The Exmoor coast between Minehead and Combe Martin has some of the best scenic views in the West Country. Gillian Thornton enjoyed the North Devon countryside and its four-legged residents
Follow the road from Porlock to Lynmouth and in the space of barely ten miles, you’ll be treated to some of the finest coastal scenery in Devon. To the north, steep cliffs fall away into the Bristol Channel, the outline of Wales clearly visible across the water. To the south, the deep valleys and rolling hills of Exmoor stretch far into the distance.
But the view that turned our day into a special holiday memory was North Devon’s equivalent of the pandas in China. Statistics vary, but the fact remains that the Exmoor pony — one of Britain’s native breeds — is even rarer than the Giant Panda, so to round the brow of the hill and find a small herd of them grazing and lazing by the roadside was a real treat.
The Exmoor pony came perilously close to extinction in the 1940s when only 50 ponies and four stallions remained, but although numbers have now increased to around 1,000, they remain classified as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. While most of the ponies roamed freely on the moor before the 1950s, modern grazing restrictions mean that only 200 are now left to breed in their natural habitat.
If you’re lucky, like us, you may spot a few individuals with their brown and black colouring and distinctive ‘mealy’ muzzles. To our delight, this little group wasn’t camera shy either. Watching us intently through long, shaggy forelocks, they allowed us to move quietly closer, posing prettily against a backdrop of wide open country and big skies for the classic Exmoor shot. Touching and feeding, however, are strictly off limits.
The Exmoor National Park covers 267 square miles, two-thirds of which lies in Somerset, the rest in Devon. It’s an area of deep river valleys and rolling farmland, heather-covered moorland and thick forest — a haven for walkers, horse riders and nature lovers at any time of year.
In addition to the enchanting free range ponies, Exmoor is home to the largest concentration of red deer in Britain, some of our rarest birds and butterflies, and — according to legend — the mysterious Exmoor Beast, a black puma-like creature which takes the blame for killing farm animals.
It’s an area of deep river valleys and rolling farmland, heather-covered moorland and thick forest – a haven for walkers, horse riders and nature lovers at any time of year
We spent a long weekend at Vale View, a beautiful first-floor apartment on the Exmoor coast, tucked away off a country lane just outside Porlock. Our accommodation occupied the west wing of Porlock Vale House, a half-timbered hunting lodge built in the 19th century for Thomas Cook of travel company fame.
The first thing that struck us about the apartment was the space — two large bedrooms with fitted wardrobes, a huge open-plan living and kitchen area and a modern bathroom with bath and separate shower. The second thing was the glorious views. Porlock Vale House was a popular equestrian hotel until it was turned into self-catering accommodation two years ago by owners Helen and Kim Youd, and Vale View guests are just a paddock away from the quiet shingle beach of Porlock Bay, clearly visible from both the master bedroom and the living area. The second bedroom and a large balcony overlook wooded gardens to the front of the house, ablaze with daffodils during our visit.
Available to rent through West Country specialists Helpful Holidays, Vale View proved the perfect choice for four friends spending a weekend away. But if you’re planning a big celebration, you couldn’t do better than the wood-panelled splendour of Porlock Vale House next door with its 15 en suite bedrooms, three lounges, games room and private garden. It’s the ultimate location for any special event.
Crossing the paddock to the sea, we joined the South West Coast Path and followed the shingle ridge for the short walk into Porlock Weir, a busy port in the 18th and 19th century for herring fishermen and imports of raw materials from Wales. Today the quiet harbour with its pretty stone cottages is a haven for small pleasure boats, thanks to its sheltered position on the last low ground before the rocky outcrop of Exmoor tumbles in wooded cliffs towards the sea. Visit the studios of Exmoor Glass; buy lines and bacon bits to go crabbing from the pier; or just sit on the quay and soak up the tranquillity.
The South West Coast Path begins at Minehead and takes in the whole of the Exmoor coast, hugging the shore around the West Country peninsula until it reaches the tip of Poole Harbour in Dorset. A quicker and less strenuous way to see the countryside is to head out of Porlock by car, either by tackling the famous hill or by paying a nominal charge to follow the slightly easier toll road through the woods.
Whichever you choose, you eventually emerge on the spectacular top road which dips up and down the contours with panoramic views in every direction. Turn off to visit Culbone, where you’ll find Britain’s smallest parish church, or walk through Doone Valley, the setting for R. D. Blackmore’s romantic novel Lorna Doone.
Then it’s on down the steep curves of Countisbury Hill into the harbour at Lynmouth which nestles below its loftier — and luckier — neighbour, Lynton. In August 1952, more than nine inches of rain fell on Exmoor in just 24 hours, turning tiny steams into thundering rapids that fed into the East and West Lyn rivers. People — 34 of them — were swept to their deaths by the torrents of water that poured down through Lynmouth, the village centre now substantially re-designed to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. You can see photographs of the devastation in a small exhibition near the harbour or, for the full picture, buy a book at the National Park Centre beside the river. Similar National Park Centres operate at Dunster near Minehead, and Dulverton on the southern fringes of the Park.
Twenty-first century Lymouth is unashamedly touristy but still well worth a visit, especially out of season when you can enjoy its unique position without the crowds. Don’t miss a ride on the water-powered funicular railway to the high-level High Street of Lynton. The only one of its kind in the world, it’s completely ‘green’ and offers unique views over the harbour below.
Bisected by four National Walking Trails, the twin villages also offer a choice of shorter circular walks including the spectacular Valley of the Rocks, just a few minutes outside Lynton. Fringed by the tallest cliffs in Devon, this ancient outcrop is home to a herd of horned feral goats whose history goes back to Neolithic times, as well as a variety of sea birds.
Drive through the Valley of the Rocks to Martinhoe and you come to the Hunters Inn, a welcoming hostellery which stands at the head of a footpath through National Trust land to the sheltered cove of Heddon’s Mouth. The National Trust own large areas of land in Exmoor, as well as some showpiece villages such as Selworthy just outside Porlock, with its lemon-washed thatched cottages and whitewashed village church.
Visit the area between mid March and late October, and you can take in the elegant interior of Dunster Castle, a National Trust property dramatically sited on a wooded hill overlooking the pretty village below. But the park and subtropical gardens are open throughout the year, so don’t miss an out-of-season opportunity to enjoy views of the Bristol Channel and take a walk beside the River Avill.
Dunster itself is a delightful village dotted with interesting gift shops and restaurants, not to mention some beautiful buildings, most unusual of which is the covered Yarn Market at the top of the High Street.
If you’ve children in tow, nearby Minehead has a pleasant sandy beach and an attractive seafront which has recently undergone a £1 million facelift. Minehead also marks the start — or end — of the West Somerset Railway, Britain’s longest ‘heritage’ railway which follows a 20–mile route along the Somerset coast through Watchet and then inland beside the Quantock Hills towards Taunton.
There are trains too at Woody Bay, the first station to be restored on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, a narrow-gauge route opened in 1898 and closed in 1935. It’s now in its fourth year of operation with a mile of the railway re-opened; the first stretch gives unspoiled views across Exmoor towards Heddon’s Mouth and the Bristol Channel. Phase two will add a further nine miles, linking Lynton and Blackmoor Gate.
However you travel round Exmoor, you’ll be treated to fabulous scenery that constantly changes with the light and weather conditions — and perhaps some ponies if you’re lucky. But if a dark shadow suddenly moves across the landscape, reach for the camera — you might just catch the definitive photo of the Beast!
Where we stayed
Vale View apartment near Porlock Weir is one of more than 600 properties available through West Country cottage specialists Helpful Holidays. Prices for the apartment start from £225 per week for four guests — no pets. For details, call Helpful Holidays on 01647 434063, (search for reference F31). Porlock Vale House which sleeps 31 is priced from £2,678 per week, reference F30 — pets welcome.
Exmoor House, Wheddon Cross. Tel: 01643 841432. A small hotel in a moorland village with a tea room serving soups, ploughman’s lunches and traditional cream teas (Thurs to Sun only). Table d’hôte dinner using local produce, by reservation.
Culbone Stables Inn, Porlock. Tel: 01643 862259. Highest inn on Exmoor, four miles from Porlock at the head of Doone Valley. Owned by village butchers who buy from local farmers and who have their own abattoir in Porlock, offering traceability 'from pasture to plate'. Fish and cheeses come from their own shops in Minehead.