Freshly armed with a degree from one of Devon’s top universities I decided to test the waters of the real world. After consulting a map I found the river Exe to be closest. My motivation came in part from a thought: what would Dr Livingstone have done if he had had a lot less imagination and was on a budget? This trip might be shorter and less complex than the Nile but it is by no means less challenging. So I present the river Exe, all 60 miles of it.
It was 7am one recent morning and I stepped out onto a moor and straight into a bog. I looked up to see a herd of big red deer watching me curiously. Well this is nice, I thought, and squelched up the hill in search of the river Exe, looking forward to spending the day in the presence of wet feet and inquisitive wildlife.
Down hill, up hill, through ford, into field with bull and hurriedly out of field with bull; Exmoor challenged me to the full. In my excitement on reaching the village of Dulverton I broke into a run thinking I could make the sea in a day. It took a few falls and bleeding palms to quell these aspirations. Now out of Exmoor I was walking along small lanes, through farms and over tiny stone bridges next to burnt-out cottages.
After a while I realised I had not seen a single soul for several hours. The surrounding trees and lingering smell of burnt wood were beginning to play with my mind. And it was in this state of mild, Devon terror that I was confronted with two geese.
In the brief standoff that followed I commanded them to “away geese!”, waving my map with authority. Unperturbed, they charged with necks outstretched and an almighty battle hiss. There was nothing for it but to scurry down the lane.
I rounded the bend at full tilt and went headlong into the arms of a farmer, ‘hold up there chappy, run all the way from Exe Head have yer?’
“Er, sort of, my feet are a bit sore”, I said.
“I’ve heard that’s what happens. Still, you decided to do it didn’t yer.’ He chuckled and ambled off back into the field with his sheepdog. By now it was getting dark so after the next bend I ducked into a field and went to sleep under a tree. I awoke the following day at 5.30am to find an army of ticks doing their morning manoeuvres on my legs. I beat a hasty retreat to the lane and was on my way before the farmer came on his rounds.
I headed straight for Tiverton Morrisons. At 7am sharp the doors opened and the morning rush swept in to fight over the fresh produce. I went straight for coffee and the toilet.
Soon back on the road I followed the trail past the local sewage treatment centre before breaking lose onto the vast badlands of southern Devon. Specifically the wide rolling hills and farms of the the Exe valley. Beautiful, if it were not for the miles of country lane that now lay between me and Exeter. My jar of peanut butter and bag of raisins to keep me company.
After a few hours I came across a bright blue peacock perched atop a brick wall. Its beauty was somewhat outweighed by flashbacks of the geese and I recoiled in horror. I suddenly remembered something I’d read about Charles Darwin having a disdain for peacocks.
“What a waste of good protein”, he would tut. It turns out too much hair/feathers is dangerous for the intellect, evolutionarily speaking. Hair/feathers need protein to grow. So do brains. This thought consoled me as I glared at the glorious bird.
The remainder of the journey was an uninteresting slog against train departure times, feet and my stock of raisins. I awoke briefly with seven miles to go to see the hairs on my legs swirling and shimmering in odd shapes. With one mile left I had to contend with the sympathetic expressions from passers by.
I eventually stumbled onto a train at Dawlish Warren and announced: “ah, the ticket inspector I presume.” The blank stare vanished as soon as I waved a five pound note in her face. I remember motioning apologetically to my feet.
You could argue my trip was worthless. Yet, it turns out that after all those years struggling against the hostile climate and suffering from various tropical diseases, Livingstone was wrong about the source of the Nile.
As for my two-day expedition during which I fought off geese, tackled with ticks and got a blister on my big toe, I am able to confirm that the river Exe begins where the map says it does and that it reaches the sea at Exmouth/Dawlish Warren. I can also confirm that it is, at times, interesting to walk along. At others it is downright dangerous and feet-numbingly dull. Stay tuned for my next adventure: locating the mouth of the river Dart.