Exmoor National Park is a captivating expanse of high moors, deep, wooded valleys, towering cliffs and pebbly bays. It covers 268 square miles, encompassing the Brendon Hills, the East Lyn Valley, the Vale of Porlock and the Bristol Channel Coast. Hiking, horse-riding and wildlife-watching are a joy in the park’s rugged landscapes, where deer and wild ponies roam. Exmoor is scattered with ancient ruins, grand estates and cosy county inns.
The twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth make an excellent base for exploring the coast and moors, with graceful Victorian architecture which clings to a steep, green valley above a historic harbour. There are a variety of independent shops and restaurants and a cliff railway from Lynton to the seafront below. Further west on the western edge of Exmoor, Combe Martin is a laid-back resort with a sandy beach, rockpools which are perfect for hunting for crabs and the brilliant Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park. Just over the Somerset border, Porlock is a sleepy village with a wide, pebble bay which is home to an ancient submerged forest. Further east, holiday cottages in Minehead and Watchet are good options for visitors who want to explore the Somerset section of the park. Inland, Dunster is home to cobbled streets and an impressive castle, while the villages of Exford, Simonsbath and Withypool provide beautiful scenery, tranquility and the opportunity to enjoy a slower, rural pace. Self-catering holidays in Dulverton are also a good option, on the southern edge of the park with easy access to tawny grasses and massive skies in the heart of Exmoor. Walkers who want to experience the park’s atmospheric landscapes can choose a route, such as the hike to Dunkery Beacon or the world-famous South West Coast Path, while horse-riding and watersports adventures can be booked at local centres including Exmoor Riding Centre and Wimbleball Lake Activity Centre. Exmoor has a variety of excellent family attractions, including Exmoor Zoo, Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park and Exmoor Owl and Hawk Centre.
Exmoor has a long history of people finding ways to survive in this wild and often inhospitable region. There is evidence of people hunting and gathering in the area during the Mesolithic period. During the Neolithic period, people started managing animals and growing crops on farms and areas of cleared woodland. It is believed that the late Neolithic period also saw the start of extracting mineral ores to make metal weapons, tools and ornaments – a practice which continued into the Bronze and Iron ages. Exmoor is scattered with signs of ancient civilisations, including an earthen ring near the village of Parracombe which is believed to be a Neolithic henge dating back to 5000-4000 BC, and the Iron Age hill fort of Cow Castle, where White Water meets the River Barle. Nearby, the prehistoric clapper bridge of Tarr Steps crosses the River Barle near Withypool. Each stone slab of this English Heritage listed building weighs five tonnes. During the Middle Age, sheep farming for the wool industry became widespread on Exmoor. The wool was generally spun into thread on isolated farms before being collected by merchants to be woven, dyed and finished in Dunster and other towns. In the mid-19th century, a mine was developed by the River Barle, first for copper and later for iron. There is a Victorian water-powered sawmill in the village of Simonsbath which was returned to working order after it was damaged in floods, and is now used to make signs, gates, stiles and bridges for the park. Exmoor became a national park in 1954, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.
To get to Exmoor by train, choose from Barnstaple near the park’s western edge, Tiverton Parkway directly south of the park or Taunton near the park’s eastern edge. There are direct trains from Tiverton Parkway and Taunton to London, with good connections to the rest of the UK, and there are regular trains from Barnstaple to Exeter, with connections to the rest of the UK. There are local buses from all three railway stations to various towns and villages in Exmoor. National Express coaches can be taken from Barnstaple, Taunton and Tiverton directly to London, Cornwall and other locations across the UK. Exeter and Bristol airports can be reached from Exmoor within 1-2 hours, with flights to cities across the UK and Europe. London Heathrow and Gatwick are the most convenient airports for flights outside Europe. Drivers approaching Exmoor from the east can leave the M5 on the A39 near Bridgwater, entering Exmoor near Dunster, or on the A358 near Taunton, joining the A39 near Williton. The A396 runs north into Exmoor from Tiverton and the A39 runs north into Exmoor from Barnstaple, entering the park near Combe Martin.