Straddling the Somerset-Devon border, Exmoor is compact, beautiful and easy to explore. Richard Webber reports
Like its fictional heroine resident, Lorna Doone, Exmoor is both wild and gentle, and it’s easy to see why author R D Blackmore chose it as the setting for his famous novel.
At just 21 miles by 15, it’s one of the smallest national parks, and although it isn’t devoid
of bleakness and harsh vistas, there is an overriding softness, exemplified by the smooth, gentle curves of the hills and meandering streams heading for open sea.
Its rich, green landscape ends abruptly at its northern edge on reaching precipitous cliffs, the tallest sea cliffs in England. In places, the coastline is so remote no landward access exists for miles.
Exmoor is a joy to explore year-round, especially in spring, when flowers bloom across the landscape, and in autumn, when swathes of ancient woodland are a blaze of colour.
Any trip to Exmoor must include a visit to the medieval village of Dunster. Stroll along cobbled pavements and marvel at the 200-plus listed buildings, including the 17th-century timber-framed market hall, before visiting the castle which, atop a wooded hill, commands a grandstand view of the village.
Exmoor abounds in tranquil villages. Allerford, mentioned in the Domesday Book, is famous for its much-photographed sandstone packhorse bridge.
Pop into the West Somerset Rural Life Museum, within the old schoolhouse, which boasts a mock-Victorian classroom.
Nearby, the restful hamlet of Horner, five miles south-west of Minehead, is encircled by tree-clad hills. Ancient Horner Wood is home to 14 of the UK’s 16 species of bat.
Don’t forget to visit the evocatively named Valley of Rocks, just outside the coastal town of Lynmouth. This secret world, where wild goats roam, is tucked away under the shelter of surrounding hills and full of jagged, spiky rocks with intriguing names like Ragged Jack and Devil’s Cheesewring.
Spreading out the Ordnance Survey map, it soon strikes you how many walking routes exist on Exmoor.
A ‘must-do’ walk is to Dunkery Beacon. Over 1,700 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in the national park – and Somerset. Pick summertime and Dunkery Hill looks resplendent with its cloak of purple heather, but any time of year is special.
National Trust-owned, it’s classed as a nature reserve with the moorland supporting many forms of fauna, including red deer, Exmoor ponies and merlin, the UK’s smallest bird of prey.
For a longer walk, try the varied nine-mile trek from County Gate, situated on the A39 at the Somerset/Devon border, right into the heart of Lorna Doone country.
It follows Badgworthy Water, which runs to the sea via a tranquil valley – the main setting for Blackmore’s 1860s novel.
If you don’t fancy donning hiking boots, explore the region by car. The A39 main road runs from Bath to Cornwall’s south coast, cutting across the northern strip of Exmoor.
It climbs the notoriously steep Porlock Hill, snaking its way to the top of Exmoor. Ascending 1,300 feet in less than two miles, it’s understandable why car manufacturers used it as a test route to demonstrate their vehicles’ durability.
The 12-mile drive from the village of Porlock to Lynmouth is among Britain’s finest, showcasing the contrasts of Exmoor.
On one side, stark cliffs line the Bristol Channel, the other wooded valleys, tumbling streams and barren moorland.
Descending another brake-testing gradient, this time Countisbury Hill, you reach Lynmouth. With its array of Victorian buildings, many adorned with Alpine-style balconies, it’s nicknamed ‘England’s Little Switzerland’.
Time for tea
Make time to enjoy a cream tea – or two! You won’t be short of options when finding a suitable place. Try Periwinkle Tea Room (01643 863 341; nationaltrust.org.uk/holnicote-estate; open March-October) on Selworthy Green.
This delightful spot was designed to resemble an old-fashioned village by landowner Sir Thomas Acland, originally using the lemon-painted cottages as accommodation for retired workers from his Holnicote Estate.
For a choice of six flavours of home-made scones, head for Locks Victorian Tea Room (01643 822 001) in Dunster. Seats are available in the small secluded garden, courtyard or in the old schoolhouse, which still houses the original school bell.
Great for independent explorers
With over 620 miles of paths and bridleways criss-crossing Exmoor, there are walks for everyone. Whether you’re an experienced walker or just want a short stroll, the variety is endless.
Great for tranquil travellers
Even in the height of the season you can find plenty of open spaces where the silence is broken only by the sound of birdsong, including the hills above Horner. Sit and enjoy the landscape where Exmoor ponies and red deer roam.
Great for fun-loving families
Jump aboard a steam train at the West Somerset Railway, England’s longest standard gauge heritage railway.
Enjoy a cuppa at the cafe before a trip along the entire 20-mile line or alight at one of the 10 stations en route.
Contact 01643 704 996 or visit westsomersetrailway.vticket.co.uk
Women’s Weekly Travel Offer
Why not stay at the Highbullen Hotel, Golf & Country Club set in 125 acres of rolling North Devon countryside with spectacular views down the Mole Valley and across to rugged Exmoor.
Offering luxury, comfort and fine food, this hotel is perfect for a memorable short break
Prices start from £59.50pp per night. To book call 01904 436 057 quoting AF101 or visit womansweekly.com/exmoor
There are plenty of places to eat and stay on Exmoor. For accommodation options and further info on the national park, go to Visit Exmoor.