The moors give you sensory overload. With teeming wildlife, charming hamlets and deep valleys, Exmoor is a hiker’s paradise
Article by Adam Jacot
For decades I have been coming to Exmoor. My revisits never seem a repeat. It’s all about the innocence, the unspoilt landscape and the sense of yesteryear. With staycations on the rise, Exmoor is the place to connect with nature. Mine was at Holnicote House. It is part of the Holnicote Estate set amongst the foothills of Exmoor in the Brendon Hills, just beyond the stunning presence of Dunster Castle and the seaside town of Minehead. All of which is in sight of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on the moor as it beams down benignly from miles before.
The hotel specialises in walking holidays and expert guided walking is on offer with cheery leaders to know the routes, adapt to rambling ability and predict the weather. The building itself is a country house with chalet-like cottages. My one was perfect, warm and cosy. The décor is rustic, tasteful and not over elaborate. None of the chintzy cushions you might expect to go with the predictable clinking of the breakfast cutlery. The service was warm and unceremonious.
Out on the moors there’s a sensory overload. The hills roll, the valleys swoop down and the moss-backed trees and neatly-trimmed hedgerows all boast an ancient history of their own. Curly trees stand alongside tall, straight conifers as they resemble a Tolkein landscape of the mystic and the mythical. The colours are synchronised with green pastures, yellow gorse and blue sea and sky, with the brown heather turning purple in the summer.
There is the music of the dawn chorus and bleating lambs, sheep dogs and farm machinery and above all the mesmeric trickle of the streams as they evolve into rivulets and then rivers, collecting the proceeds of other streams on their route. They come down from the steep ravines that inspired Coleridge, who lived locally, so much that he wrote Kubla Khan, a poem unique and years ahead of its time.
The communities are thankfully still vibrant with village halls, village schools and children roaming freely amongst the scarecrows made out of straw. It is the communities, and not just the National Trust, that act as custodians of a region which after all has been there forever.
I have been at many different times of the year but none surpass the emergence of Spring. All is bursting; sprouting and bursting with life and vitality. Lambs gambolling, Exmoor ponies grazing nonchalantly and at ease, horses out on their treks, crows gathering, birds of prey hovering. There are stags, herons, pheasants, bunnies, wagtails and otters. It is wonderful to watch the sheep chewing on their green diet amongst their young as they develop their independence.
Exmoor is truly a walker’s paradise. I recommend following the many beaten tracks. Especially the trails alongside the streams, be they Weir Water by Robbers’ Bridge or Badgworthy Water in ‘Lorna Doone Country’, a walk that starts at Cloud Farm at Malmsmead. They are walks close by Oare Church where people see the marks on the wall and famously swear they’re the bullet holes from the famous Lorna Doone novel by RD Blackmore. For a really remote church there’s the one at Culbone which was a steep coastal walk down for me but well worth it as it is thought to be the smallest parish church in England. Everywhere are fords and ancient, narrow bridges. There’s a charming toll bridge at Porlock Weir where I had to move a stone away and knock on the door to donate my 50p.
I suggest starting with smaller intimate valleys before confronting the width of the moor and the scope of the Bristol Channel. Further along, past County Gate, down at Watersmeet the rivers come torrentially together and flow out to Lynmouth. Whilst up above, from the cliff top views, I was able to look right across the Channel and see the Welsh town of Barry very clearly.
Exmoor is also fantastic riding country whatever your ability. I entered the previous century in the form of the farmyard at Exmoor Riding. It’s a holistic centre for horses. They are barefooted, have bitless bridles and treeless saddles to enable me to have more contact and greater comfort with the horse. Experiencing the moor on horseback adds a new dimension. I got to be taken uphill, transported over bogs and led further into the moor proper than I would have reached with any ease by foot. The other animals didn’t feel the need to run away and the views were improved as I got to see over the strong hedgerows and stonewalls. There was a fascinating interchange as I rode past four wild ponies as they looked on with a seemingly bemused air and it really made me see it all from their point of view. It’s so refreshing to see the landscape respected to the extent that there is no sign of litter. And it’s all so isolated. I barely saw another soul. It’s the best …I felt like a real explorer.
HF Holidays offers a 3-night Self-guided Walking holiday at Holnicote House in Selworthy. Prices start at £285 per person and include full board en-suite accommodation, use of the Discovery Point with access to a large variety of maps and route cards, and relaxed evening activities. 0345 470 7558 / hfholidays.co.uk
Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author having written three books about unusual words with Penguin Press.