Monday, 4 July 2011

Dunkery Beacon & Great Rowbarrow

When my Dad asked me last Friday night what I wanted to do with the two days we had together, one of the first things that came to mind was Dunkery Beacon. The summit beacon at 519m above sea level is the highest point on Exmoor, and the highest point in South England outside of Dartmoor. I still hadn't climbed along the roof of Exmoor before and with the weather forecast looking the way it did on Friday night I couldn't think of anything better. I also knew that my Dad's Tramper, his off road mobility scooter, would have no problems at all reaching the summit as I had passed by Dunkery Beacon a country lane before now and seen a straight forward bridleway leading up to the summit. As I said in my last post I was delighted on Friday night when my Dad said "why don't we get up real early and go see the sun rise from Dunkery Beacon?... leave here at 3am?", my response was "well I am up for it if you are". We had been out to Braunton Burrows the day before and done an easy walk over the dunes and along the beach, finished off by myself cycling the seven miles back to their house. We had pie and veg for tea Saturday night, showered and then watched the weather forecast on the telly. After days of rain there was to be a big swing in the weather to perfect warm blue skies and initial low lying cloud and fog. Sounded like perfect cloud inversion weather to me, but is 519m above sea level really the kind of place we would get to see a proper cloud inversion from? So an early night was had to prepare for our 3am start.

Parking up on Dunkery Hill above the clouds

My alarm went off at 2:50am and it was still dark outside. I could hear my Dad pottering around in the kitchen already up and preparing our packed lunch. We had got most things packed the night before so we didn't wake Mrs Bassnett Senior, or we would have been in big trouble! We stealthily made our way out of the house. Bats were circling the lamp posts outside munching on the many moths and insects. As we climbed out of Barnstaple and in to the Exmoor National Park the mist and fog we were promised by the weather man showed itself and made driving conditions difficult at times. A certain small stone bridge around Challacombe Mill will vouch for that won't it Mr Bassnett? The fog persisted as we made our way through Challacombe, Simonsbath and Exford. This was very promising and exactly what we had hoped for. As we got close to Dunkery the sky, when we got rare glimpses of it, was starting to turn into that mesmerising aplenglow it gets as the sun is about to rise in the morning. Then something magical happened, at Luckwell Bridge the road rises from 240m above sea level to Dunkery Gates at 387m above sea level then ascends even higher as it skirts the eastern side of Dunkery Hill to 447m above sea level. As we drove higher and higher the world above the clouds opened up and Dad stopped the car as we both said "Wow!" at the same time. I would say we couldn't believe our luck, however I believe in situations like this you make your own luck. Watching the forecast closely, knowing the right conditions, then making the effort to get up at stupid o'clock is not just luck! Our determination had paid off and the view all around and particularly to the east was just simply awesome. The cloud level was at around 350m so we had views all around above the clouds and with various other higher parts of Exmoor sticking out like islands on a sea of clouds.

Dad getting his camera ready for the sunrise at Dunkery Beacon

We continued up the road and then Dad slammed his breaks on again, this time to watch three majestic Red Deer Stags run across the road and make there way over the heather moorland away from us. We finally reached a good parking spot around grid reference SS904420 where the bridleway descent meets the road. We took numerous photos, I know how quickly cloud inversions can disappear in certain conditions so took plenty of photos. We unloaded the tramper and set off at a quick pace up the bridleway knowing we had to race the sun to the summit. For most of the ascent which is just over a kilometre, I was having to jog to keep up with my Dad who was storming up the bridleway on his Tramper. Only pausing briefly at times to take in the stunning scene around us and the familiar dawn moorland sound of Grouse and Skylarks. As we got closer to the impressive stone built beacon on the summit we spotted several other walkers on the summit who looked like they had the same idea as ourselves. We reached the summit with literally only ten minutes to spare. In those ten minutes we spoke to the fellow walkers and discovered they were from the North Devon Ramblers Group. These guys had been walking all night as part of their "Dusk till Dawn" circular walk from Dunkery Bridge. It was great to meet like minded folk who were as mad as we are! The view from the summit was incredible. It was very touching for me as I had experienced such views before but never thought I would see such a view with my Dad. His Tramper enables him to get to these places he never thought possible years ago and neither of us could ever have dreamed that we would have shared this experience at this time in my Dad's life.  As the sun neared its first appearance the skies got brighter and the inversion even more impressive.

Watching sunrise over cloud inversion from Dunkery Beacon

Looking to the distance horizon over the clouds we could make out further away tops now. Dartmoor was a wide and flat island to the south. To the north the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, the likes of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and the Black Mountain clearly visible and sat like islands in orange skies above a white sea of clouds. They actually looked to me like the Small Isles in Scotland when the sun sets up there. The sun rose above the clouds from the west and we all stood in silence in awe of it. We stayed on the summit for a good half an hour chatting to the ramblers group and watching the ever changing scene around us all. One guy spotted a group of Red Deer making their way up to the hill and over the col between Dunkery Beacon and our next target Great Rowbarrows. At first it looked like a dozen, but then another dozen appeared and then another and eventually there were over fifty of them, a great sight. The ramblers group set off heading west at first then south east along the footpath back down to Dunkery Bridge where they had parked the night before. The Red Deer raised their heads then scattered as they approached them. We headed west to follow the easy ridge walk across heather moorland to Great Rowbarrow. Little Rowbarrow, Great Rowbarrow and in fact all of the hills on the high Dunkery Hill ridge are littered with stone cairns and burial mounds, some dating back to the Bronze Age. The going across the wide moorland ridge was easy. The path dog legs between Little Rowbarrow and Great Rowbarrrow then descends north west to Lang Combe Head.

Sun rising over the clouds from Dunkery Beacon

When we reached the tarmac road at Lang Combe Head we turned left and continues along it heading up hill passing close by some beautiful wild Exmoor Ponies. The inversion over the Bristol Channel was now starting to clear and more of Wales's coast line was coming in to view. After a kilometre along the road we turned left on to a bridleway heading east back in the direction of Dunkery Beacon. The bridleway was easy walking again and after over a kilometre and a half we reached a junction of paths where a bridleway heads off right to Dunkery Bridge, the route the ramblers will most probably have taken back to their cars. We carried on heading east following their earlier footsteps back to the summit of Dunkery Beacon for our second visit of the morning, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits entertaining us all the way. We soon reached the summit again, a good few hours after we had left it earlier, this time the views were far more extensive and equally impressive. We could now see in to all of the surrounding valleys and only the odd swathe of misty cloud hung on to the colder moors, forests and valleys. I was ravenous by this point as I forgot to pack food in my actual rucksack. We descended Dunkery with smug smiles on our faces telling everyone we saw on their way up what an amazing sunrise they had missed.

Dad on heading toward Great Rowbarrow on his Tramper

We reached the car and it was like we had parked in a completely different place, you could now see how high we were up on Dunkery Hill, valleys leading off in all directions flanked by typical Exmoor countryside. We sat by the car and ate the packed lunch Dad had prepared and sat contemplating what a great morning we'd had. The drive home was glorious as Exmoor always is on a hot sunny day. As I have already said this National Park is in my opinion the most under rated in Britain by a long way. We finished off the morning with a trip to Porlock Weir for ice creams and Lynton for a much needed orange juice. The trip back to Barnstaple along the A39 is a very familiar one indeed for myself having done the trip many times before. Much to our delight, a small slender Red Fox vixen ran across the road from one hedgerow to another as we neared Parracombe. It was quite a bizarre sighting considering the time was exactly midday. We got home and went to bed for an afternoon nap, absolutely knackered from our early morning start. We visited relatives again in the afternoon then I treated my Dad to a Chinese take away, after which he fell asleep in his chair. The next day I spent fixing his PC and installing a few extra bits and pieces to put it back in a backed up, safe and working condition. I left wishing I could have stayed longer, but I know I will be back again and again. The drive back was great despite driving through Birmingham at Monday evening rush hour there were no major problems and the sun was shining all the way home. A fantastic weekend I will never forget!

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...


  1. Dunkery Beacon at sunrise - now thats a thing. I'm wondering how I can manage this from Co Durham..........

  2. Stunning Jamie and treasured memories of time with your Dad.

  3. Train to Exeter, then steam train from Exeter to Minehead on the West Somerset line. Bus from Minehead to Porlock. Then campsites in Porlock and at Horner. Both walking distance to Dunkery. :-)

    P.S. Your latest post was making me shudder before, claustrophobic shudders! ;-)

  4. (hmmm, not sure what happened to my first attempt at a comment; I'll try again on the assumption that it was operator error):

    Absolutely fantastic! It would never have occurred to me to get up quite that early to go out for a walk, but you've demonstrated the benefits admirably. *Very* jealous of those photos.

  5. Jamies, REALLY enjoyed that post. Absolutely briliant! :) And fantastic pics, too.

    I caught a cloud inversion in the Peaks on the Satday am, too (well, you know that anyway) but it wasn't as spectacular as yours!

    Before I did the work I do now, I'd often head out in the early hours (wife thought I was mad!) with only a couple of hours kip.

    Worth every minute to catch the dawn of a new day high above the clouds - fantastic and another hillwalking moment to remember.

  6. Snowdon several years ago was my first ever proper early morning walk, got to Pen-y-Pass for 2:30am and walked the Horseshoe, totally by myself the entire day until I got back down, saw Brocken Spectre for the first time and I couldn't stop thinking about the experience for weeks. Would definitely recommend those crazy 3am starts to anyone! :-)

  7. Loved the post. And what stunning pics. Very,very nice.