Standing at the top of Winsford Hill, looking over the rolling hills, heather moorland and out to the sea, it was hard to understand why there weren’t hundreds of other people jostling to take in the same view. But in fact we were alone, without another sole as far as the eye could see.
Straddling the Devon/Somerset border, Exmoor National Park covers 267 square miles of moors, fields, rivers, villages and coastline. Despite its undoubted wealth of natural riches, a study earlier this year showed that Exmoor is the least visited of all of the UK’s national park, so makes a great place to appreciate the countryside without the crowds.
From Winsford Hill, we headed across the moors to the small town of Dulverton, one of the ‘gateways’ to Exmoor, where you can buy everything you need for a weekend in the country – from local meat, eggs and flour, to camping, fishing and even hunting equipment – from its collection of pretty stone buildings.
Back in Winsford, we settled in next to the roaring fire in the thatched Royal Oak pub. Although Exmoor remains relatively ‘undiscovered’, it turns out the Royal Oak does not; we managed to grab the only unreserved table for a dinner of local venison accompanied by a lovely pint from the nearby Exmoor Ales brewery.
There was no luxurious boutique hotel for us on this trip; after dinner it was a mile back up hill to our campsite on a working farm outside the village. But this gave us the perfect opportunity to experience the famous Exmoor night sky. It was easy to see why this is the only ‘Dark Sky Reserve’ in Europe, as the milky-way was clearly visible as we made our way back to the tent.
Waking early (we were sleeping on the ground, after all!), we got up to watch the sunrise over the valley. The view was stunning but we also learned the truth of the advice regularly given around these parts that mist arrives quickly on the moors. A finger of mist eerily crept down the valley as we watched and was soon followed by a thick covering, obscuring everything more than a few metres in front of us.
Pressing on regardless, our next stop was the famous landmark of Tarr Steps, a medieval clapper bridge over the River Barle, where there is an easy circular walk through the riverside woodland. Legs stretched, and with the mist now miraculously cleared again, we headed back over the hills to the coast. The roads gain height quickly and provide expansive views across the area, but you should also keep your eyes peeled for Exmoor’s famous wildlife. No red deer for us but we did spot some wild Exmoor ponies (as well as some peacefully grazing Highland cattle!).
Looking out over the Bristol Channel to Wales, we dropped down the steep road into the pretty coastal village of Porlock, where we grabbed a bite to eat from one of several cafes, before heading on to Dunster. Like something frozen in time, Dunster’s main street is a marvel. A higgledy-piggledy row of medieval buildings line each side, with the 11th century Old Yarn Mart sitting in the middle and an impressive castle towering over everything from its hillside perch.
The village itself, with many interesting independent shops, pubs and cafes is enough to occupy you, but the castle is also well worth a visit. Now in the hands of the National Trust, its history stretches back to Norman times, the gardens and grounds are beautiful and there are fantastic views of the surrounding area.
After a somewhat rushed tour of the castle, we just had time to squeeze in a last Exmoor Ale at the fantastic Luttrell Arms (complete with huge inglenook fireplace and swords, guns and stags heads adorning the walls), before saying goodbye to Exmoor and reluctantly heading home.