What to do in Exmoor

With its high plateaus, big skies and wild moorlands, this corner of England’s South West is perfect for a gloriously rural getaway.

Thursday, February 27, 2020,
By Mark Rowe
Valley of Rocks
A Victorian coastal path winds its way through Valley of Rocks, a serrated frontier of boulders and peaks.
Photograph by Getty

Why go

Straddling Somerset and Devon, Exmoor is a national park of formidable drama, with steep-sided valleys, known locally as coombes, and russet-hued moorland punctuated by solitary trees that have been twisted and contorted by the wind. A red deer, sporting a crown of antlers, may emerge from the mist; a brooding raven may flap moodily by. This is an elemental landscape that reaches all the way to the sea, as the moors merge with the coast and plunge precipitously into the Bristol Channel. Deep within the park’s ravines you’ll find little-changed villages home not only to a strong sense of community but to warming cafes, cosy pubs and fine dining. Above all, Exmoor feels like a real country escape, shaped by thousands of years of farming and inhabited by people who’ve lived and worked here all their lives. Blessed with an intricate network of footpaths, ancient bridleways and lanes, Exmoor is easy to explore and combines wilderness with indulgent treats and the chance to temporarily leave busy lives behind. visitexmoor.com

What to do

Teetering on the north coast of Exmoor, seemingly poised to tumble into the sea, is a serrated frontier of boulders and peaks known as Valley of Rocks. Amble along a Victorian path that straddles their seaward faces or, for the more adventurous, scramble up the rocks as they rise abruptly above the lush green landscape. Look out for the nerveless feral goats that nimbly pick their way along the steepest slopes.

Located in the south of the national park, Dulverton feels more like a large village than its official status as a small town suggests. It’s a bustling regional centre where you’ll find a good butcher’s selling the local delicacy, homity pie (filled with cheese, potatoes and other vegetables). Just across the street is The Tantivy shop and cafe, which has a fun gift shop and a fine cafe — the red Russian kale and chickpea soup and toasties filled with Exmoor blue cheese will set you up for a day on the moors.

Exmoor was a place where outlaws once roamed — a historical fact that inspired R D Blackmore to write Lorna Doone, a novel based around the Doones, a notorious 17th-century family of thieves who called Exmoor home. Exploring Doone Country is a good way to experience much of what Exmoor has to offer. Wander up the river valley at Malsmead, the setting for the book’s more romantic encounters, or visit Oare Church, where the marriage of the book’s heroine and hero, Lorna Doone and Jan Ridd, is aborted by a pistol shot through a window. Don’t overlook the secluded — and slightly eerie — Culbone Church, either; it’s believed to be England’s smallest parish church.

Where to eat

From oysters in Porlock Bay to jams made from moorland berries, Exmoor has an abundance of local food. The Coleridge restaurant inside the Dunkery Beacon Country Hotel at Wootton Courtenay is overseen by chef-proprietor John Bradley, who wins regional food awards year after year. The food is tasty and beautifully presented, and the menu can include, say, Somerset rib-eye steaks followed by blackberry and apple crumble. Try homemade cakes at Tessa’s Tea Shop or, for a light lunch, try the Chapel House tea room in Dunster, where you can sit back on mismatched furniture and tuck into excellent homemade scones.

Don’t miss

Reaching 1,705ft, Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor — and on a clear day, it feels as though you can see all of South West England from its broad summit. While you can, of course, explore in solitude, local guide Jennie Wild is excellent company and offers a walking safari with sundowners on the summit.

We like

Need to rest your feet? Hop aboard the Cliff Railway, which connects the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth. This Grade II-listed working heritage railway dates back to 1888 and is one of just three fully water-powered railways left in the world. Two cars with water-operated brakes wheeze and groan their way up and down a dizzying cliff face, reaching a height of almost 500ft.

Where to stay

There are just eight rooms at the Dunkery Beacon Country House, all of which are beautifully furnished. Tucked away in a valley to the north of Dunkery Beacon, this small hotel has an intriguing history as a Cold War bolthole for British spies. A glass of fine red wine here, enjoyed in the cosy guest lounge, is the perfect end to a romp on the moors. From £89 a night, B&B.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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