Central Exmoor – Somerset
This sweeping landscape of high, flat hills grazed by wild ponies is Britain’s least-visited National Park. Exmoor was also made Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve for its remoteness and low light pollution. Its precipitous, cliff-edged coastline is particularly rich in marine life.
Exmoor’s coastline – surely one of the wildest places in Britain today – is often hard to reach and the few paths down the steep cliffs are mainly used by rock climbers or wild-beach hunters. If a scramble down to the shore appeals, look closely in the rock pools and find three types of sea anemone (beadlet, strawberry and snakelocks), as well as velvet swimming crabs and porcelain crabs. Exploring the dramatic low-tide coastline is a delight, but take care not to get cut off by rising tides.
This remote stretch has always attracted those seeking solace and rugged beauty. Coleridge retreated to an isolated Exmoor house to write his unfinished poem, Kubla Khan, and a tiny pre-Norman church still stands in the fairytale woods at Culbone, with the ruins of Ada Byron Lovelace’s romantic mansion nearby. The heather-strewn hills, tumbling waterfalls and wooded valleys prompted the Victorians to name Exmoor the ‘Little Switzerland of England’. For a taste of this era visit Watersmeet, originally a 19th-century fishing lodge, now a quaint National Trust tea shop, set in magical woodland with river pools that are perfect for a dip. Explore the river upstream as far as Rockford, with its microbrewery and inn, or continue to Malmsmead and Oare, the heart of Lorna Doone country.
Nearby Cloud Farm, beside the river Badgworthy in the Doone Valley, is a great place to camp, with pools for paddling and pony trekking trips. Further east, at the more remote Pool Bridge campsite in Horner Wood, you’ll find more streams and pools, and some of the best natural woodland on Exmoor. To the south is the moor’s highest point, Dunkery Beacon, where you can watch the sunset then stay to gaze up at the vast, starry sky.
For those who love wild swimming, the river Barle is a paradise. Landacre Bridge has shallow and deeper pools for invigorating dips, and further along the enchanting valley the enterprising Withypool post office sells rubber dinghies. Heading south-east through quiet woodland valleys, you come to the famous clapper bridge, constructed from megalithic flat stones, at Tarr Steps, and a perfect place for lunch – or another cream tea.