A short break guide to Exmoor National Park

It might not see the footfall of the UK’s other big national parks, but Exmoor’s anonymity is a boon to visitors with a wild kind of beauty on its moors...

3 mins

It’s easy to pigeonhole England’s south-west as overrun with visitors, yet there is a national park here that is one of the UK’s least visited. The reason perhaps lies with its location, in the shadow of its Devon neighbour. Indeed, when I told one person I was heading to Exmoor for a break, they queried: “Do you mean Dartmoor?”

Straddling Somerset and Devon, this national park spans 693 sq km of high moorland covered in heather and gorse, steeply-wooded coombes (valleys), crystal-clear rivers, medieval bridges and fords. And then there’s the dramatic coastline too, with mainland Britain’s highest sea cliff and the second-highest tidal range in the world (after the Bay of Fundy in Canada) both found here.

The park’s beauty once attracted the cream of the 19th-century literary set. Poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey – often associated with the Lake District – all spent time in Exmoor, while the popular RD Blackmore novel Lorna Doone was set here, and still draws visiting fans to this day.


Red deer in Exmoor National Park (Shutterstock)

Red deer in Exmoor National Park (Shutterstock)

What was once a royal hunting reserve was designated a national park in 1954 after various schemes to develop it for agriculture failed. By this time, large areas of the park were already owned by the National Trust. Today it’s dotted with farms and a few small villages, but most locals live in three centres on the coast or in the market town of Dulverton on the southern edge of the park. This lack of habitation means there is little light pollution. Not surprisingly, Exmoor was designated as Europe’s first International Dark Sky Resort in 2011, and many visit purely to stargaze, even if the area’s cloudy skies sometimes scupper their fun.

The high moorlands are also home to the largest concentration of red deer in England. Having said that, they are very shy and extremely well camouflaged, so some visitors never spot them. But if you visit in October, you’ll hear rutting stags bellowing across the heather.

Perhaps the animal most associated with Exmoor is its eponymous pony. Once reduced to just dozens in number, these creatures nearly went extinct during the Second World War when they were cruelly used as target practice by local soldiers or, as rationing took hold, eaten. Efforts to preserve them are paying off, though they are still considered ‘threatened’. Small, tough and with a very distinctive beauty, their characteristics could be said to match those of Exmoor itself. 

How to spend 48 hours in Exmoor

Day 1

Tarr Steps (Shutterstock)

Tarr Steps (Shutterstock)

Potter the historic market town of Dulverton, which is home to Exmoor’s oldest medieval bridge and the National Park Information Centre. Next, head out onto the moors. Whether on foot, horseback or on a safari tour, you’ll find many of the UK’s top trails here, some of which recall the area’s literary past – the Exmoor section of the 82km Coleridge Way is just one option. Recover with a drink at one of the many pubs, such as the off-grid (and very eccentric) Poltimore Arms in Yarde Down. Next, go in search of the Lorna Doone story. Malmsmead, with its pretty bridge and ford, is the gateway to Doone Valley. Walk the 12.8km Doone Valley Circuit or the much shorter stroll from Lorna Doone Farm to Cloud Farm. Then visit Saint Mary’s Church in Oare, the setting for where Lorna was shot through a window on her wedding day (the novel is fiction, though said to be based on historical figures). Divert to the Tarr Steps, a clapper bridge possibly dating back to 1000 BC. You can do a lovely circular walk taking in each side of the River Barle. 

Day 2

Lynton (Shutterstock)

Lynton (Shutterstock)

Explore Exmoor’s coast, heading first for ‘Little Switzerland’ and the popular villages of Lynton and Lynmouth. The latter lies at sea level, whereas the Victorian village of Lynton perches 213m above it. Take the funicular railway (the steepest water-powered railway in the world) between the two. From Lynton, walk along the Tarka trail to the Valley of Rocks. This U-shaped valley is home to dramatic rock formations and a herd of feral goats who frequently pose atop them. If you prefer driving to walking, the 21 Mile Drive (34km) is a scenic figure-of-eight route taking in the valley. Further along the coast is Porlock Vale and the bustling village of Porlock, infamous for one of the steepest roads in Britain, Porlock Hill. The toll road is a scenic alternative. Picturesque Porlock Weir is 2.5km away – try its oysters if you get a chance – and the atmospheric Porlock salt marsh lies in between. If there’s time, head on to Dunster Castle and historic Dunster village. Nearby is peaceful Cleeve Abbey, which has arguably some of the finest cloister buildings in England.  



“No visit to Exmoor is complete without visiting Dunkery Beacon, the second-highest point in the South West. On a clear day the views are spectacular, with fifteen counties being visible. Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Wiltshire, and even the Welsh mountains are all laid out before you.”

- Gerry Shadbolt, The Old Post Office, Exford

4 things to do in Exmoor

Exmoor ponies (Shutterstock)

Exmoor ponies (Shutterstock)

WALK some of the 1,000km of trails that cross Exmoor. The South West Coast Path, Two Moors Way (joining Exmoor and Dartmoor), Coleridge Way (running between Exmoor, the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills) and the Tarka Trail all pass through here. But there are plenty of short circular walks too. exmoorwalks.org

TROT the moors on horseback to really feel part of the landscape. If you’re under 76kg you can ride an Exmoor pony at The Exmoor Pony Centre. There are several other stables or, if you have your own horse, you can stay at a horse B&B.

INDULDGE in a cream tea. You are, after all, in the land of clotted cream. And do try topping your scones (cream-first) with whortleberry jam, made from local wild blueberries that grow on the moors.

SAFARI in a 4WD across secret tracks in search of red deer, birds and wild ponies while hearing about the legends of the area. Daphne Brace of Exmoor Wildlife Safaris was born here and can weave a tale.


Need to know information

Locanda on the Weir

Locanda on the Weir

Getting there: Take the M5 to either junctions 23 or 24 for eastern (Somerset) Exmoor, then take the A39; for the west (Devon) side, take the A361 at junction 27. The closest railway stations are Barnstaple or Tiverton Parkway.

Stay at: The Old Post Office in Exford is a one-bedroom self-catering bolthole in the heart of the park with a helpful host and two pubs nearby. Or for sea views and Italian food, try Locanda on the Weir in Porlock Weir

Further info: visit-exmoor.co.uk; Exmoor National Park (Bradt Travel Guides, 2019)

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