Battle with the elements on Somerset's coast

Walk Of The Month: Exmoor - The colours of nature are fading into winter on Exmoor. Wrap up warm and strike out to enjoy the raw beauty

Pick a clear autumnal day for this walk if you can.

The west Somerset coast looks beautiful at this time of year; the exposed ridges and plunging cliffs make up the edge of a huge plateau that marches inland, cut and scarred with deep, steep-sided valleys known as combes. The colour is glorious: leaves, golden, red and brown, hang on grimly, waiting for the Atlantic storm that will leave everything stark and broomstick-like until spring.

The ferocity of the elements around here is at odds with the cosy village communities west of Minehead. Setting off from Allerford, passing the recently opened forge and the still vibrant post office, I'd crossed a packhorse bridge, admired some evergreen oaks with their distinctive toothed leaves – and mature chestnut trees – and made my way up to Selworthy, a village owned by the National Trust.

The village is part of the Trust's wider Holnicote estate, which spreads for 5,000 hectares east and south of Porlock. It comprises seven stone-rendered houses, distinctively lime-washed in yellow ochre – an ancient tradesman's trick that helps the sun drain moisture off the walls, and which gives the impression that they have been parcelled up in crumpled wrapping paper. They have many charming features, such as wooden lintels, unusually high chimneys – to whisk any sparks from the fire inside away from the thatched roofs – and bulbous walls that house a sizeable traditional oven for baking bread.

Selworthy Woods, above the church with its 14th-century wagon roofs, features oak, sycamore, sweet chestnut and silver birch, where you may hear the embattled green woodpecker drilling away. I was also struck by the depth of green, even in late autumn. This, though, is not down to the trees but to the lichens that thrive on them. Everything seems mantled in lichens, which are a real feature of many of Exmoor's combes and woodlands. A sign of good air quality, they flourish in mild Atlantic winds that drift into the moor.

The woods are something of a curiosity. While they may look ancient, they were actually planted after 1815 by Thomas Dyke Acland, the estate owner, with a block being seeded to commemorate the birth of each of his eight children – you wonder which came first, the plan to plant a very large wood or to have a very large family. The Aclands were an interesting clan. They were pretty enlightened landowners and reformers for their era, building the houses of Selworthy for their estate workers, before handing over the land to the Trust in 1944.

The woodland leads up to Selworthy Beacon, the modest summit on top of an area of rare western maritime heath. Although you are a mere 310 metres above sea level, the soaring, swooping nature of Exmoor's landscape – it's also unusual to see the sea from moorland in the UK – gives the impression of being much higher. Skylarks lurch upwards from the gorse and bell heather and the views on a fine day are really quite special. To the south-west is Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. Steep wooded valleys with little villages tucked away in their folds emerge abruptly on the plateau. To the west, a row of headlands line up for inspection, a flat shoreline huddled tightly against their base, where west Somerset merges into north Devon. With binoculars, you may pick out red deer on the contours below the beacon. The sky was clear, but I've also been here when a wonderful low sea mist has flooded the valley below. It's magical: the mist is far below, low enough that you can see right across the Bristol Channel to South Wales; it even lends an improbable serene beauty to the chimney stacks of the steelworks at Port Talbot, making them look like the emerald city from The Wizard of Oz.

I picked up the coastal path, dropping steeply down Hurlstone Combe to Bossington's magnificent pebble beach, the centre of a wonderful amphitheatre of cliffs. I picked my way across here slowly, before settling down, or perching, on the uncomfortable stones. A storm in 1996 breached the shingle ridge here and conventional wisdom suggested reinforcing the beach. Instead, the Trust argued that, in the context of inexorable rising sea level and climate change, it made more sense to let the area go, and let the sea have its way. A large spring tide in 2008 did the trick, surging inland and lapping up against the limekilns. The result is a saltmarsh, a valuable habitat that attracts little egrets, lapwings and oystercatchers.

The path inland wound back towards Allerford, passing the picturesque hamlet of Bossington. My visit ended in twilight, with a clear sky above. There's no village lighting and the stars quickly emerged, framed by the huge semi-circular silhouette of the hills. The temperature dropped, too.

Exmoor may look cosy but it's a raw, elemental place at heart.

Walk Directions

Start/finish: Allerford.

Distance: Eight miles.

Time: Three hours.

Map: Exmoor Outdoor Leisure 9.

Start at Allerford, follow contour paths up to Selworthy church and signpostsn to Selworthy Beacon. Head for Bossington Hill and drop down via the coast path and Hurlstone Point to Bossington Beach. Walk along the beach to cross the River Aller and return to Allerford via Bossington.

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat