IF you choose to spend a week on Exmoor in the autumn you have to take all your wet weather gear. As an expert at rainy holidays, the first things I packed were wellies, mac, sou’wester and new waterproof trousers. To my surprise and delight, however, I didn’t use any of them.
We had an utterly unexpected seven days of wall-to-wall sunshine and sparkling blue skies when we went last autumn. Staying in a little stone cottage in Lorna Doone country, we walked and walked each day, and loved every minute. Short-sleeved shirts were the order of the day, and Tilly the terrier couldn’t believe her luck: all those walks with her favourite humans, pubs where she was welcome, and interesting smells to sniff in all kinds of new places.
As well as exploring the moors, we visited places like Lynton, Lynmouth, Porlock and Dulverton. We discovered a long-established coffee roasting company in Porlock, as well as a fascinating museum. A steep 30-minute walk up through the woods to Culbone tested even Tilly’s enthusiasm as we stopped for breath every few yards, but the effort was worth it when we finally reached the little church at the top.
Having read and loved a book called Moorland Mousie when I was a child, I had looked forward to visiting the Exmoor Pony Centre at Ashwick for many years. It didn’t disappoint. Friendly ponies are cared for by staff dedicated to helping ensure the long-term survival of this rare native pony breed. I adopted a pony, of course, and her name is Abi.
Exmoor ponies, with their distinctive mealy muzzles, have evolved to survive the harshest conditions that the moors can throw at them. At the end of every summer they grow an ultra-thick winter coat which protects them from wind, rain and blizzards.
When we weren’t following footpaths across steep hillsides covered in dense gorse and heather, we explored river valleys including the River Oare where it was lovely to see a grey wagtail hard at work catching flies. There were plenty of tough sheep and deer on the moors, as well as mewing buzzards circling high in the sky.
We passed through chocolate box-pretty villages with thatched cottages and the last of the season’s flowers in gardens and tubs everywhere. Dulverton, on the pretty River Barle, merited two visits and we found there was nothing dull about it at all. With its pretty town hall, restaurants and cafés, it caters for most people’s everyday needs, not just those of the average tourist. There was an excellent independent bookshop, hardware and charity shops, and so on.
On the coast at Lynmouth, it was inspiring to read a display panel close to the harbour and learn about the heroic efforts of the community’s lifeboat men who, one night in January 1899, struggled overland for 15 hours with their lifeboat, the 10-ton Louisa, in dreadful conditions, to rescue the crew of a three-masted ship that was in danger of being driven onto the shore east of the town.
A gale prevented Louisa being launched at Lynmouth, so the coxswain’s plan was to push, pull and tow Louisa with men and horses so that she could be launched at Porlock Weir. This journey entailed tackling hills which continue to be a challenge even to motorised vehicles nowadays. The plan worked, the ship was saved and all 18 hands on board the ship were rescued.
The Happy Moonraker’s readers may have heard of the terrible flood at Lynmouth in August 1952. Following days of storms and torrential rain on the moors, a wall of water and boulders crashed down the hillside, taking the lives of 34 people and destroying more than 100 buildings in the little town. There is a marker on a cottage wall showing how high the water came.
By chance we visited Lynton on the day of the annual Lyn food festival. Held in the Grade II listed town hall, it was a great way to taste good food, buy things to take away, and find out about some of the local specialities.
Would the holiday have been as good if it had rained every day? I would have gone to more museums and spent less time out of doors. Of course Tilly would have had fewer long walks so she would be bound to say that she loved her sunny Exmoor holiday as much as I did.