Exmoor and West Somerset

A view from Culbone in Exmoor National Park Let’s be honest.  Until recently the chances of securing a rain free English holiday, would have been hopeful, to say the least.

After the horrors of winter, it was only natural to expect a springtime washout, and paying a deposit, as I did, would have seemed like really chancing your arm.

But that was until the sun came out….and stayed out.  Now, I can’t stop celebrating a week long break in Somerset that went without a hitch, not to mention what I saved on going foreign.  Isn’t life great!

Our starter for ten was a drive into Exmoor National Park where Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in southern England outside of Dartmoor, looked stunning.

It was here that we had a chance encounter with an elderly local resident who – like us – had pulled his car into a makeshift lay-by to watch an Exmoor pony, and her foal, eating their way through the heather.

As he approached us, the stranger smiled and said: “Isn’t it lovely view?  I don’t live far away from here, and I come here a lot.  On a day like today, it’s really special to be out and about.”

An Exmoor pony and its foal Never one to miss out on getting some free advice, and the benefits of local knowledge, I asked him which route we should take to enjoy the best of the West.

“On heavens, go whichever way you fancy,” he laughed. “Take any turn and you won’t go far wrong.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting but, with only a few references to our road map, we nonchalantly headed into a ‘find as you go’ routine. Amazingly, it worked a treat.

During six memorable hours, we traversed rolling hills and moorland peppered with cattle and sheep, and admired lazy streams meandering through deeply wooded valleys.

We made whistle stops in sleepy villages, many of them harbouring lovingly maintained thatched cottages, cosy pubs, and ancient churches. 

Parking up for an hour or so, we checked out the highly recommended Lewis’s Tearooms in Dulverton, and succumbed to our first taste of a clotted cream tea. Yes, all the weight watching platitudes crumbled at first bite.

Exmoor boasts a bountiful wildlife, but we only managed to catch a glimpse of red deer and, later, what appeared to be an otter disappearing into a stream. I paid for the ‘sighting’ by walking into nettles. Ouch!   

Peaceful Tarr Steps across the River Aller Of all the places we visited, Tarr Steps, an ancient 180ft long clapper bridge spanning the River Barle.  Set amid a beautiful wooded valley echoing to the sounds of rushing water, and the songs of birds in the trees, made it an easy place to lie back and count our blessings.

West Somerset, indeed the whole of the county, is steeped in history, myths, and legends. Part of the ‘treasure chest’ comes together in the picture postcard village of Dunster.

It would have been easy – but hard on my aching feet – to have spent many hours touring the cobbled streets, historic listed buildings, quality bookshops, lovely tea rooms, and so much more.

Hearing the variety of different languages being spoken all around us was proof, if any was needed, of the locality’s worldwide pulling power.

Dating back 1,000 years, Dunster Castle, which is owned and lovingly preserved by the National Trust, commands terrific views across to the Quantock hills and the Bristol Channel.

Dunster Castle rises above Dunster village Any castle worth its salt has to harbour a ghost or two, and Dunster is no exception. Throughout the ages, a ‘Grey Lady’, and a man wearing a tricorn hat, have been the two most regular ghostly sightings.  Spooky noises are said to have been heard after dark. 

Only a few miles separate the peace and quiet of Dunster from the relative bustle of Minehead, a popular holiday resort.  Its busy main street leads to the beach and into an extensive promenade overlooked by a Butlins holiday centre.

Remembering my train spotting days with great affection, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a ride aboard a steam train on the famous West Somerset railway.  It was a journey to treasure, and one that brought back so many happy childhood memories.

Exmoor isn’t just a day time enjoyment. Thanks to a huge effort in reducing pollution caused by artificial light, it’s a place that can boast of having wonderfully dark and starry nights. 

The quality of the night sky is so good that the park was the first place in Europe, and second in the world, to be awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status.  A lone walker on Exmoor We can vouch for all the plaudits.

On several cloud-free nights, we walked deserted country lanes, gazing into the dark sky and feeling totally awe struck by the magical star-filled experience. 

There is a lot to be said for the old adage that the best things in life come free. And they don’t come any bigger or better than the earthly, and sky filled, wonders of Exmoor.

Further Information
Frank stayed at the Pack Horse self catering accommodation in Allerford, near to Porlock.  It offers four apartments and a detached courtyard cottage.  Contact Linda or Brian Garner on 01643 862475 or email: holiday@thepackhorse.net

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Frank Corless

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