The (clotted) cream of the South-west

Exmoor offers activities aplenty in glorious settings. By Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Online

Exmoor is an atmospheric corner of rolling moorland, dramatic coastal scenery and chocolate-box villages, which straddles north Devon and west Somerset. It's a haven for walkers, cyclists and nature lovers, particularly in summer when clear skies reveal the landscape in all its richly hued glory.

Some of its lesser-known treasures include the 800-year-old Culbone Church in Minehead, said to be England's smallest at just 35ft by 12ft, and Watersmeet waterfalls near Lynmouth, which attract salmon and otters. Further inland is the Valley of the Rocks, near the village of Lynton, home to wild goats and some extraordinary rock formations with such idiosyncratic names as Rugged Jack and Devil's Cheese Ring.

Many of the park's landmarks can be viewed from footpaths and bridleways. The 36-mile Coleridge Way – which travels through landscapes that inspired much of the romantic poet's work (coleridgeway.co.uk) – and the South West Coast Path (southwestcoastpath.com), the UK's longest national trail, both pass through Exmoor. A less taxing stroll up to Dunkery Beacon, at 1,705ft Exmoor's highest point, will yield terrific views: on a clear day you can make out the coast and mountains of South Wales.

If you'd rather be deposited at your destination, Moor Rover offers a flexible summer bus service where visitors, and their bikes, can be picked up and dropped off at pre-arranged points anywhere in the National Park (01643 709701; atwest.org.uk; £6 singles).

Literary landmarks abound in Exmoor's north-western corner, known as Doone country, because it is where R D Blackmore set his novel Lorna Doone. Visitors can retrace the steps of Blackmore's heroine along the Doone Valley, culminating in a visit to St Mary's Church in Oare where fictional character Lorna was shot on her wedding day. Afterwards, don't miss the Buttery in Malmsmead (01598 741106; thebutterymalmsmead.co.uk) which serves terrific cream teas.

Fans of Henry Williamson's novel Tarka the Otter should follow the Tarka Trail (devon.gov.uk/tarkatrail) by foot or bicycle. It bisects the moor between Braunton and Meeth, taking in windswept hills, wooded valleys and dramatic "hog's back" cliffs.

For nature lovers, there can be no better way to spend a summer's day than on a guided safari. Barle Valley Safaris (01643 851386; exmoorwildlifesafaris.co.uk) takes visitors of all ages on three-hour excursions across the moor in 4x4s, searching out elusive red deer and the famous Exmoor ponies in their natural environment, and pointing out flora and fauna along the way (£30 adults, £25 children).

Bird enthusiasts stand a good chance of spotting buzzards, sparrow hawks and kestrels in the summer months. Another great way to see the park is on horseback. West Anstey Farm Stables (01398 341354) gives tuition both for beginners and experienced riders on an hourly basis, with treks leading on to the moor (£20 per hour), while Spirit of Exmoor (01598 753318; spiritofexmoor.com) offers riding holidays for skilled riders, complete with food and accommodation. A week's holiday costs £625.

For picture-postcard villages, the medieval village of Dunster is pretty much unbeatable with its wealth of historic buildings. The 11th-century Dunster Castle and Gardens (01643 323004; nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-dunstercastle; 11am-5pm daily until 26 August, closed on Thursdays thereafter, £9.40) is a must-see, its ancient gateway and crumbling tower bearing testament to its turbulent history.

Winsford is another pretty village known for its eight bridges spanning the River Exe and the Winn brook, and for its pub The Royal Oak which is renowned for its food (01643 851455; royaloak-somerset.co.uk). Behind the village, Winsford Hill has a series of bronze age burial sites and the standing "Caractacus" stone believed to have been erected by the village's former pagan inhabitants.

For family trips, the Cliff Railway (01598 753486; cliffrailwaylynton.co. uk; singles £2 adults, £1.20 children) rattles up and down the rockface between Lynton and Lynmouth while the West Somerset Railway (01643 704996; west-somerset-railway.co.uk; one-day rover £15.60 or £7.80 for children), the longest standard-gauge steam railway, takes visitors through 20 miles of superb scenery, from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead, the latter of which is well worth visiting for an old-fashioned day at the seaside.

Emmett's grange

This Georgian guesthouse is set in a vast estate near Simonsbath. Rooms are classic with four-poster beds and floral wallpaper. Doubles from £110, including breakfast (01643 831138; emmettsgrange.co.uk).



Tarr Farm Riverside Inn and Restaurant

As well as boasting one of the best restaurants in Exmoor, this 16th-century inn also has nine stylish en suite bedrooms. Doubles are £150 including breakfast. Dogs are allowed, children under 10 are not (01643 851507; tarrfarm.co.uk).

Westermill Farm (left)

This 500-acre working farm near Exford has a campsite and six three- to four-star self-catering cottages, sleeping between one and eight. Guests can explore the farm and there's a shop containing local produce. The cottages start at £260 per week. The campsite charges £6.50 a night for adults, and £3.50 for children. (01643 831238; westermill.co.uk). Dogs, horses and children are all welcome.

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