The Romance of Exmoor and the North Devon Coast
Exmoor and the lush, sheer coastline of North Devon may be the most famous landscape never visited. Atlantis, Avalon, Camelot and Shangri-la: For most people, Lorna Doone Country has that same mystical quality. It’s a place to be imaginatively conjured rather than actually explored. Unlike its mythical sisters, though, Exmoor and the Channel coastline do exist—it’s just difficult to get to them. Perhaps that’s one of the elements that make the region so charming.
Train lines don’t run to this part of the country; even Brunel would have had a hard time building a line along this coast. There’s really only one way in and out of the area; that’s the A39 west from the M5 at Bridgenorth. This is not dual-carriageway, but a country drive through the hedgerows of West Somerset. You might detour through the village of Nether Stowey for a visit to the cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in season) or a bit of refreshment at the Ancient Mariner pub across the street.
A couple of miles before hitting the coast at Minehead, the medieval village of Dunster is something not to be passed by. Park in the convenient lot on the outskirt of the village and walk down an unspoiled, cobbled medieval street (complete with early-17th-century timbered Yarn Market) to Dunster Castle.
Minehead has long been a seaside playground for West Somerset. One of the three remaining Butlins holiday camps dominates the seafront.
From here, the A39 follows the channel coast all the way to Cornwall. At the quaint village of Porlock the road bobs and weaves two miles up Porlock Hill at a 25 percent gradient to the northern plateau of Exmoor. At the top, the views sweep over the coast and the broad Bristol Channel to South Wales in the distance, and south to the horizon across ripples of rock and heather. A herd of wild Exmoor ponies grazes contentedly, unmindful of the chill wind off the Atlantic. A dark, stubby breed, the ponies have broad faces and thick coats adapted to their environment.
For 30 miles to the south, Exmoor National Park stretches over rolling moors covered with heather, bracken and gorse. Narrow river valleys where waters off the hard, limestone plateaus have worn their way to the coast for millennia break the mesas of heath. In the valleys, trees grow and arable crops spread around scattered farms and villages.
For 50 miles or more to the southwest, the coastline drops precipitously into the sea, often from a plateau of hundreds of feet. Deep ravines in the coastline break down to the shore where the rivers meet the sea. In these breaks grew the harbortowns and villages that pock the coast from Minehead to Clovelly. This is Lorna Doone Country. The ruggedly beautiful, very rural area takes it name from the eponymous heroine of R. D. Blackmore’s famous novel. An adventure romance set in the 17th century in the hidden river valleys, deep ravines and wind-swept moorlands of Exmoor, Lorna Doone was once a part of the standard reading list of English novels for students and almost universally known. Those days are past. Perhaps the most timeless element of Blackmore’s novel, however, was his lush depiction of the landscape and its impact upon life. Visitors today who have read the novel find his passionate verbal pictures just as he described them.
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The tiny hamlet of Oare occupies one of the moor’s deep valleys. It is signposted to the left off the A39 about 15 miles west. A long, winding drive down to the stream at the bottom of the valley ends at the tiny medieval church. It’s always open. Here at Oare church, the climactic scene of Lorna Doone is acted out at her wedding.
A few miles farther on, the road drops down into the ravine formed by two branches of the River Lyn coming down off the high moors. A harbor curls around the estuary at Lynmouth. On the clifftop to the west, Lynmouth’s sister town of Lynton enjoys spectacular vistas of the coastal cliffs and shoreline. The two communities are connected by the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway. Since 1890, the water-powered tramway has been an integral mode of transport in the villages—and one of the area’s most popular attractions.
The walkable quay features a quaint variety of eating temptations, hostelries, craft galleries, sundry shops and, of course, the terminus of the Cliff Railway. A small museum details Lynton’s grim claim to fame in 1954. A “perfect storm” combined to bring devastating floods down the twin gorges of the River Lyn, sweeping away 96 buildings and 38 lives in Britain’s most devastating natural disaster since World War II.
At the Exmoor National Park visitors center, I asked the affable attendant whether anyone actually read Lorna Doone anymore. He replied, “I don’t know how many of them actually read it, but we sell an awful lot of them here. At least people want to take it away as a souvenir.”
From Lynton, the A39 veers inland across a peninsula to Barnstable. The single-track coast road through Valley of Rocks is much more fun. Here at Valley of Rocks, the cliffs are the tallest in England. The narrow road leads to the little village of Martinhoe, where the 12th-century church is always open. Eventually, you rejoin an A road leading to the seaside resort of Ilfracombe. A town with a maritime history and a working harbor, Ilfracombe is now largely a modest seasonal playground. A well-kept waterfront features lovely flowered parks, Tunnels Beaches with a tidal seawater swimming pool and Ilfracombe Museum, as well the customary seaside fare, fun and shopping.
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Barnstaple is the largest town in North Devon. It’s a working community and marketing center with a lovely working riverfront leading to Barnstaple Bay. The A39 follows the bay to Bideford and southwest into Cornwall. Westernmost along the Devon coast, the village of Clovelly is widely renowned. After all, there aren’t very many communities that charge admission.
The entrance to Clovelly is at the car park atop the village. There’s a café and plenty of souvenir and craft shopping available. Through the entrance, the village spreads down a steep cliff toward a small harbor below. A single cobbled street leads the way. There are no vehicles in Clovelly. Residents of the cottages that line Clovelly transport their groceries and household goods on wooden-runnered sledges to their front door. Getting down Clovelly is strictly by foot and treacherous at the best of times.
A few tearooms, village shops and a couple of pubs break this steep avenue of cottages and homes. There’s also a small museum to Clovelly’s seafaring past and an old fisherman’s cottage to see. Alternatively, of course, you could pay two pounds back at the car park to ride in the back of a Range Rover down a back track to Clovelly’s harbor. The New Inn makes a greet place for lunch—and a restorative for the walk or ride back.
Turning inland from Lynmouth rather than following the coast, the B3223 leads across the moors through Exmoor Forest and Simonsbath and on to Exford, perhaps the prettiest of many attractive Exmoor towns and villages. Further east on the B3224, a single track road leads up onto Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in the National Park. Well, actually, you’ll have to park and walk the last few hundred yards yourself.
Back in Lynmouth, I paused for my own restorative pint that evening at the Village Inn, along the harborside’s pedestrian street. I chatted with proprietor Bev Quanstrom, who enthused about Lynton and the 96 people on its voting roles.
Whether the romance of Lorna Doone still hangs about the place or not, the magical quality of Exmoor struck Quanstrom all right when she was here on holiday. “I was sitting in that very corner two years ago eating a pastie,” Quanstrom said, “when it struck me. I bought the Village Inn, went back home to Sussex, packed up and moved here—and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Standing on a cliffside patio at night, with the lights twinkling from neighboring hotels and draped across the harborside below, and the faint glow of Wales across the dark water, such romance is easy to imagine.
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