Designated as a national park in 1954, Exmoor National Park, in Devon and Somerset, measures in at 267 square miles (693 sq km). Red sandstone, Devonian slate, shale and limestone are the major rock types in the park. One quarter of the park is open moorland, found on the central plateau that ends in high cliffs to the north.
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Along the 34 miles of coastal park, rocky headlands and wooded ravines compete with waterfalls and fallen rock piles for attention. Of special note is the ‘Valley of the Rocks’ west of Lynton. The coastal area is designated a Heritage Coast and boasts the tallest sea cliffs in England, thus making it virtually inaccessible from the sea. The ‘Great Hangman’ measures in at 800.5 feet. The cliffs are a favourite spot for nesting birds; among them are guillemot, kittwake, razorbill and raves.
In the east the land is a mixture of wooded hills and fields enclosed by beech hedges. The rounded and heather covered Brendon hills reach over 900 feet in height. Dunkery Beacon on Dunkery hill is located along the central ridge of the park and is the highest at 1704 feet. The summit can be reached from a car park at Dunkery Gate.
Woodland comprises 1/8 of the park; of this amount ¼ is ancient oak wood. Within the park are four Geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Glenthorne, Dean Steep, the Glen Lyn Gorge and Combe Martin Bay.
Wildlife includes red deer (on the moorland and in the wooded combes), fox, badger, and over 243 species of birds. Skylarks, kestrels and buzzards inhabit the skies. A romantic feature of the moors is the Exmoor pony. To spot them head for Winsford Hill, a National Trust common.
Plants unique to Exmoor are two species of the whitebeam tree and one type of lichen—more than 350 kinds of lichen inhabit Exmoor. Beech trees grow on the moor; the highest wood is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath where they grow 1200 feet above sea level. Here is a restored 1845 sawmill that contains hundred year old weirs, sluices and leats. In the blanket bogs around Pinkworthy pond deer sedge and cotton grass grow.
More than 300 miles of rivers and streams compliment the landscape. The most important river is the Exe, 54 miles in length. The clapper bridge, Tarr Steps, is a well-known tourist attraction. It is the largest unmortared stone slab bridge known in Britain.
There are 4000 known archaeological sites in the park, dating from BC 6000. Bronze Age man used the moors for burials; more than 400 have been identified. The largest is the Chapman barrows, a collection of 11 barrows located on Challacombe Common. Cow Castle, an Iron Age hillfort, sits atop a hillock in the Barle valley. Hut circles, hillforts and enclosures round out the picture.
The Romans built fortlets, two along the coast and others in the south. In medieval times castles and bridges were added to the Exmoor mix. Dunster castle is open to visitors. An abandoned medieval village is at Badgworthy. The clapper bridge, Tarr Steps, is a well-known tourist attraction. It is the largest unmortared stone slab bridge known in Britain.
Use of the hills includes dairy, beef, and sheep farming. Sheep number about half a million. Breeds include the Scottish blackface, the Cheviot and the Welsh. Approximately 600 farms are located in the park. A few crops such as grains, potatoes and vegetables are grown. At one time iron mining took place at Brendon Hill.
In addition to the farms, there are hamlets, villages and coastal towns in the park and ringing it. Dunster, Porlock, Dulverton, Lynmouth and Lynton are the main centres of population. The National Trust owns land in Exmoor, the Holnicote estate. Luccombe village is also under their domain.At Watersmeet, 1½ miles east of Lynmouth is a National Trust visitor centre, tea gardens, footpaths and bridges in a wooded gorge. The gorge is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and there are rare ferns, flowers and trees. Pay and display car park; guided walks on the Watersmeet Estate.
The south-west coastal path, a national trail, traverses the northern edge of the park. It starts at Minehead and ends at Poole. Many other popular walks are located in the park. The wooded hills near Selworthy is one such spot, as are walks along the river Barle from Simonsbath.
At Watersmeet, 1½ miles east of Lynmouth, there are footpaths and bridges in a wooded gorge. The gorge is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and there are rare ferns, flowers and trees.
Exmoor has inspired literature: Samuel Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ and Blackmore’s novel, ‘Lorna Doone’.
The Exmoor National Park landscape of the present day is the result of many thousands of years of human habitation and use of the natural resources of the area. From Bronze Age clearing of the forests to medieval establishment of sheep grazing to military use in World War II to the tourists of today, the land has seen many changes through the centuries.
Exmoor National Park Authority
Dulverton, Somerset TA22 9HL
Tel. 01398 323665
Website: Exmoor National Park
Exmoor National Park Visitor Centres:
Dulverton, 7-9 Fore St, Dulverton, West Somerset
Dunster, Dunster Steep, Dunsiter, Minehead, West Somerset
Lynmouth, The Pavilion, The Esplanade, Lynmouth, Devon
Tourist Information Centres are located at:
Minehead Tourist Information Centre. Tel. 01643-702624
Porlock Visitor Centre, West End, High Street, Porlock, Somerset, TA24 8QD. Tel. 01643 863150.
The National Trust has a shop at Selworthy off the A39.
Tel. 01643 821314
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.
1½ miles east of Lynmouth
National Trust visitor centre.
Pay and display car park; guided walks on the Watersmeet Estate.
Photos by Barbara Ballard