Exmoor: A walk in the wild West Country

In the first of a four-part series on our national parks, Fiona Sturges delves into Devon and Somerset

Exmoor is an atmospheric corner of rolling moorland, dramatic coastal scenery and chocolate-box villages, which straddles north Devon and west Somerset. Unsurprisingly, 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.

Treasures include the 800-year-old Culbone Church near Minehead, said to be England's smallest church at just 35ft by 12ft, and Watersmeet waterfalls near Lynmouth, which attracts 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. For long-distance walkers, 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 if necessary, can be picked up and dropped off at pre-arranged points in the National Park (01643 709701; atwest.org.uk; £6 singles).

Literary landmarks abound in Exmoor's north-western corner, known as Doone country, where RD 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 ficitional character Lorna was shot on her wedding day.

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 on three-hour excursions across the moor in 4x4s, searching out elusive red deer and the famous Exmoor ponies, 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.

Another great way to see the park is on horseback. West Anstey Farm Stables (01398 341354) gives tuition both for beginners and experienced riders, with treks leading straight out onto the moor (£20 per hour). Spirit of Exmoor (01598 753318; spiritofexmoor.com) offers holidays for skilled riders, with food and accommodation. A week's holiday costs £625.

Fishing is also a popular pastime on Exmoor. Wimbleball Lake Country Park (01398 371460; swlakestrust.org.uk) has a trout fishery offering angling from the banks and boats, while its Outdoor and Active Centre has facilities for water sports including sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and rowing.

The best part of an active day in the wilderness is retiring to a pub or café, and there's no shortage here. Dulverton is a picturesque town bulging with tea shops and bars. Just off the main square is Woods Bar and Restaurant (01398 324007; woodsdulverton.co.uk), a friendly establishment favoured by the locals where good, reasonably-priced lunches give way to fine dining in the evenings. The Mason's Arms (01398 341231; masonsarmsdevon.co.uk) is a thatched 13th-century pub in the village of Knowstone, which recently earned a Michelin star.

For a picture-postcard village, medieval Dunster is pretty much unbeatable. The 11th-century Dunster Castle and Gardens (01643 323004; nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-dunstercastle; 11am-5pm daily to 26 Aug, closed Thurs 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 both the River Exe and Winn Brook, and for its pub The Royal Oak (01643 851455; royaloak-somerset.co.uk). Behind the village, Winsford Hill boasts bronze age burial sites and the standing "Caractacus" stone believed to have been erected by former pagan inhabitants.

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

Three places to stay Exmoor

* EMMETT'S GRANGE

This is a Georgian guest house at the end of a half-mile drive, in the middle of a vast estate near Simonsbath. The atmosphere is resolutely classic: rooms with four-poster beds, floral wallpaper and deep pile carpets, while portraits of the house's former owners watch over you in the drawing room. Double rooms start at £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 and contemporary bedrooms, each with en-suite bathrooms. Well positioned for walkers, the farm is a few metres from Tarr Steps, a prehistoric clapper bridge at which several footpaths and bridleways intersect. Double rooms from £150 including breakfast. Dogs are allowed, children under 10 are not (01643 851507; tarrfarm.co.uk).

* WESTERMILL FARM

This 500-acre farm near Exford has a campsite and six three- to four-star self-catering cottages, sleeping up to eight. Guests are welcome to explore the farm which has 85 Aberdeen Angus cows and 300 sheep. There's a shop selling local produce and an information centre. Cottages start at £260 per week in the summer. The campsite charges £6.50 per night for adults, and £3.50 for children (01643 831238; westermill.co.uk). Dogs, horses and children are all welcome.

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