A walk in December

Panorama of the Exmoor and North Devon coast from Little Hangman

The 27th of December is a forgotten day. It sits nestled between Christmas and Hogmanay with nothing of its own to celebrate. Boxing day is marked with a family celebration of token exercise; a sedate and relaxed walk across the beach. But this day is quiet and anonymous. The perfect day for a walk.

Combe Martin, and the rest of Southwest England, has suffered an unusually wet year. Starting in April, a dry winter was replaced with almost continuous rainfall of extreme proportions. When I came home for the holidays, the locals were downtrodden and sick of yet more rain. Relentless falling of precipitation. This has resulted in mud everywhere. The trails and paths that normally are hard and worn, are now covered in inches of mud, standing off of the surface and mixed with puddles of brown brackish water.

Leicester Cliff Footpath, on the way to Little Hangman from Combe Martin, North Devon

The walk from the village to the top of Little Hangman is short and steep – about a mile up, with a gain of 400 feet from the beach. It hugs the edge of some fields, before breaking out into the moorland, and then up a short sharp final push to the top. A small bobble of hillside sticks up and out of the coastline. Contrary to what the name suggests, Hangman hill was never the sight of gallows. The most likely explanation for the name comes from the Hangman’s position on the westernmost boundary of Exmoor National Park. The Celtic language was widely spoken in the southwest until the 16th century, and lent the words hars – boundary and muen – stone, or hill. From hars muen, it takes just a simple trans locution to form the modern day Hangman.

Wild Pear beach, below Little Hangman outside of Combe Martin, North Devon

As you walk up and out of the pasture land and into the rougher vegetation at the top, the view to the west opens up – Watermouth cove, a fantastic natural harbour is in the foreground, with the rolling hills of the North Devon coast above it in the distance. A recent addition to the skyline is the wind farms on the higher ground – huge monstrosities of turbines, realising the need for home grown energy.

Looking at the North Devon coast from Exmoor

To the east, the majestic cliffs of Exmoor National Park can just be seen behind Great Hangman. The tallest cliffs in England stretch up from the churning sea. With the constant rain of this year, large landslips can be seen falling down the cliffs, with other precipitously balanced chunks of earth just ready to fall. In December, very little provides colour against the bruised sky; the heather ready to burst in purple when summer rolls through, and the gorse flowers, a beautiful golden yellow, today are muted and dormant. The landscape is monochrome, bleakly beautiful.

Highest Sea cliffs in England, Great Hangman on Exmoor National Park

After we’d had our fill of the summit, we walked inland, past West Challacombe manor – a medieval farmhouse restored in the Georgian era into a grand house. Down the small lane which leads back to the village, back past the seafront and the dog walkers who haven’t ventured past the beach, and home for a cup of tea.

Decomposing wooden bridge over the river at West Challacombe