Saturday, 28 June 2014

Two Castles Trail

Woodland colours

With a fortnight trip to the Swiss Alps in a week, I thought it best to clear a backlog of trip reports, I'll start with a walk that I did way back in April this year;

It had been a great few days tor bagging on Dartmoor, but I was eventually looking for something more linear. Wonderful, as circular walks can be, I was craving a long walk that didn't involve me tracking back to my start point, I was missing the sense of undertaking a journey, and the satisfaction of arriving somewhere new.


The Two Castles Trail, a 24 mile waymarked route between Okehampton and Launceston castles, fitted the bill. Armed with an excellent brochure downloaded from the Devon County Council website, link HERE, I was dropped off by my parents in the centre of Okehampton at 8.30am, and making my way to the castle.

Okehampton Castle

Okehampton Castle was the largest castle in Devon, in a stunning setting on a wooded spur above the rushing River Okement. Begun soon after the Norman Conquest as a motte and bailey castle with a stone keep, it was converted into a sumptuous residence in the 14th century by Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon, much of whose work survives. After the last Courtenay owner fell foul of Henry VIII in 1538, it declined into an allegedly haunted ruin. Extract from the English Heritage website

Being so early, it wasn't open, but probably just as well because it would have set me back an hour. I had visited it before a few years back and it's worth a wander round.

But onwards, climbing out of the valley, to join the West Devon Way, through Old Town Nature Reserve, to the Okehampton Golf Club.

Okehampton Golf Club

Crossing golf courses isn't one of my favourite past times. I always get a sense that hikers are not welcome. Their members look disparagingly as we traipse across their land, and often the routes across are poorly waymarked, seemingly out of spite. This may be paranoia on my part, but on this occasion I was pleased that the route across was  simple, straightforward, and I even met a golfer who was actually willing to engage in conversation; wonders never cease!

West Devon Way

Across the course, it's field and farmyard to a lane, then a bridge that crosses the busy A30. Over that bridge and you are into Meldon Woods, following the West Okement River.

West Okement River

Footbridge over West Okement River

Looked like I was a couple of weeks early, as the blue bells hadn't bloomed yet, especially disappointing in hindsight, as this year was a prolific one on Dartmoor.

Meldon Woods

Passing through the hamlet of Meldon, following a bridleway, you leave the trees behind and pop out onto the moor proper with Sourton Tors before you.

Sourton Tors

The bridleway, eventually hits the open moor, but the route doesn't venture too deep, instead skirting the base of the tor briefly before dropping off into Sourton. No tor bagging to be done today!

Sourton Tors

Sourton Church

Sourton village has claim to "Britain's most unusual pub", but probably better labeled as "Britain's biggest carbuncle pub", a ridiculous "Disneyesque" eyesore that screams "WTF". But don't take my word for it, judge for yourself.

Probably the ugliest pub in the world

Leaving the A386 behind, it is field and stiles for over a kilometre to the outskirts of Bridestowe, where the West Devon Way and the Two Castles Trail part company.

Plenty of stiles on this walk

It's a short road walk into Bridestowe, the end of stage one in the brochure, at the 7 mile (11.25km) mark. Had I been doing a leg at a time, I would have definitely made the most of this village, and stopped for a pub lunch and a pint in the White Hart. However, it was still early, the pub was shut, and instead I had to console myself with a scotch egg from the well provisioned local store.

Church at Bridestowe

Post Office, Bridestowe

White Hart, Bridestowe

Next stage was another seven miles, to Lewdown. I promised myself a pub lunch there. The route out of Bridestowe is as you arrived, on metalled surface. It isn't busy, but road walking takes it out on the feet. Thankfully it was only a few kilometres, passed Watergate, before the trail left the lane.

Lots of road walking

At this point, the brochure excites you with details of an Iron Age hill fort high up to your left, in the trees of Burley Wood. It then goes on to explain that there is no public access and so you have to be content with a longing look at the map, and a good imagination!

The trail contours the hill on it's east and north side, before turning south to a "paved" sunken lane that ascends to Burley Down.

Sunken Lane near Woodhead Farm

Eventually, the lane levels out...

Path levels out near Burley Down

And you top out on Burley Down, with expansive views of the western edge of Dartmoor.

Views of Dartmoor from Burley Down

The views are short lived, and you enter Lydford Forest, which continues on for a kilometre to a road, where a re-alignment of the path threw me for a while. 

At this point I was following the OS map, and I spent a good 10 minutes searching for the access onto Galford Down, before offloading my rucksack, grabbing a cereal bar to eat, and digging out the brochure; "Just before the next road junction, take the footpath on the right..." 

Across Galford Down, scene of a 9th century scuffle between the Saxons and Celts (when they eventually found access no doubt!) I was back onto the original route. It was a descent on a lane, with good views of the West Devon countryside, that led to another road.

Descending Galford Down

The road passes through the 18th Century Lew Mill, with its Medieval cross upright.

Lew Mill

Medieval cross upright at Lew Mill

Still following the road, you enter Lewtrenchard, with its impressive manor, now a hotel. I couldn't resist peering over the wall for a look at the grounds.

Lewtrenchard Manor Hotel

By now, it was getting close to two in the afternoon, and I was wondering if I was going to make it to Lewdown in time for a pub lunch. I hurried up to Cross Roads, where you head west through the village on a busy thoroughfare. I reached the Blue Lion pub and looked for a way in, but no, it was shut. I may well be wrong, but it actually looked as though it was shut permanently, but that could just be the impression given by it's weathered facade on a grey day.

The Blue Lion, Lewdown.

Thwarted, I went on to find the local store, but that had shut an hour before, so I sat myself down by the village war memorial and had to make do with a satsuma and a nature valley bar. Such is life!

No point hanging around on the edge of a hectic road, the next leg to Lifton was 5 miles (8km). Apart from one road crossing, there is a welcome path and bridleway to the next village enroute; Stowford.

Church at Stowford

Through the village, it is then back on road, down to a bridge over the River Thrushel.

Bridge over River Thrushel

From the river, it is yet more road and lanes, passed the entrance to the Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre. If you are a fan of traditional fairground rides, it would make a good "wet weather day" excursion. I'm not a fan, so I continued on to Lifton.

Lifton, half a mile

Lifton has more amenities for the walker. A couple of pubs and a store that is open! I stopped briefly, to eat a sandwich, but the last section was calling more than a pint; a mere 5 miles (8km) to Launceston.

Leaving the village, the trail passes back under the A30, through Liftondown, and climbs over a small hill on a quiet lane. As you approach a bridleway on the left, you get your first glimpse of Launceston Castle on the horizon.

First view of Launceston Castle

It is then a pleasant stroll through fields down to Polson Bridge.

View of Launceston from near Nethercott

Polson Bridge is the county border, where you leave Devon and move into Cornwall, and was once the main entry into Cornwall, records of the crossing dating back as far as 1338. The present bridge was built in the 19th Century.

Polson Bridge and the county border

Passing through the grounds of a riding school, once the site of St. Leonards Leper Hospital, which existed from the 13th to 17th Centuries, you pass an old packhorse bridge, itself dating back to the 16th Century.

16th century packhorse bridge

Shortly after a small climb, you join the Tamar Valley Discovery Trail, and you have a clear view of Launceston as you approach the end.

Road into Launceston

But before your goal is reached, there is one final climb up into the centre of town.

The final climb

I must admit, when I reached the town square, it took me some time to figure out where the trail went! Inexplicably, any waymarking appeared to have disappeared, and OS maps are notoriously bad for navigating in towns. Eventually, I had to ask someone where the entrance to the castle was, and to my shame I was a mere thirty yards from the entrance when I did so!


Gate to Launceston Castle

It was now gone six in the evening, and, like Okehampton, Launceston Castle was also closed for visitors. So, with just a photo of my visit, and no tour, I rang for my lift and sat in the square to be picked up. Still, I was thoroughly satisfied with my day.

I'll leave the description of the castle to the English Heritage website;

Set on a large natural mound, Launceston Castle dominates the surrounding landscape. Begun soon after the Norman Conquest, its focus is an unusual keep consisting of a 13th-century round tower built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, inside an earlier circular shell-keep. The tower top can be reached via an internal staircase but once reached, offers breathtaking views of the historic town and countryside. 

Launceston Castle

And the route: