The high plateau of Exmoor is criss-crossed by numerous streams and slashed by a few deep river valleys. It rises up steeply from the gentler farmland and eventually stretches to the steep cliffs overlooking the Bristol Channel. Much of the high moor is in Somerset whilst Devon hosts the lovely wooded valleys, isolated farmhouses and spectacular cliffs of the north coast. It is here that R. D. Blackmore set his most famous novel, Lorna Doone. Many of the scenes described in the book are actual places on Exmoor, such as Lark Coombe and Doone Gate.
Part of the boundary between the two counties is marked by a ridge, containing such places as Breakneck Hole and Setta Barrow. The rest of the way, Dane’s Brook, divides Devon and Somerset, before flowing into the River Barle near Dulverton. Red Deer, Britain’s largest wild animals, roam the moor as they have done for thousands of years. Exmoor Ponies have been here just as long and are though to be the ancestors of the wild horses of Europe. Buzzards circling overhead are a common feature of the Exmoor scenery.
Exmoor is built up from strata of sedimentary rocks such as sandstone, slate and limestone. The moors support gorse and heather but the valleys are heavily wooded, some with indigenous species but others with conifers planted by the Forestry Commission.
Numerous barrows, standing stones and stone circles testify that Exmoor has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age and possibly earlier. The Devon banks are also of interest; these are field boundaries consisting of high, stone-sided, hedge topped banks.
The moor was a Royal Forest during the reign of William the Conqueror and for many years afterwards. It fell into private hands in the 19th century, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to exploit its mineral wealth. In 1954, it became a National Park, a large chunk of which is now owned by the National Trust. However a large portion of Exmoor is still privately owned and farmed.
There are a large number of historic buildings on Exmoor and a total of 16 conservation areas, where alterations are restricted to those in keeping with existing properties and their periods. The buildings range from fairly primitive structures, many of which are unique to the area.
Opened in 1982 Exmoor Zoo is a unique and unusual zoo to visit. It is an ideal family venue. The zoo specialises in smaller animals, providing living spaces for many creatures no longer seen in the city zoos. The careful planting of shrubs and trees provides a relaxing and natural atmosphere within the park.
There are far too many villages and hamlets scattered across Exmoor to mention them all, but here are a few, at random. Allerford is a hamlet on the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate near Selworthy. It has a picturesque 15th century packhorse bridge and an old thatched school, which is now the West Somerset Rural Life Museum. Not far away is the picturesque hamlet of Bossington, which has particularly distinctive cottages with chimney stacks.
Selworthy itself is a small village known for its thatched cottages, many of which are owned by the National Trust. There is beautiful whitewashed church here and lots of places for walks on the wooded hills and along the coast.
Brompton Regis extends over quite a large area, including Wimbleball Lake and the villages of Withiel Florey, Bury and Gupworthy. Bury is known for its pretty bridge and ford
The large Dunkery Hill forms the highest part of the central ridge of Exmoor. There are Bronze Age barrows, at Rowbarrows, Kit Barrows, Robin How and Dunkery Beacon. The latter summit is Exmoor’s highest point at 1,705ft. There are great views in every direction on a clear day.
The ancient clapper bridge across the River Barle, known as Tarr Steps, is a popular tourist attraction. This is the largest example of this type of stone slab bridge. Footpaths run along the river valley, offering pleasant walks between Simonsbath and Dulverton.
Winsford Hill is managed by the National Trust. The three Bronze Age Wambarrows mark the highest point of the common, offering good views to Dunkery, Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills. At nearby Spire Cross is a standing stone inscribed “Caratacus Nepus” but dating from a period much later than the Roman occupation.