It’s amazing what a bit of sunshine can do. This week, Exmoor looks like it’s had a fresh coast of paint. Our famous beech hedges which line many of the roads over Exmoor are all sprouting fresh new leaves in a mouth-watering shade of lime and the gorse is in full flower, warming the hills and valleys with its golden yellow hue. Apparently everything is a little late this year, so gardens are experiencing a riot of colour as flowers that usually blossom sequentially are all blooming together.
Two (mainly) sunny Bank Holiday weekends and a lovely half term, together with the new Exmoor TV ads highlighting the natural beauty of the area should encourage more people to visit this year. Companies like www.activeadventuresw.co.uk and www.exmooradventures.co.uk show how the more courageous can enjoy our natural ‘adventure playground’ and there are already plenty of walkers and cyclists out enjoying the patchwork fields, shady forests, high moors and rocky coastline trails. This can only be good news for the local businesses, many of whom depend on tourism for their livelihood. I really hope that lots more people become aware of this beautiful corner of the south west in 2013 – whatever the weather.
Whilst the weather has been quite chilly in April, this has actually led to some lovely clear skies over Exmoor. Wrapped up warm, and with a large flask of hot chocolate, we recently took our weekend guests - including a keen amateur astronomist - for an evening outing on Exmoor. We had found out that the Exmoor National Park Centre in Lynmouth (and Dunster & Dulverton) was offering high performance telescopes for hire for the evening; perfect for us to appreciate the starry skies as we don’t have anything like that of our own. And a good way to impress the visitors.
It costs £25 (plus returnable deposit) to hire the telescope for the night and we picked ours up at 4pm before the centre closed. After a tasty dinner in Lynmouth – well we did have to wait for the skies to get very dark – we drove up near Martinhoe and unpacked. Luckily there were instructions on how to use the telescope as well as a handy guide on what to look for. Our London visitors were amazed at just how clear the skies were and what was visible. The very low levels of light pollution make stargazing easy. It was fascinating to look through the telescope and discover what else was up there and invisible to the naked eye. When it wasn’t my turn – it was a pleasure just to lay on the (waterproof) blanket and stare up at the constellations. I’d definitely recommend it.
It’s always good to hear of new iniatives on Exmoor and just recently three completely different new businesses have caught my eye. Escape the City Tours specialise in creating weekend experiences and tailor-made holidays to North Devon and Exmoor, offering mini-bus transfers and train station pick-ups to minimise environmental impact. Experiences include Food Safaris, Coastal Photography Weekends, Walking breaks and bespoke trips for groups. Owners Joanna and Alan Pentecost have personally tried all the places they recommend and create excellent itineraries working with the best local companies.
Recently opened after a complete renovation Fairfield House is a vegetarian bed and breakfast, holistic venue and also offers a range of wellness and vitality retreats. Owners David & Shruti have combined their years of experience in the hospitality and spa businesses with meditation and mindfulness and healthy and wholesome eating to turn Fairfield House into a very unique and extremely special place to relax in West Somerset.
Glamorous Camping or ‘Glamping’ has come to North Devon in the guise of Longlands set in beautiful countryside just outside Combe Martin. Three fully equipped, lovingly furnished luxury safari lodges each sleep 6 people and up to 2 dogs. The large deck area at the front of each lodge has a sofa, table and chairs so guests can sit back and enjoy the amazing views over the lake and valley, down to the sea in the day, and the star filled sky at night.
It’s been an award-winning start to the year here in Exmoor! For great places to stay we have the beautifully stylish boutique country house The Old Rectory in Martinhoe, Shelley’s overlooking the bay in the heart of Lynmouth, and charming Victorian Sinai House in Lynton, all of which are included in the Top 25 UK Best Small Hotels 2013 as chosen by Trip Advisor’s millions and millions of travellers. The atmospheric 15th century Spears Cross in Dunster won the ‘Best Bargain Hotel’ award and Pine Lodge Guest House in the West Lyn Valley in Lynton – and close to the Watersmeet Estate – won the ‘Best B&B/Inn’ award at the same time.
Exmoor’s highest restaurant with rooms The Culbone received the ’South West Regional Champion Award’ for Best Start up from The Countryside Alliance. Nicknamed “The Rural Oscars” these awards are highly coveted and a real celebration of rural life (of particular importance with regards the current food traceability crisis). The Culbone go on to the National finals in London in March. And Exmoor Zoo was thrilled to receive a Gold Award for the ‘Best Small Visitor Attraction’ in the South West, beating off very tough opposition. They also go on to represent the region at the National Enjoy England Awards for Excellence later in May. Well Done Guys!
Not sure if it is bad luck – and I do love Christmas very much – but I cannot wait to get rid of the tree, take down the decorations and generally have a big clear out on January 1st. As a general air of ‘blowing the cobwebs away’ prevailed, we set off later in the afternoon on one of our favourite walks along the Heddon River in West Exmoor to the coast. An easy, level walk was just what we needed and reaching the pebble beach set between towering cliffs at Heddon’s Mouth never disappoints. After the recent heavy rainfall the river was the widest and fullest that we have ever seen it, clearly in a huge rush through the wooded valley to meet the sea and quite different to the gentle babbling stream that we usually see in the summertime. On other days we have taken the more strenuous option heading up over the cliffs to Woody Bay following an old 19th century carriageway. The dramatically steep incline makes you wonder quite how the carriages stayed upright. It’s certainly not for the acrophobic but the amazing views and exceptional tranquillity of the place are well worth the climb. (Both walks are downloadable here.)
Just a note for those who love walking: The North Devon & Exmoor Walking Festival (27 April – 6 May) is now open for bookings.
Well the build up to Christmas on Exmoor has gone very well so far. Dulverton by Starlight kicked off festivities with a day full of activities and a spectacular fireworks display brought the event to a close. Even the damp weather didn’t discourage the visitors to this pretty village. Dunster by Candlelight managed two dry – if a little blowy – evenings for its fabulous procession and evening celebrations. Choirs, Morris Men, Circus performers and even Johnny Kingdom turned up to entertain the crowds. With most of the natural lights turned off and a gently glowing Dunster castle in the background, the atmosphere was magical and held more than a whisper of Christmas past. Don’t miss it next year. There are just a few spaces left on the Santa Specials on the West Somerset Railway, and the same at Woody Bay Station too, I believe. For those who still have presents to buy, special and unique gifts abound in the many independent shops scattered throughout our towns and villages. We have art galleries, outdoor clothing shops, fabulous local food emporiums (and my favourite candle maker in Lynton) , as well as gift vouchers for Exmoor Experiences and outdoor adventure, overnight stays and house parties, cooking classes and food safaris. No need to go anywhere else really. Merry Christmas!
It’s always good to discover something new and, encouraged by promises of a gloriously sunny day, we set out to tackle a fresh – and new to us – Exmoor coastal walk. I’ll just say that maps can be deceiving. What looked like a comfortable 7km circular walk didn’t fully prepare us for the acute angle that the land drops to the sea in these parts. (I know – we do have the highest sea cliffs in the UK so we should have known better!) One shaky-legged and trembly kneed hour later we reached Glenthorne Beach. But wow was it worth it. The stony cove was completely deserted with clear views over the calm water to Wales. Porlock Vale was basking in the sunshine to the right, and a small waterfall was cascading noisily onto the pebbles. It was a beautiful and atmospheric place to eat our lunch. The remains of an old house and a wooden jetty added to the overall ambience of the place. We headed back up the hill on a slightly different zig-zag track. Stopping – numerous times – to pause for breath gave us the opportunity to really appreciate the spectacular autumn colours. So many different species of trees changing hues from green to brown were set off by a background of clear blue sea. Back up at County Gate we decided that we really had done enough exercise for one day so stopped off for a cuppa at the Café there which is invitingly open on Fridays/Saturday & Sundays all winter.
Hmmm lot of Exmoor controversy from Liz Jones (http://tinyurl.com/a9qjp6e) who called her 5 years on Exmoor a ‘prison sentence’. Well each to their own Ms Jones, but how lucky are we both to be free to choose? I’m pretty sure no-one forced you to stay. I certainly found – moving here over four years ago – that it is better to come armed with a healthy respect rather than high heels and designer cashmere. (My own beautiful coats and suede boots languish in the wardrobe as I have discovered that ‘waterproof’ really is best!). Expecting to be treated like a princess will only lead to disappointment, but becoming involved with the local community reaps a hundred times more reward than the effort that goes into it. But I choose to live close by the beautiful Exmoor countryside, the beaches, the forests and moors, rolling hills and dramatic coastline, and you can choose to move back to the city. Shouldn’t we be grateful for that freedom rather than mocking those who choose to live their lives differently?
NB: The Autumn colours on Exmoor are truly spectacular at the moment.
Exmoor in autumn
An Exmoor Day Out
Setting out on another of our little Exmoor tours last week led us to Wiveliscombe a delightful market town where we whiled away an hour or two exploring Courthouse Interiors. It calls itself an emporium and it does have that fascinating appeal. It’s a grade II-listed building and its galleried floors display a wide range of traditional and contemporary homewares. The quirky coffee shop was very atmospheric and a real one-off. Suitably refreshed, we meandered through beautiful Somerset countryside roughly following the track of the West Somerset Railway between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills. Stopping for a quick look at the new waiting room at Stogumber Station – impressively built to resemble the original as closely as possible – we headed over to Watchet. This was surprisingly buzzy and has had a real facelift since last I was here. We were treading in Royal footsteps. Princess Anne recently visited to unveil a plaque marking the 150th anniversary of the town’s iconic lighthouse and meet the town’s dignitaries. After a blast of fresh sea air from the marina we jumped back in the car to visit Dunster where we had a lovely lunch overlooking the cobbled streets and medieval buildings of this historic village. No time to do justice to a visit to Dunster Castle but that is definitely on the list for next time. Dodging the rain showers, we paused for an ice-cream high on the moors near Dunkery Beacon and overlooking the Vale of Porlock where, out to sea, the weather was making rainbows in the water. Breathtaking.
Exmoor Food & Drink
It seems to me that there is definitely a growing number of excellent cafes, pubs, restaurants and hotels in & around Exmoor that are offering delicious meals sourced from high quality producers right on our doorstep. Not only does the food taste fresher, but food miles are lower and there is a certain warm glow of enjoying doing the ‘right thing’ too.
To highlight all the good things that are being produced locally, Both Porlock and Lynton have organised Food Festivals this year. First off is the Lyn Food Festival on 30 September, being held at the Town Hall 11 – 5pm (free entrance). A whole host of stalls will fill the hall including Somerset Cider brandy, freshly grown herbs, locally made cheese and dairy products, pork, beef and fish to name but a few. It will be great to stock up on some special Exmoor shopping. More details at www.lynfoodfest.co.uk
Just along the A39 into Somerset, Porlock are holding a Food Festival Weekend during 5 – 7 October. Over the 3 days visitors can learn how to prepare and cook local beef, lamb & fish, enjoy an open air BBQ, relish an Exmoor American Brunch and take a day out (with local) lunch at the Owl & Hawk Centre. Traditional Tea rooms – with waitresses complete in Victorian costume – will be serving cream teas every afternoon too. The festival culminates in a food fair at Porlock village hall. More details at www.porlock.co.uk
Glad that we can go to both, although we may have to sign up to cycle the Exmoor Beast to get rid of a few extra pounds afterwards….