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Exmoor – One of England’s Best Kept Secrets?


Exmoor - a wild and beautiful place

Photo: Courtesy of the the public domain


England has 10 National Parks and of these Exmoor is one of the quietest and least visited, having a quarter of the visitors that the Lakes District does. Exmoor is named after the River Exe, which rises on the moor, and is defined as an area of hilly open moorland in west Somerset and north Devon in South West England. These large areas of open moorland are complimented by spectacular coastal views, deep wooded valleys, high sea cliffs and fast flowing streams, which combine to form a rich and distinct mosaic and provide a sense of remoteness and tranquillity rare in southern Britain.


The cliff walk from Lynton to the Valley of the Rocks

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Countisbury Hill. The steep descent in to Lynmouth

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Exmoor has its origins as a former ancient royal hunting forest, an area set aside as a royal hunting preserve for the monarch and aristocracy. In the early 19th century, the royal forest was divided up and sold off for agricultural improvement, and throughout much of that century landowners like John Knight reclaimed thousands of acres of barren moorland. Humans, though, have lived on the moor for thousands of years, first as hunter gatherers in the Mesolithic period and then as farmers from the Neolithic period, about 6000 years ago. The mining of minerals began in the Bronze Age, principally for copper and iron, but small quantities of gold and silver were also exploited. The first settled communities built a range of monuments and Exmoor is especially rich in prehistoric standing stones as well as nearly 400 burial mounds. Prehistoric hut circles and field systems can also be found on the moors.

Sheep are a familiar sight on the moor and the wool trade began in medieval times, with the wool spun into thread on isolated farms and collected by merchants to be woven, fulled, dyed and finished in thriving towns such as Dunster. Sheep farming expanded after the Royal Forest was broken up and many large farms were built on the moor, along with many miles of road and hedgerows, all part of the agricultural improvement that took place. Apart from the native breeds of sheep, shepherds and sheep from the Scottish Borders were introduced to the area, as it was thought they would better cope with the harsh conditions frequently found on the moor.


Culbone Church. Dedicated to the Welsh saint, St Beuno, it is said to be the smallest parish church in England

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Porlock Weir, one of the small harbours along the coast of Exmoor

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


The Exmoor village of Luccombe

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Apart from the River Exe and its main tributaries, most of the rivers on the moor flow northwards to the Bristol Channel. These streams and rivers are generally fast-flowing and rocky, quick to rise in level after heavy rain. Rivers like the East and West Lyn are famous for the runs of salmon and sea trout, known as Peal in the West Country. The coastline within the park stretches for nearly 40 miles and because it is remarkably sheltered, it allows for the unusual development of coastal woods. The woods between The Foreland and Porlock represent the longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales and are considered the most unspoilt and best protected stretches of coastline. At Combe Martin, Lynmouth and Porlock Weir, small harbours were built for the coastal trade, but now sailing and fishing for pleasure are their mainstay.


Lynmouth Harbour

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Malmsmead, the gateway to the 'Doone Valley'

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Exmoor ponies

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Exmoor has approximately 3000 of the iconic Red Deer (the largest wild land animals in England), living on the moorland and farmland, and using the woodlands for cover. The moor is also home to the Exmoor Pony, one of Britain’s oldest native horse breeds and are probably closest to Europe’s primitive wild horses. The ponies roam the moor freely, but are only semi-feral, as they are rounded up annually, with the foals inspected and registered, where many are sold off for showing, riding and driving. Historically Exmoor ponies were used as pit ponies. Today about 500 ponies live on the moor.


Tarr Steps, possibly dating from the Bronze Age

Photo: Roy Nicholls


Watersmeet, where the East and West Lyn rivers meet

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain


Exmoor is a unique place shaped by people and nature over thousands of years and is recognized as one of the UK's finest landscapes, a landscape that has inspired poets writers and artists for hundreds of years and continues to inspire people today. A landscape of stunning coastal scenery, ancient woodlands, tumbling streams and remote countryside with ancient churches and villages. A perfect place to explore.

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