Somerset staycation on the Exmoor coast
Revisiting old haunts doesn’t always live up to expectations. The scene of that romantic weekend or much-enjoyed family holiday can all too often prove a disappointment some years later. But happily for me, not the Exmoor coast.
Forty years ago, newly engaged and planning our wedding, my husband and I spent a few days together on the Somerset coast. We’ve revisited periodically across the decades, but last stayed in the area more than 12 years ago. This year, with all our overseas plans scuppered by Covid-19, we suddenly felt a primeval urge to head somewhere familiar and tranquil. A few days of beautiful coastline, glorious moorland, and – oh joy of joys – four different walls to look at.
The walls that we chose this time belonged to The Cottage, a four-bedroom B&B on the main street in Porlock. Former magazine editor Clare Gladstone and her husband Chris moved to the village eight years ago from Buckinghamshire for a complete change of lifestyle.
“We’d already looked at a number of properties across the south-west without finding what we were looking for,” recalls Clare. “We’d never even heard of Porlock but the moment we stepped through the door here, we knew we’d found our new home. Only later did my mother reveal that she and my father got engaged in the village!”
It was eight months before Chris was able to leave his London office job and join her, but Clare immediately threw herself into the local community and tourist scene, welcoming B&B guests in between stints behind the bar of her friendly local. It was a huge challenge but one they have never regretted.
The 18th century property was already a B&B, but the Gladstones quickly put their own stamp on it. Step through the front door today and you’re immediately enveloped in the warm atmosphere of the cosy guest sitting room with its comfy sofas and inglenook fireplace. A wide staircase leads up to the split-level landing and four guest bedrooms.
We stayed in number 5, a spacious room at the back of the house with two tub chairs and plenty of storage space. The king-size bed – option of two singles – was one of the most comfortable I’ve slept in, and the room offered everything I look for, but so often fail to find, in more expensive hotel rooms. The bathroom is compact, but with full-size bath and shower over, and whilst the window overlooks the shared car park where Cottage guests have designated spaces, it didn’t spoil our enjoyment. We had enjoyed wonderful views all day and were ready to chill. Porlock is blissfully quiet at night too which makes for sound sleep after all that fresh coastal air.
In these Covid-aware times, John and I felt comfortable that all reasonable safety measures were in place. We could still browse the books of walking routes and tourist information, but guests are asked to use sanitiser first. The Gladstones do their own cleaning and have very high standards, so we felt confident handling the large bottles of luxury toiletries in the bathroom, the hairdryer, and welcome tray items. Once the room is cleaned, they will not come in during your stay, unless requested.
Breakfast tables are well spaced in another lovely downstairs room, so you can chat with fellow guests at a suitable distance. Chris brings food to the table, and there’s a wide choice of cold items, as well as Large or Small English Breakfast with produce by local suppliers. The Gladstones can recommend a choice of nearby pubs and restaurants for evening meals, so we took the precaution of booking ahead, bearing in mind the reduced capacity and staggered booking times at many eating places.
There are several hostelries in Porlock and at Porlock Weir, less than two miles down the road. By day, you can take the woodland trail to this pretty spot with its small boats, bijou cottages, and views across the marshes to Bossington Hill. Drive west along the A39 coast road and you drop downhill to Lynmouth where – surprise, surprise – the Lyn tumbles down from Exmoor to join the Bristol Channel. In August 1952, the town was partially destroyed by a wall of floodwater with many human casualties. For transport with a difference, take the world’s highest and steepest water-powered funicular up the cliff to Lynton.
One of our favourite corners of the Somerset coast lies just beyond Lynton. The single track roads that wind downhill to Hunters Inn are not for nervous drivers, but take your time and you’ll be amply rewarded. The Inn nestles in an extensive area of National Trust coast and woodland, and there are toilets, refreshments and snacks on sale opposite the NT car park. Don’t forget your membership card to take advantage of free members’ parking.
The stony path down the Heddon Valley has been improved since we first walked down to Heddon’s Mouth 40 years ago, but the beautiful scenery is unchanged. Retracing our steps, we took the circular route along the old coaching route round the headland to Woody Bay, a steady uphill track that flattens out at the hamlet of Martinhoe before dropping down a steep lane back to Hunters Inn.
Next day, however, we had to admit defeat on the planned circular route up Hurlestone Combe behind Bossington Hill. On advice from a local walker, we turned off the challenging uphill climb to wind our way gently round the edge of the hillside with the bonus of panoramic views across Porlock Bay and marshes. Our gradual descent led through ancient woodland to the National Trust villages of Allerford and Bossington with their pretty cottages, ancient bridge, and babbling brook.
Turn your back on the coast and Exmoor offers a softer, less forbidding landscape than rugged Dartmoor to the south, hauntingly beautiful in any season. Rolling farmland and pretty valleys give way to rounded moorland grazed by sheep and native ponies. Pay a visit to the ancient packhorse bridge of Tarr Steps. Drive over Dunkery Beacon, highest point of Exmoor at 1705 feet high. And download one of many circular walks from the National Park website. All free to visit, beautifully socially distanced, and with mental and physical wellbeing thrown in by the bucketload!