This year, I headed back down to Devon for another shot at the full-distance Exmoor Perambulation. Given the past few wet and windy years I’m not sure how they managed to get me to sign up again, but I imagine bribery must have been involved somewhere…
The Perambulation is a 31-mile hike around the original boundries of the Exmoor royal forest. The land is largely privately owned now, which means that we had an exclusive opportunity to see areas of Exmoor that aren’t usually open to the public. It’s classed as one of the toughest walks in the Exmoor annual calendar, and it’s easy to see why!
My parents sadly pulled out a few weeks beforehand, but luckily I’d managed to rope in 4 lucky (!) friends to join me for the event, as well as a weekend of good old Devon camping. I warned them continuously about the potential weather conditions, and as we set off to grey skies and a cool breeze, I was glad that I’d packed ALL the layers!
The organisers provide walkers with a set of instructions, which require a compass and an OS map to follow. Given that my Dad has always been the navigator in the past, and my Mum admitted that she pulled out this year because my Dad couldn’t take part and she didn’t trust me not to get us lost in the wilds of Exmoor, I was feeling a little bit nervous. Dragging friends through ice-cold, waist-deep water and mud on a brutal 10k was one thing (#sorrynotsorry), but stranding us all in the middle of nowhere waiting for mountain rescue to find us was a whole different matter!
Luckily, the organisers had equipped all teams with a GPS tracker this year, so we knew they’d find us eventually! Silver linings and all that, right?
2 miles down, and it’s still dry! We’re not lost! We’ve got this! Wait, I didn’t start my Garmin when we left!
The weather stayed dry, and by the first checkpoint – 2 miles in – we were all feeling pretty chipper. We had set off a little late, which meant that lots of the full distance walkers (you can also do the half) were miles ahead. We would often go hours without seeing anyone else, which was a strange feeling! I also realised 2 miles in that I hadn’t switched my Garmin on, which was a shame, but it found signal pretty quickly and then we were off towards the second checkpoint.
Trying to decide whether to climb down sideways…
Early in the first half, we hit the start of the steep climbs. The first half is definitely a lot hillier than the second, with the route taking you down into the valleys and then back up and along the top. Whilst this was pretty tough, our legs were still feeling fresh and the ground was dry, which meant that we didn’t even need walking poles this time round! I couldn’t believe how different the conditions were to previous years. Not that I was complaining!
‘Erm, so we might be on the wrong side of this plantation… Which means doing this steep nasty hill again, but over there…’
Somehow, we only got lost 3 times (not bad for 31 miles!), and managed to work our way back onto the route in time for the checkpoint cutoffs. Phew.
Shoes off – no bridges this time!
Last time we did this walk, the stream we had to wade through was more like a river, and with the shingle bank submerged we had to be pulled out at the other side. This time round, the sun was shining, the water level was nice and low, and we enjoyed a lovely refreshing dip and then a short snack stop on the far side. Glorious.
This is why Green Mountain is worth climbing. Look at those views!
Just before the half way point, we hit the biggest hill on the route, which we’d always referred to as Green Mountain. This short climb is so steep that you have to use your hands – and be extremely careful standing up, so as not to fall backwards!
16 miles down, just 15 more to go!
And then we reached half way! We stopped for sandwiches, had a chat to a couple of the mountain rescue guys, and took a read of the instructions to get an idea of what the route would be throwing at us next. Lots of the second half is on road, which sounds brilliant until you’ve been on the same bit of tarmac for 7 miles. (And this is a road marathoner talking!)
The off-road sections, whilst hilly, are much easier on your legs and feet, and the variety stops you from getting too uncomfortable. After a while on the road, we all stiffened up and slowed down quite a bit. I think next year I’ll ditch the hiking shoes for some lighter running shoes and try and jog that bit!
By this point I was regretting not putting sun-cream on before we started!
Thanks to the beautiful sunshine, we got to take in miles of views over the moor. This was awesome because 1) it was stunning, and 2) lots of the route instructions require you to head for the far side of a particular field, or look out for where the hedges are. When the visibility is low, you’re relying completely on compass bearings and can easily misjudge your position. We actually stuck to the route for the whole of the second half, without getting lost once!
Taking a breather at one of the checkpoints…
The volunteers at the checkpoints were absolute heroes. They were friendly, cheerful, and gave us as much advice as they could to set us off in the right direction, warn us of tricky bits, and also gave us an idea of our position relative to the other walkers (the 2 couples who had been behind us towards this point had pulled out, so by the second-to-last checkpoint we were last!) The checkpoints were stocked with plenty of water and juice, so we filled up our bottles, got our cards stamped, and with a hearty ‘good luck’ and ‘well done’, we set off towards the final checkpoint.
The first time I attempted the full distance, we got stopped at the final checkpoint due to dangerous weather conditions – and this happened again to my parents the year after. Luckily, the sun showed no signs of going away, so we were able to set off with plenty of time to spare, and no chances of being stopped.
When we got to the long road section (dubbed the ‘Road to Hell’, given how long and straight and soul-destroying it is), for once I was actually able to see the views! To give you an idea, this is the difference between the first time I did the full, and this time:
The ‘Road to Hell’ – then and now!
Needless to say, I was feeling pretty lucky! The sunshine definitely took the edge off, although this stretch got to us all in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get back to the hills and rough, off-road terrain!
The end is in sight! Heading over the final hill to the finish…
By the time we got to the finish – in 12h50 – we were the last ones by 20 minutes. Only about 30 people had managed to complete the full distance, including the 5 of us!
Our route card and finishers certificate (including a brilliant description of the walk), and the homemade fudge that got us through the first half!
The volunteers (including the mountain rescue guys and a couple of park rangers) were sat outside waiting for us, wrapped up in their jackets, and offered us a big congratulations and a packet of their biscuits to take back to the campsite with us – how lovely!?
They were all so unfailingly cheerful, chatty and SO lovely. I’m sure it was a long, tiring day for them and we were all so grateful to them for the logistical support on the route and the motivation and encouragement they offered us along the way. We gave them our GPS tracker, had a bit of a chat with the guy that wrote the instructions (which were fantastic, and are updated slightly each year with participant feedback), and then hobbled back to the car.
We finished the day tired, aching and sunburnt, but I have to say that this is the best year so far – and I’ve already signed up to do the full with my parents again next year.
Sub-12h00, we’re coming for you!
I’m also happy to report that my friends are all still my friends, despite Green Mountain, the Road to Hell, DOMS and blisters and sunburn. But despite enjoying the day, and feeling super proud to finish, they’ve all refused to ever join me on one of my ‘crazy’ adventures again. (But they’ve not ruled out doing the half another year!)
Fair play – camping and cider and chilling on the beach will do just fine without the added 31-mile hike! 😀
If you get the chance, I would absolutely recommend this event. Sign up, I dare you!