very popular) then we may stay open a little longer in the afternoon.

Everything is made here by Frank the chef, for example bread, teacakes, cakes, scones, jams & pickles….Some of our tearoom specialities are soup, sandwiches, ploughman’s lunches - and not forgetting Somerset cream teas (including savoury cream teas for those who don’t have a sweet tooth).

Our dining room only holds about 14 people, so if you have a particular date in mind when you’d like to come for lunch, we’d advise you to book. Call Rosi & Frank on 01643 841432.