Field Notes: The Stell on Exmoor
John Muir Award Participant, Jo Burgess shares reflections from her recent Explorer Award rediscovering parts of Exmoor National Park.
I live in Devon. Last summer, I decided to embark on my Explorer John Muir Award on Exmoor. As well as walking the section of the South West Coastal Path within Exmoor National Park in a westerly direction, I set out to discover and explore parts of Exmoor I didn’t know.
Exmoor was the closest National Park to my childhood home in North Somerset and my father lived in Simonsbath during World War Two; when my grandmother taught at the school. Last summer I set out to revisit and rediscover somewhere near Simonsbath I had not been for many years.
When I was a kid, we used to walk to a place called ‘The Stell’. I recently learnt that in the 1860s when Frederic Knight brought shepherds to Exmoor from Scotland, the head shepherd Robert Little introduced sheepfolds to Exmoor as winter shelters to feed the sheep.
‘The Stell’ is one such sheepfold and is nestled at the head of one of the steep valleys which forms a tributary of the river Barle, east of Simonsbath. I had swum in the river earlier in the year and walking back up the main valley, mum and I rested at our favourite spot and spotted deer making light work of the steep slopes of this particular valley. I decided then, that I would take a walk to ‘The Stell’ to reminisce.
The attraction of walking there all those years ago was that mum would go ahead and hide smarties in amongst the tree roots and if we found them before our dog, we got to eat them! Whenever I see or eat smarties, I think of those carefree times.
Although this summer I walked on my own, I was never lonely. I had deer to keep my company including one which jumped out of a bog in front of me when I was balancing through a particularly challenging and smelly section I should really have avoided! I was envious of the nimble movements of the deer but relieved I had my walking poles and got to the dry ground on the other side without falling in.
After a steep climb and enjoying not just the sight of deer but also some lovely bog plants, I arrived at ‘The Stell’, which was very different to how I remembered it, with reeds dominating the enclosure. The trees were as gnarly as I remembered though.
In my mind’s eye I could see the dog with a look of satisfaction when he beat us to the smarties; Dad leaning on his walking stick, smoking his pipe (a familiar olfactory backdrop to life); Mum indulging us by pointing out the smarties we and the dog had missed and my little sister rushing to beat me to the smarties.
We lost Dad in 2020 to Alzheimer’s disease, but he is omnipresent whenever I am in the vicinity of Simonsbath; as is the grandmother I never knew.
I found a quote from John Muir – ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’. I have felt this throughout my life and particularly during my time exploring Exmoor.
I read recently about how Muir wrote about the feeling of homecoming he found in the mountains which he wanted everyone to experience. I felt this on Exmoor where I felt restored and sensed I was coming home. It was good to discover and explore the interweaving of mankind with the natural world in a place I have such close associations with.
In addition to discovering and exploring, I also spent many hours giving something back to this special wild place. I helped to restore Ashcombe Gardens and was specifically involved in vegetation management, planting and establishing a cottage garden. I have also shared my love of Exmoor with others by volunteering at National Park events such as their annual Dark Skies Festival.
I am now making plans to begin my Conserver John Muir Award, with Dartmoor National Park as my chosen wild place.