Whenever you choose to travel, the rolling landscape of Exmoor never fails to impress and is an unmissable place to visit. The wide, open spaces of this West Country moorland offer outstanding natural beauty and a welcome opportunity to step down a gear in the great outdoors.
Like Dartmoor to the south-west, Exmoor is famous for its vast vistas, free-range ponies, and outdoor activities, but there the similarity ends. Dartmoor in south-west Devon has a wild, austere beauty, punctuated with granite outcrops, while Exmoor – which lies mostly in neighbouring Somerset – is softer and more rounded, bisected with green valleys, and sustainably farmed for centuries.
Exmoor also boasts a spectacular coastline, and a holiday on the Exmoor coast offers the best of land and sea, at any time of year. Plus, you have the chance to be as active or chilled out as you please.
I recently made a welcome return to Porlock on the Somerset coast, a buzzing small town of just 1,500 residents with a good selection of small shops and inviting places to eat. For a tranquil retreat in the heart of the action, you can’t do better than booking a room at The Cottage, a luxury B&B on the main street with private parking to the rear and a warm welcome from owners Chris and Clare.
Keen walkers can step straight out from The Cottage to follow a trail through the woods to the picturesque Porlock Weir with its quaint cottages and small harbour, or head off on marshland trails towards Bossington Hill for some far-reaching coastal views. There are hillside and woodland walks too through the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate, just outside Porlock; take a wander through the estate villages of Bossington, Allerford and Selworthy.
For good pub grub in historic surroundings, book a table at The Ship Inn, just a moments’ walk from The Cottage.
East of Porlock, the seaside resort of Minehead is the gateway to the Exmoor National Park, popular with families for its long sandy beach and child-friendly amenities on Blue Anchor Bay.
Don’t miss historic Dunster, a couple of miles inland. England’s largest intact medieval village, Dunster boasts 1,000 years of history including Dunster Castle and Gardens, an octagonal Yarn Market and an ancient packhorse bridge. For fine dining in an unstuffy atmosphere, book in at Reeves.
The A39 coastal road meanders west through Porlock towards Culbone Hill, a lofty 1421 feet and pinnacle of the highest coastline in England and Wales. The highest sheer cliff is close by too – Great Hangman, which clocks in at 800 feet. On a clear day, Wales is clearly visible across the English Channel while Exmoor rolls inland to the south.
Somerset gives way to Devon just before Malmsmead. Turn off the coastal road for a gentle riverside stroll through National Trust land along Doone Valley, a fictional setting for the 19th century novel Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore. Great cake is in order too at the Trust’s busy tearoom nestled in trees beside an ancient bridge.
The A39 takes an exciting dive down a steep hill to the seaside town of Lynmouth and then up again to lofty Lynton. The twin communities are linked by a unique water-powered Victorian cliff railway. The Exmoor National Park Centre at beach level is the one-stop shop for all things outdoors. Find out about the flora, fauna and geology of the park; book outdoor activities such as nature safaris and guided walks, and stock up on local gifts and produce.
As you leave Lynton, don’t miss the Valley of Rocks, a dry valley grazed by feral goats and separated from the sea by a wall of rocky crags. The section of the South-West Coast Path is easy to navigate here, punctuated with benches for enjoying those fabulous views.
The north-west tip of Exmoor between Lynton and Combe Martin is a stunning walking country with its rolling hills, deep valleys, and hidden hamlets, although its steep narrow lanes are not for faint-hearted motorists.
I love the circular walk from Hunter’s Inn along the ancient coaching route above Woody Bay, returning through Martinhoe. But if you’re up for something a bit gentler, there’s a delightful path through National Trust woodland from Hunter’s Inn to the sheltered cove of Heddon’s Mouth with the added bonus of refreshments when you get back.
Away from the coast, Exmoor offers new views at every bend in the road. The highest point on Exmoor at 1704 feet is Dunkery Beacon, south of Porlock. The rounded summit is easily accessible via a steady uphill walk and worth it for the panoramic views that can extend up to 85 miles on a clear day. I can also recommend the restaurant at the Dunkery Beacon Country House Hotel.
Watch out for native ponies with their distinctive pale muzzles, especially around Winsford Hill, and don’t miss nearby Tarr Steps, a 17-span ‘clapper’ bridge constructed with flat slabs and boulders. Spanning the River Barle in a quiet wooded valley, it is the longest of some 40 clapper bridges left in Britain.
Not far from Tarr Steps at the southern tip of the National Park, the small town of Dulverton is dotted with quirky independent shops and lovely cafes, as well as offering walking trails for all abilities.
As if Exmoor isn’t beautiful enough, other Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) lie within easy reach. Beyond Combe Martin and Ilfracombe, the coastline from Mortehoe through Woolacombe and Croyde to Saunton is a stunner with its broad sandy bays and rocky headlands. Paradise for ramblers, amblers and beachcombers.
A short drive inland at the lowest crossing point on the River Taw, the historic port of Barnstaple was once important for the export of wool. The largest town in North Devon is still a busy commercial centre with a traditional Pannier Market, some elegant buildings, and a 13th-century bridge. But don’t linger too long – there’s still plenty to explore back on Exmoor!
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