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Touring Exmoor and the Devon Coast

Exmoor National Park by Barbara Ballard Windswept moorland, autumn-clad in purple heather, steep ravines, rocky bays, soaring clifftops--Exmoor National Park and the Devon coastline bring these evocative images to mind, and well known stories--Lorna Doone, for one--set in the Park add fuel to our imaginations. But these unforgettable settings also play reluctant host to man.

Let us start a journey to this region of vivid contrasts at Dunster, a Somerset village, according to Chaucer, "fair as is the rose in May". The old Yarn Market, 17th-19th century buildings, the 16th century Luttrell Arms, with its hammerbeam roof and a 15th century nunnery grace the High Street, Once "Dunster" cloth was sold here, a product of the nearby mills.

Along Church Street a 14th century priest's house and a circular medieval dovecote with 4-foot thick stone walls can be seen. The Luttrell family tombs decorate the 12th century Church of St. George. A 54 foot carved rood screen may be one of the longest in the world.

Dunster Packhorse Bridge by Barbara Ballard Thatched cottages and a packhorse bridge add to the atmosphere. A slate-roofed corn mill sits on the River Avill--the spot was listed as having a mill in the Doomsday Book of 1086.

Dunster Castle by Barbara Ballard Dunster Castle, on a wooded tor, looms over the village. A 15th century gatehouse survived the castle's remodeling in the 1800s. Gracious gardens surround the castle.

Nearby, 13th century Cleeve Abbey's red sandstone ruins are remarkable for their surviving medieval hall with its superb timbered roof, supported on stone corbels and decorated with crowned angels.

Leaving Cleeve Abbey we journey onward to Minehead, a Britain in Bloom national winner. An important port in the 14th-17th centuries, it is now a busy holiday resort, boasting a wide sandy beach and an attractive promenade. The 87-foot high tower of St. Michael's Church dominates the skyline. Winding lanes and stepped hillsides wait to be explored.

Porlock, a village of narrow twisting streets and thatched cottages, lies a short distance from Minehead. Surrounded by towering hills, its waterfront is bounded by a mile-long grey shingle ridge. A tidal marsh is a bird watcher's paradise--waders and wildfowl, little egrets, spoonbill, hen and marsh harrier, osprey and snow buntings.

350 years ago a thunderstorm hit the 13th century St. Dubricius church and lopped off half its octagonal spire, Inside are canopied tombs with alabaster effigies of John, 4th Lord Harington and his wife and Sir Simon FitzRoger in full armour.

R.D. Blackmore penned the pages of Lorna Doone at Porlock, and it was the favourite haunt of the 18th Century Poet Laureate Robert Southey.

It is said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge contemplated Kubla Khan on a hillside above the village of Porlock. His words

"But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place!"

fit well the tragedy that happened at our next stop, Lynmouth, wedged between a steep cliff and the ocean. In 1952, flood-swollen waters, roaring down a deep cleft in the hill, swept through the village, hurtling mud, 40,000 tons of boulders and tree trunks on the unsuspecting inhabitants.

Lynmouth by Barbara Ballard Lynton, looking down from the 500ft (152m) high clifftop above Lynmouth, enjoys a safer position. The views from either village are glorious.

Proximity is about all these villages have in common. Lynmouth is a traditional fishing village with stone houses, while Lynton is a Victorian/Edwardian village, many of its homes turned into seaside villas and hotels.

The poet, Shelley, stayed here for several months with his bride and named the area, "Little Switzerland".

William Wordsworth and Coleridge also found the area amenable for writing. It is said Coleridge was inspired to write "The Ancient Mariner" after viewing Lynmouth's harbour.

Cliff Railway by Barbara Ballard An unusual Cliff Railway connects the two villages. Cars, connected by a cable, chug up and down the hill, using water as ballast.

Driving further down the coast we come to another Britain in Bloom winner, Ilfracombe. Rock enclosed bays, beaches and stunning sea views are part of the attraction.

St. Nicholas, the tiny medieval chapel,possibly of 14th century construction, crowns Lantern Hill. Tunnels Beach is an early 19th century enterprise--he hill between the road and the sea was tunnelled, making the rock cove, on the far side, accessible.

From Ilfracombe, nearby Lundy Island beckons. Only three miles long and less than a mile wide, it is owned by the National Trust. Sharp cliffs and shingle beaches dominate the landscape. Lundy ponies, wild goats and Soay sheep have free rein here. Peat bogs, sycamores, gorse bracken, pink thrift and rhododendron groves characterize the flora of the island.

A lawless violent family, the Mariscos, came to Lundy in the 12th century and built a stronghold. In the 13th century, one of the family plotted against Henry III, who seized the island and Marisco's Castle.

Lundy is most famous for its puffin, but 35 other species of birds breed on the island, and 280 migrant ones have been spotted. Snorkling and rock climbing are two other island attractions.

Back on the mainland, we head for the city of Barnstaple. A small inland seaport in Norman times, it flourished as the center of a papermaking industry in the 1700s.

The parish church, built in 1318, has a 17th century twisted wood and lead spire. The Long Bridge crossing the River Taw was first constructed in stone around 1273.

Queen Anne's Walk is an early 18th century colonnaded merchant's exchange. The Three Tunes Tavern of 1450 boasts medieval panelling and fireplaces. Horwood and Paiges Almshouses date from the 17th century.

St Anne's Chapel Museum was originally part of a charnel house. The building later served as a grammar school. John Gay, author of The Beggar's Opera, went to school here, and items associated with him are on display.

Great Torrington lies down the road and commands views over the Torridge Valley. In 1636, during the Civil War, two hundred Royalist soldiers were imprisoned in St. Michael's church, along with 80 powder barrels. The church accidentally blew up. To the right of the main entrance, a stone is inscribed: "This Church was blowen up with powder Febr ye 16th Anno 1645 and rebuilt Ao 1651." A civil war heritage centre, Torrington 1646, now highlights the history of the times.

At Dartington Crystal factory you can watch skilled glassblowers create pieces of beauty. The Rachael claret jug is one of the more popular products.

Great Torrington Commons is an important and major lowland heath supporting a huge variety of wildlife species. Among them are the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly and the high brown fritillary.

Rosemoor Garden by Barbara Ballard Take the Exeter road down into the Torridge Valley to Rosemoor, the Royal Horticultural Society's 40 acres of gardens. Rose lovers will revel in 200 varieties of roses showcased by 2000 plants, a magnificent sight. In addition to roses there are perennials, herbaceous borders, a gorge planted with bamboo and ferns, a bog garden and a lake.

We end our journey by reflecting on this hauntingly beautiful landscape. In Lorna Doone, John Ridd says, "The air of the moors is so shrewd and wholesome, stirring a man's recollection of the good things which have betided him." It is an apt quote for remembering a journey to beautiful Exmoor and the Devon coastline.

Visitor Information

Dunster Mill
Open: April-end May and Oct, Sat-Thu, 11am-4.45pm; June-end Sep, daily, 11am-4.45pm; also open Easter weekend—phone for details

Dunster Mill Teashop
Tel. 0 1643 821 759
Open: 10:30am-5pm, April-end Oct, daily except Sat; July and Aug, daily

Dunster Castle
National Trust property
Tel. 0 1643 821 314
Open: mid March-end Oct, Wed-Fri,11am-5pm
Garden and park open daily year round, 11am-4pm, except until 5pm, mid Marhc-end Oct

Cleeve Abbey
English Heritage
Open April-end Sep, 10am-6pm daily; Oct, 10am-5pm daily; Nov-end March, 10am-1pm, 2-4pm daily. Closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan.

Lyn and Exmoor Moorland Museum
4 St Vincent’s Cottage, Market Street, Lynton, EX35 6AF
Tel. 01598 752205
Displays include tools and agricultural implements, archeological and geological collections of paintings, prints and photographs and models of the Lynton to Barnstaple Railway and an Exmoor kitchen

Watersmeet House
National Trust
On Watersmeet Road 1.5 miles east of Lynmouth on the east side of the A39.
Open April-end Oct, daily 10:30am-5:30 (4:30 in Oct.); pay and display car park; guided walks on the Watersmeet Estate.

Torrington 1646 Museum
South St. car park.
Tel. 01805 622373
Open daily 10.30am-5pm, (last entry 4.30).

Torrington Pannier Market
Open Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm

Plough Arts Centre
Fore St, Torrington
Tel. 01805 624624
Open Wed-Sat, 12 noon-11pm

Dartington Visitor Centre and Factory Tour
Off School Lane
Tel. 01805 626242
Open for tours Mon-Fri, 10am-last tour 3.15pm. (Tour closed on bank holidays and both are closed from Christmas-New Year).
Factory Shops and Restaurant: Mon-Sat, 9.30am-5pm, Sun, 10.30am-4.30pm

RHS Gardens Rosemoor
Great Torrington, Devon, EX38 8PH
1 mile south-east of Torrington on the B3220 road
Tel. 01805 624067
Website: RHS Gardens Rosemoor
Garden open all year except Christmas, 10am-6pm (5pm Oct-Mar). Visitor Centre open April-Sep, 10am-6pm; Oct-March, 10am-5pm.
Restaurant open April-Sep.

Visitor Information Centres

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre
The Esplanade, Lynmouth, EX35 6EQ.
Tel. 01598 752509
Minehead Tourist Information Centre
Tel. 01643 702624

Porlock Visitor Centre
West End, High Street, Porlock, Somerset, TA24 8QD
Tel. 01643 863150

Ilfracombe Tourist Information Centre
The Landmark, The Promenade, Ilfracombe
Tel. 01271 863001

Great Torrington Tourist Information Centre
Castle Hill.
Tel. 01805 626140

This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.

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